How Black Irish Acquired its First Book
Black Irish Books is the little publishing company that Shawn and I operate, alongside our various day jobs. When I say little, I mean little. So far we’ve only brought out stuff written by me. That started to change, though, about two and a half years ago.
If you’ve been reading the Monday and Friday posts in this space (the ones about my researching The Lion’s Gate in Israel), you know that I had met and become friends with Giora Romm, the Israel Air Force’s first fighter-pilot ace. One day when Giora and I were driving somewhere he casually said to me, “Did I tell you I have had a book published? But it’s only in Hebrew.”
The book, Giora said, was about when his Mirage IIIC got shot down over the Nile Delta in Egypt. Giora had been captured, imprisoned in solitary confinement, and tortured. Ejecting from his plane he had broken one arm and shattered the opposite leg in a dozen places. That was the state in which he fell into the hands of his country’s worst enemies.
By that time I had been in Israel for over a month and had interviewed a number of IAF pilots over periods of many hours. I had not heard, yet, of a single Israeli flier who had survived capture in wartime. Either the pilot had been hacked or beaten to death by farmers or villagers the moment his parachute brought him to earth or, if he were fortunate enough to survive that initial contact, he had vanished into the darkness of captivity and was never heard of again.
“How did you survive, Giora?”
“That’s what the book is about.”
“Can I read it? Is there an English translation?”
One was in the works, Giora said. But it wouldn’t be ready for a couple of months.
“Will you send it to me as soon as you get it?”
“Of course. If you’re sure you want to see it.”
Giora was telling me that the Hebrew version—titled Tulip Four, the call-sign of his aircraft on the day he was shot down—had been a bestseller in Israel. The focus of the book was not only on the blood-and-guts of captivity but, even more, on the mental and spiritual struggle to recover after release and repatriation (Giora was returned home in a prisoner swap), to fly again, to lead a squadron in combat, to put himself back together as a human being after, in his phrase, “a fall from a great height.”
Giora was shy talking about the book. “I’m not really a writer,” he said.
In my experience there are certain professions that produce wonderful writers. Medicine is one. How many great books, from Chekhov to Walker Percy and beyond, have been written by doctors? Law is another. The field seems to promote clear thinking and articulate expression. And aviation. St. Exupery. Beryl Markham. Roald Dahl. There have been scores of extraordinary military memoirs, particularly by individuals like Giora who won’t accept a surface interpretation of anything but insist on digging deep for meanings beneath meanings.
“Please send the translation to me as soon as you get it.”
I got the package when I was back home in California. I tore it open and plunged in.
I am dangling beneath my parachute. Gazing down from a height of 10,000 feet, knowing I am going to be killed in less than fifteen minutes, I feel great sorrow for myself. None of my fellow pilots who’ve parachuted into the Nile Delta have survived the encounter with the welcoming committee below, and I have no reason to think my fate will be any different.
I devoured the book in one sitting. You have to be careful in evaluating material under circumstances like that. Sometimes excessive respect or affection for the writer can skew your judgment.
Still I was thinking, “Unless I’m out of my mind, this book is an instant classic.”
I phoned Shawn in New York.
“You gotta read this. Gimme your opinion straight-up.”
At the time I was imagining that Shawn and I would simply help Giora get his book into the hands of a Big Five publisher and step aside ourselves. But I confess a part of me was also thinking, “This book would be perfect for Black Irish. It’s about the ‘inner war.’ It’s riveting. It’s exciting. It’s absolutely authentic. And it’s coming from a source that’s totally fresh and that no one else is tapped into.”
But could we do it? Was Black Irish too small to do the book justice? Would it be unfair to Giora (assuming that he would even agree to let us publish his book)?
I forced myself to stop thinking these Resistance thoughts. Let Shawn read the book first. Then we’ll reassess and make a plan.
[Shawn continues this story in Friday’s post.]