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The Rumpus Interview with Tom Reiss

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Tom Reiss had been on my radar, vaguely, for years. I’d had a copy of The Orientalist on my shelf since it was published in 2005, and had occasionally pulled it out, taken a look at the enigmatic man wearing a fez on the cover, and put it back again, despite its being a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. I didn’t know who the subject of the book was, and so, naïvely, thought that I didn’t need to know.

An advance copy of Reiss’s new book, The Black Count, landed on my desk last summer, and it eluded my interest in the same way The Orientalist did. Its cover featured a picture of another man I knew nothing about—in a tricorn hat and brandishing a sword, no less—whose main claim to fame referenced a novel I’d never read. Then I heard Tom talk about the book and made it clear that, however obscure his subjects might be, he was a writer first and foremost, obsessed with getting the details right while crafting a story that could propel even a reluctant reader across unfamiliar terrain.

I went home and tore through the book. The story centers on General Alexandre Dumas, the father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. General Dumas was born to a black slave mother and a feckless French nobleman in the colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, in 1762. Summoned to Paris at the age of twelve, he was raised as an aristocrat in a culture that was remarkably free of racism and distinguished himself as an extraordinary soldier. He rose through the ranks of the army to command tens of thousands of troops during the French Revolution, only to have his career cut short by Napoleon.

But as dramatic as Dumas’s life and times were, what I found most compelling about The Black Count was Tom’s ability to keep me reading it, and with such pleasure, all the way through. Unlike most biographers and historians, he is supremely attuned to the reader’s interests, peppering the text with off-the-wall footnotes and personal anecdotes without ever straying too far from his narrative line. As a narrator, he overflows with enthusiasm for his subject but never resorts to the corny contrivances and breathless prose other writers use to pump life into inexpertly-told stories. In The Black Count, history clips along at a brisk pace and in full color. As transporting as a novel, it’s an honest-to-god page-turner. I was curious to learn more about how Tom accomplished such an impressive feat.

We met earlier this winter for lunch at the swanky Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan, after our plans to meet in Koreatown went awry. Just back from a book tour in the U.K., Tom was wearing a rumpled tweed blazer he’d dredged out from his closet while his suit was at the cleaners. He explained that he’d bought it at a thrift store in Texas twenty-five years earlier, when he went to study with Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston and wanted to look professorial. It was apt for our two-hour interview. A natural raconteur, he discussed not just the nitty-gritty of his writing process but his personal motivations for writing about the past. Below is an edited excerpt of our talk.

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The Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a journalist or a historian? Is there a difference?

Tom Reiss: I consider myself both and neither. I’m a writer who has a lifelong fascination with history—with all aspects of the past and its impact on the present. I cut my teeth as a journalist and continue to use journalistic techniques to gather my stories. Since I’m often searching for people whose lives have been forgotten, or suppressed, it takes journalistic legwork to even find historical archives or records about them.  But history needs to be written and taught in a way that is more compelling than journalism, because it doesn’t have the natural element of suspense. We “know” what happened already. But, of course, we really don’t know what happened in the past, and it’s my job to reintroduce that real sense of uncertainty into the mix, the sense of wonder, because that’s where the suspense comes from. I’m not sure you can have a compelling book without some sort of suspense. I want my readers to be on the edge of their seats about history, always somehow surprised by what’s “going on” in the past.

Rumpus: That was definitely the case for me. To be honest, there was nothing about either subject that grabbed me. But when I started reading them, I was totally drawn in.

Reiss: Well, they’re not regular history books. Some of the most gratifying things I hear about The Black Count are reader responses or blogs from just a huge number of people who start by saying they never read history or don’t like history or think history is boring. It’s exactly the response I wanted, which is that it’s not specialists, and it’s not people who particularly like history—it is a really eclectic group of people basically looking for an interesting story, an interesting book. On the other hand, I am incredibly grateful when we send it to Skip [Henry Louis] Gates and he says all these incredibly nice things about it. And so actually I find that real historians, people who spend their whole lives working in the primary sources on my period, are also great readers for my books. Because they respect and like the fact that I approach history with the kind of obsessive care that they do.

Rumpus: Your obsession with detail really does come through—in a good way. I kept thinking while I was reading that you would have made a great detective. In both books you traveled all over the world gathering bits of evidence to support your story.

Reiss: Well, I grew up reading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain—I’m a huge film lover, and I’m obsessed with the 1930s—so I guess I absorbed, on a superficial level, a lot of the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective. Now, that’s kind of ridiculous to say because I think if I had lived two hundred years ago I would have had the same personality, a detective’s personality—it has nothing to do with wearing a trenchcoat or being Humphrey Bogart. I think it has to do with having a personality that is very dogged and noticing huge numbers of details. I have always been kind of a snoop. What’s funny is that I’m not a novelist, so I don’t put much of this to use.

Rumpus: I thought about this while I was reading. Your descriptions of the characters you meet in the course of your research are so sharp and vivid. Yet you choose to write about history, which prevents you from making many of these types of direct observations. Why?

Reiss: That’s a very good question. I’m not exactly sure why I run away from the present moment, but I do. I run away into history. Maybe it’s cowardice on a certain level. I’m afraid of the present moment a little bit. Or maybe the problem has been that I’ve never liked the present moment well enough. Whenever I’m in a place, not only do I observe a lot of things about all of the people who are there now, but I try to imagine or try to perceive things about their back story, and the back story of the place. It’s almost like seeing ghosts. I sometimes wish that I could write something that could be purely in the present, but I’m so quickly drawn into the past. That’s why I have always liked to interview really old people—they’re connected both to our moment and also to a totally different moment in time. At the very least they’ll have a really different take on history than we have, but very often they’ll be sitting on secrets that they haven’t thought about.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that your great-uncle was a big influence on you growing up.

Reiss: My great-uncle Lolek didn’t write, but he just loved to tell stories about people, and he had this insane memory for all the people he’d met during the last eighty years. He could tell you about something my mother had done fifty-five years ago when they went out for coffee. He had this elephant’s memory for human stories. I spent a couple of years interviewing him before he died, but for various reasons I didn’t want to write about him directly.

Lev Nussimbaum [the subject of The Orientalist] was a perfect proxy that fell in my lap. When I first saw a picture of him, when I still knew him under the Arabic and Turkish names, I was powerfully drawn to him because he looked so much like my great-uncle. Then I found out Nussimbaum was Jewish—a Jewish guy who had changed his identity, who had reinvented himself in different countries and different locations. That was also really similar to my great-uncle.

His story had enough things that kept it at arm’s length for me. And that’s what I like about it—and I like it about The Black Count, too: these are stories where I see my themes, but they’re at enough of a remove from my own family and my own life that they’re very far from navel-gazing, which I can’t stand. For me as a nonfiction writer, themes are everything, and subjects come next. If you really know what you’re passionate about and what you’re scared of and what you’re attracted to in life, then—to mess up a weird Nietzsche quote—the books that you need will fall off the shelf and hit you on the head.

Rumpus: That definitely sounds as if it was the case for The Orientalist.

Reiss: Well, yes and no. Condé Nast Traveler paid me to write about Baku, which I’d pitched them. But at the time nobody traveled to Baku. And Baku was definitely not ready for Condé Nast travelers when I went in 1998. The only people there at the time were people trying to make it in the oil business and trying to get a piece of that or some even shadier sort of post-Soviet business. There was a lot of sleazy business going on there. And there were NGOs there because of the huge ongoing but unspoken humanitarian crisis. Azerbaijan had fought this war with Armenia that was so crazy, it left this insane number of refugees for insane reasons—I mean, it’s completely nuts—

Rumpus: So did Condé Nast Traveler ever publish the piece?

Reiss: No. I wrote the piece, and it was a damn good piece, and they should have published it because it was a very colorful piece of travel writing, but it was not a service piece. You could have used it to take a trip there, but it wasn’t a contemporary destination. I used it to write about the kaleidoscopic way that the past and history of that part of the world revealed itself in Baku at that time. You could just see layer upon layer of this tumultuous twentieth-century past. First it was this oil boom city, then it was this Soviet city, and then it was this post-Soviet city. There were so many layers of things going on.

It wasn’t an accident that I was there. I went there to write about the [late 1990s] oil boom—that was the way I shorthanded it. But really it was an excuse to write about the oil boom that went on there before World War I and led into World War II. Everything from the Russian Revolution to the Nazis really played out in that area in an exciting way. So I was going there for that. But while I was there I discovered this amazing character who just brought all that past to life in one person, and then in all the people who were connected to that guy.

In a way that’s maybe why I do history. Because history gets me to the interesting people in the present. Otherwise, how would you know who to meet? Who to go up to and meet in this restaurant? That’s my organizing principle: I have these historical themes that fascinate me and somehow cause me to bump into these really interesting people alive right now.

Rumpus: I was struck by how similar the themes of The Orientalist and The Black Count are: Lev Nussimbaum and General Dumas are both outsiders trying to define themselves in the face of dramatic social and cultural changes. What is it about that story that’s appealing to you?

Reiss: It’s personal on the one hand, because I was a misunderstood angry outsider my whole childhood and a rebel-without-a-cause sort of kid, and it’s also because of my way of understanding history—that it’s a gigantic risk factory. Any historically interesting period is just fraught with risk, especially for minorities and people who are at the margins of society for one reason or another. And obviously that goes back to my family’s background. My family was destroyed by the same forces I describe in The Orientalist—basically the Nazi period, but also the period before that, everything that happened starting with the First World War, when European society began to fall apart.

Rumpus: The Black Count has nothing to do with this period, but I understand it is also what led you to the story.

Reiss: Again, that’s my crazy, personal view of history. When I was growing up, The Count of Monte Cristo is sitting in my house in this old battered copy that my mom got in an orphanage in France. My grandparents were killed by the Nazis during the war, and she survived the war with these different families in hiding, and after the war she was still very, very young, maybe eight years old. And she had this very strong memory of having gotten the novel after the war and starting to read it and being fascinated by it, and then ticked off and upset when they took it away from her. Then she remembered getting it again and bringing it with her in her suitcase to the United States. So it was my mom’s copy of that book, and the other Dumas stories from my mom’s wartime period and right afterward, that gave Dumas this extra significance for me.

Rumpus: How did you get from The Count of Monte Cristo to the story of General Dumas?

Reiss: I discovered [the novelist] Dumas’s memoirs when I was probably twelve. To me it was clear that The Count of Monte Cristo was the basis for Batman and a whole lot of other action heroes that I grew up loving. And I just really liked Dumas as a storyteller. So that led me to The Three Musketeers and the memoirs. And the memoirs—it isn’t hard to find General Dumas there because the whole first book of that multi-volume memoir is devoted to him. I didn’t get very much farther into them because they tend to get boring. I was less interested in the development of a writer, than I was of this man who was more like the characters.

But I’m not a literary historian and I would never have devoted years of my life to doing a book just because it would allow me to trace the history of somebody else’s heroes. There has to be almost an existential reason why I’m going to do it. I’m satisfying some very deep thing inside me. And the deep thing inside me was tapped by the sense of love that Alexandre Dumas expresses for his father in his memoirs.

Rumpus: It’s funny you should say that, because whenever you quoted from the memoirs in The Black Count, I felt a little skeptical. Dumas worshiped his father and seemed to have no perspective whatsoever about his flaws. As a nonfiction writer, what was your approach to dealing with this material? How much of it did you trust?

Reiss: That’s really simple: I didn’t trust a word that he wrote about his dad. But also the fact that it was inaccurate wasn’t a problem at all for me as a writer. The great thing is that if you assume none of it’s true, you have no confusion. I just set off saying, Okay, what’s the story? And luckily in the case of The Black Count, there was this crazy amount of documents that I found. And the whole book is written out of documents that are not the memoir. So the memoir is a piece of emotional evidence, not a piece of history.

Rumpus: And yet, in the end you seem to share Alexandre Dumas’s view of his father as a truly great man, a hero of almost epic proportions.

Reiss: As an eighteenth-century heroic calvary swordfighting person, he was in some ways a perfect man. He was never anything less than completely brave and courageous. I only found evidence of him sticking up for the underdog in every situation. He was uninterested in advancement to a degree that was shocking in that period, because all the other Napoleonic generals became sycophants with the idea that they were being led by this new Alexander the Great, Neo-Roman emperor. General Dumas and a handful of his pals steadfastly upheld moral objections and political objections to that. They were closer to American revolutionaries—they believed in democracy and republicanism. These guys were living to be heroes. They were risking their lives all the time, and to die beautifully and to die heroically was a very important thing. When you compare him to a more modern character, like Lev Nussimbaum in The Orientalist, who’s just as thoroughly bad as he is good, [General Dumas] seems to betray a lack of complexity.

Rumpus: Especially at the end. Napoleon had not only spurned General Dumas personally, but he had outlawed intermarriage, put limits on where black and mixed race people could live, barred black officers from holding positions of command, and cut funding for color-blind education. But Dumas was still groveling for a job.

Reiss: If you want to come up with a flaw for Dumas, that’s the flaw. He can’t stop believing—and he can’t stop itching for the fight. At that point the cause of republicanism—the red, white, and blue of the Revolution—was over because Napoleon has made himself dictator. But General Dumas still wanted to get up and fight for France.

Rumpus: I kept hoping for the Hollywood ending, where he rode back to Paris, sword flashing, to take revenge on Napoleon for betraying the ideals of the Revolution.

Reiss: I felt that, too. In some sense he was too much of a true blue soldier. But to me what’s satisfying about this story is the fact that he then gets transformed into his son’s character, the Count of Monte Cristo. And the fact that his son lives on to avenge him is what makes the story work narratively and makes it work for me as a project. If there hadn’t been the afterlife, I’m not sure I could have just written the story of a soldier who just sort of falls on his own sword. It’s not a character I’m that familiar with.

Yet one reason it was fascinating to write this book was because I never thought from the point of view of a soldier before for an extended period of time. I’ve gotten some interesting reactions from people who are soldiers who have read The Black Count, particularly from this guy who is a Marine veteran who was wounded in a firefight in Fallujah, this incredibly tough guy who is in love with the book. But he is in love with General Dumas on a level that neither of us could understand. When I met him, he could recite lines from throughout the book in a way that I couldn’t. And he especially remembered details from General Dumas’s letters. He kept saying in different ways, You don’t understand, when we were in a firefight in Iraq, this guy was what we all wanted to be, but better. And I’m like, Wow, you really believe in heroes? But combat soldiers do. It’s not that they’re simple-minded—it’s that they focus their worldview into certain guiding principles that are more powerful to them than probably any that I happen to have myself.

Rumpus: I’ve always imagined that research-heavy books like yours would require you to be chained to a desk for years on end, surrounded by dusty file boxes. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for you.

Reiss: Since the archival revolution of digital photography and online archives swept in a few years ago, I no longer feel the need for a large desk. I store a vast archive of thousands of photographs of documents on Dropbox, so I can access them anywhere on my laptop.  I can work in a café or at a bar just as well as I can at a desk. The main advantage of the desk to me is that it’s fun to put my feet up on it.  But nowadays I write standing up most of the time, so I’m just as partial to a bar or a high countertop. When I do find a desk, I usually put a small box on it, podium-style, and work on top of that.

The archival dust is definitely still true, though, because the best sources for many stories will simply not be on the Internet or in a book. I’ve gotten most of my most crucial material in dusty archives—oftentimes private ones, which were far dustier than anything maintained by a university library. I actually find it oddly antiseptic working in some library archives. I’ve had my best luck in castle towers, back offices, forgotten valises—and, of course, locked safes.

Rumpus: You mentioned that the first draft of The Black Count was three times as long as it ended up being. How do you go about cutting it down to size?

Reiss: This was a long and difficult process, but it was just as important as writing the book, in my view. I always edit the heck out of whatever I write, even if it’s just a paragraph. I love editing, and I’m a pretty active editor of my own work.  But I also rely heavily on the opinions of very close friends, who have very different interests and tastes than I do, to tell me when I’m being boring. And my wife, who was a professional editor for many years, has an exquisite sense of prose and knows when I’m overwriting.

I think the most important thing is to have other people tell you when they’re bored or confused, and to try to learn to read your own work with their voice in your head. That’s another thing that’s hugely important for me: I read everything I write aloud on the final two drafts. Much of the polishing happens then, because I’m fundamentally aural. I need to know how things sound.

Rumpus: I understand you steep yourself in the music of the period you’re writing about, too.

Reiss: It’s an odd rule I have for myself: I don’t allow myself to listen to any music written after the death of my subject, and I’ll try to listen to things written and played during the time period he or she lived in. It worked out great with my first two books: with Fuhrer-Ex I got to know the German rock scene from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. With The Orientalist, I lived in a world of ragtime and international jazz. But with the life of General Dumas, I had to stop listening to anything post-Beethoven for seven years. Of course, I found ways to cheat my own rule, but still I mostly stuck with it—and it was torture!

Rumpus: Have you chosen a new book topic?

Reiss: I am still pondering.

Rumpus: Well, if you had to choose on the basis of the music you’d have to listen to for seven years, where and when would it be set?

Reiss: San Francisco 1969 or Memphis 1975. I’d also be damned happy with New York, circa 1933.

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Author photo by Aventurina King.

Painting attributed tо Louis Gauffier, “Portrait d’un chasseur dans un paysage, dit portrait du General Alexandre Dumas” in Musée Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne, France / photo by A. Vaquero.


Shea Dean is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The Believer, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications, and she has co-produced stories for the public radio programs This American Life and Studio 360. She teaches writing to speakers of other languages at NYU. More from this author →