Monday, August 14, 2023

Q&A with Jerome Charyn



Jerome Charyn is the author of the new novel Ravage & Son. His many other books include the novel Big Red. He lives in New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Ravage & Son, and how did you create your character Ben Ravage?


A: As a child, we visited my grandparents who lived on the Lower East Side, a world of intense poverty.  I would wander around the streets on my own, and realized that this was my birthplace. It was a little society of immigrant Jews in dark streets and markets that were everywhere.


There was a constant movement.  I would pass the Yiddish Theatre near the Williamsburg Bridge and it seemed very mysterious to me – full of magic power.


My first novel was about a Yiddish actor on the Lower East Side and his life in a cafeteria on East Broadway. But those streets always haunted me and I wanted to write about them again.


Ben Ravage is a mirror of my own lamentations. He goes to Harvard, where I wanted to go but was too afraid to apply. But he bewilders everyone by returning to the Lower East Side as a detective for the Kehilla – Jewish policeman paid by uptown German Jews who wanted to get rid of crime on the Lower East Side. But Ben isn’t the usual stool pigeon. He wants to help these hapless people, as I would have done had I been born at an earlier time.


Ben is a kind of golem, but with handsome features; he fails - criminals win.  But the book is about the sad poetry of his life.  He’s Don Quixote without a lance, a prince who presides over a domain full of chaos. I am his child, or he is mine. 


Every book I write is always about myself, planted into one landscape or another.

Q: You’ve said that the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century "may have been the cradle of Jewish immigration, but it was also the cradle of Jewish crime." What do you think the book says about Jewish life on the Lower East Side during that time period?


A: You can discover everything about the Lower East Side in the Bintel Briefs, the series of letters that Abraham Cahan edited for The Jewish Daily Forward. They are the voices of men and women who labored and loved on the Lower East Side, a land of extreme poverty.


The Briefs play an important part in my novel, and reveal Cahan’s empathy for lonely Jewish housewives who worked all day in hot kitchens and their husbands and children who worked themselves to death in sweatshops.


Cahan beseeches Ben Ravage to search for the “Jewish Mr. Hyde” after one of these housewives writes – in a Bintel Brief - that her daughter has been kidnapped.


Bintel Briefs and The Forward are still read all over the Lower East Side, New York City, America, and the world.  Now online - but still published weekly in Yiddish and English.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read everything about the Lower East Side, and I was startled to learn that Abraham Cahan, such a timid man, was a revolutionary when he lived and toiled in some dark corner of the Russian Empire. He was a bomb maker, but Cahan’s bombs never exploded and harmed no one. He was the voice of socialism when he came to America. That voice is long gone, but The Forward still thrives and Cahan’s ghost lives on in its pages.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: An excellent question: I wrote this novel over a period of 10 years. I knew it was going to be a tale about a Jewish Jekyll and Hyde, and I was going to thrust myself into the novel as the hero. He wears the flesh of Ben Ravage, illegitimate son of Lionel Ravage. In the novel, he hunts for his own past as he uncovers his father’s crimes.


I never know how a novel is going to end.  If I did, why would I bother writing it?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I finished a novel about Maria Callas, which will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2025.  I am now working on a Young Adult novel about my teenage years at the High School of Music & Art and how they transformed my life, dedicating it to fellow students like Billy Dee Williams, Susan Stamberg of NPR, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.  I hope young readers will enjoy my adventures and exploits – including my time as a member of the Silver Wolves, a street gang in the South Bronx.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My crime novels, featuring Isaac Sidel, which are known throughout the world, have been optioned for an adult animated series, allowing me to work with my stepson, Sam Riegel of Dungeons & Dragons Critical Role fame. 


My next graphic novel, Azami - a sequel to New York Cannibals - is being drawn now by Europe’s greatest graphic artist, Francois Boucq, for publication in 2025.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jerome Charyn.

No comments:

Post a Comment