The Record of What We Believe: Mitchell James Kaplan on Historical Fiction

Fascinated with the history of religions, Mitchell James Kaplan is currently at work on a second novel, set primarily in Rome and Judea during the birth of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.
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Mitchell James Kaplan's first novel, By Fire, By Water (Other Press), has received numerous awards and accolades including the 2011 Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal for Historical Fiction, the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction, an Eric Hoffer Award Honorable Mention in the General Fiction category, and the Adelina Della Pergola "Students' Choice" Prize for the Italian edition. It was one of 15 novels nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award in Historical Fiction and was selected as Book of the Year by "One Book, One Jewish Community" organizations in Philadelphia, Houston, Portland (OR), the State of Delaware, and Northern New Jersey.

Fascinated with the history of religions, Mitchell James Kaplan is currently at work on a second novel, set primarily in Rome and Judea during the birth of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. He also writes book reviews for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Loren Kleinman (LK): What attracted you to writing historical fiction? What is the process like? Talk about the research that goes into writing a historical fiction novel?

Mitchell James Kaplan (MJK): I have two answers.

The first: I don't really accept the idea that Historical Fiction is a genre in the same sense that Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, or the Western is one. Other genres involve paradigmatic plot and character elements -- a death, a seduction, futuristic technology; a detective, a law enforcer, etc.

A so-called Historical Novel is just a novel set in the past. It can develop any kind of plot , or little or no plot, and can involve any characters, real or imagined. If we must accept that Historical Novels exist as a separate category, then I would place the entire realist tradition within that category, including novels set in the present since the present, after all, does form a part of history.

My second answer: When I was in college, the late William Styron offered a bit of advice that remained with me. "The most important thing is that your readers believe the story you are telling." That does not, of course, preclude writing fantasy. The world an author creates must be persuasive and feel as real as a dream.

"History" is the record of what we believe about the past. Basing a novel on this record provides a certain advantage in terms of credibility, at least if you do the research correctly and honestly.

LK: You spent seven years in Paris. How has Paris inspired your writing? Talk about your experience living, writing and reading there?

MJK: Everything we experience and everyone we meet informs our writing. I have lived in many places, big cities and small towns, none of them more important to me than others. Everywhere I have lived, I have formed deep, abiding friendships and explored local sub-cultures. The commonalities, which make us human, and the differences, which give us our identities, fascinate me.

The most important thing (so to speak) that I took away from Paris was my wife Annie. Although she is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating portal into another world, what I fell in love with was her intelligence.

LK: Talk about working for Kirk Douglas as a "development person." What did that entail? What other films have you worked on in the development stages?

MJK: Kirk's company, Bryna Productions (named after his mother), owned several screenplays and optioned books for adaptation. Kirk was also writing a book of his own. The development process involves finding material that might be suitable for a movie (or book) and overseeing the adaptation and writing processes.

Kirk Douglas's energy and intelligence astonished me. I learned as much about dealing with personalities and about the machinery of reputation in Hollywood as about anything else.

I dealt with every type of story and every genre. Having studied poetry and music at Yale, I was far less interested, as a young college graduate, in plot and character than in sounds and style. While great dialog is all about sound and style (as well as character), plot is usually of paramount importance in a Hollywood screenplay. Working in the film industry, I learned to value and find beauty in the technique of story construction.

LK: What are the differences between a screenwriter and novelist? What are the similarities? Should all novelists consider studying this genre or at least becoming familiar with screenwriting structure? How could understanding screenwriting benefit a novelist?

MJK: A novel is a verbal experience. It is all about words on the page - words that, put together in a certain way, form a universe. A movie is a visual and auditory experience, and only secondarily a verbal one.

A typical screenplay is a little over a hundred pages long, double spaced, only a fraction of the length of a typical novel. Of those hundred pages, the only words that actually make it to the screen are those spoken by the characters, the dialogue. The rest is stage directions.

Dialogue itself is written in a narrow, double-spaced column in the center of the screenplay. The point is, very few words make it from the screenplay onto the screen.

The words in a novel describe - or, better, call to life - people and places in exquisite detail. A screenplay minimizes detail, precision, and verbal metaphor in favor of their visual correlatives.

In terms of my personal experience, I would add that a writer who sells a screenplay sells the ownership of his or her words. The words in a novel, in contrast, remain the author's words even during the editing process. No one has the right to tinker with them without the author's permission.

LK: Tell me about selling your first spec script. What was the writing and selling process like?

MJK: My wife Annie and I wrote scripts together. We were hired to rewrite many scripts by others before we sold our first spec. It was a long and slow process. The first sale of a spec script was of course quite exciting. The script was called "Flying To Destiny" and it was sold to Ivan Reitman Productions / Montecito Pictures, probably more because of our relationships there than for any other reason. For us it was a big deal, lots of money (at least by our standards) and an article in the Hollywood Reporter. For the rest of the industry it was hardly a blip. The movie was never made.

LK: You wrote that you disliked the 'factory culture of the film industry.' Was that the only reason why you decided to become a novelist? Talk about that 'factory culture.' What was that like? Do you find that book publishing community also suffers from that sort of culture too?

MJK: I always wanted to be a novelist. I never aspired to work in the film industry. I think what I have said above suggests some of the ways the movie factory culture was not a good fit for me.

Book publishing is also, of course, an industry. But as a novelist, one doesn't have to deal with it in the same way as a screenwriter with movie producers. Publishers still respect the fact that novel writing is a solitary and extremely labor-intensive endeavor. They know not to intrude too much too early in the process. At least that is my experience.

LK: You seem to get great support from your family. How have they helped you throughout the writing process? Why has their support been beneficial to your career as a writer?

MJK: My wife understands what I am doing and why. She helps me and supports me in every way possible. Sounds old fashioned, perhaps, but that is her choice. As mentioned above, I adore her. My two children, for better or worse - probably for worse - are the type who always ask difficult questions and are never content with pat answers. One of those questions is: Why bother living at all if you can't help move the world in the right direction? Another is: What is the right direction?

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