Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Author Snapshot: Larry Beinhart

Salvation Boulevard (Nation Books), Larry Beinhart’s sixth novel, is stunning. It manages to be what most -- all? -- novels aim at and very few ever achieve. It is an important book: it deals with topics that are important -- questions of faith and freedom and systems of belief -- yet the book never fails to entertain.

None of this is surprising. Beinhart is hardly a neophyte and he’s written bestselling and important books in the past. The best known of his novels is probably 1993’s American Hero, later republished under the name Wag the Dog, after the hit film version was released in 1997. Like Salvation Boulevard, Wag the Dog dealt with an important subject: in that case, war as performance for home viewership.

The mystery in Salvation Boulevard, Beinhart reports, “is God. Belief, religion, tithing and all the trappings.” The authors says that his goal for the book was a lofty one. He wanted to “unravel those mysteries. That may have been pretentious of me. But I found it a whole lot more interesting than another serial killer or the super CSI-ers that don’t exist in real life.”

A Snapshot of Larry Beinhart...
Most recent book: Salvation Boulevard
Born: NYC
Reside: Woodstock, New York
Birthday: 6/8/47
Web site: larrybeinhart.com

What’s your favorite city?
Oxford. Part of what you have to understand about England is that it is a very secretive place. Not secretive in the totalitarian sense that they won’t tell you things out of fear or out of national security concerns. They will tell you. If you ask.
But you have to know to ask, and if you know to ask, you probably already know the answer.

I went there as the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright fellow. When you go to an American university, an American institution of any kind, for that matter, you get an orientation brochure. Nay, more than a brochure, a whole kit. With facilities, the institution’s history and philosophy and standards. A directory. A map. Bios of it’s members, both great and small. The rules and regulations. A table of contents and an index.

My college, Wadham, one of the 39 colleges that make up Oxford University, sent me a single document before my departure, and nothing more after my arrival. The wine list.
Wadham, which is a medium large, but fairly well -- though not lavishly -- endowed, had four cellars with 50,000 bottles. Or maybe it was five cellars with 40,000 bottles. People who have gone to Oxford or Cambridge will understand. Those who haven’t may not. But it is a key to something.

Up here, in Woodstock, it’s always 1968. In Oxford, it’s always 1668.

When we first arrived and walked into the quad, my then six year old daughter tugged at my hand. She had a question. I leaned down toward her. She said, “Daddy, is the king of this castle dead?”

The gate was guarded by the porter. Shakespearean plays that involve castles always have a porter. They don’t actually porter things, like a railroad porter. They’re the gate-keepers.
A porter at an Oxford college will immediately size you up and determine who you are -- that is to say, what your class is: tradesman, student, tourist, fellow.

A fellow is often a teacher or professor, but not necessarily, as one can be a research fellow or visiting fellow. In any case, that’s top of the class system. There are, of course, many degrees of class distinction among fellows, but as an American and rather a faux fellow, at that, I was oblivious to them.

The people who work at the college, including the porters, are called college servants. During the contract negotiations with the staff, I once heard the head of senior common room, which is the fellowship of fellows, who sort of run the college, but sort of don’t, say to the man who dealt directly with the college servants, the domestic bursar, Captain Michael Sauvage, recently of Her Majesty Royal Navy (and you have to imagine this in a thin-lipped upper class British accent), “Michael, what’s the mood below stairs?”

It was like walking into an episode of Masterpiece Theater. And I, as a fellow, was a “Sir.” There was also, a real and deep fellowship among fellows. A sense of community I had experienced nowhere else in my life. American universities are organized strictly along departmental lines. Achievement by one is a threat to all the others, as they claw their way up the narrow ladders of advancement. But colleges tend to have only one or two members (a senior and a junior) from each field (who are members of departments in the University structure, outside the college structure), so that the success of one is a benefit to all. There was a sense of -- dare I say it -- collegiality.

Perhaps the fifth most wonderful moment of my life -- after, in chronological order, getting published, falling in love with my second wife, the birth of my first child, then my second -- the fifth took place after a winter break when I’d left Wadham to go lecture and then ski in Switzerland.

Upon return to Wadham, coming in out of the February chill, I walked into the porter’s hall. The Porter, upon seeing me, virtually tipped his hat, and said, “Welcome home, sir.” I about wept.

I also loved living in New York, where I grew up, Miami (though in those days I felt that you had to get on airplane before you could have an interesting conversation), Rome where we lived three months, and Woodstock where I live now. I’ve always felt like I’ve lived in paradise and have been very lucky and privileged.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Oxford? Dine at high table. See which of my old friends are still around. The aforesaid Captain Sauvage. Jeff Hackeny, the law don. Reza Sheikholeslami, though he’s probably in one of the emirates. Bruce Mortimer, the joiner (the college carpenter). Visit the book stores, stroll through town to Port Meadow.

What food do you love?
Food of the place and the season.

What inspires you?
The need to make money.

What’s clear and obvious that no else apparently notices.

The mysteries of common assumptions. The inside out of conventional deception. The realities of unrealized hypocrisies.

What are you working on now?
Promoting this book.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
That’s tough. I’m basically unemployable. I might try to make a go of it as a ski instructor, but the money is really insufficient. To even try you have to be a gung ho member of a team! Which is probably beyond my capacity.

I could, I suppose, be entrepreneurial again. I once co-owned a film production company. We did quite well. But the talent you need as a producer is to be a salesman, which I’m not that good at. You also have to be detail oriented, keep accounts, keep track of nickels, also not my forte. I was a director as well as a producer. But I know people, like my wife, who are much better at that than I am.

Perhaps, in desperation, I might try to found a new religion, or a new non-religion religion. That can be exceptionally lucrative. But it may require being more intuitively exploitive than I naturally am. I don’t know and wouldn’t find out until I tried it.

But, now that you’ve asked, I will give serious consideration to it.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Publication of my first book. I felt like my ticket to park in the parking lot of life had finally been stamped.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Did I get to meet Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro [during the making of Wag the Dog.] The answer is no.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
I’ve got a ski house up in the Canadian Rockies, and a extra plane ticket in my pocket, wanna come?

Please tell us about Salvation Boulevard.
I would like to think that Salvation Boulevard does all the things you want in mystery/thriller and does them well. It has tension, excitement, people to root for, people to root against, some titillating erotic moments, some scary moments, it never gets boring, it surprises and entertains.
But the mystery, the real mystery, is God. Belief, religion, tithing and all the trappings.

My goal was to unravel those mysteries. That may have been pretentious of me. But I found it a whole lot more interesting than another serial killer or the super CSI-ers that don’t exist in real life.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I’m sure there are a thousand insignificant things about me that no one knows, but they would hardly be worth mentioning. If there are significant things that I’ve managed to keep secret, I’d probably best continue to do so.

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