Out of Twenty: Mitchell James Kaplan, Author of By Fire, By Water, Answers Nine Questions

Mitchell James Kaplan

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions they want to answer! Last year Mitchell James Kaplan’s book, By Fire, By Water received stellar reviews from bloggers I love. His book is on my list of books to read this summer, but in the meantime I asked if he would play along. He did, and answered nine questions.  Here is what Mitchell had to say about reading, writing and the experience of books being just as important as reality.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
During my formative years, my father lived in Southern California and my mother in Munich, Germany. I lived at a boarding school near Santa Barbara, but I spent most of my time in Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Mann’s Venice, and Hawthorne’s New England. I believe that if identity is a product of experience, then the experience of books and even dreams is just as important as “reality.” I have been writing so-called fiction since the age of fifteen, but knew my work wasn’t ready for prime time until recently. I met the author William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) while in college, and showed him some of my early work. His encouragement meant the world to me. He told me that in his opinion, the single most important thing a novelist has to do is convince the reader of the reality of the world he creates. I ended up gravitating toward what, for want of a better term, people call “historical fiction” because I wanted that grounding in reality. However, I believe all fiction is historical fiction. I am very much interested in blending “high art” and “popular art,” or in destroying the distinction between the two.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I like to wake up very early (around 3 am) and write while others sleep. I get my best work done that way. Another idiosyncratic thing I do is to sit in the car writing longhand while my wife shops.

For me, reading (other novelists as well as non-fiction research) is tremendously inspiring.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
My novel By Fire, By Water deals with the difficulties of a man who feels he belongs to more than one culture when those cultures are at odds with each other. Although Luis de Santangel’s situation in fifteenth-century Spain is extreme, I feel that in many ways he is a prototype of modern man, having to navigate between identities that are not always compatible. At times, one feels compelled to negate one identity – one part of one’s self – in support of the other. This is a survival strategy, but it is also a form of suicide.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book but ultimately decided not to include it?

I became fascinated with one of my secondary characters, Christopher Columbus, whose 1492 voyage of discovery Luis de Santangel financed. People generally want to see him as either a romantic visionary or as a cruel exploiter, but I came to see him as a complex, multi-faceted man of his time. However, I did not to allow him to take center stage.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
My characters do a lot of reading and talking about texts, for the simple reason that reading and talking about texts is, in my view, an essential human activity. Santangel is fascinated by issues of faith, while Judith is interested in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic poetry.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
It’s tough. I want to write all the time, and everything else I have to do (including promoting By Fire, By Water) feels like an intrusion. I just muddle through it! Whenever I have a free minute (as in the aforementioned parking lot while, my wife shops) I pick up my legal pad. But I do find that waking up very early, when the phone, mail, and email aren’t demanding my attention, does help.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
At Yale, I studied English poetry and at first, I wanted to write prose poems. (In addition to William Styron, I had the good fortune to meet WS Merwin there.) Little by little, I have become more interested in characters and story. While still fascinated with the sound of words, I no longer want to call too much attention to style.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
In high school, the writers I mentioned above – as well as Borges, Marquez, William Blake and many others – were my best friends. I felt trapped in the schoolroom, watching them frolic, as it were, on the playground of literature. I wanted to join them. I needed to join them.

What’s next?
The novel I’m currently writing is set in first-century Britain, Rome, and Judea.

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About: Mitchell James Kaplan graduated with honors from Yale University, where he won the Paine Memorial Prize for Best Long-Form Senior Essay submitted to the English Department. His first mentor was the author William Styron. After college, Kaplan lived in Paris, France, where he worked as a translator, then in Southern California, where he worked as a screenwriter and in film production. By Fire, By Water is his first novel. He lives in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania with his family.

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  1. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Mitchell over the past year, and he is someone I admire — as an exceptional writer and storyteller and an equally exceptional person. BY FIRE, BY WATER knocked me out; it’s a gem, and I’m so looking forward to reading Mitchell’s next book.

    Mitchell, I like the visual I now have of you sitting in the car writing!

    Terrific interview!

  2. Nicole, I think we might be sharing a brain. I got a copy of this one for review from the LOVELY author ages ago, and I enjoyed what I read and got about 2/3 through it when I had to set it aside. I wholeheartedly plan to get back to it, and was just sniffing and pawing and looking at it longingly last night.

    Cheers, Mitchell James Kaplan! Thanks for a great Q&A. 🙂

  3. I read By Fire, By Water last fall and found it engrossing. I was actually thinking that I wanted to reread it sometime soon, and it’s not often I feel that way. I hope you get to it soon, Nicole!