Joseph Kertes is the founder of the comedy and creative writing programs at Humber College, where he currently serves as Dean of Creative and Performing Arts. His novels include Winter Tulips, winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour; Gratitude, winner of the Canadian National Jewish Book Award; and The Afterlife of Stars, which was recently published by Penguin Canada.
Why did you write your new book?
Because I have a day job, I have the luxury of writing only those books that foist themselves upon me. But with The Afterlife of Stars, this phenomenon took on new meaning. I was inspired to write a novel about my family's own escape from Hungary when I was not yet five. I had vivid and traumatic memories of seeing Hungarian soldiers hanging from lampposts and of one in particular who seemed to be looking straight at me, though his eyes were no longer taking in the light, and of running by night across a minefield to freedom in Austria. In my novel, I doubled the age of the two brothers, so that they could make more sense of the world for me, more sense of displacement, of leaving a life behind, and then something magical happened. The book wrote itself almost entirely. My two protagonists commandeered the plot away from me. I had to run after them to see where they were going and overhear what they were saying. I could barely keep up with them. And when the book took a surprising turn, one I hadn't anticipated, it surprised me most. It was a transcendent experience.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
When you read the sentences of Alice Munro, they seem lifted straight out of real life. There isn't a false note, as if the sentences were still warm from the oven or found just over there by a stone on a night walk, or heard on a breeze. But I love many writers' sentences. I so admire the lyrical sentences of Charles Frazier (in Cold Mountain) and the propulsion and inevitability of the sentences of Philip Roth as they hurtle forward (Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral). Nothing can stop those sentences.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
The great Tim O'Brien once said, "You have to tell the truth in fiction, even if you have to lie." In other words, you need to create a world big enough or dark enough to accommodate the profound truths you're trying to uncover. As I said, I didn't write The Afterlife of Stars until it was ready to write itself. (I believe Mark Twain said that of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) I had scant memories to go on of our flight from the old world to the new, so I had to "make up" a world dark enough, miraculous enough and alive enough to convey the feelings we all felt – my brother, my parents, my grandmother. We were going through a terrible yet wonderful time, so I used a boy narrator to capture the horror and wonder both.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?
Fin de siècle Paris. There were hugely exciting works of art being made as the age of individualism, nationalism and imperialism began to decline. It would have been exciting (yet worrisome) to see the 20th century looming – although who could have known? I think what was most surprising and shocking was that some of the great cultures could implode and become the perpetrators of some of the greatest horrors we have ever experienced.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?
My insecurity is so vast and deep that it will spill over into the next few lifetimes. Little can be done to rescue my ego in this lifetime.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
"Despise" is a strong word, but recently I reread Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, all of it, every word. I couldn't believe how wind-baggy it was. You wanted to take D.H. by the throat and make him be quiet or at least quieter. Too much, D. Too much. No publisher would touch that book today.
Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?
I wish I'd created Huck Finn. Since I met him way back when, I've been trying to recreate the essence of that beautiful boy with his innocent and hopeful outlook and the stunning code of conduct he invented for himself. He is Twain's very best creation because he is Twain's truest spokesman – or spokesboy. It was telling when Huck Finn, after a long journey up the Mississippi with a runaway slave, once again encounters his pal Tom Sawyer, who is still locked in childhood and wants to play childish games. By then Huck has turned the morality of his age on its ear – he will not betray Jim, the runaway slave – so Huck seems the wise old man beside his friend Tom. I actually have someone in The Afterlife of Stars present my two protagonists with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the contrast between my two boys, Robert and Attila, is much like the contrast between Huck and Tom.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Holden Caulfield. I wish I could point to the people in my life and say who is phony and who is genuine and sincere, and yet, in the end, miss them all and love them all equally. (Hmmm…is he the 20th century's answer to Huck Finn?)
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
I wish people would ask what parts of my story were made up rather than the other way around – what parts are based on my own experience. Writers use real people only as inspirations for fictional ones. Then fictional characters live their own lives. Their experiences have their own trajectory, quite apart from the writer's experiences. What writers want you to do is marvel at the richness of their imaginations. See above: their egos are puny and frail.