Interview with Louis Begley, 1992 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner


Q: Please discuss the first 13 years of your life … growing up in Poland and how you used false papers, which provided you with a Catholic identity to assist you in escaping the Nazi regime.

A: Wartime Lies, the book for which I received the PEN/Hemingway Award, is a novel, and not my autobiography. Nevertheless, it is made of my experiences of life in pre-World War II Poland, my experiences during the war, and in the period after the war that preceded my parents’ and my departure from Poland for Paris. I think that anyone who wants to get a general idea of what my life was like would be well-advised to read that novel.


Q: You moved to Paris in 1946, but left in early 1947. What do you remember about that time?

A: Freedom! More freedom! It was the first time since the distant period before the war when my parents and I felt absolutely safe. We weren’t threatened by Germans, or their Ukrainian accomplices, or anti-Semitic Poles eager to blackmail or denounce Jews attempting to pass for Catholic Poles through the use of false Aryan papers, or, after the war, anti-Semitic Poles who regretted that “Hitler hadn’t finished the job” by killing all the Jews in Poland and tried to make up for that omission by pogroms and individual acts of violence.

Moreover, my parents being exhausted by the war and our illegal escape from Poland, left me alone! For the first time in my life I wasn’t being taught anything, I didn’t have lessons to prepare for or to attend, I could wander around the city happy and unsupervised. And wander I did. I rode the metro, indefatigably learning it so well that when I went to live in Paris again in 1965 my memory of the underground system was still intact; I hung out in Pigalle, and I went on endless walks along the banks of the Seine.

They are ineffably happy memories, even though Paris suffered from shortages of practically everything, in the evening it was a city of darkness and not of lumières, and our future was uncertain. We hoped to settle in the United States; my mother had an uncle in New York City whose enigmatic cables enjoined us to “keep coming,” but there was no evident solution to the great refugees’ problem: how will we get the visa that will open the doors of the promised land?


Q: What was Brooklyn like in the late 1940s, and was there anyone there to whom you felt connected?

A: Confusing at first, wonderfully friendly once I learned my way. The person who mattered the most to me during the two and a half years I spent at Erasmus Hall High School (in some ways the finest school I have ever attended), was a certain Miss Ellen Batchelder, a truly gifted English teacher, who was convinced that I was worth educating and acted on that conviction.


Q: How old were you when you moved to Brooklyn?

A: Fourteen. 


Q: What was Harvard like in the 1950s?  Did you study with any notable authors?

A: I thought Harvard College was a secular version of paradise.

There were two notable authors among my classmates, Edward Hoagland and the late John Updike. There were no notable fiction writers. There was, however, a playwright, Robert Chapman, best known for his stage adaptation of Melville’s “Billy Budd.” He was my tutor during my senior year and, therefore, my thesis adviser.

The professors whose courses marked me for life were Harry Levin (Shakespeare, and, even more important to me, Proust, Joyce and Mann), Charles S. Singleton, who taught the great course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Douglas Bush, whose courses on Spencer and Milton I especially admired.


Q: How did practicing law play into your writing career?  Are there certain techniques that you apply to your writing career?

A: In two ways:

It exposed me to a great variety of characters and situations, providing me with very useful materials.

It also taught me that there is no such thing as being unable to write, provided one has a subject and one has thought it through.


Q:  Do you remember where you were when you received the news about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?

A: I am ashamed to say, I don’t!


Q: Do you have a favorite Ernest Hemingway story or book?

A: The Sun Also Rises.


Q: Two of your children are writers. Do you believe you inspired their careers?

A: I tend to doubt it. Having a father who is a published writer can discourage children—why compete with the old man?—as easily as inspire them.


Q: Are you working on anything new at this time?

A: Yes, another Jack Dana novel. Jack Dana, a former Marine Corps Force Recon officer, being the protagonist of two novels I’ve written, Killer, Come Hither and Kill and Be Killed.


Q: Where can your readers, and new readers, read about your work and new work?  

A: I would suggest reviews of my work. They are easily found, for instance through Google.


Q: Do you still live in New York City? 

A: Yes.


Q: Do you find that you are more productive in New York City, or when you are on Long Island? 

A: I’m not sure that it matters. My productivity depends on the strength of my connection with whatever I’m working on, and, of course, my energy level.


Q: Were you surprised when you found success as a writer? 

A: You could have knocked me over with a feather!

Wayne Catan, Brophy College Preparatory, March 18, 2018

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