Johns Hopkins University Gazette Interview With Chaim Potok
Born in the Bronx to Polish immigrants just monthsbefore the start of the Great Depression, Chaim Potok grew upin an Orthodox Jewish home where his businessman father, "agreat admirer of the capitalist system," discouraged hisson's early aptitude for painting in favor of a morepractical occupation. Potok received rabbinic ordination in1954 and a doctorate in Western philosophy in 1965, but,other than a two-year stint as a chaplain on the front linesin Korea, he chose not to make religion his avocation.
Instead, he turned his talents to writing. In 1967 hepublished The Chosen, a novel that examined value systems inconflict and won Potok a worldwide audience. Seven othermajor novels have followed, including The Promise and My NameIs Asher Lev.
This fall, Potok joined the Writing Seminars program asa visiting professor, where he teaches an undergraduatecourse in fiction writing.
Q: I've read that in 1945 at the age of 15 or 16 youread Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and decided tobecome a writer. Is this story true?
Potok: It was after I read Brideshead Revisited and soonafterwards read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.Those two did it to me.
Q: Brideshead Revisited was not the novel I would haveinitially thought would have propelled you to commencewriting.
Potok: I think it was the writing. I think it was also therealization that you could really create the world out oflanguage. I was a very orthodox Jewish boy. I figured ifthese writers could get me to be interested in two differentCatholic worlds that there was something about this form ofcommunication that I wanted to be part of. That it captivatedme the way it did, that it worked its magic on me, made merealize how powerful this medium is. And I wanted to becomepart of it.
Q: Can you teach writing?
Potok: Somebody who does not have basic talent cannot betaught writing. Somebody who has talent can have his or herwriting improved through the learning of technique.
Q: When you say technique, are you talking basicmechanics?
Q: Was teaching in the back of your mind always, orwas it something you came to?
Potok: It was never in the back of my mind. I never wantedjust to teach. I got a rabbinic ordination so that I couldknow my own tradition better because I knew I wanted to writeabout it. And I went and got a doctorate in secularphilosophy because I wanted to know Western civilizationbetter, because I knew I wanted to write about that. I taughtschool all along, until it was possible for me to thenconcentrate solely on the writing. I do this now, thisteaching, to keep myself in touch with younger people andwith the newer thinking that's going on, which you can findin academic circles, much easier, probably, than you cananywhere else.
Q: You actually wrote your first published novel, TheChosen, in Jerusalem.
Potok: That's right. I was working on my doctorate,finishing it in Jerusalem because two of the people I neededto work with were at the Hebrew University. And that sameyear that I was working on my doctorate I wrote The Chosen.
Q: Back and forth? You'd set one down and you'd pickthe other up?
Potok: I wrote The Chosen in the morning and my doctoratein the afternoon.
Q: Did you prefer writing one to the other?
Potok: Actually no, I thought they were two veryinteresting and very different experiences.
Q: You said the reason you went to rabbinical schoolwas to find out about yourself. Was the thought in your mindthat you were going to be writing about this?
Potok: Well I knew that I was going to write. What elsedid I know to write about? I knew I was going to write aboutsomething Jewish and something American. I mean that's what Iwas. I wanted to know my subject better. I learned a lotabout the gritty side of life in the Army, I wanted to learnabout the creative, the core of Western culture, and I didthat by doing a doctorate in philosophy.
Q: Are there certain issues that you are trying tofigure out when you write, or is the writing more just aninnate process and these issues come to the surface?
Potok: The Chosen was an intuitive process. I was dealingwith something that troubled me a great deal, and that is,what happens when two idea systems collide inside humanbeings? Both seem at times to be inherently valid. And bothare at times contradictory. It was only after I finished andpublished The Chosen and got reaction to it--letters fromeverywhere and all kinds of people--that I began to realizethat I was not the only one going through these experiences.What I'm trying to explore is how people react when thingsthat are very dear to them are challenged by alternate waysof structuring the human experience.
Q: You paint as well as write.
Potok: Actually, I began to paint when I was about 9 or 10years old. It really became a problem in my family,especially with my father, who detested it.
Potok: Well, he thought it was a gentile enterprise. Hecouldn't connect to it. He was very religious.
Q: Did you have to paint on the sly?
Potok: Oh no, there was no sly to paint on in our apartmentin New York, and it became increasingly problematic as I wasgrowing up. And then I think what I did was I shifted thehunger to create from painting to writing, which is much moreaccepted in the Jewish tradition.
Q: Do the results differ from what you expected at thebeginning?
Potok: You dream of the accidents. You pray for them. Youhope for the accidents. In other words, the unanticipatedmoves: Because what that means is that the piece that you'recreating is alive, it's like a child full of surprises. Ifit's not suddenly making its own demands and is only lyingthere inert, your best bet is to walk away from it and startsomething else.
Q: The last two books you've written are children's books.
Potok: I think it is very important to deal with thefears of children. In so many ways that's where our problemsbegin. One of the primary terrors in our society is theterror that results from the very nature of our society. Weare a mobile society. The dream of America is to move up theeconomic ladder. Every move vertically involves a movehorizontally, because if you get a better job and you move upthat vertical ladder economically, you're going to trade yourhouse for another house--horizontally. You're going to movefrom one kind of house to another kind to match the economicmove. Your child is moving too. Nearly every move to a childis a terrifying time. It's by the way also very stressful foradults. The Tree of Here is about that fear. The next bookfor children, The Sky of Now, is about the terror of falling.
Q: Literally, like falling down steps?
Potok: From heights. It's a sort of metaphor for whathappens when Americans become failed Americans. What do youthen do about flying? Children's literature has alwaysfascinated me from the time that I myself was a child. I seeit as a great opportunity to communicate with young people.