Michael Libing’s “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street” [on sale now in our current issue] is a story very close to the author’s family history. Read on for more background on that, advice on keeping the process “secret,” and Michael’s gravitation to the themes of truth and guilt. When you’re done reading his story (and interview!) check out his new novel, just out: Hollywood North.
Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street”?
Michael Libling: I first learned about the Holocaust thanks to the back cover of a comic book. I was seven or eight, and there was an ad from a stamp company advertising “FREE—while they last—Hitler Heads.” The ads were fairly ubiquitous back then, and the stamps offered were from the war years or prior, with Hitler the main attraction. When I asked my dad if I could order the stamps, he refused without explanation. It took some doing, but he finally opened up and told me why. Only then did I learn that his parents and youngest sister had, as my father put it, “been murdered by Hitler.” My grandfather, who was deaf, had been shot dead in the street after failing to hear a Nazi officer’s order to stop walking. My grandmother and aunt died in Auschwitz.
There are moments in everyone’s life that stick in memory. I can still see and hear my dad telling me, struggling to contain his emotions, his voice shaky as he searched for the right words. I blogged about it not long ago.
“If my father had never emigrated from Europe, how would his life have played out? And what would have become of me if, indeed, there was a me?”
AE: How did this story germinate?
ML: My parents owned a small diner in Trenton, Ontario—four or five tables, ten stools at the counter. My mother did the baking (pies, cakes, cinnamon twists!) and waited on tables, while my father worked the open kitchen. Must be at least twenty years ago now that a line popped into my head and I quickly jotted it down: “My father was at the grill when his dead parents walked into the restaurant.”
In the 1960s, my dad discovered a close cousin whom he believed had also died in a concentration camp. But the man had survived, and the two reunited to great joy. In the back of my mind, I wondered if the same thing could happen with his parents and sister. It did not, of course, as several witnesses had attested to their deaths. But I was young, and it wasn’t unusual for hope to override reality.
Anyhow, the story percolated inside for years, but I was never quite sure where to take it. And then one day, a year or so ago, as I was rereading Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the concept crystallized with questions racing through my brain.
If my father had never emigrated from Europe, how would his life have played out? And what would have become of me if, indeed, there was a me? And his parents and sister, how would their lives have unfolded had they managed to escape? What would my family’s alternate history have been?
These days, when I think of the family members I never got to know, especially against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and anti-immigration sentiments, I can feel the rage building inside of me, not only over what could have been, but what should have been.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
ML: Definitely. The son, Danny. I spent a lot of time in that restaurant, doing what Danny does in the story. Without giving anything way, I guess he’s the “Michael who almost wasn’t.”
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
ML: Kurt Vonnegut. Bruce Jay Friedman. Philip Roth. Jules Verne. Robert Silverberg. Philip José Farmer. Douglas Adams. Barry Malzberg. Stephen King. Ray Bradbury. Harlan Ellison. Richard Matheson. E.L. Doctorow. Mordecai Richler. . . . I can list any number of writers who have inspired or influenced me to one extent or the other. But the person who had the greatest influence on my approach to story would have to be my late older sister.
Back in fifth grade, for homework, our teacher asked us to write a story about a fire. I’d no sooner begun to write when my sister took a look at my page and said, “Everyone is going to write about a burning building. Burn something different.” I took her advice and, for the first time ever, a teacher read a story of mine aloud to the class. I have tried, in a manner of speaking, to burn something different ever since.
Yup, it was that simple. And that influential.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
ML: I’d say a lot of my writing explores the nature of both truth and guilt. Not that “theme” is ever my priority. First and foremost, I want to tell an entertaining story. Inevitably, however, I find that one or both of these themes will emerge along the way, coloring part if not the whole.
With regards to truth, the old line about “perception is reality” has always intrigued me—how two people see the same event through different eyes and realities. You know, one person’s truth is another person’s lie and blah blah blah . . . Wow, the clichés are pouring out of me, eh? And it’s not particularly deep, either, I know, for which I apologize.
In terms of guilt, I guess it’s something I carry, whether justified in every case or not. The things I’ve done or might’ve done to other people. The things I failed to do or say until it was too late. Like that. By addressing this in my fiction, I suppose I’m looking to atone for sins, real or imagined. And therein lies another thing about my writing: I find the more I’m willing to expose myself, tell my truth, the better I believe my fiction is. Not that I don’t self-censor. Still, I try to take it as far as I can without hurting others or myself. As The Shadow always said, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Or, I guess, some writers.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
ML: Voice is everything to me. I need to hear my opening sentence and, then, the opening paragraph. Everything flows from there. To avoid blocks, I usually edit or retype what I wrote during my previous session and, for the most part, this works to keep me and the story moving forward. There is a BUT, however.
I am a slow writer. Painfully slow, at times. Indeed, I envy those who can sit and turn out quality fiction from beginning to end in a matter of hours or days—many of whom appear with amazing frequency in the pages of Asimov’s and elsewhere. Me, I edit continually as I write, and need to be satisfied with what’s on the page before I move onto the next. As obsessive and counter-productive as this will sound, I’ve been known to spend a morning on a single sentence. (A form of writers’ block in itself, no doubt.) There are few upsides to the approach, other than the fact I usually have less to edit when the story is done.
These days, the only time I find myself blocked is between stories, deciding on which concept to proceed with next. When the indecision continues for more than a couple of hours, I’ll take a break and read until my direction is clear. And there I’ll be, relieved to find that voice and opening sentence, yet again.
AE: What are you reading right now?
ML: One nonfiction. One fiction.
The first is The Great Escape: A Canadian Story by Ted Barris. It’s an account of the true story behind the classic Steve McQueen movie (1963). Prior to this, I had no idea so many Canadians had played key roles. And while I know the outcome of the story, Barris’s account is as surprising as it is riveting.
On the fiction side, it’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen. Published in 1983 and a Brad Pitt movie in 2007, I’m getting to it now thanks to a recommendation by my friend, Kurt Olsson. (He’s a compelling, award-winning poet, incidentally.) Recently, in an interview elsewhere, I risked public condemnation by acknowledging my three favorite novels are westerns: McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Accordingly, Kurt figured the Hansen book would be right up my alley. So far, so good. The language. The structure. The style. The story. I am loving it.
If it’s any consolation, had you asked me this same question a week or a month ago, I would have said The War Beneath by Timothy S. Johnston and Experimental Film by Gemma Files. The Johnston book is an SF thriller that sets the pace early on and never lets up, while Files delivers a contemporary horror novel that burrows under your skin, depositing a brutal and an all-too-real sense of dread. One of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
ML: The best advice I can offer is the best advice I ever received: shut the heck up! Stop talking about what you are writing. Do not share a word with anyone until you’ve put it down on paper, start to finish, and to your satisfaction. Why? Because the more you talk about your story—the plot, the characters, the brilliant scenes you have in mind—the more bored you’ll be when it comes to the actual writing and the more of a chore that writing will be. Keeping the story inside is also a great motivator, pushing you to complete the story so you can finally share your “genius” with others. Not even my first reader, my wife, knows what I’m working on until I’m ready to hand the completed pages over. The rule might not work for everyone, especially those inclined to workshop, but it’s proven critical for me.
AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
ML: You should have asked if I owned a cat, to which I would have answered “no.” In fact, according to a recent survey conducted jointly by the A.R.F. (Author Research Foundation), W.A.G. (World Authors Group), and C.L.A.W. (Canadian League of Artists & Writers), I am one of only seven North American writers who does not own a cat.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
ML: I’ve been a pedicab driver, a dishwasher, a busboy, a carpet cutter, and talk-radio host. I’ve referenced most of these jobs in one story or another. But the career that most influenced my writing was ad agency copywriter. It’s where I learned to self-edit, to judge my own work, though I doubt this particular skill is apparent in this current interview.
The other thing about working in an ad agency would be the stretches of downtime we’d experience. I’d use the free time to write opening sentences for stories. I must have come up with a couple of thousand, easy. All these years later, I continue to exploit that list. I’ve even used some sentences exactly as originally written way back when.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
ML: My website and occasional blog: http://www.michaellibling.com
Facebook, well, just search for me.
Feel free to follow or “friend” me. If you’ve made it to the end of this interview, it should be clear I need all the friends I can get.