Here in New Orleans, where I’ve been living for the winter, there is a small, thoughtful, and talented literary community. Zachary Lazar is a member of this community—a leader, really, as a creative writing professor at Tulane, as well as the author of three other books, including Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, and Sway (the recent subject of a gushy James Franco column in VICE.
It’s possible to lead as a great educator without making correspondingly great work, but Lazar’s new book, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, is an inventive, taut, and refreshing take on a crime novel. It’s the dual tale of gangster Meyer Lansky, who, in 1972, aspired to live in Israel (but ultimately failed), and Hannah Groff, an American journalist investigating the killing of an Israeli writer in 2009. Rachel Kushner calls it, “…a book that is like a bold monument in an empty desert, a thing built of dread, and silences, and dazzling elegance, by a worldly and masterful hand.”
A few weeks before the publication of his book, Lazar and I e-mailed about following trails, writing books that are “accidentally Jewish,” and the benefits of becoming a crime writer.
The Rumpus: I know you travel some to do research for your books. I Pity the Poor Immigrant is set partly in Israel, and while I was reading it, I very much got the sense that you, the author, had stood in the places your protagonist, Hannah, was standing. How important is it for you to walk in your character’s shoes?
Zachary Lazar: What’s invaluable about actually going to the places you want to write about are the random accidental things that happen. Random, accidental detail is the best way to make a setting convincing. You can of course invent your own random details, and sometimes I will also mash up real incidents. The first scene that takes place in Israel in the new book depicts Meyer Lansky in a limo during an eclipse, driving through Tel Aviv. That eclipse was actually something I experienced in NYC, jotted down in a notebook, and kept around for years for some unknown future use.
Rumpus: How much time did you spend in Israel? Did you find anything about it transformative or inspiring?
Lazar: I was there twice to do research, two weeks each time, mostly scouting places that I knew would appear in the novel, but also trying to get a feel for the place in general. I came to really like Tel Aviv, which at first seemed to me like a grayer Miami, but then revealed itself to be a very distinctive and yes, even stylish place to be. It has its own style, which is not just a second-rate imitation of other cities. One of the things it took me a long time to figure out, though it is extremely obvious, was that it wasn’t up to me to “solve” Israel. I just had to describe it. I was also lucky enough to meet a fairly diverse group of Israelis and spend time hanging out with them. The takeaway was very simple: in the sixty-six years of its official existence, Israel has developed its own culture. If this culture were to now disappear, it would be a human tragedy.
Rumpus: How much research is too much research?
Lazar: I try to do as little as possible without looking like an idiot. Research is fun and easy. Writing is hard. So I try not to let the research become an excuse to not do the writing part.
Rumpus: I love going down the rabbit hole on occasion. The book I’m working on now is set, in part, in the 1920s, and I’ve spent nice afternoons looking at footage of life on the streets of New York circa that era. Did you have any rabbit holes for this book?
Lazar: I love the rabbit hole. I spend a lot of time looking at images, Google mapping, etc. I also love to read court transcripts, FBI files, stuff like that. You go through vast, boring stretches, but the voices are always so fascinating and slowly a story begins to emerge. It’s very much like playing detective.
Rumpus: You and I have spoken before about writing books that are “accidentally Jewish.” While none of your characters seem to be particularly interested in practicing the Jewish faith, this book is completely steeped in Jewish culture and heritage. Why were you drawn to these characters and these settings?
Lazar: In hindsight, I must have been looking for a way to write about Jewishness that somehow managed to minimize irony and self-deprecation. The root was Meyer Lansky and his persisting desire to live in Israel. What about Israel suggested to him a life of dignity, meaning, and value, when he was in no way a pious Jew? That gave me a way to write about any secular Jew’s desire for dignity, meaning, value, etc. By writing about the “bad” man’s search for meaning, I was able to make that search matter in a more dramatic way (for me, at least) than if I had written about a “good” person’s search.
Rumpus: I call myself a bad Jew all the time, although I do not think I am the worst Jew.
Lazar: You are not the worst Jew—that would be Bernie Madoff. There are bad Jews and there are badass Jews. You’re more of a badass Jew.
Rumpus: Ha! Well what could be more Jewish than worrying about whether you are Jewish enough? And there are all kinds of ways to be Jewish—all kinds of ways to be lots of faiths. The current state of what it means to “have faith” is certainly different than it was a hundred years ago, thirty years ago.
Lazar: It’s changed dramatically in our lifetimes. Communism is gone, so now the global war is framed in religious terms. Fundamentalist religion is rampant on all sides of this war. It casts a very dark shadow over non-fundamentalist religion.
Rumpus: There are some common threads between Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder and this novel, although it is not an exact match story to story, of course. Was that intentional when you began the book? Did you gain anything from the experience writing about it fictionally, versus non-fictionally?
Lazar: Evening’s Empire, which is the story of my father’s murder by Mafia hit men, forced me to deal with organized crime as a subject. It is not a subject I had been interested in before, nor one that I thought myself suited for. But once I got interested in organized crime, and, specifically, Jewish organized crime, I got very interested in it. I have learned that, like my narrator Hannah, I’m a crime writer in my own peculiar way. Crime with a capital “C” is the subject that I’m stuck with—even Sway is about “crime” in a certain way. The nice thing about crime is that it enables you to deal with some big questions.
Rumpus: And now you’ve even done some work with prisoners since you’ve moved to New Orleans.
Lazar: Yes, here in New Orleans I met an eminent photographer, Deborah Luster, who lives two blocks away from me and who also—bizarrely—had a parent who was murdered in Phoenix. Deborah has done a lot of prison photography. We are working on a collaboration now about the production of a passion play at Angola Prison. We spent a full week there last spring, day and night, and I interviewed about seventy inmates over the course of that week. I came away with more stories than I can ever tell. I’d like to do a nonfiction book about this with Deborah. The experience has also given me the seed of what I think will be my next novel.
Rumpus: I’d buy that book.
Lazar: I can sell one to you at a discounted rate!
Featured image of Zachary Lazar © by Deborah Luster.