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This interview was conducted by Douglas R. Cobb on June 17, 2010.
I and the rest of the staff here are honored that Richard Alther, the acclaimed author of The Decade of Blind Dates, has agreed to be interviewed about his latest novel to hit the bookstores, Siegfried Follies. It takes place over a span of over thirty years, and begins in war-torn Germany, right at the conclusion of WWII, and its aftermath. It is about the friendship that develops between two orphan boys, Franz, a blond-haired boy brought up as a German, working at a hospital maternity ward, scavenging for whatever scraps of uneaten food from trays he can find; and a younger, brown-haired boy Franz sees thrown from a train in a bundle, likely by a passenger destined for one of Germany's concentration camps, with only the tattoo of the letter "J" on his arm as indentification.
Going against his feelings of duty and responsibility to Germany, instead following his desire to help a fellow orphan in desperate need of help and also giving into his need for friendship, he doesn't report the starving child to the authorities, but decides to hide J out and raise him as best as he can in secret.
That act of love, kindness, generosity, and feeling of a shared need for friendship and survival marks the beginning of a friendship that spans the decades and separation of thousands of miles, and through the establishment of families of their own.
Siegfried Follies is a remarkable novel I hope you will have the pleasure to read, but until then, let's get on to the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: First off, Richard, for anyone who has not read your first novel, can you give us a brief synopsis of it? Also, though I touch on a possible interpretation of the meaning of the title of your latest novel, Siegfried Follies, and I know it's based on a show revue called the Zeigfried Follies, could you please get into the meaning of it a little bit more?
My first novel, The Decade of Blind Dates, follows the adventures of a forty-something fellow emerging as a gay man. He is amicably divorced and encouraged on his new path by his teenage children as well as his ex. He ultimately meets the perfect partner, but not until he learns many lessons involved in distinguishing lust from love.
The novel is not especially autobiographical, although it does parallel some of my experience. The characters are pure fiction, an amalgam of so many stories over the years. And it is very touch-in-cheek, albeit with a serious underbelly dealing with AIDS and intolerance.
My new novel, Siegfried Follies, you aptly described in your introduction, and thank you for that. It in fact is more autobiographical, in that its them is anti-Semitism. I was raised as a Lutheran German-American in a small suburb of New York City rife with prejudice. For example, when I was 12 I did an art project depicting the very contemporary stained glass window in the town's new synagogue, the window so unusual compared to the traditional renderings of Bible figures in Christian churches. A few weeks later, rocks smashed through that widnow, upsetting me deeply. I could not understand why my good friend, one of the few local Jews, represented something so reviled.
For those old enough to have heard of the Ziegfeld Follies (note spelling), my book's title might conjure an image of burlesque and entertainment from yesteryear. And the orhpan boys do in fact survive by charging admission to puppet shows they concoct, based upon the librettos of Wagnerian operas they discover in the bomb ruins. More to the point: Siegfried is the wounded soldier/hero of mythical German folklore, and Follies refers to the general mayhem caused by the German nation in WWII, not specifically the horror of the Nazis.
Douglas R. Cobb: You introduce your Seigfried Follies with a quote by Abu Salaiman, "When the self weeps because it has lost, the essence laughs because it has found." Who is Abu Salaiman (at any rate, the one you quote). and why did you choose this quote to begin your novel?
It's a quote by a wise man from the Rumi period of middle-Eastern literature probably dating to the 1300s. I always remember it when thinking of the universal attempt to reconcile tragedy with the ongoing, life-affirmative human spirit. That summarizes the story of these two orphans who save themselves, as a team.
Douglas R. Cobb: You write about life at the end of WWII in Germany, and post-war, in a realistic and convincing manner, as seen through the eyes of your main characters, the orphans Franz and J. Did you get your knowledge of this era primarily through research, or also through the stories told you by relatives who lived then and related their experiences to you?
Although I did visit Israel and Germany and Dachau in particular, the story is totally invented, based upon a very large amount of reading--from newspapers and periodicals of the time, to extensive research with scholarly books.
Douglas R. Cobb: How long did it take you to write this book, and who are some of your favorite authors, and ones that influenced you?
I started this book many years ago, but kept after it, encouraged by friends and some publishing professionals. It was way too long. I learned so much about pruning from my editor with my first novel, I continued to condense and polish this manuscript. I agree with the maxim: Less is more.
I've read fiction my entire life; from novels I tend to learn about myself and the world. Favorites of contemporay writers, for differing reasons, include Doris Lessing, William Trevor, Alice Munro, and John Updike.
Douglas R. Cobb: By saving J.s life, Franz finds meaning in his own. His sense of duty, honor, and responsibility for Germany seems to transfer itself and manifest in tself on a more personal level, in his developing friendship with J.
Would you say that, in a way, J "saves" Franz's life as much as Franz saves his?
Absolutely. Another favorite saying: One hand washes the other. At first, as children, Franz readily assumes a leadership role. But soon J takes on equal responsibility for their lives--giving Franz continuing purpose to earn their living and support J's education. On into adulthood, Franz, as a breadwinner, husband and father, comes to grieve the absence of J in his life. Franz is disgruntled and even depressed with his lot, until J again provides the chance to make more peace with their horrifc, shared past.
Douglas R. Cobb: The legend of the warrior/fool Parsifal, innocent, pure of heart, pure of blood and intentions, plays a crucial role in the novel. Franz seems to strongly identify himself with the somewhat Christ-like figure of Parsifal, as do Nazis like Himmler, who use parts of the legend--like the purity of blood part--for their own insidious reasons. J translates the tale to Franz, who loves to hear it, and also who admires J's intelligence. I particularly like the quote: "He triumphs who meets evil with good."
What are the temptations that Franz believes he faces and overcomes? To what extent would you say Franz tries to act like Parsifal throughout the novel?
Franz, in the US, questions his legitimacy as a qualified worker, an immigrant attempting to ride the coattails of American savvy and superiority as a nation, compared to his ruined and disgraced native land. In so doing, he often feels the fool--from not completely mastering English to standing apart from the Ivy Leaguers in command, as if he's bitten off more than he can chew. Is he truly fulfilling his self-adopted myth as a potential leader, a Siegfried for his time? He is only 36 at story's end, and has indeed grown to a measure of confidence and self-respect, if not the bloated ideal of his childhood stories.
Douglas R. Cobb: Franz and J discover at various points in their lives, as we all do, that things don't always work out according to our plans. For instance, J uses the money he and Franz have earned through their endeavors like selling tins of food they've scavenged from bombed-out buildings and selling cigarettes and giving puppet shows not for his education, but to travel to Israel and become a member of a kibbutz there. He desires to find out more about his Jewish heritage, and to contribute to the cause of establishing Israel as a nation and homeland for the Hebrew people.
As with your knowledge of life in post-war Germany, did your knowledge of life in kibbutzs come more from research you did, or from people you know who've told you stories about their experiences living in them?
I have to answer this question as I did earlier: I made it all up. I never visited a kibbutz, but I did read extensively on issues of agriculture and arguments over the role of post-war Jews in terms of nation-building, defense, and religious priorities. And I did visit Israel as a tourist, accumulating impressions which informed my story.
Douglas R. Cobb: As with the life of Christ and the legend of Parsifal, betrayal plays a part in Franz's life. What are some of the ways Franz feels betrayed in the novel?
First, he feels abandoned by J, who at age 17 or 18 rejects Franz's goal for him as a university scholar and seeks "his people." Although Franz is able to direct ambition towards his own life, J's path continues to plague Franz, despite his success materially and beginning his own family. He is living with a void and believes J is its cause.
But secondly, and more forcefully, Franz is betrayed by the powerful relationship his wife Marcy takes up with J, she inspired by J's deep intellectual, artisitc, and spiritual components.
Douglas R. Cobb: Who is Leonard, and why does J consider him to be possibly playing the part of a "strong American savior"?
Don't make too much of Leonard in this one chapter, who represents yet another stepping-stone for J in his search for his own elusive but rightful role as a Jew. Leonard is J's housemate at the start of J's New York City life. Len respects J for the path of research and self-education he is on, but Len is simply another example of a Jewish-American, in this case: talented actor pursuing his craft with little identification religiously.
Douglas R. Cobb: The depths of some types of bonds, I suppose, apparently know no limits, and are stronger than any feelings of betrayal. But, still, could you go into the reason how/why does Franz eventually accepst the fact that J had an affair with his wife, Marcy, and has sired a baby by her?
On one level, Franz is a boy with no traditional family or rearing who witnesses sex and baby making as an ordinary, everyday thing. He himself has no qualms about seeking sex, before marriage, in varying ways. On the other hand, he has a moral conscience and is horrified by the degrading of life he witnesses: the Nazis exterminating children with any physical difficulties right in the birthing hospital and orphanage; a drunk official heedlessly killing a woman in intercourse; a child run over by a roaring truck. He is a man who has to self-construct a sense of integrity in human relations. The depth of his feeling for J as his one, true family, plus the depth of his love for his wife, place their affair and yet another child to care on a lesser level of concern. To do othrwise, and not forgive, and forge ahead, would make him less of a man.
Douglas R. Cobb: What are your future plans? Are you working on another novel yet. or are you mostly busy, right now, promoting Seigfried Follies? What are some of the cities you'll be doing a book signing tour in?
Richard Alther: I am well immersed in planning my next novel, which examines the pre-Biblical, pre-Koran roots of homophobia which still today can result in the Matthew Shepard murder and the Rev. Fred Phelps who preaches "Death to Fags" and "God Hates Fags." My goal is to create a story that is compelling without being polemic, almost non-partisan.
Siegfried Follies is not being officially published until October (it can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com), and so I hope to add a schedule of interviews and readings on the book's upcoming website.
Again, my sincere thanks for your interest in my novel, your favorable impressions, and your well-targeted queries. I enjoyed answering them.
All best to you and your colleagues.
Douglas R. Cobb: Well, we've made it to the end of the interview, Richard! I'd like to once again give my heartfelt thanks to you for agreeing to this interview, and for putting up with my questions. I wish you much further happiness, luck, and success in the future, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!
Richard Alther: Thanks.
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