By Jerome Charyn
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA 

[Responses from Jerome Charyn to topics suggested by Stay Thirsty Magazine.]


I had no America. I was a child of the Bronx without a scrap of culture. I never even realized there was such a thing as the New York Times, but I loved words and they were holy to me. The first grown-up novel that I ever read was Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Then I devoured his stories, his early stories, and they felt like chapters of a new bible. And then I studied the man. I loved the idea that he worked in a café in Paris in mid-winter, wearing two sweatshirts and pacing around like a panther. I loved that panther. But the Hemingway I adored soon morphed into some kind of public monster and I began to realize that I loved the words and not the man. I’ve always felt that writers themselves should be a disappearing act. That the words are the writer – and all publicity around Hemingway, his wives, his love affairs, his private armies during WWII, were not only distractions, but were violations of the word.

First novel:

In 1964, middle-class America still had a book culture and writers were respected, even revered. It was a culture dominated by males; blacks and other minorities were cut out, and women were second-class citizens. But America would soon explode, and the very identity of being an American would be questioned.

Evolution as a writer:

Both my parents could barely read and write, and I, as a skinny, ten-year-old child, had to parent them, deal with all the gas and electric bills, and other mysterious letters that arrived in our mailbox. I understood very early, that language was the most important thing in life, and I had to find some way to acquire this language. I read the section in the Reader’s Digest, “How to Build a More Powerful Vocabulary,” and that was my textbook, even though I built no vocabulary at all. I was a child of the Bronx who grew up among other little werewolves – I had one crazy piece of luck. I passed the test for the High School of Music and Art, where I first discovered that there was a middle class. I listened and learned, as the boys with white bucks talked about Harvard and Yale and the Ivy League, so I decided to become an Ivy Leaguer in my own way. I couldn’t afford Harvard or Yale, but I sneaked into Columbia, and that’s where my real education began. We studied the world’s great books, and my most cherished possession was my first bookcase, filled with Modern Library Classics. These books were magical to me. They gave me a certain kind of power. Whether I failed or succeeded as a writer, I knew I would remain a reader the rest of my life.

Jerome Charyn


Writers were precious objects at the time, and I was immediately offered jobs at Berkeley and Stanford. I chose Stanford, even though Berkeley would have been more congenial to me, because I was a walker, not a driver of cars. But Stanford wasn’t meant for foot-soldiers like me. 

California seemed like a magical place, but one thing had always bothered me, and that was the state’s internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. I studied this, and realized how unjust it was that these men, women and children were ripped from their homes, and placed in abandoned racetracks and tent cities enclosed by barbed wire. Not one of them had ever betrayed America. I visited some of the former locations, and so I decided to write a novel about these internment camps, and I called it American Scrapbook. Though I was not Japanese, I wanted to give these voiceless people a poetry of their own.

After California:

I was offered a more permanent teaching position at Stanford, but I knew I had to get out of California. I was married, and unhappy in my marriage. It wasn’t my wife’s fault. I was a lone wolf, depressed all the time. I would stare at my typewriter for hours and scratch out a page. But I managed to finish American Scrapbook – it’s probably the darkest novel I ever wrote. The entire English department of Hunter College arrived at Stanford searching for writers like me. I immediately accepted their job and returned to Manhattan, without my wife. I lived on Riverside Drive and tried to find my own voice, my own music. I wrote Eisenhower, My Eisenhower, a novel about a gypsy revolution in the United States. These gypsies all had tails and used them as sexual devices. They were probably the greatest lovers in America, but they were hated by all the Anglos and they caused havoc while living in a garbage truck. It’s my favorite novel, even though it’s largely incomprehensible, but it’s where I found my voice. I sat at a table facing a barren wall, even though I had a wonderful view of the Hudson if I just stretched my neck a little, and I worked on the book, sentence by sentence.


I always loved Paris as a child, and the sound of the French language. As a kid, I saw a film about the Arc de Triomphe, and I knew I wanted to live right under it. So like Humpty Dumpty, I left my job, my friends, put my bank account in my back pocket and went off to Paris. After all, that’s where The Sun Also Rises began, in the cafés along Montparnasse. I found a job at the American University of Paris and taught film for 15 years. I loved my students, they were outcasts like myself, and I realized how much I knew about cinema – from Orson Welles to Tarantino. Each class I taught was like an epiphany. I discovered myself in the films I talked about and realized that my novels were really films in paper form, with words as images on fire.

Return to America:

As much as I loved Paris, I realized that I couldn’t find my music in another land. The idiom changes so quickly and I wasn’t here to catch hold of it. Humpty Dumpty packed his bag and came back to America. Whatever book culture had been here before, was almost completely gone. I’d entered the age of Google and the iPhone. I was a tweeter who couldn’t tweet. But I still believed that the spirit of America remains in stories, good stories, impossible stories. And so I continued to write and I’ve never stopped.



Jerome Charyn is an award-winning author of over 50 works of fiction and non-fiction. His latest novel, Cesare, will be released in January 2020.

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