David Hirshberg talks with Caroline Leavitt about MY MOTHER’S SON, fictional memoir, and how events from the past can still resonate today.
My Mother’s Son is a literary novel written as the memoir of a radio raconteur that uses the inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in which he lived as a foil to deal with major issues that affect Americans today – disease, war, politics, immigration and business.
And it’s already racking up raves like this:
“Only occasionally does a novel like this come along—one that sculpts a vivid, irresistible portrait of a life and times. Evocative of the 1950’s, with cinematic flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is clever, poignant and funny. Hirshberg allows the reader to eavesdrop on complicated 1950s family intimacies that had been clouded by years of denial, secrecy and self-preservation. What he exposes are the riches left behind, those that reveal the truth of the human condition. This is a book worth reading, probably more than once.” Mitch Markowitz, screenwriter of Good Morning, Vietnam
David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather. He is an accomplished “C” level executive, having served in the Life Science Industry as CEO of four firms.
Thank you so much, David, for being here.
Q: The format is interesting — it’s written in the first person as a fictional memoir — why did you choose that mode of storytelling?
A: As I’m writing, I try to take on the personality of the protagonist and invent what I might have done or said. The conceit that this is a fictional memoir came after many drafts, and freed me up to tell the story as I might have done had I actually been a radio raconteur.
Q: Why did you decide to set the story in 1952?
A: The idea to set the current events of the book primarily in 1952 was a conscious decision based on three considerations: (1) the requirement that all of the ingredients that were central to the book could be found in that year; (2) that there would be readers who could connect with the era, even if they were quite young at that time; and (3) that the world of post-War America was not too remote for most people to be able to see a reflection of what is going on today.
In the summer of 1952 when the Korean War was raging, Bostonians were confronted with: a major polio epidemic; a bitter senate fight between young Irish congressman (John F. Kennedy) against an entrenched WASP (Henry Cabot Lodge); the impending move of the Braves franchise out of the city; and many shenanigans that involved local politicians and business people that were hidden behind the headlines of the newspapers. It was the perfect cauldron to heat up a story that could resonate with readers in 2018.
Q: The book feels extremely autobiographical. How much of your life is in the book and how much is just invented/researched?
A: There is not one scene, character, location or situation that is real or that has anything to do with me or anyone I have known. It was all made up out of whole cloth, with the obvious exceptions, for example, that certain facts are true: that there was a race for the senate between Kennedy and Lodge; that the Boston Braves did move to Milwaukee; that President Kennedy did make a speech in Berlin in 1963; that Kristallnacht happened in 1938; that the Korean War was in a stalemate in 1952; etc. It’s important to note, however, that the scenes in the book that revolve around these events are pure fiction.
Q: How does a book, based decades ago, resonate with what’s happening today?
A: The novel was purposefully set in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current ‘talking heads’ climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective. In the 1950s, we were faced with the Korean War, the polio epidemic, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Irish, Italians and Jews into the social fabric of big cities, and the recognition that sports were also a business. Today we have wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the AIDS plague, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Latin Americans and Muslims into our society and more ink is spilled in the media on the activities of athletes and owners outside of the sports they play and manage. So, while in many ways, the book is a paean to the Boston of an earlier era (and, by extension, to the America of the post-World War II period), it sings to us today by allowing us to understand that although the instances and events in the book are specific to that period, we can see in them what is going on today—for better or for worse.
Q: What’s obsessing you now and why?
A: Unlike certain other authors, I do characterize myself as a Jewish writer, and I’m more than half way through a second book that pivots around Jewish-themed issues in the 1960s. And yes, obsession is a good way to characterize my intense feelings about the new manuscript. As we get older, we do tend to concentrate more on those things that matter and put off to the side the common everyday occurrences that once seemed to consume us.
Q: What question did I not ask that I should have?
A: Why did I take up writing non-autobiographical literary fiction as a second act later in life? I used to say that because I don’t play golf, have a second home in a ski or beach locale, don’t have a hobby that involves a plane or a boat, that I had the time to write. While that’s true, and I’ve enjoyed tremendously my business career, I’ve found immersing myself in the world of words to be intellectually and emotionally stimulating and this has been augmented by my wife’s enthusiastic support every step of the way.
Caroline Leavitt is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling novelist, screenwriter, editor, namer, critic, movie addict and chocoholic
The Jewish Advocate (Boston) interview with David Hirshberg – May 30, 2018 — https://www.thejewishadvocate.com/articles/hirshberg/
The Jewish Advocate: Your main character had his own radio show for decades. He had a mentor, whom your refer to as the real Guy on the Radio? Who was he?
David Hirshberg: The Guy on the Radio is a tribute to Jean Shepherd: He was, in my mind, the greatest story teller of all time on the radio. He’d riff for two hours a night, never stumbling, always bringing this full circle, with humor and insight.
TJA: Why didn’t we learn more about the narrator’s current life, what he did with it, after all of his experiences?
Hirshberg: It was intentional to leave this out as I felt that it would not add to the book, and a little mystery about his life was the appropriate way to go. We don’t know other things that were intentionally left out, to wit: the first and last names of Joel’s and Steven’s parents, the name of The Guy on the Radio, The Boxer’s name, etc.
TJA: You write under a pseudonym, but your picture is on the jacket cover. You are certainly recognizable to friends and associates. How come?
Hirshberg: The desire was not to hide my identity, but rather to separate my business and writing lives. I think of these two parts of my life as separate entities and am comfortable with attaching different names to each part of my life. If I used my real name, a Google search would find hundreds of references to me in my business life first and this is something that I didn’t want to happen. Googling David Hirshberg enables someone to hone in on my writing life, which is what I wanted to accomplish.
TJA: Your details about Coolidge Corner and Brookline, as well as the rest of Boston, are so convincing. Did you grow up here?
Hirshberg: I grew up in Eastchester, New York, which is in southern Westchester County, about 20 miles north of midtown Manhattan.
TJA: You have been successful in business and now turned to writing. Have you always planned to write this book or something like it?
Hirshberg: I always planned to do something for Act 2, but wasn’t sure what it was until a few years ago. I’d written a play and thought about getting it produced, but when I started the novel and gave chapters to people who really liked it, I decided to try to make a name for myself with a novel and then could go back to playwriting. I would like to do both going forward. Specifically, with regard to this novel, when it started out it had a slightly different focus and only when it started to ‘write itself,’ did I commit to this story and the underlying themes.
My Mother’s Son May 14, 2018 — http://bookmarketingbuzzblog.blogspot.com/search?q=david+hirshberg
- What really inspired you to write your book, to force you from taking an idea or experience and conveying it into a book?
Part of the impetus came from realizing that if I wanted to start ‘Act 2’, I had better get going. I had been a CEO and Chairman for many years, and while I have enjoyed my career, I also knew it was time to do something different. And, too, I am emotionally invested in current events, am a student of American history, and have been an avid reader of high-quality literary fiction for many years. So I thought I would merge these non-business interests, and the best way to do that was to write a novel of historical literary fiction that dealt with an American story that might be of interest to today’s readers.
The question from the outset was how to do this, I could not just pluck something out of thin air. I wanted to write about the major issues that are in the headlines—disease, war, politics, immigration and business. However, I knew instinctively that I would have to set it in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current ‘talking heads’ climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective.
I had to find the right circumstances and after researching events and years, I came upon the idea of situating the book in Boston in 1952, when the Korean War was raging, there was a major polio epidemic, a young Irish congressman was running for the senate against an entrenched WASP and the sports world was being turned upside down with the move of a baseball franchise out of the city. This had all of the ingredients that I felt would work for me in trying to tell a story that had some relevance to the world in which we now live.
Then I had to come up with the structure and, ultimately hit upon writing My Mother’s Son as the memoir of a radio raconteur who lived through the era and had family members whose history was rich in American stories. I could use literary license to create a set of inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in which he lived as the foundation on which to build the novel.
Personally, it is my belief that our American culture has been profoundly changed and one can arguably trace the center of this shift to the time immediately preceding and following 1952, allowing the reader to view this year as the prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration.
- What is it about and whom do you believe is your targeted reader?
The opening line of the book, “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth,” lays bare one of childhood’s essential mysteries—that often, what parents and other adults say is usually what is most convenient for the adults. The lives of two Jewish brothers in post-World War II Boston are transformed by secrets and discoveries they never could have envisioned, including an unimaginable family secret.
Told in the first-person by Joel, the younger brother, now a retired radio raconteur revisiting his past, every element—from his grandfather’s immigrant beginnings to his aunt’s flight from Germany on the day following Kristallnacht—is infused with history, experience, and perspective. At its core, this is a poignant story told with humor, vivid descriptions, and insights that weaves a rich tapestry of betrayal, persecution, death, loyalty, and unconditional love that resonates with today’s America.
It is my hope that readers of literary fiction, historical fiction and those who want to understand more about the current issues that are in the news every day—immigration, war, communicable disease, politicians and business people behaving in highly suspect behavior—will be drawn to it.
- What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book? What should remain with them long after putting it down?
I want a reader to stop and think not only about what I have written, but also about how it relates to what is going on today. If a reader thinks that he or she has a more profound understanding of the issues that are in the headlines today, that would be very satisfying to me … and hopefully to him or her as well. So much of our current conversations are sound bites, fleeting sentences that are essentially declarations of preconceived thinking. Few people really engage in discourse that enables them to understand other people’s positions and actions. In the long run, I also want readers to think about the language that I have used and how it distinguishers literary fiction from other genres.
- What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers?
Before you start writing, read the works of those who are considered to be at the apex of the genre in which you wish to play. Then, as you make early progress in your writing, stop and think about how persons x, y, and z at the pinnacle of his or her game would have written the scene, and if your work does not measure up, abandon it and start over again. Writing is easy; writing well is hard, very hard, especially dialogue, which has to mimic how people actually speak, something that sounds simple but is extraordinarily difficult.
- What trends in the book world do you see and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?
It is becoming harder and harder for debut authors to break through, especially with larger publishing houses that tend to focus on blockbuster titles. And, too, the onus is more and more on authors to promote their own works, with many publishers providing only minimal assistance; they even do that for just short periods of time after the publication date, at which point, for them, it is on to the next book. Having said all this, it is clear to me that quality does rise to the top and an excellent book will get noticed, because the American reading public hungers for high quality books. A good debut book may not garner a huge amount of sales, but it will build a reader and critic audience that is then waiting for the next one.
- What great challenges did you have in writing your book?
I pushed myself through many drafts until I found that the book was consistent on all levels: story-telling; character development; the use of language, as well as what I call the impact statement. By that I mean does the reader know what the book was really about. In other words, if someone were to inquire about it, I want the reader to not just tell about the plot line, but to be able to say how the book spoke to him or her, what was its main messages or messages, which could then provoke a substantive conversation. I wrote it with an eye on making a statement that librarians, reviewers, bloggers and influential readers would understand and be eager to then comment.
- If people can only buy one book this month, why should it be yours?
While it speaks to the issues of today through a look-back at any earlier time, it is, in the words of Mitch Markowitz, screenwriter of Good Morning, Vietnam, a book that “…sculpts a vivid, irresistible portrait of a life and times. Evocative of the 1950’s, with cinematic flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is clever, poignant and funny.” Mitch and others who have read it have been entertained; that is the takeaway that should entice those who want to read a work of literary and historical fiction which is also enjoyable.
David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather, as a tribute to their impact on his life. Using his given name, he is an accomplished ‘C-level suite’ executive, having served as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of four firms, Chairman of the Board of six companies and a member of the board of three other organizations. In addition, he is the founder and CEO of a publishing company. Hirshberg is a New Yorker who holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Much like the narrator in My Mother’s Son, he is a raconteur in real life as well as through his fiction. His range of interests outside of business is in American history, Jewish literature and practices, the nexus of science and religion, the current cultural wars in our society, and in English, Irish and Gordon setters. Please consult: www.DavidHirshberg.com
Deborah Kalb: Q&A with David Hirshberg – May 3, 2018 (http://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com)
Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Mother’s Son, and for the family you describe in the book?
A: The idea for the novel has a lot to do with what I wanted to say. I thought long and hard about writing a book that would address really serious issues—immigration, political issues, the shenanigans that go on in business, the lies people say to each other, wars.
I thought if I wrote a book about that and set it in today’s time, it would be a big mistake. Somebody on the left would say I was on the right. Somebody on the right would say I was on the left. Even as fiction, somebody would say this is thinly veiled.
I was tremendously impressed with Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, about the 15th century war between France and England. But it was really about the First World War. It reflected things she believed were still in play in 1913-14.
I took a lesson from that. It wasn’t a distant mirror, but if I could write about an era with similarities to the last few years, it would be interesting, and would free me up from the talking heads climate of somebody attacking [the book].
Q: So why the 1950s? Why Boston? And how did you research the book?
A: The reason I ended up focusing on 1952 is that I was searching for things—if the 1920s and ‘30s were too far in the past, the 1980s and ‘90s were too close. I looked to the 1950s. I did some homework, looking for the issues of immigration, politics, business, war, and sports. They were all in turmoil. In 1952, all these things were major issues, centered in Boston.
First, there was a polio epidemic. This was before the Salk and Sabin vaccines. It was a very serious issue. That was a distant mirror for AIDS.
Second, there was a vicious Senate campaign between John Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was the scion of a very WASPy family, and John Kennedy was the grandson of Irish immigrants and was Catholic. The idea that Massachusetts could have a Catholic senator was appalling to a lot of people. It was a signal that if Kennedy won the times would be changing.
You can look at the Obama campaign–the campaign against Obama, against Senator Clinton, they were pretty vicious. I was trying to find similarities.
The next one was war. The Korean War was raging. Most people don’t know about the Korean War. They know about World War II, about Vietnam, but nothing about Korea…Like Iraq and Afghanistan, it was very distant. There was no [impact] on the home front. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan we are totally disconnected and there’s nothing on the home front. It’s a nice surrogate.
1952 also happened to be a year that was very big in sports. It was the first time a baseball franchise moved. The Boston Braves decided to move to Milwaukee. It shocked people. No one ever thought of baseball as a business.
Now, in today’s newspapers, almost everything is about contract disputes, domestic violence, stadiums with bad behavior. Sports today is almost all about business. That started in 1952.
The last issue was immigration. It’s on everybody’s mind today. DACA, Trump with the wall. Immigration in the early 20th century through 1952 was about Irish, Italians, and Jews. Ironically, in Boston, the Irish were coming of age, the Italians were coming of age, the Jews were coming of age.
When I looked at all the years of the 1950s, Boston in 1952 was the epicenter of all these issues.
For the research, thank god for Google. I didn’t have to take trips. It can all be done online. I didn’t do one-on-one interviews. In my writing, I don’t interview people. I know a lot of people say you have to do that. I don’t.
For me, it interferes with my creative capabilities. It could subconsciously affect what I write. The whole thing has to be germinated from me without any biases.
Q: You are writing under a pseudonym. Why did you choose to do that?
A: It’s one I wrestled with. In my business activities, I don’t say this with any braggadocio, but I’m pretty well known. I felt if I used my name, somebody would say, oh, it’s a book about X because it’s his industry, or about Y because I know he’s involved in that transaction, or about Z because he raised money for that [entity]. I didn’t want anybody Googling me and saying [that].
Or [they could say] I know he calls it literary fiction but it’s probably some piece of crap he slapped together. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to avoid. People will look at the book not knowing the author, and can evaluate the book on its merits.
Q: What do you think the novel says about the impact of World War II on those that survived it?
A: The question is how did they survive it, and the book tries to show certain people weren’t involved in the war. Papa and his friends, none participated in the war because they were too old. They never even talked about the war. They went about their business as if there were no war.
On the other hand, you had people such as the boy’s uncle who actually wasn’t in the war but escaped from Germany in 1938. I tried to show that even though he wasn’t physically harmed…the effect of World War II on him was profound…
For me, the main point was the fact that there were people who survived, in Germany and Eastern Europe, who survived the Holocaust by getting out just before, or sneaking out of the camps, the impact on some was so profound that they couldn’t cope with life…
Q: Are you working on another novel?
A: I’m two-thirds through another book. I don’t want to say too much about it. This book is centered on the 1950s; the next is on the 1960s.
It’s very different. There’s a little bit of magic realism involved. It’s set in the United States. I’m in love with it but I haven’t finished it. I don’t know if I’ll love it when I’m finished…I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A couple of things. First the entire book pivots from the opening line: When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth. It’s really important to the book. It sets up everything in the book [and implies that] lies are coming.
Second, I had a couple of friends in a book group and they read the penultimate draft. They noticed the symmetry in the book. Things are set up in the beginning that [recur at the end]. It’s structured in a way that allows the reader to be satisfied in the end that everything is wrapped up…
Another thing that distinguishes the book is that I’ve used hundreds of foreign words. It’s the way people talk. The Irish people talk like Irish people, the Italians like Italians, the Jews like Jews. I spent an enormous amount of time making sure this was really how people speak. That’s very, very important to me, to portray how people actually speak.
–Interview with Deborah Kalb