Interview: January 31, 2013
Stefan Kanfer has made a name for himself writing bestselling biographies of such show business icons as Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx. Now he returns to fiction writing with his latest release, THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK, an eBook original that marks the beginning of a series starring Jordan Gulok, an Inuit and a former Navy SEAL. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Kanfer explains why he decided to venture once again into the thriller genre; talks about the issue of illegal pharmaceuticals and why he incorporated it into his plotline; and names the actor he would love to see play his protagonist in a potential film adaptation of the book.
Bookreporter.com: You have a very long and distinguished career in writing and journalism, but have not ventured into the thriller genre for many years. Your new novel, THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK, is squarely in thriller territory. Jordan Gulok is an ex-Navy SEAL who is in New York, meeting with his former superior, when he suddenly finds himself suspected of murder and is caught in the middle of a three-way dance involving the Russian mafia, a crooked Turkish business tycoon, and his former employer. What provided the impetus for you to return to thriller writing?
Stefan Kanfer: I’ve always been an avid reader of thrillers, especially those of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and, in recent times, Lee Child. I did indeed write a couple early on --- one, THE EIGHTH SIN, became a Book of the Month selection. All the while I was writing and editing at Time magazine, which didn’t afford me many hours for independent book work.
Those that were at my disposal were spent writing social histories, most notably about the De Beers diamond company (THE LAST EMPIRE), a story that took me to Johannesburg and beyond, as well as the tale of American animation films (SERIOUS BUSINESS), the Yiddish Theater in New York (STARDUST LOST), etc.
Then came the opportunity to do biographies of iconic show business personalities, beginning with Groucho Marx, whom I knew through my work as Time’s cinema critic and later book review editor, followed by Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart. All reached the bestseller list. When Knopf asked me to do yet another bio, I thought, I’ve gone four for four; it would be pressing my luck to do a fifth. I wanted to return to the thriller genre, and given the state of hardcover publishing, it was now or never.
BRC: Something that I really enjoyed here was the manner in which the narrative tracked between the present --- with Gulok almost always in danger, and on the run, on the streets of New York --- and Gulok’s childhood as an Inuk growing up in the remote Arctic region. The manner in which you presented how events in Gulok’s youth affect his ability to deal with the dangers of the present was particularly striking. How did Gulok take shape for you as you wrote this book? Did you have the character fully conceptualized before you started writing, or did he grow with the book?
SK: Although I try to know my characters inside and out, they’re always full of surprises. In the army, and later in civilian life, I met many Native Americans and several Inuits, who chose to learn a trade and have a life outside the rez. To some degree, my protagonist Jordan Gulok is a composite of these young men --- along, of course, with the contributions of a fevered imagination.
BRC: The weather plays a role here. Almost the entire story takes place during a blizzard, which is of some help to Gulok given his background, while he is on the run. I couldn’t help but feel that the book had to have been written in the dead of winter, which raises another question: How long did it take you to write the novel, from concept to “The End”? Was this a “winter” book, or did you write it while sitting on a beach somewhere?
SK: From the start, THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK was thought of as a “winter book.” The idea of a city paralyzed by a blizzard --- something I witnessed firsthand several times as a native New Yorker --- seemed to me an ideal background in which to place an Eskimo. The subways might be at a standstill; surface traffic, including patrol cars and fire trucks, might be stationary. Ordinary citizens might be helpless. But Jordan Gulok grew up on ice, and maneuvering around Manhattan would be second nature to him, confounding criminals as well as the police.
BRC: THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK contains a number of twists and turns, and some unusual elements, including the trafficking of fake and pseudo-pharmaceutical drugs. This is a growing problem that has escalated with the proliferation of online pharmacies as well as the ready access of such substances in third world countries. How did you become interested in this topic, and what inspired you to include it in the plotline?
SK: I have known about illegal pharmaceuticals for a long time. For many years, an uncle owned a chain of drugstores in St. Louis (both sides of the family were rooted in that city), and I heard many stories of fake drugs that failed to help the ailing and sometimes killed them. When I began to dig into the topic, I found that areas of Africa and Asia were worst hit, though the U.S. is hardly immune.
BRC: You were a film and cinema critic for many years, and indeed, THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK has a very cinematic feel and flow to it, from the somewhat grisly opening scene to the climax of the book, where Gulok rides to the rescue of his love interest. One scene runs into the next throughout, with the result being that one cannot help but keep reading; there is simply no good place to stop once you’ve started. The book also is not divided into chapters, a style point that reinforces the reader’s inclination to keep going. How did you go about achieving such a smooth narrative flow through the story, from beginning to end? Did you utilize “beta” readers who helped you in critiquing it?
SK: I decided to try a new form, at least for me, in writing THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK. There would be many scene changes, but no chapters, giving the narrative a cinematic flow of quick cuts and rapid dissolves. It was also important to have flashbacks, which I put in italics, because Jordan Gulok is an exotic whose background needs some explanation. How did an Inuit come to have a knowledge of literature as sharp as his knowledge of hunting? Why did he find a home with the Navy Seals? Why isn’t he a Seal anymore? Why does he only drink Guinness stout?
As for “beta” readers, while my wife is a discerning critic and a close reader, I have to rely essentially on my own instincts as a writer, editor and researcher. This can lead to errata, but it’s a guarantee of literary independence.
BRC: In addition to your efforts as a film critic, you’ve written novels about World War II, as well as social histories and biographies of such actors as Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball. You’ve also earned several literary awards along the way. Tell us a bit about your career up until now. Is there any particular mountain --- literary or otherwise --- that you’d like to conquer?
SK: My father was a widely published poet and Shakespeare scholar; my maternal grandfather and grandmother were writers. So the blank page was never an enemy, and to some degree writing is the family business. (My son would agree. He’s a theater critic for two online publications.)
I began by writing short stories, one of which was published on my 21st birthday in Discovery, a magazine issued by Pocket Books. That led to some writing assignments for the Atlantic, Life, Esquire and the NY Times Magazine, and these led, after a wanderjahr in Europe, to a job at Time magazine as the show business writer (by then I had co-written an off-Broadway musical). A couple of years later, the cinema critic left and I got the job. I then became an essayist, and later editor of the book review section. But all along, my first love was books, and I began to write them even while editing other people’s work.
Writing isn’t a matter of conquering, it’s a matter of learning, and I still have plenty to learn. Many adventures lie ahead for Jordan Gulok, in many cities. It would be good to explore them. It would also be good to explore other worlds of nonfiction (making bird decoys is a serious hobby) and perhaps the avians will find a place on my keyboard in the near future. Or perhaps they’ll get involved in a novel --- too early to tell.
BRC: On a related note, your writing career has spanned several decades. How do you go about getting the job done on a daily basis? What sort of schedule do you adhere to? And how has it changed over the years?
SK: Two of my parents’ closest friends were classical musicians in the NY Philharmonic, and both practiced every day, whether they had a performance scheduled or not. I took this as an admirable work ethic even as a teenager. I write every morning, and often in the afternoons, to keep the instrument sharp. It also keeps me out of trouble.
BRC: Are there any authors who have had a particular influence upon your career?
SK: Every writer stands on the shoulders of those who went before. I would cite Dickens as a profound influence, as well as Somerset Maugham, who knew how to tell a story; Hemingway, who helps every writer clean up his prose; and the humorists Evelyn Waugh and S. J. Perelman, who keep writers from taking themselves and their societies too seriously.
BRC: I noted earlier that you were a film critic. If you could cast THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN NEW YORK for a film adaptation, do you have any ideas for the leading roles?
SK: If I were a casting director looking for someone famous to play Jordan Gulok, I would give Keanu Reeves great consideration. But the truth is that there are many actors of Asian derivation who are skilled, intelligent and eager to show their wares. They’ve had too little opportunities thus far, this is their time, and Jordan might just be their kind of guy.
BRC: What books have you read in the last year that you would recommend to our readers?
SK: The last long book I read was REINVENTING BACH by Paul Elie. I dispute some of the author’s sunny views of technology, but arguments are what good books often provoke. On the other end, I found the Penguin series of short biographies, notably of Proust, Winston Churchill, da Vinci and Napoleon to be brisk and informative.
BRC: The book’s conclusion leaves open the possibility of a sequel, and, indeed, there is mention elsewhere of at least two more Gulok books. What do you envision for Jordan Gulok? And when will we see THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN MIAMI, which has been announced as the sequel?
SK: THE ESKIMO HUNTS IN MIAMI should be out this summer. I’m almost finished with the first draft and have begun to think about the next city. How about Seattle?