I Can’t Interview Moshe Dayan
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
I was saying in the last post that a writer needs help. I don’t care who you are; you can’t do it alone. You need smart friends.
One of mine is Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart. Here’s how he saved The Lion’s Gate, long before I left for Israel, long before I had talked to a single Israeli paratrooper or tank commander or fighter pilot.
I’m still home, lying awake nights thinking about the structure of the book.
(To be completely clear: at this stage I haven’t written a word. I’m still trying to swallow the elephant, to get a handle on the WHOLE THING in my mind.)
I know that the book will be told in the voices of the men and women who fought the war. I know I will “cut” back and forth between them like a documentary filmmaker. I know the book will have “recurring characters,” so that the reader will get to know, say, eight or nine primary individuals as he or she moves through the story.
But here’s the problem:
The central character of the book has to be Moshe Dayan. He’s the face of the war. He has the star power. One way or another, he has to be the personality around whom the others revolve.
But Moshe Dayan is dead.
He died in 1981.
Obviously I can’t interview him. I can’t tell his story in his own voice.
How can I fit him into the book?
Switch to third person when I get to his part? Have someone else tell his story? Tell it myself, in my own voice?
I can see Dayan’s face before me as I eat my dinner, read the newspaper, drive on the freeway.
The book can’t be done without him. He’s the star. He has to be the center of the story.
But how can I get him in there in a way that won’t be hokey and lame and totally ordinary?
There’s only one answer:
I have to write his part in the first person.
I have to be him.
I have to take license and arrogate to myself the right to speak as Moshe Dayan.
But that will break every rule of non-fiction, of journalism, of history writing. It will completely de-legitimize everything I’m trying to do. Readers will be outraged. “Where does this writer get the balls to presume to speak ‘as’ a towering historical figure like Moshe Dayan—and call what he writes fact?”
True, I’ve done this before. I wrote The Virtues of War in the voice of Alexander the Great. But that was fiction.
The Lion’s Gate will be non-fiction.
So here I am, sitting in the Marmalade Cafe with my friend Randy Wallace over an egg-white omelet. We’ve been there for most of an hour, talking about women, money, the movie biz. Finally I can’t hold it back any longer. I have to blurt out my Moshe Dayan dilemma.
“Do I dare write him in the first person, Randy? Will that completely invalidate the book? Will people be throwing tomatoes at me?”
Randy is the kind of guy who makes decisions fast.
“Do it,” he said. “It’ll work.”
“Just be up front. Write an introductory note. Explain to the reader what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
I like it. I’m beginning to think this might work.
“The thing about this book, Steve, is you’re not pretending to write the definitive, all-inclusive, hyper-factual account of the Six Day War. You’re trying to do something else. You’re going for the personal, the subjective, the idiosyncratic. You’re telling the story from under the helmet, from inside the tank. The reader understands that. He knows that guys are telling their stories as they remember them. A little latitude has to be given.
“The reader will accept Dayan ‘speaking in his own voice,’ as long as you write his pages as absolutely true-to-fact as you can make them, and as long as you let the reader know up front that that’s what you’re doing.”
Decisions are crazy. Sometimes all it takes to get over the hump is a friend who gives you permission.
Randy’s mind was made up, and now so was mine.
Go for broke.