On the Highs and Lows of Loving MEL GIBSON:

a DOWN UNDER backstory

With her latest book (Down Under) coming out soon, author, Sonia Taitz, (yup, of The Watchmaker’s Daughter fame) discusses the drawbacks of e-readers, the infinite benefits of writing and some intimate disclosures about Mel Gibson.

Q: Describe a teacher who had an impact on you.
A. My high school teacher, Mrs. Edith Schrank, used to say, “fall in love with words.”
She’d read a passage from a book, a poem, or a play, and simply beam afterwards. She had a high voice, and lots of springy blonde curls that shook as she spoke. Some of the students thought she was comical, but through Mrs. Schrank, I learned to let language and its power sink In, to fully feel the beauty of this medium. For an author, the right word is just as precious, as unique and irreplaceable, as the right stroke of cerulean blue for an artist, or the composer’s final, resolving chord. Words are our clay, our light, and the stones of our cathedrals. I’ve never forgotten how Mrs. Schrank felt about them.

Q: Which writer inspired you to become a writer yourself?
A: I have always felt inspired by the great James Joyce, whose work I encountered in my first year at college. He was an outsider – an Irishman, and saw himself as the “other” – not only vis a vis the British Empire, but even amidst his fellow countrymen. Joyce always felt himself to be in exile, choosing to live apart from his native land, which gave him the maximum perspective. I loved that he was both funny and sad – a combination that many Russian writers, Jewish writers, and other Irish writers, like Beckett, do exquisitely. I also loved that he loved women, and not only that – was a one-woman man. But most of all, I loved the last word of his greatest book, Ulysses. It’s the best one in our language, and it’s “Yes.”

Q: What would you like Book Dumpling readers to know about you?
A: I’d like them to know that I’m writing to them. We’re in a conversation together. Whenever I write (when it’s going well, and flowing), I’m talking to a friend. I’m taking them along with me. They’re important. Without them, there would be no story to share, no journey from which to return and tell the tale. As I’ve become a bit more known and traveled to see readers, I find a deep joy in meeting my fellow travelers. Each person who reads my books is my buddy and co-pilot.

Q: Do you have any funny stories regarding writing this past book?
A: DOWN UNDER, my new novel, is very loosely based on a now notorious movie star – Mel Gibson. I always adored Gibson, saw his films, and wondered how on earth God could have made such a perfect man (his looks, his fiery spirit, his talent). I also loved that he was from New York, where I’m from, and had spent nearly two decades growing up there. But that was as close as we got.

But then, one day, Mel started filming right in front of me. No – I wasn’t dreaming, or even a little bit drunk. He was there, making the movieRansom, draped in a Burberry raincoat, nestled in a bottle green Jaguar, driving up and down my block. I watched for a while, and then walked over to Broadway (a few steps away) to get some groceries. As I exited the store, there he was, and not in character. On Broadway, right in front of me, ambling toward his trailer. I think some of my frozen food melted. A little while later, he shot Conspiracy Theory – again on my block. My husband joked, flatteringly, that he was stalking me. There seemed no other reason, he explained.

Years later, my hero started to slide downward, to drink and divorce (and divorce again), and even to occasionally scream out racial, sexist, and anti-Semitic slurs. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors (who’d written a memoir about growing up in the shadow of hatred), I decided to write about him. I created a fictional character through which I could compassionately explore his life from the early teen years – and see where those deep fault lines had begun. I also created a young girl he’d loved – a Jewish girl who lets him down, and who, after his downfall decades later, he seeks to reclaim. Sparks do fly, in all sorts of ways.

Q: What is the last, great book that you read and to which type of readers would you recommend it?
A: I loved The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, an American writer who lives mostly in England. It’s about the luxurious question of whether to leave a perfectly nice mate for a sexy, dangerous, loveable scoundrel. Shriver shows you both options in the best prose imaginable. She’s very talented, emotionally and morally sophisticated, and very honest. My own new book, DOWN UNDER, dealing as it does with love rekindled by a long-married woman, is on that wavelength. It’s a great topic, the best, really – the roads taken and the roads not taken, and where each road might lead.

Q: Which one book would you recommend that almost everyone read at least once?
A: Great Expectations. I love Charles Dickens’ warm soul, expansive world, and deep knowledge of longing. He’s great on children, too – on their innocent, faithful hearts (he suffered a great deal as a child himself.) I had to read all of Dickens voluminous output at one point – so I can safely say that in my opinion, this one is the best.

Q: What types of books would you suggest your protagonists read? (Thanks to Jennifer Warren at CBC for this awesome idea).
A: For all the lovelorn women who fall for the wrong man (or men), I suggest two books, to be administered like medicine: Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary. The best part is that you get to entertain your fantasies even as you’re supposedly taming them.

Q: E-reader or the real thing?
A: The real thing. I have to flip around, use pens, fold the pages. I have to sort of ravage the book. Especially if I love it. And then I like to put it on the shelf. I love books in the home. Ebooks can’t participate in any of those rituals. On the other hand, for a so-so book – or a quick informational read – there’s nothing like an ebook. It vanishes into the ether.

Q: What advice would give to an aspiring author (regardless of age)?
A: I’d simply say that they should read a lot, as much as – or more than — they write. Apart from engaging in life, it’s the only way to become a wordsmith, or any kind of stylist. It’s good to know what’s been done before, and what hasn’t. And of course, it’s the best way to support the world of books.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the book that has a soft spot in your heart.
A: Authors’ works are a bit like their children. I love them all, but I think I’ll always have a soft spot for my frailest – my own “little engine that could.” That one’s a novel called In the King’s Arms. I wrote it in my 20s, finally got an agent and a publisher in my 30s – and then the deal, with its promise of fame and fortune, fell through. Twenty-five years later – in 2011 — the book finally came out – and managed to get a wonderful review in The New York Times!

Q: Which question do you wish I had asked you?
A: I wish you’d asked me the best thing about being a writer. The answer is that it only gets better. I’m referring to the skill part, not necessarily the career. Writing holds an infinite potential of mastery. You live, you learn, you read a lot and you write a lot. And best of all, you never have to stop. Dancers stop dancing, singers get hoarse, and even powerful CEOs eventually go home with the gold watch or a great set of clubs. But writing is a skill that resonates and deepens over time.