Much like the swashbuckling heroes of his popular novels, author Mark Helprin has led a life of great adventure. As a young man, Helprin served in the Israeli army, the Israeli air force and the British merchant navy, and he's earned his living as an agricultural laborer, a factory worker, a military adviser, a Wall Street Journal columnist, a political speechwriter and much more. He has climbed mountains and taken long journeys by horseback. And between all that, he's somehow found time to write seven bestselling novels, including A Soldier of the Great War (1991) and Winter's Tale (1983), which is considered to be his masterpiece. In his New York Times review of it, literary critic Benjamin DeMott wrote, "I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance." In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review asked several hundred prominent writers, critics and editors to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years," Winter's Tale was among the small number of novels to receive multiple votes.
At age 70, Helprin remains fiercely--and famously--antiquarian. He still writes the first draft of his novels out by hand, doesn't have voicemail on his home phone, rails against social media, farms his own land and has never had a cup of coffee. He avoids modern literature and cites Dante, Shakespeare, Melville and Twain as his great loves and influences. Moment recently spoke with Helprin about his new novel Paris in the Present Tense, being politically conservative in the Jewish community and anti-Semitism in America.--Marilyn Cooper
Popular culture often portrays Jewish men as angst-ridden and neurotic, but Jules Lacour, the hero of your new novel, is strong, adventurous and romantic. Were you deliberately trying to challenge that common image of Jewish men?
It's not like I decided to be the anti-Woody Allen, but the self-hating Jewish man has not been my experience. I model on people I know, myself included, and most of them don't fit that mold. My father, when he was 36 years old, volunteered for World War II. He worked for "Wild Bill" Donovan, who founded the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA In the 1920s, he was like bloody Lawrence of Arabia traveling throughout North Africa and Central Asia. The World War II vet Harry, in my novel In Sunlight and In Shadow, is based on my father. I myself have always been very attached to military and police formations. I was in the Israeli army and the air force and served in the British merchant navy as a policeman for eight years. The men in the Israeli army were nothing like Woody Allen, and my Jewish friends are not like that. They would not marry their own...