Jerome Charyn is an award-winning author with more than 50 published works to his credit. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon calls him “one of the most important writers in American literature,” New York Newsday described him as “a contemporary American Balzac,” and the Los Angeles Times called him “absolutely unique among American writers.”

Since the 1964 Charyn has published thirty novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays, and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named the New York Times Book of the Year.

He has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the American University of Paris.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with Jerome Charyn at his Manhattan home for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: In your new book, In the Shadow of King Saul, New York City plays a central role. How has that city affected your beliefs, your dreams and your ambitions?

JEROME CHARYN: I really didn’t know New York at all as a child. I was born in the Bronx, and didn’t ever visit Manhattan, except for a trip to some miraculous movie palace and visits to my grandparents on the Lower East Side. I remember the long walks I took, seeing the magical posters of Yiddish theatres and the pillars of the Manhattan Bridge. But if Saul Bellow was “Chicago-born,” I was Bronx-born, and raised on Manhattan dreams.

Once upon a time long ago, New York was a city where the poor thrived as well as the rich. The city’s dowagers, the wives of Manhattan bankers and dentists, frequently taught in the public schools. We were their exotic gifts and they taught us how to speak with a strange kind of aristocratic music.

The Manhattan of my childhood no longer exists, except perhaps in the outreaches of the boroughs which have yet to be gentrified. 

I live among the rich.  I don’t like it.

STAY THIRSTY: You have said that, “I am Saul, though I’ve never been a king.” It seems, however, that your voice often comes from the darker side of your emotions. Do you see yourself as a tragic figure like King Saul; someone whom God has rejected?

JEROME CHARYN: To see myself as a tragic figure would mean that I exist, and I don’t really exist outside the page. I love Saul, because he was sentenced for his silence, for his inability to sing, and to hear God’s songs. It’s within those silences that my writing began and where I forever remain.

STAY THIRSTY: Your essays often focus on larger-than-life figures from politicians like Ed Koch to authors like Saul Bellow. Do you see yourself as a one of them or as someone else?

JEROME CHARYN: There’s almost no resemblance between Ed Koch, our wonderful former gangster mayor and Saul Bellow, who wrote about gangsters but had a kind of handsome dignity. I admired the bravura of both these men, but I could never have crept inside their skin.
Jerome Charyn 

STAY THIRSTY: The fact and impact of Ellis Island as a symbol of immigration in the early 20th century resonates in your essays, in your descriptions of life in New York’s neighborhoods and in your life. Are there modern-day Ellis Islands in the 21st century that will provide grist for the writers in the coming decades?

JEROME CHARYN: Perhaps each of us has his or her own Ellis Island – it’s so hard for me to speak about 21st century immigration, because it has become so tragic. Ellis Island was where I was born. I wouldn’t be alive without it. I still suffer from those who suffered there and never really arrived in America.

The immigrants who came out of Ellis were allotted very little dignity and had to crawl away from that monstrous place to discover who they really were. That’s why New York City became the land of gangsters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was almost a kind of revolution or rebellion against the loss of dignity. Those who survived paid a heavy price for their survival. 

I am still on Ellis. I’ll always be there.

STAY THIRSTY: Herman Melville is one of the writers that you admire. In his iconic book, Moby Dick, Melville writes in the first paragraph of his story, “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” By all accounts, Melville’s protagonist, Ishmael, was depressed and on the verge of suicide. These moods were, in fact, not far from those of Melville’s himself. What is it about him that influenced you as a writer, a thinker and a storyteller?

JEROME CHARYN: Melville rose out of the underground, was forgotten while he was still alive, and I‘m drawn to that great sadness in him and that sense of injustice about America and all its thieves on land and on sea. I inherited Ishmael’s depression and Melville’s personal sense of invisibility. He was the writer who was there and not there.

I feel that same sense of invisibility and I’ve always felt drawn to that great white whale. Moby is mine, an enemy and a friend who is larger and grander than anything I will ever write. He is what I strive to discover – that great white whale of language.

STAY THIRSTY: You write about the meteoric rise and fall of early Hollywood movie star Louise Brooks. What is it about her life’s story that attracted you and do you feel a kinship with her?

JEROME CHARYN: I love Louise. She had an extraordinary presence on the screen – as Lulu the eternal uncaring seductress – and she had a great gift for writing about Hollywood and all its menace. I wish I could have met her and I still hope to write a novel about her one day, where she will be involved with a gangster who looks just like me.

STAY THIRSTY: Another of your literary idols is Isaac Babel and you dedicated In the Shadow of King Saul to his daughter. What does his mastery of silence mean to you and how have you been influenced by it?

JEROME CHARYN: One of the great pleasures of my life was meeting Nathalie Babel. When I knocked on her door, I could see Babel’s face in hers and we immediately had a curious kind of non-romantic romance. Everyone wanted to know about her father, but I asked her questions about her mother, Babel’s first and only real wife. I was very sad when Nathalie died because we had a friendship and sharing of our love and hatred of language, and she did love what I wrote about her father in Savage Shorthand.

Babel himself was not allowed to speak. He was told by his Soviet masters to write the silly tales of a revolution that never really took place. Therefore he turned to silence. That silence was very poignant to me – it’s the silence we all fall into when we can’t say what we really want to say. It was his revenge upon the culture, and perhaps his greatest poetry.

(Photo of Jerome Charyn credit: Jorg Meyer)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.