By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA

Jerome Charyn reading from Winter Warning

Despite his travels (which have included living in Paris much of his time), the Bronx remains Jerome Charyn’s emotional home, if not his actual mailing address. It seems altogether fitting that the borough of his birth would have inspired his acclaimed Isaac Sidel mystery series, which is regarded by many as masterpieces of noir fiction. The latest book in the series—and touted as the last—is Winter Warning, a behind-the-scenes, inside-out, topsy-turvy look at presidential life and politics in the White House. The book is a savvy commentary. The book is a madcap romp. I met with Jerome Charyn in New York City to discuss his latest achievement.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How did your Bronx boyhood prepare you to write your own noir literature?

JEROME CHARYN: It wasn’t simply my Bronx background—the Bronx itself was a kind of void, a kind of hole without culture.

It was the particular instability of my family—a father who had been depressed his entire life, who was both violent and weak, and left me with one secret feeling: I had to kill him or grow up. And that’s where the noir began. 
Jerome Charyn

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your Isaac Sidel series represents twelve books written over forty-two years. Were you planning a series when you wrote the first book (Blue Eyes, 1975)?

JEROME CHARYN: No, I did not intend to write a 12-book series. A novel is just a crazy river and you can’t tell which path it’s going to take. The path it took for me was to kill off my hero in the middle of the first novel and fall right back into the void.

Then I realized, long before Tarantino did Pulp Fiction, that you could kill a character and bring him back to life by writing a new novel that began just a little bit earlier in time than the novel you’d just written. So the first words of my novel Marilyn the Wild are “Blue Eyes,” spoken by Marilyn herself. The character Blue Eyes was resurrected—for one book. 

Once I realized that I couldn’t keep resurrecting Blue Eyes I had to push the arrow of time a little bit forward and turn Isaac Sidel into the central character, but even then I wasn’t really thinking of a series. It’s only because the actor Richard Harris was interested in the novels that I wrote The Education of Patrick Silver, in which he, himself, appears as a character, an Irish-Jewish janitor at a synagogue who’s also involved with the Mob.

Then two years later I wrote Secret Isaac, which really was the beginning of the idea that I would be doing a whole series—a kind of epic on New York City in the 70s and the 80s.

In Secret Isaac I began to sculpt a whole new universe, which is a love story between two cities, Manhattan and Dublin. And like a good researcher, I went to Ireland, walked the streets of Dublin looking for James Joyce’s ghost—and found Isaac Sidel.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How does writing a book in a series compare with writing a stand-alone book?

JEROME CHARYN: There’s no such thing as a stand-alone book because Blue Eyes was a stand-alone book that mushroomed into a series.
Jerome Charyn

I could have continued any other novel that I wrote because the story that you tell never really ends. The music of it remains inside your head. If I didn’t have that music I wouldn’t be able to go from one Sidel book to another—the dream of him is always inside my head. I could have written about Abraham Lincoln for the rest of my life, but I had to end I Am Abraham somewhere—why not moments before Lincoln’s own death? 

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Why do you think your work resonates so well with European readers?

JEROME CHARYN: I think both German and American readers have the sense that crime novels have a certain architecture. This architecture keeps changing from generation to generation and that’s why they understood the texture of my novels and were able to celebrate their very perverse and strange music.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: How were you able to write about the presidency and White House with such apparent familiarity?

JEROME CHARYN: I grew up with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and somehow it seemed like he would be president for the rest of my life, so that his death was also like my death. And when I wrote a novel about Roosevelt (called The Franklin Scare), and began to research Roosevelt, long before there was the Internet, the White House almost became another home with Roosevelt inside it.

He was my crippled father—we loved him despite all his faults. And somehow he still remains as president, despite Donald Trump.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The book seems amazingly topical, almost as if it were written as a response to the Trump phenomenon. But that’s not the case, is it?

JEROME CHARYN: Winter Warning was written long before Trump became president, but the surreal world I write about has become frighteningly familiar as Trump wanders through the West Wing. We now have a political landscape that’s almost as noir as my own novels. 

If you write with a certain dreamlike sharpness the world eventually catches up with your dream.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: You describe Isaac Sidel as a profoundly moral man who didn’t have a penny in his pockets, wasn’t fueled by greed, and never used the presidency for his personal gain. Even so, readers will be struck by parallels with President Trump. The differences seem starkly obvious, but how do you think Sidel and Trump are alike?

JEROME CHARYN: Sidel and Trump are both combative fellows, they both have their own poetry, they’re both incredibly stubborn and finally listen to nothing or nobody other than their own particular voice.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: “Follow the money” is a common mantra used to suggest the root of political corruption. How does this idea play in your novel?

JEROME CHARYN: Corruption is rampant everywhere, at every level, in every corner. There seems to be no other subject but money. This is what Isaac detests, and there’s little he can do about it. We’ve all moved over to the devil’s side.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Apparently, you intend Winter Warning to be the last book in the series. What makes you think this book should be the capstone?

JEROME CHARYN: I saw it as a 12-book series, three quartets. I published the first four books as a quartet in 2002. Now, with Winter Warning, we have the last of two more quartets. 

The only thing that might make me change my mind is Trump’s presidency, because he has redefined the president’s powers and I might want to shadow him a little bit with one further adventure of Isaac Sidel.

Since he wasn’t really the elected president, perhaps I might want to think about his possible second term. And this not-yet-existent novel would be all about his campaign.

STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Your literary output is prodigious and your interests are wide-ranging. I’m curious: What book—or books—are you writing now?

JEROME CHARYN: I finished the first draft of a novel on Teddy Roosevelt and I’ve now returned to an earlier unfinished novel about the life of Charles Lindbergh. It’s only been revealed in the last ten years that Lindbergh was a serial husband who had three other secret families in Europe and seven other secret children. That fascinated me and I wanted to explore this other Lindbergh.

I am also currently working on an animated series based on Blue Eyes; the artists of this series are Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who created the wonderful film, Waltz with Bashir.

(Jerome Charyn photos: credit Klaus Schoenwiese)



Steven Jay Griffel is an Amazon bestselling novelist, an editor, and a publisher. His latest novel, The Ishi Affair, was released in March 2017.

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