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Herman Wouk, a novel force

From 'The Caine Mutiny' to 'The Winds of War' to his latest, 'The Lawgiver,' he's made his mark in American letters.

December 19, 2012|Patt Morrison
(Patrick Ecclesine )

The year Herman Wouk was born, Woodrow Wilson was in his first term in the White House, the Lusitania's sinking was on the front page and "The Birth of a Nation" was playing in silent movie theaters. In the 97 years since, with such books as "The Caine Mutiny," "Marjorie Morningstar and "The Winds of War," Wouk became a force in American letters, and in film and television as well. His latest novel, "The Lawgiver," tells the tale of a Hollywood struggle to make a movie about Moses. Wouk's modern story about the ancient and long-lived biblical hero unfolds via text messages, emails and plain old-fashioned letters. And he's made himself and his late wife, Betty Sarah, characters in the book. Wouk is a devotee of Skype, which is how he talked to me from his Palm Springshome.

So many towering characters in the Bible — David, Solomon. Why did you choose Moses?

When I first started, I was a comedy writer for Fred Allen. Out at sea [during World War II], I had plenty of time to think, and I decided to write a lightweight novel, "Aurora Dawn," and it did fairly well. So I was in the novel-writing business. Then I wrote "The Caine Mutiny." I discovered a narrative power I didn't know I had. I was going to be a funny writer, but here I was doing something dramatic and panoramic. I have a very strong Jewish background, and I rediscovered in the five books of Moses the greatest narrative ever written. My thought was someday I'll write a novel about Moses. As I wrote more serious, more ambitious books, I discovered I couldn't write a novel about Moses because there's no narrative that equals [the Bible's].

So I gave up on that for many years. But [after] my last book was published, I thought, what about a new book? By not making it a narrative, just doing it as somebody trying to [make a Moses movie]. That's Hollywood. I've heard there are a couple of Moses movies in the works. I even thought, as I was writing "The Lawgiver," well, suppose one of those comes out in the meantime? What does it matter? I'm doing my version.

Were you able to say things about Hollywood and yourself that you couldn't do in a traditional narrative novel?

That's right. Of course, I have mixed feelings about Hollywood, depending on how my work has turned out. I thought "The Caine Mutiny" movie was quite good. I don't want to mention the ones that were terrible. Dan Curtis, the best of the TV directors, we got together and we made a great match. I wrote the screenplays [for "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance"] mostly directed by him. They were very long — 18 hours for "Winds of War." He kept telling me, cut out the history! They won't sit still for the history! But I pushed him on the history and he pushed me on the story, and it came out very well together.

Moviemaking is, shall I say, a very intense and self-absorbed process.

That's in the nature of not onlyartbut entertainment. I've done plays on Broadway; nothing else matters while that show is on. I'm a Sabbath observer, and I would leave for 25 hours and they'd plead, don't go away, the show is going to collapse! Twenty-five hours later it's going on the same way, the tearing of hair is the same. Anything you're really engaged in, particularly entertainment, where you face the public — it's in the nature of it to be intense. If you're not intense about it, it shows up on screen, in the play, in the novel too.

This book is composed of text messages, emails, notes of conversations — is there any future for sustained literary fictional narratives?

Whatever form it takes, storytelling will exist, and words are the medium. In film and theater you have the staging to help the story along. In a novel, all you have are the words. But there's magic in words. And one way or another, a writer who has a story to tell, like "Jane Eyre," will find a way to tell it in words. And one way or another, through Amazon or the Nook or whatever, it will show up.

Frankly, I'm very glad that there was a window in time 30 or 40 years ago when I was able to write long novels and be reasonably sure they would be read. It's an incredible business, sitting down and saying, well, I will now write "The Winds of War," it'll be 1,000 pages long, and somebody's going to print it and somebody's going to read it.

Your literary generation includes names like Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.

I've never discussed in public or in print any of my contemporaries. It's just a rule of mine and I've stayed with it. Generally speaking, it was a pretty good generation of writers.

Whose work influenced you?

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