How long have you been writing?
I literally took pen to paper for the first time in the summer of 1985. I remember it well because all three of my sons went to sleep away camp for eight weeks and I had extra free time. The story of "Someone Else's Son" was rattling around in my head and I challenged myself to create a story around babies switched at birth. When my sons went to camp, I had that time to fulfill that promise and try to write the story. It turns out I loved the process.
What did you like about the writing process?
For me, writing was problem solving. It was figuratively taking the puzzles of life and trying to make sense out of them through the characters I created. In a sense, it was its own form of therapy.
Why did you want to write about babies switched at birth?
I was 28 when I finished my periodontal training at Columbia and already had two sons. I was invited to join a prestigious, long-time establish practice on Fifth Avenue. I looked young for my age and many of the patients asked if I was old enough to be a dentist. By then, I already had two sons so I hung both of their pictures on the treatment room wall so I could answer patients, "If I am old enough to have two sons, then I am old enough to treat you." It made no sense, but it was the best I had. Of course what the patients were really asking was if I had enough experience to work on them.
Then I had a third son and hung his picture next to his brothers. Now patients asked why was I hanging pictures of children on the wall. When I answered that they weren't just any children but my three sons, to a one, they all said, "They can't be brothers. They don't look alike. You must have taken the wrong baby home from the hospital." And that is how the germ of "Someone Else's Son" was born.
The notion that any parent could take the wrong baby home from the hospital intrigued and plagued me at the same time, and yet many people told me not to write the story because it could never happen. I told them I made it up and that no one told Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov not to write their stories.
"Someone Else's Son" predated DNA testing for paternity suits that we have come to accept as routine science. This was not the case when I started this project. I used the science of the day to create a believable story that we now know has happened a number of times in recent years.
What made you start writing in the first place?
I befriended one of my patients and I don't remember how it happened but I shared with her a story that was rattling around in my head. It had to do with NYC's bedrock and how it could support all the skyscrapers and withstand blasting for deep foundations. This was around 1980. Each time I saw this patient, we discussed my story and she encouraged me to write it. I told her I didn't know how and yet she insisted I do it.
So I hired a screenwriter, Kyle Morris. I told Kyle my story and he wrote a movie treatment. When I saw what he did, I told myself that I could do that. Yet, I had no desire at that time to write a novel. That came a couple of years later.
What happened to the movie treatment?
We passed it around to a number of studios and one studio took the premise and made the movie. Rather than be angry that they copied it, I felt validated that my ideas were worthy and that this encouraged me to write more.
Where do your story ideas come from?
They come from news items or just pop into my head.
When a story idea "pops" into your head or you read about something that grabs you, do you keep notes so you will remember it?
No, I don't write anything down. What seems to have worked for me over the years is that if an idea is worthy of exploring, it will stay with me. In fact, it will plague me to the point where I have to regurgitate it in a book. If I read or think of something interesting and then can't recall it or it doesn't stay with me, then it must not have been that good an idea.
Do you always know the ending before you start a new book?
Not always. Most of the time, I have a notion of where a story is headed but I let my characters actually drive that story to its natural ending. Often, I don't know what they will say or do before I sit down. It is as if the characters are channeled through me and I am a conduit for their words.
How did the idea for Savior's Day came about?
A patient, Dr. Hayim Tawil, came to me and asked if I would write a book with him. It was about the Codex of Aleppo, an ancient Bible that had a glorious story surrounding it that few knew about. I agreed to write it after understanding its importance. So for two years, I met Hayim every week during which time he tutored me on this topic. When I felt comfortable with it, I started writing the story as historical fiction. That work was awful and I trashed it. Then I did it as non-fiction book proposal. We pitched it to a prominent agent who loved the story and asked who would write the book? When I said that I would, she said that wouldn't work because I was a dentist and Hayim, while he had a PhD, was not comfortable writing it in English. So she rejected us.
It took another dozen years before I could construct the story that became "Savior's Day."
How did the backstory of Marcus Garvey and the Black Jews figure into "Savior's Day."
I was a history major at Rutgers and came across a book on "The Black Jews of Harlem." This intrigued me and I promised myself to write about this. Come to think of it, maybe that's when my writing career started... in my head with that promise. As the years passed, I couldn't shake this story but also could not figure out how to write it. Should it be non-fiction or a novel? For the longest time, I didn't feel comfortable writing about an aspect of black history.
Then I had an epiphany and figured out how I could write about both the Codex of Aleppo and the Black Jews, blending the two stories into a single novel. The result is "Savior's Day."
Who is John Bowers?
I committed the same sin most first-time writers make: I wrote too much. My writing was all over the place, yet there were aspects of it that interested those in the publishing industry. I submitted my "opus" to Pam Bernstein at the William Morris Agency. Pam called me up and said she never calls an author she is rejecting, but wanted to meet me so I didn't get discouraged. She finished the call saying, "You may think you are a dentist, but there is a writer trapped in you."
I met with Pam and she gave me some books to read and urged me to cut the story in half, because there were two stories in my manuscript. I did that. Once the it was a single story, I showed it to folks in the publishing industry, and received a universal comment, "I could write needed to learn the craft of writing." It was suggested that I find a mentor.
Enter John Bowers. John taught creative writing at Columbia's School of General Studies. He was an author and a magazine editor. I met John, asked if he would mentor me, and when he agreed, he had strict requirements. He gave me a list of the one hundred greatest novels ever written and told me to read as many as I could. I had to carry a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" with me every time we met, along with William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." Carrying the books made me feel like a pledge in a fraternity..., which I guess I was trying to join.
John and I met in a coffee shop on Park Avenue South around 5:15 every Monday for two years. The diner closed at 6 and John said that I needed to be hungry and that I couldn't eat anything, but only have coffee. He would read would I wrote that week, teach me one aspect of the "craft" and then I would apply to as many chapters as I could. The next Monday morning, I would messenger to John all that I wrote during the week. He would read it, we'd meet at the diner, and he'd proffer a new lesson. This was 1991. When we got to the end of the book, John said that we had to start all over because the first chapter had one lesson and the last chapter may have had the benefit of twenty lessons. So we repeated the process again. After the second journey applying John's lessons to "Someone Else's Son," he wished me luck and said I now had a "submittable manuscript" that would not embarrass me...but he wouldn't help me get it published.
At that time, a patient suggested I send the manuscript to MasterMedia. Susan Stautberg, the publisher, was looking to add fiction to her publishing house's offerings. Lucky for me, I was the first book she chose.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write a novel?
Read as much as they can, especially in the genre that they feel suits their idea. Then they should start writing and writing and writing.
How many times to you rewrite a book before you feel it is finished?
As my mentor, John Bowers, taught me, "Writing is rewriting." The first time an author creates their first draft, it is just that, a draft. This is not writing. The writing co