I recently did an interview with famous author Elliot Perlman. Have I mentioned him before? Probably not, I kind of keep it on the dl that we’re friends.
Anyway it was for the Jewish Holocaust Centre’s latest magazine (you should check it out in April) and I thought I’d post some of the fun parts that didn’t make it to the profesh verion. Enjoy!
Fay: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Elliot: I always wanted to tell stories, even when I was a kid in primary school. I’d write the class play and then the house play and I played in bands and wrote the songs. Reading became important to me, really important to me, when I was around eleven and twelve because I changed schools and I didn’t have any friends at my new school and my parents split up. I was very unhappy and that’s when I started reading more adult books.
I got hooked, and I found that I got so much comfort from reading and I started to devour different authors and it became very important to me. Of course my parents were pleased by this because beforehand I hadn’t been particularly interested in reading and I think that it was because the books I that I was being fed which my sister, who’s four years older, had loved, were the kind of classic English children’s books like Enid Blyton texts. And I thought, five go up a tree, five go down a tree, I don’t care, it’s not my business, let them make lemonade. Where are the people hiding? Where are the survivors? That’s the problem with Enid Blyton stories, not enough Holocaust. These kids they never say anything about it. What are they, conspirators, deniers? Doesn’t matter that it was written before the war.
I started reading, for example, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn and I thought this was fantastic because instead of children going up a tree and down a tree and having a picnic, here was a guy in a Soviet Gulag and on page one he tries to capture a bug in order to eat it, to try to get more protein for the day. This seemed wonderful to me. It seemed realistic to me, because I knew bugs, I didn’t go on picnics but I knew insects and I thought, I wouldn’t want to eat one but maybe under similar circumstances I would think about it.
I thought, if I could give even one person the kind of comfort that certain books have given me, that would be a very worthwhile thing to do. It didn’t occur to me that it was possible to earn a living from it, but I knew you had to keep doing it to get better at it. It’s a craft and you’re not born, I think, being a good writer or storyteller. The more you do it the better you get, the more you read the better you get and the more you write the better you get. It wasn’t until I was thirty that I won The Age short story competition and that sort of led to me being able to get published. Including a story I was just talking about, Good Morning Again.
Fay: I love that story.
Elliot: Thank you.
Fay: Is that the one that everyone loves?
Elliot: That’s like my hit single, before Three Dollars. I used to read that story aloud whenever anyone would let me, on trams, you know. After that short story my editor said, do you have a novel and I lied and said, yeah sure! I had the idea for a short story about a man who saw this woman every nine and a half years four times in his life, and the most recent time was when he was in his thirties, he only had three dollars. I was writing it and the story was getting longer and longer and I thought, maybe this is the novel, and that ended up being Three Dollars.
Fay: What was your family’s reaction to your writing as a career?
Elliot: At first I think they were worried by it, but since I had law to fall back on they were less worried by it. But the irony was that normally I advise people to get something solid behind them economically before doing anything in the arts. But I was an associate to a Supreme Court judge and I was terrified of not being able to earn a living when I went to the bar to become a barrister and it was the money that I got from writing Three Dollars that enabled me to go to the bar. So the irony was I wouldn’t have been able to practise my profession if I wasn’t an artist. I think ultimately they got comfortable with it but they’re Jewish parents so they worry about everything and they never ever stop and they inculcate that anxiety into me so that now I worry for them. They don’t even have to know about something and I worry in the way that they would want me to.
Fay: What are your favourite authors and books?
Elliot: I’m obviously influenced by a lot of Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevi Singer who was influenced by his brother I J Singer, Bernard Malamud. Thomas Hardy, a lot of the nineteenth century writers, also Charles Dickens and George Elliot. These people wrote about social justice. Zola and Victor Hugo all had a big effect on me. And also writers like John Steinbeck… almost too many to mention. E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel… And Arthur Miller was very important to me, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible. When I was sixteen my stepmother got me an incredibly rare (I’ve never seen it since) vinyl recording of the original Lincoln Centre cast of a play called After the Fall. After the Fall is not one of the plays he’s most known for. In fact it’s the play that probably turned things around in his career for him for the worse. It was first performed in 1964 and it contains the character that everyone assumes to be Marilyn Munroe whom he had married and the world had been cruel to her until she died. And then they beatified her and in this play he describes the descent of a woman very much like Marilyn Munroe and it’s not flattering. I heard it and then read it when I was sixteen and it had a huge effect on me. And one the highlights of my life was that I got to meet Arthur Miller and I got to tell him how important he’d been for me.
Fay: Was that weird? They tell you not to meet your idols.
Elliot: I know they tell you not to meet your idols and for that reason when I saw him I was terrified and was not going to go up to him but the person I was with who had invited me to an after party after the Broadway revival of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We went to a place called Tavern on the Green on Central Park. There they had the after party for this Broadway revival and Arthur Miller was there and the person who had taken me said, if you don’t go and talk to him you’re going to regret this for the rest of your life. I thought, she’s right, and so I did. And she was right, it’s one of the highlights of my life and I’m very glad I did it.
Hope you found that interesting! To get the rest of the down low on The Street Sweeper and other stuff check out Centre News in April! And if it’s cool with them I’ll be posting some of it here too