Excerpts from Interview with Erika Holzer
Full Context: Tell us about your early life and how it influenced your thinking.
Erika Holzer: My roots are in upstate New York — the Albany, Troy, Saratoga Springs area. My dad was a small-town lawyer — very much a Norman Vincent Peale type of guy. He believed in the power of positive thinking. No question that rubbed off on me. While he was no intellectual, he was a self-made man who went directly from high school to law school, established his own practice, and ended up doing very well — put four children through college and grad school! My mom was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. Big city girl ends up in the provincial town of Mechanicville, New York. She was very much the romantic and an avid reader of all kinds of literature — not to mention one terrific storyteller. That, too, influenced me from a very early age.
FC: Ayn Rand was a big literary influence. How were you introduced to her philosophy of Objectivism?
Holzer: I have a vivid memory of my husband-to-be handing me Atlas Shrugged. We were in our second year at New York University School of Law. Just as we were about to do some serious studying for a final exam in a course called “Sales and Secured Transactions,” he hands me a thick hardcover and says almost offhandedly, "This book will change your life." Well, the first thing “this book” did was cause me to almost flunk my Sales exam! Not long after that, we started attending some lectures on Objectivism and began meeting people involved in the philosophy. We didn't get to know Ayn Rand for some years.
FC: Speaking of meeting people, what was it like meeting Rand for the first time?
Holzer: It's an interesting story. At the time, I was teaching Labor Economics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey — mostly mature night students. The textbook assigned to me had a blatant liberal-left bias — full of distortions about labor relations in this country (about which, at that time, I was very knowledgeable, having gotten a B.S. from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations). So, in addition to "supplementing" the course with lots of material that I provided my students, I asked a dear friend, economist Henry Hazlitt, to guest-lecture my two classes on the minimum wage. Hazlitt had such a great impact on my students that, shortly thereafter, my husband and I took him and his wife, Frances, to a thank-you dinner and subsequently had them over for dinner a number of times. One night I happened to learn from Frances how well the Hazlitts had known Ayn Rand “in the old days.” They were still friendly but didn't see each other too often. The poor Hazlitts! I badgered them unmercifully to make an introduction . . . . One night my phone rings and a deep, heavily accented voice (obviously Ayn Rand) says that her friends Harry and Frances suggested all of us having dinner but that she never accepts dinner invitations from strangers. Would I and my husband care to join her and the Hazlitts for dinner?
FC: Don't stop there! What happened?
Holzer: The Hazlitts picked us up and we went to Ms. Rand's apartment for a drink. Then the six of us went to a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan . Then it was back to Ayn and Frank's place for hours of good talk.
FC: What was your first impression of Ms. Rand and her husband?
Holzer: I was blown away by Ayn. And the elegant Frank was warm and sweet and thoughtful. But the evening, while fascinating, wasn't without some rancor. At one point in the conversation, Ayn asked Harry how he could be her friend and Willam Buckley's too? She was still very exercised about National Review running a scathing and, in my view, outrageously unfair book review by one-time communist Whittaker Chambers. Harry was embarrassed but, in his gentle way, he stood his ground and we went on to pleasanter subjects. For me, the highlight of the evening was when the discussion turned to Atlas Shrugged. Before long, Ayn asked me a question that I later learned was a sort of litmus test for her in dealing with "new" people: Who was my favorite character? Without hesitation, I answered, "Francisco D'Anconia!" But I was so enthusiastic about why (Francisco was, and to this day remains, the most romanticized swashbuckling hero I've ever encountered in fiction), that when Ayn answered me with, "Check your premises, Erika," she said it good-naturedly and with a bemused smile.
FC: You and your husband ultimately were included in Rand 's "inner circle." What was that like?
Holzer: We arrived late in the game, you might say, and left early. By the time my husband and I started to represent AR legally, we had become good friends. (We happened to live virtually across the street from her on East 34th Street) What was it like? Depends on what period you're asking about. In the beginning, it was a very heady experience. But being invited to parties and such with the so-called inner circle was a lot less meaningful to me than all the evenings Hank and I spent at Ayn's apartment, first doing legal business, then afterward talking about writing or the culture at large or stamp collecting or whatever — but mostly fiction-writing — until the wee hours. It was fairly early on during those special evenings that I became more and more interested in trying my hand at fiction writing.
FC: Did you show her any of your writing?
Holzer: Ayn had already seen samples of what I called my "practice pieces." These she went over with me in great detail, giving me invaluable literary feedback. But by the time I had completed my first novel Double Crossing some years later, she and I had become estranged.
FC: Over political or philosophical issues?
Holzer: Neither. It was a personal matter involving some friends of hers who'd known her a lot longer than we had. Even after this estrangement, she remained cordial to my husband and me whenever we'd see her at some public event, such as a lecture on Objectivism, even telling us that, unlike everyone else she had “excommunicated,” her “door was always open to us . . . ” [For various personal reasons, my husband and I chose not to re-enter that door.] It was too bad, really. When we were still friends, Ayn said to me on more than one occasion that I'd never have to endure from the liberal publishing establishment what she'd had to endure — all those endless doors being slammed in your face. That, given her clout, she would see that the right doors remained open to me. But that never happened. I did have to wage that enormous uphill battle she had promised to spare me. It went on for many years.
FC: Did she ever read Double Crossing?
Holzer: Good question. I doubt if she did more than leaf through the first part. She took me aside once before a Q and A session after some lecture on Objectivism, and she said something about how she'd read "part" of the novel, adding in a kind of vague way that she'd had some "problem" with a particular scene early on in the story. But before she could be more specific, we were interrupted. I later learned that, at the time, her husband Frank was quite ill; obviously, she was terribly distracted by that.
FC: Besides Rand, do you have any favorite writers?
Holzer: In light fiction, Dick Francis tops the list. I love the very special universe he creates. The benevolent voice he uses in all of his novels. I'm a big fan of Nelson DeMille, and I enjoy John Jakes, Evan Hunter's Ed McBain crime novels, and the fictionalized biographies of David Nevin. One of my all-time favorite novels is a classic, really, with a mildly science-fiction premise. It's Dean Koontz's Watchers — must reading for dog lovers in general and Golden Retriever lovers in particular. I must have bought dozens of that novel over the years for friends.
FC: Why do you choose to write fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
Holzer: Actually, I've done a great deal of non-fiction — articles and essays and book reviews. Still do. But writing serious issue-oriented page-turners is my great love.
FC: What would you say is the goal of your writing?
Holzer: To tell an engrossing story. To infuse it with a meaningful message that will get my readers thinking, maybe even influence their lives. But above all, to be a good storyteller.
FC: What inspired you to write Eye for an Eye ?
Holzer: Too much emphasis in the culture on the criminal — at the expense of the crime victim. I got tired of it. Or, more precisely, I got mad. It was a bit like that famous line in Paddy Chayevsky's Network — the movie — when actor Peter Finch yells out: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" That was me! I wanted the focus to be back where it belonged: on the victim — and that includes what I thought of as “second-level” crime victims: family members of the maimed and the murdered.
FC: So your novel was based on real-life stories?
Holzer: No, not at all. Let's just say it was inspired by them.
FC: What kind of research did you do for this novel?
Holzer: Basically I just tuned in to the culture: the juvenile justice system in particular. I researched those laws, as well as other related laws. I put politicians like then-governor Mario Cuomo under a microscope right after he vetoed the death penalty in New York. I read newspapers. I talked to crime victims and people who knew crime victims. I talked to bureaucrats and judges. Unlike the mind-boggling research job I had to do for my first novel, Double Crossing, this was more along the lines of sociological or cultural pulse-taking.
FC: Every writer puts part of himself in a character or characters. Did you in this novel?
Holzer: I did that in my first novel, identifying with the American journalist who accompanies her heart surgeon husband to East Berlin. But in Eye for an Eye, I deliberately made my narrator-protagonist, Karen Newman, a political liberal — a far cry from me. I wanted to dramatize how Karen grows. How she changes in the face of personal tragedy. The funny thing is, I really got to like her: her business acumen, her savvy street smarts, her courage under stress, her ability to think and act in tight situations. I loved her sense of humor.
FC: How does the Paramount movie Eye for an Eye, starring Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland, differ from your novel?
Holzer: The plot is very different from my novel's — very foreshortened. It's almost as if [director John] Schlesinger shot the first third of the book. And, unfortunately, the studio itself changed my bad guys from juveniles to an adult sociopath. That said, Kiefer Sutherland was absolutely chilling, and I loved what he brought to the role. The movie's theme or overall message also stays pretty much on target with the novel's. I mean, the people at Paramount could have turned my story into a superficial, bang-bang- shoot-and-chase sort of movie, but they didn't. They made a serious film about an unpopular subject — unpopular by Hollywood standards, anyway — and that took guts. Paramount subsequently took a lot of hits from left-leaning film critics. Also, in fairness, a movie has to depart from a complex multi-layered novel like mine. Movies are a different medium, after all. I have no complaints. The movie is well-made, wonderfully acted, and fabulously directed and edited. Hats off to John Schlesinger!
FC: How are movie audiences reacting to Eye for an Eye?
Holzer: I was stunned the first time I sat (incognito!) in a theater and watched that audience come alive. Talk about enthusiasm! I mean, by the time the movie reached its dramatic climax, people were literally on their feet, many of them yelling out to Sally Field. Many bursting into applause. This has happened every time I've seen the movie in a theater. I've heard from friends and relatives that they witnessed the identical phenomenon. All very gratifying, I must say.
FC: What do these film critics dislike about the movie? That it doesn't portray the criminal and his victim on the same moral level?
Holzer: No question about that! Not that a few of the critics don't have what may be genuine artistic differences about some aspect or other of the movie. But the vast majority — and the most influential by Hollywood standards — people like Siskel and Ebert and Janet Maslin of The New York Times — went out of their way to mislead people about the movie (foul play, as far as I'm concerned). Clearly, Eye for an Eye's pro-crime victim, no-sympathy-for-killers and bleeding-heart-judges message pushed more than a few buttons. Ebert, after having — unconscionably, in my view — actually advised people not to go see the movie, recommending instead that they see a movie about Susan Sarandon's “nun” trying to save the soul of Sean Penn's “convicted murderer on Death Row,” wrote something quite revealing. He complained that he felt “manipulated” by Eye for an Eye. I take that to mean Ebert didn't like being emotionally embroiled in the sheer horror of what was being dramatized on screen; ie, he resented being drawn into it almost against his will. I guess some people don't like to be reminded that violent crime happens — or that some criminals are irredeemably evil. I'm tempted to advise Ebert and his ilk to calm down and stick their heads back in the sand, if you get my drift.
FC: What got Paramount interested in your book, if you know?
Holzer: I have chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing, to thank for that. The producer told me she was disturbed by what was going on with the criminal justice system and, having produced a prior Paramount film starring Michael Douglas as a demoralized judge-turned-vigilante, she was eager to find a story with a strong woman playing, in effect, the Douglas role. When my producer-to-be brought Lansing my novel, she didn't even go the usual route of optioning it; she bought it outright. Then, as they say in the trade, she "put it on the fast track." Paramount released the movie in something like 2 years! That's fast-track, all right.
FC: How prevalent are vigilante groups in American society?
Holzer: They aren't. That was my invention. But there are individuals who act on their own and seek vengeance from time to time. It's important to distinguish between an out-and-out vigilante and someone whose sole focus is on personal vengeance — or just self-defense. Take the movie Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. Bronson goes well beyond seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife and child. After getting his revenge, he then proceeds to dispatch criminals on a more wholesale level and with complete emotional detachment. That's vigilantism. Sally Field's character, on the other hand, is motivated by what, in the end, amounts to self-defense against a single individual, a single threat. It's summed up by the tag line on Paramount's movie posters and billboards: What Do You Do When Justice Fails? The justice system having failed her and her family, Field takes matters into her own hands.
FC: Is vigilantism ever justified?
Holzer: Legally, it is not. But morally? That presents a different question. A person who has been brutally victimized, either directly or in his or her role as a parent or a spouse, may succumb to the pressure of a too-lenient criminal justice system. It happens in this country more than most people like to admit. If that person crosses the line and is willing to pay the price — knowing full well that the consequences will undoubtedly mean serious jail time — I'm not necessarily going to condemn that person morally. Depends on the circumstances. Everyone, after all, has a breaking point. But my advice to such a person would always be: don't take the law into your own hands. There are — as I dramatize in my novel — other solutions. And good solutions in this type of situation invariably take time, work, and effort.
FC: What was it like, dealing with Hollywood?
Holzer: I had a very good experience from beginning to end. During the first week of shooting, I happened to be in Los Angeles and ended up spending all day on the set. Everyone went out of their way to be gracious: cast, crew, stand-ins and doubles, the producer, the young couple who'd adapted my book for the screen, and first and foremost, the inestimable director, John Schlesinger. I had a ball. Later, when the film was "in the can," Paramount brought me and my husband to the studio to preview it and talk to me about helping promote it. Still later, I attended the premiere — a very classy charity affair. I'll always remember how Sherry Lansing took the occasion to announce to the 500-plus people in attendance that Paramount owed a vote of thanks to the novelist, and would Erika Holzer please stand up and take a bow? Erika Holzer did just that!
FC: Any advice for novelists who are just starting out?
Holzer: First off, they should realize up front that it's a tough business. Choose to enter it and you better be prepared for the long haul, so to speak. Second, learn to believe in yourself — in your own judgment about your own work. Take at least one good fiction-writing course. If you're a genre writer — say, science fiction or Westerns or Romance — investigate the novels of a couple of your favorites in the genre. Read them, analyze them, ask yourself what it is exactly that you like about their work — but don't make the mistake of imitating them. Pull out as many principles as you can from the novels you like best and extrapolate as you go your own way. If your goal, like mine, is to write mainstream fiction — well-plotted novels with a serious theme — good luck, good premises, as Ayn Rand would have said, and prepare for that uphill battle with both agents and publishers (not to mention, reviewers). My personal opinion? It's a fight worth fighting, and I wouldn't have it any other way.