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'The Lawgiver': Telling Moses' Story, Differently

Nov 17, 2012



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Here's the storyline of a novel that's just come out: an author named Herman Wouk, who's a lot like the author who is named Herman Wouk, has been trying to write a novel about Moses for years and years. And Herman Wouk is 96. But he is stalled on his novel when a timely and enticing offer comes over the electronic transom: an Australian billionaire is willing to finance a film about Moses if Herman Wouk consults and helps craft a screenplay with the help of a young woman who's cast aside her Orthodox upbringing. And at the age of 97, Herman Wouk, the author of bestsellers including his 1951 novel, "The Caine Mutiny" and "Marjorie Morningstar," has written a new novel that's told by the most contemporary storytelling technology, including emails and the transcripts of Skype conversations. Herman Wouk's new novel: "The Lawgiver." And he joins us from his home in Palm Springs, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

HERMAN WOUK: Well, I'm very happy to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: So, you've been trying to tell the story of Moses for years?

WOUK: Well, it occurred to me very early on in my career that there's no story to equal the story of Moses. At least, you know, to me and my background. So, I wrote some notes - this is back in 1951 - about something called the lawgiver, which I would hope someday to write. And I put these papers aside and glanced at them now and then, but I never thought I'd be able to do it because Moses was just beyond my reach.

SIMON: Mr. Wouk, I mean, I don't think telling the story of Moses is beyond you. But I do want to point out that it's been done.


WOUK: Well, that really was the trouble. It's been done to utter perfection. There's no matching the tale exactly as it's told in the five books of Moses. The key to writing it was there was no narrative voice so that, quote, "Herman Wouk," unquote, is taking no responsibility for what's being written. It's just various voices around a production rather of a movie about Moses.

SIMON: Every time in this book I read an email or a conversation that seemed to kind of be mocking Hollywood, I thought about the movies that have been made of your books. And they've been pretty good, haven't they?

WOUK: Well, I'm not going to badmouth the movies that have been made of my books. I think the books are better, and the Hollywood process is a dicey one. If you're fortunate, as I was in the making of "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," those beautiful mini-series, I was just fortunate in my producer and my director. I think that "The Caine Mutiny" movie was good, but pretty good, and a couple of the others were not that good at all. But I have no complaints. You know, as Hemingway said you take the money and run. Well, that is not what I did. Once I committed the books to the films I tried to help as much as I could when called upon.

SIMON: May I ask you about your wife, Betty Sarah?

WOUK: Sure.

SIMON: She appears in this novel and, well, you two were together a long time.

WOUK: Sixty-three years.

SIMON: And I gather she is as important to your novels as you, in a sense.

WOUK: I wrote nothing that of the slightest consequence before I met Sarah. I was a gag man for Fred Allen for five years. In his time, he was the greatest of the radio comedians. And jokes work for what they are but they're ephemeral. They just disappear. And that was the kind of thing I did up until the time that I met Sarah and we married. And I would say my literary career and my mature life both began with her.

SIMON: And she would read everything that you did, and I gather she wouldn't be shy about telling you to change stuff.

WOUK: Well, Scott, I used to read the books to her as I wrote them. And I have to tell you, she didn't like "Marjorie" at all at first. I'm not sure she ever got used to it because I couldn't quite conceal the fact that I was sort of falling in love with this imaginary young woman. But she would tell me what she thought. It was almost always right. And I would either get angry because I thought she was wrong and then have to get used to it, or I heard right away that she was right.

SIMON: May I ask how you're doing without her?

WOUK: Well, I live a diminished existence. There's no doubt about that. But in a very real sense for me, certain when I'm working, she is there. Because her critical voice became part of me. And whenever I work, I think, well, she's a presence. She's a presence in this room in several pictures and she's a presence whenever I go to the computer to work.

SIMON: Mr. Wouk, what do you know now that you didn't half a century ago?

WOUK: Getting into the serious business of telling stories that would last is something I didn't think of when I was a young man. And now I've written some books that seem to be lasting. Mark Twain once said - by immortality he meant 30 years. Of course, he knew better than that. He (unintelligible) his autobiography for 100 years and knew perfectly well that it would be enormously interesting after 100 years. Well, I'm still here and I'm hardly prepared to say with any precision what I think about what I've been going through. I'm still in it. And there's a surprise around the corner tomorrow. So let me alone.

SIMON: OK. But it's still been good talking to you.

WOUK: Well, this has been fun for me too.

SIMON: Well, thanks so much.

WOUK: My great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Herman Wouk. His new novel, "The Lawgiver." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.