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A Love Song To Family, New York In 'Sunlight'

Oct 6, 2012
Originally published on October 6, 2012 7:55 pm

When we get an early glimpse of Harry Copeland, he's falling in love in an instant, with a girl he sees on the Staten Island Ferry. Her hair "trapped the sun and seemed to radiate light," he writes, "and with New York in 1947, when it brimmed with color, light, drama and a babble of voices that reminded him of the world he fought to save as a paratrooper in World War II."

Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale find each other on the ride back from Staten Island. She's an heiress and an actress, and Harry has inherited his father's leather factory. They love each other truly. But the world Harry Copeland helped save can still be cruel, and he's forced to fall back on the friendships and proficiencies he learned in war to try to survive in peace.

Harry and Catherine occupy the postwar world of In Sunlight and In Shadow, Mark Helprin's sweeping and lyrical new novel. Helprin talks with NPR's Scott Simon about using his own memories and experiences to bring Harry and Catherine to life.


Interview Highlights

On Harry's sense of obligation to running his father's leather factory

"It was something that he had to do, because his father had built it, and also because he didn't really know what to do when he got back from the war. The whole world was like — you know, sometimes you throw a ball up in the air, and you watch it hesitate at the top of the arc, and it seems to be still? At that period, America was like that, and in a sense the world was, but particularly America and particularly New York, which I know from having been there and having seen it and felt it.

"We didn't know what direction we were going in; similarly, Harry Copeland, when he comes back from the war, is in a pause. And everything is about to thunder ahead, but no one knows quite where it's going to go."

On Helprin writing about an era that he never experienced

"Ah, but I did see it, you see. Here's why. First of all, I was 3 ... in 1950. So I had three years in the '40s. And from the time that I was born till I was 3, I was like a sponge. My father was famous for his photographic memory. He was in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] — they trained him to be captured on purpose, and to read upside down and backwards and commit to memory every document in German that he saw as he was being interrogated, every schedule on every wall. So that photographic memory somehow made its way to me when I was young. And from the time I was born, until I was, you know, a child anyway, I took things in visually — and emotionally. In a way, I know that period better than I know any other. And in addition, after the war, there was not much building. So there wasn't — the commercial district of cities didn't change much. And also ... politically, it was, until 1952 — it was an extension through Harry Truman of the Roosevelt years. So, that, really the '40s, because of this breathtaking pause after the war, were elongated into the very early '50s."

On the growth of gangsterism during the war

"You know, while the cat was away, the mice could play. And the gangsters increased their power because, being gangsters, a lot of them didn't have to serve, you know. They got out of the draft. And a lot of men were away, and effort was focused elsewhere. So their power increased. And that's why you had a lot of gang wars at the end of the '40s and the beginning of the '50s. And I grew up in that era.

"But I also grew up with gangsters, because my father had to deal with them in various capacities. And we lived among them. ... My father ran London Films. He made films like The Red Shoes, The Third Man. And he had had a long career in the film business, which was bifurcated with a career in intelligence. He had to deal with gangsters, and sometimes he would take me with him. Also, I went to school with their children. So my rendition of gangsters is a little different from the screenwriters' rendition of gangsters, because screenwriters only know what they see in other movies. I actually grew up with these people, and I think I have a pretty realistic take on it."

On Helprin borrowing from his own experiences in the military to create Harry's character

"Well, I have jumped out of airplanes, but I was not technically a paratrooper. I was an infantryman and a night fighter and anti-terrorist. And the thing that strikes you most about being a soldier in a war zone in action to the small extent that I was — when actually people start shooting, which happened to me a couple times — everything goes on automatic, and there's a feeling of tremendous elevation, and even elation. You know, as Churchill says, there's nothing as wonderful as being shot at with no result. But most of the time, 99.99 percent of the time is spent under all kinds of stress. And that stress, and the fact that your life may come to an end quickly, and when you don't even know it, gives you a gift. It cuts out all the nonsense in the world and there's a beauty in it, and a freedom — which is not worth it, believe me. I mean, I just wanted to get out as everyone did. But there was a deep, deep feeling and a connection to the things that are important that I experienced, and I assume that Harry would know it even more than the glimpses of it that I got."

On plotting a story with so many different threads and conflicts

"I really don't plot anything, particularly with this book. And my model for it was Mark Twain, who, when he lived in Elmira and he reached a certain age, decided, essentially, to hell with it. He said, 'I'm just going to write the book that I want to write.' And it was Huckleberry Finn. So, there's no pretense that I would equal that. But I said to myself, 'This is going to be the book that I want to write, this is the book about my parents and that era and childhood, and ... let everything going to hell, I'm just going to write that book.'

"And what happened was that whenever I would sit down to write it, it would be ... like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. And the characters presented themselves to me so strongly that it was just as if I were watching it. I didn't really do much plotting. Some people have asked me, 'Did you know what was going to happen at the end?' Usually I do. Usually I write to the end. It's like throwing a rock or a silver dollar into a lake. And then you dive in, and you go to it. You don't know what's going to happen between, but you know what the ending is. Usually that's what I do; not here. Here, I just fell into another world and I followed. But it's all based on what I know and what I knew, because essentially it's a love song to my family."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. When we get an early glimpse of Harry Copeland, he's falling in love in an instant with a girl he sees on the Staten Island ferry. Her hair trapped the sun and seemed to radiate light, he writes, and with New York in 1947, when it brimmed with color, light, drama, and a babble of voices that reminded him of the world he'd fought to save as a paratrooper in World War II. Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale find each other on the ride back from Staten Island. She's an heiress, an actress, and Harry has inherited his father's leather factory. "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is Mark Helprin's sweeping and lyrical new novel. Mark Helprin joins us now from Charlottesville, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK HELPRIN: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: A love story's at the center of this book but so is the feeling that Harry had for his war as a paratrooper. And you soon begin to wonder: can a man who used every ounce of his skill, strength and will win a war truly be happy running his father's leather factory?

HELPRIN: No. But he did it as an obligation. It was something that he had to do because his father had built it and also because he didn't really know what to do when he got back from the war. The whole world was like - you know when sometimes you throw a ball up in the air and you watch it hesitate at the top of the arc and it seems to be still. At that period, America was like that, and particularly New York, which I know from having been there and having seen it and felt it. We didn't know which direction we were going in. Similarly, Harry Copeland, when he comes back from the war is in a pause. And everything is about to thunder ahead, but no one knows quite where it's going to go.

SIMON: You were born the year this story opens. How do you write the details like that of a world you never saw?

HELPRIN: But I did see it, you see. Here's why. First of all, I was 3 in 1950. So I had three years in the '40s. And from the time that I was born till I was 3, I was like a sponge. My father was famous for his photographic memory. He was in the OSS. They trained him to be captured on purpose and to read upside down and backwards and commit to memory every document in Germany he saw as he was being interrogated - every schedule on every wall. So, that photographic memory somehow made its way to me when I was young. I took things in visually and emotionally. In a way, I know that period better than I know any other. And in addition, after the war there was not much building. So, there wasn't - the commercial districts of cities didn't change much and also politically, until 1952, it was an extension through Harry Truman of the Roosevelt years. So, really the '40s, because of this breathtaking pause after the war were elongated into the very early '50s.

SIMON: While Harry was away fighting fascism, your story suggests that another kind of gangsterism was growing stronger than ever in his absence in New York. What happened?

HELPRIN: You know, while the cat was away the mice could play, and the gangsters increased their power, because being gangsters, a lot of them didn't have to serve. You know, they got out of the draft and a lot of men were aware and effort was focused elsewhere. So, their power increased and that's why you had a lot of gang wars at the end of the '40s and the beginning of the '50s. And I grew up in that era. But I also grew up with gangsters, because my father had to deal with them in various capacities and we lived among...

SIMON: Your father ran the film company.

HELPRIN: My father ran London Films. He made films like "The Red Shoes," "The Third Man." And he had had a long career in the film business, which was bifurcated with a career in intelligence. He had to deal with gangsters, and sometimes he would take me with him. Also, I went to school with their children. So, my rendition of gangsters is a little different from screenwriters' rendition of gangsters because screenwriters only know what they see in other movies. I actually grew up with these people and I think I have a pretty realistic take on it.

SIMON: I was struck by something that Harry Copeland tells his aunt at one point in Staten Island. He says there was more light and air in the war than now. What did that mean?

HELPRIN: Well, that I take from my own experience.

SIMON: You were a paratrooper like Harry, right? Just different army, different war.

HELPRIN: Yeah. Well, I have jumped out of airplanes but I was not technically a paratrooper. I was an infantryman and a night fighter, anti-terrorist. And the thing that strikes you most about being a soldier in a war zone and in action to the small extent that I was, when actually people start shooting, which happened to me a couple of times, everything goes on automatic and there's a feeling of tremendous elevation and even elation. You know, as Churchill said: There's nothing as wonderful as being shot at with no result. But most of the time, 99.99 percent of the time is spent under all kinds of stress. And that stress and the fact that your life may come to an end quickly and when you don't even know it, gives you a gift. It cuts out a lot of the nonsense in the world, and there's a beauty in it and a freedom, which is not worth it, believe me. I mean, I just, I wanted to get out, as everyone did. But there was a deep, deep feeling and a connection to the things that are important that I experienced and I assume that Harry would know it even more than the glimpses of it that I got.

SIMON: The story goes between Harry and Catherine - her efforts in the theater, his struggles to keep the family business going, their struggle to be together, and all in-and-out spelled by wartime recollections. How do you plot a story that has so many different threads?

HELPRIN: Well, I don't. I really don't plot anything, particularly with this book. And my model for it was Mark Twain, who, when he lived in Elmira and had reached a certain age, decided essentially to hell with it. He said I'm just going to write the book that I want to write, and it was "Huckleberry Finn." So, there's no pretense that I would equal that. But I said to myself, this is going to be the book that I want to write. This is the book about my parents and that era and a childhood. And I just let everything go to hell. I'm just going to write that book. And what happened was whenever I would sit down to write it, it was like Alice falling into the rabbit hole and the characters presented themselves to me so strongly that it was as if I were watching it. I didn't really do much plotting. So, people have asked me did you know what was going to happen at the end? Usually, I do. Usually, I write to the end. It's like throwing a rock or a silver dollar into a lake and then you dive in and you go to it. You don't know what's going to happen in between but you know what the ending is. Usually, that's what I do. Not here. Here, I just fell into another world and I followed. But it's all based on what I know and what I knew, because essentially it's a love song to my family.

SIMON: Mark Helprin. His new novel, "In Sunlight and in Shadow." Thank you so much.

HELPRIN: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: And you could read or download audio of an exclusive selection from Mark Helprin's "In Sunlight and in Shadow" at NPR Books, where it's part of our new First Read series. Go to nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.