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.
Randall was correct. This worked well… you told us what to expect and each time i read the Dayan segments, your take on what he would have said made the story as if not more interesting.
As I write my plays, I always feel funny about saying, “would you read this and let me know what you think?” Especially before a reading. A writer needs help when he/she gets stuck.
Thanks for this.
With all due respect, I don’t see why this was ever a problem for you. The book is a historical novel – not a work of non-fiction. And as with any type of novel, you can have the characters say anything you want them to, no?
I can understand your hesitation to “speak” for Dayan, but Randall gave you good advice – it worked!
Brilliant. Bravo Steven.
Okay, Steve. I know you hate the word “support”, but that’s exactly what Randy Wallace is for you and that’s good. We all need our buddies, our tribe, our posse that help us face our challenges and remind us we can do this, even when we think we can’t. Cool!
Just wondering. Somewhere in your past advice, you said to avoid reaching for “feedback” in general but to pin yourself down to get the answer. But you also said that one or two trusted colleagues was okay. So I guess this guy was one of those. Please say something about how to chose this kind of professional mirror. Also when is it time to turn to this kind of feedback?
Naomi, that’s a great question and there’s a terrific answer in the Comments section from the previous post, “Foolscapping The Lion’s Gate.” It’s by Joel D. Canfield. When I read it, I thought, “Wow, that’s it!”
If you go back to the Home page, you’ll see “Foolscapping The Lion’s Gate” immediately to the left of this post. Click on it and then scroll down to Joel’s comment. He hit the nail on the head.
As I read that paragraph I envied you. The beginning is always the funnest part of any book, as is the ending. Deciding how things will go, when no possibility is too strange–that’s magic.
Started Lion’s Gate this weekend.
I read the introduction before reading this post (obviously). I’m not up to the Moshe Dayan part yet, but when i read the introduction, my thoughts were – that’s a brilliant narrative strategy, I’m confident Steven can pull it off (based on what you’ve done before), and what a challenge. I was also impressed by the humility of the introduction – surely the only way to approach it.
Thanks for the observations about the structure – surely one of the hardest parts of such a book, getting the structure and dynamics holographically, as it were.
You’re right about needing smart friends – the ones who know how to listen and who use the minimum number of words to help us help ourselves. You knew the answer, you just needed confirmation and affirmation. As do we all.
First of all I have never read a “can’t put it down” nonfiction book before The Lion’s Gate. Finally late yesterday afternoon I was able to put the book down and take some time off, but only after securing the Golan Heights. Now I don’t want it to end. Moshe Dayan works and is brilliant. It all is so wonderfully readable and brilliant.
Thank you for writing this!
I shared this with my wife and she just started crying saying, “They just don’t make ’em like that any more.”
I’d ask Randall Wallace for advice too if he had expertise on my theme. I really commend Steve for his openness regarding his conception of The Lion’s Gate.
I relate to lost sleep and obsessing before writing. I used to just go for it and ended up with tons of garbage I had to edit and eventually trash. Now I think a lot longer before I write much. Except here where I can say whatever the hell I please, thank you!
Through trial and error over many years I’ve come to agree with the strategy of “don’t tell anyone your plans.” I learned that a.) everyone has an opinion and as Steve as said elsewhere, they’re usually wrong, and 2.) talking about it is the same as experiencing it, and depletes passion. There’s now even a TED talk on how our brains think something has already occurred when we talk about it.
Still, I will ask experts on a fine point, and Steve illustrates in this post. In some cases they don’t know why I’m asking or that I’m a writer. It’s difficult for me to not say anything to anyone about my WOP! War, baby.
What Steve has done with Moshe Dayan is marvelous in my eyes, and I’m thrilled to partake of the stories as Steve tells them. Blessings.
I love hearing about the creation and process for your projects. Very helpful and insightful. Thank you, Steven.
this photo of dayan is now my screensaver. i dont change them too often. this one might be permanent. thnx steve!
There must be a word/phrase with deeper and broader meaning to express gratitude in English than “Thank you”…but it doesn’t come to mind now.
Gratitude Steven! Your openness about your fears and hurdles shines a bright light into the dark crevices of our deepest fears as writers. Your posts and the gift of your stalwart works of art, are my “sunlight entering a broken window and illuminating a dark room.”