The Questions Every Writer Asks - Featuring Literary Icon Jerome Charyn
At varying points in a writer's career, there are questions they would eagerly ask of other writers, especially those who have published and succeeded. Whether judged by the volume of publication, bestseller rankings or industry accolades, this series will feature responses from some of the most successful, prolific, and admired authors to the most popular questions every writer thinks about asking at one time or another.
Our first writer in this series is novelist Jerome Charyn. In a career spanning six decades and with a body of work that includes more than 50 books, Jerome Charyn has established himself as a versatile and fearless literary force. Born in 1937 in the Bronx, Charyn has navigated diverse genres such as crime fiction, historical novels, biographies, essays, and graphic novels, earning accolades and admiration from readers and critics alike.
Charyn's upbringing on the streets of New York City in the early 1940s fostered a deep connection that would later serve as the setting for many of his narratives. After obtaining a bachelor's degree in English literature from Columbia College in 1959, Charyn embarked on a writing journey marked by an unwavering commitment to exploring the multifaceted nature of the human experience.
Among Charyn's most celebrated works is the Isaac Sidel series, which introduces readers to the enigmatic New York City police commissioner. In this collection of crime dramas, Charyn masterfully renders the gritty reality of urban life while delving into complex moral quandaries.
His literary talent has earned him many prestigious awards, including the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a finalist slot for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The New York Times praised Charyn as a writer with "an uncanny ability to create compelling characters and evoke a sense of place."
Charyn's historical novels, such as The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I Am Abraham, and Big Red, showcase his talent for reimagining the lives of iconic figures with sensitivity and nuance. In these works, Charyn weaves fact and fiction, crafting vivid narratives that illuminate the human condition. The Washington Post described his writing as "a thrilling blend of historical accuracy and imaginative daring."
As a pioneer in the world of graphic novels, Charyn has collaborated with renowned illustrators to produce visually stunning works that challenge the boundaries of storytelling. His graphic novel The Magician's Wife, created in partnership with French artist François Boucq, was honored with the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix du Meilleur Album. Publishers Weekly has lauded Charyn's graphic novels as "groundbreaking, thought-provoking works that elevate the medium."
Jerome Charyn's literary legacy is characterized by his intrepid exploration of genre and his extraordinary ability to capture the complexities of human experience. I thought it most appropriate to ask Jerome to be our first author in this series and to respond to everyone's most asked questions.
DUSTY SANG: How did you get started in writing? What inspired you to pursue a career as an author?
JEROME CHARYN: I originally started as a painter, and because the High School of Music & Art was so desperate for male students, they allowed me in. I had no talent whatever, and I saw this right away, as the other art students had a kind of magic in their hands. I had none. But I happened to land in a writing class where the professor demanded that we write something every day. Of course, this was an impossible task – and I was the only one who did it – but I began to feel that there was a shape to words, that they had a kind of figure, a kind of movement, a kind of sound, and I realized that I was addicted to this sound.
I became a writer – who wrote nothing.
I was also lucky to get into Columbia College where books were the holy grail, and the writer had a kind of religious persona. I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, whether I was successful or not.
I made tactical plans. I decided to become an officer in the Air Force, and I assumed that I could retire at 40 and devote myself to writing. Like Pinocchio, I went out to an Air Force base on Long Island and slept in an officers’ barrack. The next morning, I met with a battery of officers. I told them I wanted to go into intelligence. They smiled. One of them asked me who was the Secretary of the Air Force – I said I didn’t know. Another asked me who was the Secretary of Defense. I said I didn’t know. I failed that test and realized I would have to find another way.
DUSTY SANG: What was your big break?
JEROME CHARYN: At the time I began writing, Commentary was the most important literary magazine in the country, more important than The New Yorker. It was particularly devoted to young writers. Norman Podhoretz was the Editor of the magazine, and he happened to be a Columbia graduate. So, when I sent in my first story, he knew who I was and was very kind to me. I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t had a story in Commentary. I would have tried and tried. That story was Faigele the Idiotke. I had offers from six publishers after the story was published. And imbecile that I am, I chose the friendliest letter rather than the best of these publishers.
DUSTY SANG: What advice do you have for new writers trying to get their books published?
JEROME CHARYN: You have to feel very strongly that this is what you want to do because there will be much more failure than success, and you have to be willing to take the blows. You may get lucky, but most often, you will not, so you have to be committed to the craft of writing and consider yourself an apprentice all your life.
DUSTY SANG: What is the most challenging aspect of choosing a subject to write about?
JEROME CHARYN: You don’t choose a subject – a subject chooses you. Several years ago, I happened to watch a documentary on Maria Callas and I realized that I had to write a novel about her. There is something so vulnerable and flamboyant about her; she was like an insane woman under control. She was a mirror of myself, my female twin.
DUSTY SANG: How do you approach the writing process? What tips do you have for staying motivated and bringing a project to conclusion?
JEROME CHARYN: I try to write every day. Even if I can only craft one sentence. It always gives me pleasure, except when I’m depressed, and I’ve been depressed half my life. You can’t be motivated in an artificial way. Either you are moved to write or you will not have the willpower and the agility to complete what you have started. If you’ve lost your way, abandon the project, hibernate for a month, and you will find yourself as refreshed as a young Muhammed Ali.
DUSTY SANG: What do you consider to be the key elements of a successful book and how do you ensure that you're delivering those elements to your readers?
JEROME CHARYN: This is a very loaded question. A successful book is one that has moved and motivated you to the core. You are not only the writer – you are the most important reader of your own work. And if you are moved by what you have written, other readers will also be moved. There is no magical moment here. There is only hard work.
DUSTY SANG: How do you handle criticism of your work?
JEROME CHARYN: You must be prepared for the blows. Most reviewers are writing about themselves rather than putting their egos aside and entering the adventure of your book. And yet, you cannot ignore this criticism. You must be willing to live with it and shove it to the side.
It is gratifying to get a good review, but that does not make your book better in any way. You, yourself, have to be the harshest critic of your own work. I know my failings, and I wish they weren’t there, but that does not keep me from writing.
Jerome Charyn's next novel, Ravage & Son, reflects the lost world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the cradle of Jewish immigration during the first years of the twentieth century, in an evocative and suspenseful noir. It will be released by Bellevue Literary Press in August 2023. In 2025, his novel about opera great Maria Callas will be published. He is currently working on a YA novel entitled Silver Wolves that is semi-autobiographical.
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