By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
(Photo courtesy of Open Road Media)
I first heard the name Jerome Charyn in 1973. I was a senior at Queens College, preparing for graduate school and my own literary career. A good friend of mine was studying at Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx. One of her courses was taught by Charyn, and she was much impressed with his wide-ranging intelligence, sexy hair, and his already impressive list of published books, which included the just-released Tar Baby, his seventh book, which she "loved" and insisted I read.
Given that I was a budding writer, my friend insisted that Charyn was worth my knowing. Apparently, it was not enough to edify me; she sought to goad me as well. As prompt, she used the fact that Charyn was born and raised in the Bronx, as we both were. (In fact, not many years later, Charyn would be unofficially crowned writer laureate of our borough, the "Babel of the Bronx," according to The New York Times.) My friend's tacit message seemed to be: If another Jewish boy from the Bronx can make it, so can you.
A lovely sentiment. But easier said than done.
Following grad school, I worked more than thirty years as a New York City editor and publisher. By almost any standard I was successful, though I had generally lost sight of my own writing during this time. But I kept up my reading, and Charyn was one of the writers I followed.
Perhaps not surprising, I was partial to his Bronx books: The Catfish Man and (later) El Bronx and Bronx Boy. But something special clicked when I read Charyn's novel of the Wild West, Darlin' Bill. Here was a rollicking and ribald tale that read like a series of lassoed tornados.
Darlin' Bill was my favorite Charyn novel until I read The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. If I was roped by Darlin' Bill, I was riveted by the literary voyeurism of The Secret Life. While there's no peeking under Emily's famous white dress, there is revelation of a much higher sort: intimations of the mysterious mind and sensual appetite of the Belle of Amherst.
I believe Charyn's new novel, I Am Abraham, may be his best yet. Here is the profound confluence of Charyn's great interests: history, myth-making, and down-home humor. Charyn's first-person marvel uses Lincoln's eyes and brain like a camera obscura—observing, filtering, projecting the arc of his own improbable life, the disintegration of his wife's sanity, and the preservation of a still-young nation. As always, and most importantly, it is Charyn's style, the inimitable music of his prose that uplifts the reader across time and place.
I recently had the honor of interviewing Mr. Charyn at this special time in his career: 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of his first novel and I Am Abraham is his 50th book.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In your novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson you write as if inside the mind of American poet and icon, Emily Dickinson. How did this experience help prepare you for writing I Am Abraham?
JEROME CHARYN: It didn't help me prepare for writing I Am Abraham at all. I only discovered Emily Dickinson's letters after I decided to write a novel about her. They are among the greatest letters in the English language, as wistful, savage and funny as her poems. And through weaving her letters and poems together, I was able to establish her music.
I didn't have the same luxury with Lincoln. His voice is scattered in his extraordinary speeches and his sayings and remembrances of others. But there was no one key to Lincoln's voice. I had to become Lincoln in order to find that voice.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and I Am Abraham have been called masterworks of literary ventriloquism. The phrase is catchy, but I don't think it's very accurate. The Dickinson and Lincoln in your novels are not wooden dummies, and you're not simply projecting your thoughts through their mechanical mouths. How would you describe what you've done?
JEROME CHARYN: I would agree. There is some ventriloquism once you can establish key words or phrases for Lincoln and Dickinson, and you mine these phrases as you search for their music. But ventriloquism doesn't really get you very far, you have to dig as deep as you can into their psyche and pull language out of the darkness.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: It seems that there is always another book being published about the Bible, Shakespeare, or Lincoln. Do you worry that your book will be subsumed among so many others?
JEROME CHARYN: There has never been a novel as far as I know told in Lincoln's voice. With that voice you can establish an intimacy and a sadness that you can't find in any sort of history book. So the only competition was against myself: could I really find Lincoln's music? And I am not the one who can answer that.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The title of the book establishes point of view. It also emphasizes the idea of Lincoln as a patriarchal leader. Was that your intention?
JEROME CHARYN: "I Am Abraham" were the first words that Lincoln ever wrote. He scribbled them in the sand. This established him as a writer and a poet.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The book's cover design shows the bottom half of Lincoln's iconic face. His hair, brow, and eyes are missing. The missing eyes are most noticeable. It seems to me that your novel is the story of Lincoln's eyes, Lincoln's personal vision.
JEROME CHARYN: I would agree with you, the novel is the story of Lincoln's eyes.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your novel humanizes Lincoln. I expect that some people will object to your portrayal of his sexuality as unnecessary and unbecoming.
JEROME CHARYN: Why are we so afraid to deal with Lincoln's sexuality? He had four children. I would assume they weren't conceived in an immaculate way. Can't we consider that he and Mary both had the spit of love?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You have written fifty books. Have your writing habits changed over the years? Do they differ, depending on what you are writing?
JEROME CHARYN: There are no writing habits. You are always an apprentice, always a beginner. Each book has its own mystery, its own problems, its own music. It would be incredibly boring if you could just close your eyes and dream your way into each novel.
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: In addition to novels about Dickinson and Lincoln, you have written biographically about Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Are there other famous figures that interest you enough to want to write about them?
JEROME CHARYN: I really don't see much difference between fiction and nonfiction or between historical characters and those you invent. They all come from the same howling in your brain.
I finished a book about Emily Dickinson called Outlaw, which is a study of the poet in the 21st Century. But I wrote that book the same way I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. It may be in my own voice, but her voice is embedded in my own language and will always remain there.
I am now writing a novel about Charles Lindbergh. We have discovered recently that he had three other "wives" and, I believe, eight more children. That's a great mystery I would like to solve.