Jerome Charyn has earned praise from some of today’s most decorated writers. Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, remarked that “Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature;” Joyce Carol Oates, a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, said in the New York Review of Books, “Among Charyn’s writerly gifts is a dazzling energy―a highly inflected rapid-fire prose that pulls us along like a pony cart over rough terrain;” and, Larry McMurtry, also a Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction, referred to him as, “One of our most rewarding novelists.”

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times; In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and SongJerzy: A Novel; and A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. His awards include the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his novels have been selected as finalists for the Firecracker Award and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with Jerome Charyn for the Conversation at his home in New York City.

STAY THIRSTY: In your newest literary spy thriller, Cesare, you propel readers back to Germany in the late 1930s as your protagonist embarks on a mission to save the woman he loves. Where did the idea for this story originate and what makes a thriller a “literary thriller?”

JEROME CHARYN: I originally wasn’t going to set the novel in Berlin at all, I was going to have a sleeper agent arrive by submarine during the war and hide himself away on the Atlantic coast. The novel would have started 30 years after the war; the sleeper agent is now the sheriff of a small New England town and all his plans are interrupted when another sleeper agent arrives and tries to blackmail him. 

I began writing this novel and it had no ambience at all. I didn’t believe in the characters, and I didn’t believe in New England, so I knew I had to sail back on my submarine. I figured I would now make it an origin tale and show our future spy as a little boy in Berlin. This was over ten years ago, so you can see how long it took me to write this novel.

My inspiration has always been John le Carré. I adore two of the Smiley books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. They are great works of art, and the espionage is driven by the magic of the characters themselves. That is how I would define a literary thriller. Alas, I’m no John le Carré, and instead of George Smiley, we have Admiral Canaris and Cesare. But I know le Carré would fall in love with my Cesare.

STAY THIRSTY: Set amidst the backdrop of a country “whose culture has died, whose history has been warped, and whose soul has disappeared,” you weave a story of love and cruelty in pre-World War II Germany. How were you able to balance the big stories of the Jewish underground with the Nazi push to move Jews to Auschwitz and still keep the reader focused on your love story?

JEROME CHARYN: It wasn’t easy to do. But we have to remember that Cesare is a spy working on behalf of Nazi Germany, a Germany he despises. He also happens to be in love with a half-Jewish princess who works for the Jewish underground, and so his desire to save Jews is enhanced by his love for Lisalein. Lisa, or Lisalein, is captured and sent to Theresienstadt. And Erik, who is in love with Lisalein, is doomed to die with her . . . or get her out.

I grew up during WWII, and as a child I dreamt of the Nazis appearing on our streets in the Bronx, and how we would fight them off. They seemed invincible in their mad design, in their thirst to destroy. And as a novelist I wanted to enter that world and look for some kind of hero within the Nazi regime, the good somnambulist, the good Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was still trying to tell a love story amidst all the brutality, my own Berlin fairy tale. We have had so many clichés, so many cartoons and caricatures about the Nazis that I wanted to crawl inside the heart of the beast and have a look at what I might find. I wanted to humanize the unhuman, to let the reader glimpse at Berlin—a cultural capital gone mad—and a concentration camp that was brutally surreal, with its children’s chorus, its soccer teams, its playhouse, all near a railroad siding that transported these little angelic singers, these athletes, painters, and actors to Auschwitz.

Berlin also had its own Jewish hospital, with some of the best doctors in the world; and it, too, became a kind of fairy land, where wounded Nazi officers flirted with Jewish nurses, and doctors suddenly disappeared. Nothing was what it seemed to be, everything was wrapped in a deadly silken cloth. There were no real survivors. The dead mingled with the living: Berlin had become a city of ghosts. And Cesare, a captain with German military intelligence, was perhaps the greatest ghost of all. 

Jerome Charyn

STAY THIRSTY: Why are readers so attracted to the actions of spies and their work in the shadows?

JEROME CHARYN: The spy is the ultimate “invisible man.” He – or she – has so many identities, that he has, ultimately, no identity at all, and many of us are attracted to this duality. We wish we could disappear and start all over again. A spy does this every day of his or her life.

STAY THIRSTY: What does the Holocaust mean to you and how do stories of “war-torn Berlin” keep memories of the cruelty of Nazi Germany alive?

JEROME CHARYN: I was a child during WWII and the Holocaust seemed unimaginable. When we first saw images of America soldiers entering the camps, we were frightened, bewildered, saddened and enraged. In New York City, which seemed like a benevolent cradle, the Holocaust was impossible to understand.

STAY THIRSTY: Cesare has been heralded as an “extraordinary tour de force” and a “full-throttle fable.” As a writer, how do you perfect the pace of a novel so that the reader never wants to put the book down?

JEROME CHARYN: You have to fall in love with the characters. That is often an impossible task, but both Cesare and Lisalein are shielded by an enormous well of sadness, and that well is shared by us all.

STAY THIRSTY: In the epigraph to Cesare, you quote W. G. Sebald from his novel Austerlitz: “It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past.” What are those laws and how have you applied them in your new book?

JEROME CHARYN: The past remains in our bones and shapes our future like a sculptor’s hammer. We are condemned to relive everything that has ever happened – this defines our humanness, and our ability to share our feelings and our love with others. This evidently disappeared in Hitler’s Germany.

STAY THIRSTY: You have added, at the beginning of Cesare, a section for Dramatis Personae and one for Glossary of German Terms. Why did you decide to include these?

JEROME CHARYN: I love to create characters and as they multiply, I wanted to give each of these characters his or her identity with an iron fist. Confusion would destroy the musical line of the novel, and I didn’t want that music to disappear.

I studied German in college. I loved the sound of the language. And I wanted to use the actual German terms in the novel, without the reader becoming lost in the welter of foreign words.

I am lucky that David Colacci, the award-winning narrator of the Cesare audiobook, also spoke German and was able to keep the poetic pace of the novel. One mispronounced word ruins everything.

STAY THIRSTY: How important is history to you as a novelist and does history become a character in your stories or merely a backdrop?

JEROME CHARYN: I was always concerned about the past, that’s why I have a problem with futuristic novels. The past IS the main character in this novel, because without the brutality of Nazi Germany you would never have an ambivalent character such as Cesare. I grew up with Hollywood in my head and now I’m writing a novel about Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. I dream of Hollywood Boulevard, of each bookshop and movie palace – that street has become my Broadway.

(Jerome Charyn photo: credit Klaus Schoenwiese)


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