One Writer’s Education
Welcome to my new website and do please let me hear from you. I happen to care about what you think. I’m usually reticent about my past, but now I’m ready to discuss it and how and why I became a novelist.
I began reading at the age of three because of my passion for sports -- especially baseball. During that period in Brooklyn, we lived or died based on the Dodgers’ success. So the scores were always the main topic of discussion. They were printed in
28 Point Bold
How do you think my mother, a great and enthusiastic reader, as well as a working woman, got me hooked on words? You’ll be surprised by how simple it was. All she did was show me that long words were comprised of letters that could be used to make smaller words. So we played a game. She challenged me to see how many words I could make out of the letters in Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, New York Giants. But there was more than a pat on the head waiting for me. What do you believe she offered me in return for success? Money! Unbridled purchasing power.
When she got home after closing her ladies wear shop, I was at the door with my list of words. Depending on how many hits I had, I was rewarded with cold, hard cash. Up to a nickel. Don’t laugh. That was a lot of money in those days for a child. I could buy three fat pieces of delicious candy and still have two cents left over. By the time I was five, the words became more complicated and I started to read the dictionary and real books. And then (what more could you ask for?) she bought an encyclopedia that came with a bonus set of classics. Thus, at an early age, I was exposed to Jack London, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. It all happened in the best way possible. I devoured literature because I wanted to. Nobody said I had to. Then, greedy for more nickels as well as intellectual discoveries, I joined the local library and virtually haunted it. I had no interest whatever in children’s books and told the librarian that I was taking out adult books for my mother. My mom had, in fact, sent a note granting me permission.
One afternoon – I was then seven -- my closest friend and I were walking home from school and talking about what we wanted to be. He had decided to become a doctor; his father had died the previous year and he attributed this tragedy to incompetent doctors who had misdiagnosed his father’s condition. When it was my turn I said:
“I’m going to be a writer and a damn good one.”
Neither of us swerved from our childhood decisions. My dearest friend did become a successful physician and later Executive Dean of two distinguished medical schools. I’m citing this as one of those rare instances in life when your profession chooses you. Neither fame nor money were issues for us.
In our largely Jewish neighborhood, my parents divorced and this now common event set me apart from the other kids and caused an unwelcome notoriety. Clark Gable got divorced, not Manny and Rose Bogner. My parents, however, remained friends. To a large extent this traumatic experience was the making of me and allowed me to create myself. With my mother working from 10AM until 8PM, I was totally free to travel to Manhattan, go to museums, explore the city, and just had to check in with her occasionally. She had no idea where I was.
She had begun to date and why not! She was a self-supporting, single woman who made a good living and drove a canary yellow convertible. With her natural flaming red hair, she was the envy of every married man in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, the gossips imputed all sorts of scandalous behavior to her. Her pre-Feminism act of freedom set off firestorm.
That’s when I learned to fight. At school, the bullies called her a “Tramp”, and that brought out a degree of rage in me that never left me during that period. I took on anyone who said a word about her. Now the point of fighting – for a just cause or not – is that if you believe you have nothing to lose and are angrier than your opponent and never give in, you can win. I also enjoyed the advantage of going to the fights at Madison Square Garden every Friday night, sitting ringside with my dad, and watching some of the greatest boxers in history. Thus, speed, and fearlessness prevailed and the same bullies who used to insult me now treated me with respect and wanted to be friends.
When I was twelve, my mother tired of the single life, and married a charming rogue. Moe Friedman seemed wealthy beyond belief. He always carried huge sums of cash with him – $10-20,000. Why? He was a bookmaker and also ran a floating crap game – usually in our apartment. I met successful businessmen, gangsters and shylocks, and considered it an invaluable part of my ongoing training to be a writer. I kept a journal and wrote about these characters.
Moe had one enduring flaw. He was an addicted gambler. When you drove with him, he’d bet the passengers on the next passing car having an odd or even license plate number. If two birds were on tree, he’d put money on which one flew off first. If he made ten thousand a week booking, he bet twenty thousand. This was a serious predicament because he seldom had enough money to pay off the local cops (SOP) and was constantly arrested. Since my mother couldn’t leave her shop, I had to bring Moe’s food to jail until she turned up to pay the fine.
His family owned a large catering business and I helped out in the kitchen on weekends and accidentally learned how to cook. I was the chef’s dogsbody. He screamed hysterically at everyone except me. You might ask yourself how I escaped his wrath. I was his beer boy and dragged in the ice cold cases he kept, opened them for him, and made sure he never had an empty can as he sweated over the range.
One afternoon, with Moe’s pastrami sandwiches delivered to him in jail, I ran into a detective I knew who coached baseball in the PAL (Police Athletic League) where I was his star pitcher. I had pitched a no-hitter, hitting eleven batters, walking twelve, but still a no-hitter. He also felt sorry for me because of my parents’ divorce.
He was surprised. “Norman, what the hell’re you doin’ here?”
I explained that I had become Moe’s delivery boy.
“I can’t believe your beautiful mother married that loser,” he said. “Listen, I have to testify at a trial. It won’t be long. I’ll take you out to eat. Some idiot murdered his brother-in-law about who should get their mother-in-law’s flatware.”
This was my first murder trial and for any of you who want to be writers, murder trials are the best way to discover motivation, uncover character and behavior. There are no higher stakes in the human adventure. The death penalty was still in effect in New York. The Electric Chair! Since that first experience, I have attended many murder trials in various countries. Believe me, you’ll learn more about human nature there than you ever will in a creative writing course.
I became a captive audience and went to the trial every day. As it continued, I learned the defendant and the deceased were married to two sisters and the murder had nothing to do with the seemingly absurd dispute about flatware. The killer, a paunchy, bald jeweler -- it came out eventually -- had a beautiful girlfriend. To add some spice to their affair, he sent her to his brother-in-law who owned a pre-Victoria’s Secret sexy lingerie shop and he gave her his personal special treatment, checked her fittings etc. He also sent the jeweler a hefty bill. Ultimately, the lingerie shop owner and the siren also had an affair. When the young woman revealed this to the jeweler, he went bonkers. Not only had this man screwed him out of a large sum of money for her undies, but also had the audacity to screw her.
At the moment of truth, in this domestic corrida, the sisters were indeed quibbling about who’d get the Oneida service. Finally the cuckolded jeweler in a frenzy over the deception of his brother-in-law, lost control and shot his nemesis, the lingerie purveyor.
I learned the priceless lesson of never taking anything at face value – even when a detective tells you what the facts are.
Jumping ahead to my college years, I had done exceptionally well in all of my courses and much to my father’s dismay majored in the Humanities and English. I took the three language exams (French, Spanish and Classical Greek) which were required for a PhD in English. My father had little education and when he asked why I had taken Greek, I told him that doctors wrote their prescriptions in Greek. He embraced me.
“So you are going to be a doctor!” he exclaimed rapturously.
I had taken the language in order to read the great Greek playwrights and philosophers in the original language. The prospect of dealing with bleeding, infected patients made me physically ill.
I did my graduate work in English at NYU and the New School and did so well that I was offered a number of fellowships to go on for my doctorate. At that point, I had a serious life-changing conflict. How could I become a novelist if the only people I encountered were either students or supremely well-educated scholars? Where was the opportunity to meet a cross-section of people and learn something about human nature? Was I going to split hairs about Seven Types of Ambiguity; seduce pretty female students, a common practice to this day?
I had driven across the US on father-son bonding trips, fished in Canada, gambled in Saratoga’s Piping Rock Club, secretly owned by the Mafia boss, Frank Costello. I felt that with my background the only answer was to cut my ties and find out if I had it in me to be real writer. Europe was the answer. I had read European history, studied its art, philosophy, the great literature, but I lacked the actual physical experience.
When I announced my decision to my parents one night at dinner, my mother was overjoyed and filled me with encouragement. On the other hand my father was devastated.
“Rose,” my father cried, “where did we go wrong?”
“I don’t think we did,” she replied.
“Norman, with your education,” my father continued, “you could go to medical school, be a lawyer” – then not a disgraceful calling – “go for a PhD and be called doctor!”
“I’m going to Europe?”
“Have you ever met a writer who made a living?”
Infuriated by my stubbornness, he got up from the table, fists clenched, and shouted:
“I have two words for you and they’re not ‘Merry Christmas’. You’ll never see a penny from me. Go, starve, beg on the streets, be a bum.”
I had worked in the dining room and kitchen of Catskill Mountain hotels and Cape Cod restaurants since I was sixteen and now at twenty-one I returned. It was a brutally hard job: no days off, getting up at five, working until ten at night, but this was work I knew. I made $2,000 that summer and with my savings booked passage to Barcelona, cabin class -- steerage. I had decided to go to Barcelona (pre-Olympic glamour) when it was effectively unknown, just another Spanish way station. It was also Mediterranean and CHEAP.
I found a pensión that served decent food and was given a small room with a 15 watt bulb. I then set out to explore the city and try to find a small furnished apartment. I tramped along the Ramblas, checking out every bar, restaurant and apartment house. I had one serious dilemma. Although I had studied Spanish for four years and could read perfectly, I could barely speak a word of it. Conversation was not taught. It’s one thing to read Garcia Lorca’s poetry and plays in Spanish fluently and quite another to ask where to buy shaving cream and razor blades. I assumed the farmacia was the place for this. It was a drugstore, damnit. No, they only filled prescriptions and dealt with medical products. The pharmacist had no idea what I was babbling about.
After a week of floundering, I thought maybe my dad was right. The only tourists around were German. I discovered that a special affinity existed between the two nationalities. The Germans love warm climate and Spanish women. I also had to make another serious life adjustment – Spanish dining hours. Lunch was from 1-4 PM; dinner began at 11PM. When I went into a restaurant at, say, ten, they were just setting the tables and told me to come back in an hour. In Madrid, dinner begins at midnight.
One evening at about eight o’clock, and starved, I wandered into a bodega and tapas bar off the Ramblas and met my savior. In my struggling Spanish I ordered a carafe of tinto de la casa (red house wine for a buck). The owner’s son, Mario, not only spoke perfect English, but also had a passion for reading novels. We struck it off immediately. I learned that the place to buy shaving cream and blades was at a perfumería (beauty supply). He recommended one nearby, and with my three-day beard – now a fashion statement of virility – I walked over.
Talk about lucky breaks, I was waited on by the most stunning woman I’d ever lain eyes on. Mercedes spoke a bit of English, certainly better than my wretched Spanish. She had met Americans before and was under the popular delusion that they were all wealthy and lived like princes. I did not disabuse her of this myth. I did have a wealthy father and my mother ran a successful business. Mercedes was thrilled. She had never met an actual novelist; well, neither had I, and I wasn’t about to admit this. We agreed to meet later at Mario’s when she finished work.
While waiting for her, Mario let me shave and clean up in a small apartment in the back he kept for visiting friends. It was still early, only a drinker or two, and Mario told me to look through “La Vanguardia” their major newspaper. I found an ad placed by an English woman who had a spacious apartment. I asked Mario if it was a decent neighborhood. He told me that Maestro Perez Cabrero was one of the best and only a short tram ride from the city center.
Mercedes, freshly made up, smelling of spring, arrived. Mario and she were old buddies. She had dated a pal of his but nothing came of it. We sat at a corner table until two in the morning. I escorted her home and we made a date to go to a new movie: Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution”* had opened and everyone said it was terrific.
The following day, I met Vera – she of the spacious apartment. She was very English and gracious; in her forties, divorced, with a young son, she wanted “a man in the house”. The fact that I was American, a writer-scholar no less, immediately endeared me to her. I told her about my limited financial circumstances and she agreed to $40 a month for two large furnished rooms, my own bathroom, a separate entrance, and permission to have guests – “As long as they don’t frighten the horses,” she added with a laugh. I had a desk, sofa, with a view of the beautiful square below and a wonderfully comfortable bedroom. She suggested that I join the British Institute; they had an excellent library, taught English, showed English films weekly and I could meet people there.
Mercedes and I saw the film, dubbed in Spanish, with English subtitles. There was also an original version with Spanish subtitles that they alternated. I watched “Testigo del Cargo”* eighteen times and suddenly my Spanish conversation improved. In retrospect, it seems such an obvious way to learn how to speak a foreign language if you know the vocabulary, but it never would’ve crossed my mind that this was the way to go.
A few weeks later, Mercedes and I became lovers and it was a perfect arrangement. Since she still lived with her parents and sisters, on no account could she bring me home. I had also begun my first novel: In Spells no Longer Bound, a quote from a poem by Byron.
The actual story was based on a young woman I knew who’d had a nervous breakdown when her fiancé threw himself on the subway tracks the moment he saw a train speeding to the station. In the novel, the young woman believes he is still alive, or, if in fact, the mangled body his parents identified was him, then someone pushed him. She cannot accept the reality of his death. It had to be murder.
There is a form of decorum then, and occasionally even now, that a man pays for the woman on a date; whether it’s dinner, drinks, a film. This habit had long been ingrained in me by my mother. “You want a lady’s company, pay for it,” she said. My tight budget was getting even tighter. I’d given myself a year for the novel and at $120 a month, I would soon be running on fumes. My mother called once a week and we corresponded regularly and she was concerned about how I was doing. “In the financial department... well? You’re awfully quiet all of sudden.”
I refused to let her send me any money. It was my decision to go to a foreign country to write and I had to support myself.
“Thanks, but I’ll manage.”
“You’re so stubborn.”
“I’ve got you to thank for that.”
She sent a check, nonetheless, and I returned it. I hate mooches, spongers, users and I was not about to become one.
I appealed to Mario, telling him about my kitchen experience and asked if I could help out at the bar. He was flabbergasted. His mother made the tapas, his father did the bookkeeping and he and a barman ran the front.
“You’re an American novelist. This kind of work is demeaning.”
“Work never is.”
“No, I won’t hire you.”
I offered to do the dishes. I had worked as a dishwasher when ours quit in one restaurant where I did all the drudge jobs, cleaning the grill (try Ajax, soda water, and Brillo pads), mopping floors, cleaning the toilets. There is nothing ignoble about manual labor, no matter how lowly it seems to other people.
Mario usually closed at about 4AM and I had noticed three well-dressed middle-aged women who always came in together and drank champagne at about three.
“I have an idea for you, Norman.”
“I’m listening. I’ll do anything.”
He went on to explain that Cook’s and other UK travel agencies were putting together cheap package holidays to Spain and they were getting a lot of Brits in.
“Lots of single men looking for a good time who don’t want to be recognized.”
I was perplexed. “I don’t get it.”
“Well, some of the girls speak a little German, but none of them can speak English.”
My confusion hit a high C. “Which girls?”
“The three ladies drinking Dom Perignon are Madams. They own their own brothels and the girls I’m talking about work there.”
He then introduced the celebrated, very youthful American novelist, Norman Bogner, to the ladies. By this time, my Spanish was fluent. They asked me to join them and made a business proposal to me. With Mario’s recommendation, which carried a great deal of weight, they engaged me to teach English to their girls. We agreed on 50 pesetas ($1) per person, per hour, three times a week from 4-6 PM. I usually finished writing at 1PM, so it fit in with my own schedule. I bought grammar and vocabulary books at the British Institute and was reimbursed.
Thus, my career as English master to fifty prostitutes began. I took my work seriously, and the girls were diligent about their homework and filled their exercise books with phrases:
“I am clean. I have no infections. The doctor checks us each week. The bedroom has a mirror. No, I can’t give you my phone number. It’s against the rules.”
To this day, it gives me great pleasure to remember these Spanish women speaking English with a New York accent.
I was earning close to a $100 per week – in cash!
Mercedes was appalled by this, but I am a one-woman man and despite my protestations of fidelity, she began to lose confidence in me and herself. Wasn’t she enough for me? Did I need to be in brothels with putas (whores) and earn money as un alcahuete (pimp)! We argued constantly about this, and the last thing I wanted to do was give her up. Our intimacy, after an initial cooling off period, became so intense that the prospect of being with another woman was physically impossible.
The other aspect of this job was that it gave me a degree of insight into human character. I knew the madams, the way they split with the girls (60-40 in the girls favor), met many of the clients, and wrote my novel. I listened to the tales of my students and how and why they had chosen this profession. None of them were druggies, or under threats by razor-wielding pimps. They simply didn’t want to work 9-5 jobs in shops. They also enjoyed sex.
My novels dramatize people’s behavior, actions and motives, so living abroad enabled me to me to perfect a technique of asking strangers questions and for advice. This immediately puts them in a superior position. Once this is established, I admit to some foolish mistake I’ve made. My naivete becomes a weapon for them and they then relax and disclose personal aspects of their own lives. It also enhances my subject’s upper hand and plays into his/hers self esteem. I ask about their work, which always leads to family matters, since this invariably concerns money. I listen to stories about the avaricious wife, the girlfriend who is never pleased; various examples of disloyalty, cheating. People love to talk about themselves and this allows me to build scenes from real character that I may eventually write. Lawyers are best avoided, inasmuch as they’re always hunting for clients and want you to make an appointment. I also know when people are lying and exaggerating. As an aficionado of murder trials, I developed a built-in bullshit detector. The minute people discuss their wealth, they’re bust-outs; if they’re Romeos or sirens and tell me about their fantastic sex lives, I know they can’t get laid.
Another advantage of adjusting to a foreign country is writing a book in your native language which makes you more sensitive to it. You remember and pick up – without trying – all sorts of forgotten and neglected nuances, expressions, idioms, sounds and voices. You also visualize the past.
While the doctoral candidates I had left behind at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard were nitpicking Wellek & Warren’s Theory of Literature, an insufferably pedantic text, I was accumulating life experience and laying the groundwork for my future novels.
A year later, In Spells No Longer Bound was published by Jonathan Cape.
I always trust the reader. When you read my new novel, 99 Sycamore Place, you decide if I made the right choice.