Interview with Erika Holzer
FP: Erika Holzer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Holzer: I love being here, Jamie. I’m a big fan of your Frontpage interviews.
FP: What inspired you to write this memoir?
Holzer: Three things, really. An article I wrote in celebration of Ayn Rand’s Centennial brought back a lot of memories of my personal relationship with Ayn back in the mid-60s. This in turn got me thinking about a couple of questions I was asked over and over down the years when I was doing book tours for my novels. Everybody wanted to know what kind of a teacher/mentor she was — and how she’d influenced my own fiction-writing. I realized I wanted to explore the answers to those questions in much more depth than was possible in an article.
FP: Tell us about how you acquired an interest in Rand and her ideas.
Holzer: I’ll tell you when I should have acquired an interest in Rand and her ideas. My mother gifted me with Rand’s The Fountainhead when I went off to college. I loved the novel but, truth be told, my “interest” was almost exclusively on its blazingly romantic red-haired hero, Howard Roark. (I thought the heroine was a darn fool for giving him such a hard time!)
My philosophical/political “breakthrough” came during my second year at N.Y.U. Law School. I was dating this guy by the name of Hank Holzer and the sob handed me a copy of Atlas Shrugged when we were supposed to be studying for some exam with these words: “This book will change your life.” Well, of course, it did. But since I couldn’t put it down (and it’s a very long book), it almost changed my professional life. I came very close to flunking the exam.
FP: What is some of the wisest advice Rand gave you? What were some of her insights into the psychological dynamics involved in writing?
Holzer: Two of her suggestions proved to be, not just wise, but positively liberating. I was laboring under the misapprehension, as many novelists are, that you have to write about what you know. That can be pretty confining—not to mention, boring. Rand tossed that “rule” out the window. She encouraged me to write about what was important to me — adventure, hopes, dreams, subjects I was passionate about, the kind of men and women I’d never met in my life but longed to.
The second piece of advice I’m eternally grateful for is, in Ayn’s words, “Don’t over-research.” It is so easy to get bogged down and lose your sense of direction. A novel or even a work of non-fiction can take you twice as long if you don’t learn the discipline and yes, have the guts, to walk out of the library when you have what you really need and take up your pen.
As for Rand’s insights into the psychological dynamics of writing, my book is filled with one after another. Two that I’ve found particularly valuable are “stoking your subconscious” and the “crow epistemology.” It’s the simplest thing in the world to “stoke” your subconscious so that you build up a sort of inner library of material that you can automatically tap into when you’re ready to write: You pay attention to what’s going on around you!
What the “crow epistemology” analogy amounts to, in a nutshell, is: don’t do one final edit of your book. Ayn advised doing it in layers, each time focusing on a different aspect. I make a lot of trips through my manuscripts, going through them maybe fifteen or twenty separate times, looking at everything from grammar and punctuation to pacing and plausibility of plot developments. Boy, do the mistakes really jump out at you! A bromide here, a melodramatic touch there. I even go so far as to follow every single character, one at a time, all the way through my story to make sure the dialogue rings true. I mean, how many novels have you read where you have trouble distinguishing one guy from another?
FP: What exactly is a libertarian?
Holzer: I’m not exactly sure. It’s one of those political labels that’s not too well-defined. The best generalization I can make is that libertarianism was spawned by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, with its emphasis on individual rights and free market capitalism. All my libertarian friends have been quick to admit the debt they owe her.
FP: How would you define “craftsmanship”?
Holzer: I think of it as synonymous with a will to excellence. It’s often applied to someone who’s skilled in the decorative arts, but with fiction writing, it’s more complex. To me, it’s an ongoing process of striving, of making your next novel not only different from your last one, but better. My personal goal as a novelist is to never stop learning and growing and honing whatever level of craftsmanship I’ve arrived at.
FP: What do you think made you a writer?
Holzer: A few different factors, actually. When I was doing this book about my mentoring period with Ayn Rand and the memories started to flow, I found myself going all the way back to my childhood. I liked interacting with people and was very curious about their private lives. I used to knock, uninvited(!), on the doors of every neighbor on the block (especially when I had a good “report card” from school to show off), and even the recluses would invite me in for a cookie and a glass of milk. I had a strong streak of adventure — one of those tom-boy kids who excelled at playing “war games” with an older brother and his pals. And oh, did I have a sense of drama! I did a lot of daydreaming in those days about what an adventurous life I was going to lead some day.
So here you have the seeds of what turned me into a storyteller — my interest in people translating into characterization, my sense of adventure and drama so much a part of me that it was inevitable, I think, that I was pulled in the direction of writing plot-driven novels.
FP: Must writing always be a pleasure?
Holzer: I wish! Ayn made no secret of how agonizing it can be if you’re — well, a craftsman, so I knew well before I got into the fiction-writing game that, pleasure-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Some aspects are so much fun or so exciting that they more than make up for the times when you’re mired in frustration or worry about whether something you’re working on is going to end up in the shredder — or, on a much more serious level, how in God’s name you’re ever going to integrate everything so that theme, plot, characterization and style are all perfectly meshed. Writing can make you moody and ill-tempered and hard to live with. Even when it’s going great, you stay up too late and sabotage your body’s metabolism for weeks on end.
What sustains me through all the ups and downs is what I call “the chill factor” — the times when what I’ve written is so “right” — so in sync with what I wanted to convey about a given character or description, or best of all, some searing conflict — that I literally feel a prickly sensation. I think of such moments as a kind of reward.
FP: Does every writer and creator of art need a mentor?
Holzer: No. I was so lucky, and I remain grateful to this day that I had such a masterful one. I say in my book that Ayn Rand provided me with such valuable insights that I regard what she taught me as analogous to skipping half a dozen grades in school or whizzing past “beginner” status to “intermediate.”
That said, however, you can “create” your own mentor by reading and absorbing the work of writers you admire — the kind of novels you’d like to write yourself — just by analyzing what the attraction is and identifying some writing principles you can later apply. Or you can become a lit major or take some excellent writing courses. But there’s no denying that it facilitates the process to have a mentor who is brilliant, experienced, and patient.
FP: Can you talk a little bit about Hank? What influence do you think he has had on your intellectual journey?
Holzer: You’ll run out of space asking that question, Jamie. I could talk forever about the influence Hank’s had on my life from our first casual encounter in the law school cafeteria onward and upward. But okay, I’ll restrict myself to his influence on my “intellectual journey.”
As I’ve said, he introduced me to Atlas Shrugged and all that that led to. We explored the philosophy of Objectivism together and had endlessly fascinating discussions about it. He was a fervent believer in my writing talent, both fiction and non-fiction, and a counteracting source of encouragement whenever a hostile publishing climate started to get me down. And as you know, we’ve co-authored two books and many articles — a lot of them for Frontpage. Working together has always been an intellectually satisfying experience.
FP: Tell us a bit about your political journey. Where would you say you are on the political spectrum? Have you always been there or have you changed over the years? What are your thoughts on the terror war and the Left’s position on it?
Holzer: I’ve been politically conservative ever since I was a kid. Politics played an integral role at the family dinner table. My parents were highly opinionated, but mildly so. I was the vehement one. I dislike political labels but, if forced into a corner, I’d have to say I’m a Conservative whose philosophical orientation is Objectivism. So the only change over the years is the profound influence Ayn Rand’s philosophy has had on me.
As for my thoughts on the War on Terror, first let me say that I hereby incorporate by reference and wholeheartedly endorse everything my husband has written for Frontpage on the subject.
I succumb to rage whenever I read about the Left’s unconscionable “take” on this. I can’t even look at the two-faced Nancy Pelosi and her Democrat ilk without wanting to throw something at the TV screen. These people are so nakedly power hungry, so eager to get control of the government at any cost, that they’re willing to sacrifice this country to perhaps the most dangerous enemy we’ve ever faced. What’s frightening is that this is Congress we’re talking about, not a bunch of ineffectual and pathetic peacenik types who trip over their own words, or the laughably presumptuous Hollywood crowd.
I should add that I have great faith in the American people to see through this shameful charade by Congressional leaders on the other side of the aisle.
FP: Apart from Congressional opportunism, how would you counteract the assault mounted against the Bush administration’s waging of the War on Terror — and not just the propaganda that hard-Left groups like Moveon.org are churning out? After all, presumptuous or not, some of what’s coming out of Hollywood emanates from very respectable sources.
Holzer: You’re alluding, of course, to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and, more recently, Munich, where he not only bases his narrative on some fictional cab driver’s perspective of the horrendous horror story about murdered Israeli Olympic athletes, but refuses — is incapable of? — taking an unequivocal moral stand against pure evil. This is not new ideological territory for Spielberg, who, for example, has been “soft” on such totalitarian regimes as China and Castro’s Cuba, photo ops and all. Even now, some Conservatives I know continue to make excuses for him because most of his movies are stunningly effective, often brilliant. So the Spielbergs of this world certainly do need counteracting.
In addition to all the effective and utterly persuasive articles, columns, op-eds and non-fiction books being written by Conservatives to challenge, chapter and verse, the propaganda mills (and make no mistake about people like Spielberg; his films have taken on the patina of subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda for the hard-Left whether intentionally or due to his own head-in-the-sand, peace-at-any-price mentality), there’s just so much data the public can take in. In the form of non-fiction, that is.
But G.K. Chesterton made an excellent observation when he said, “Popular literature is one of the most potent means of addressing the public.” I submit that we need more compelling movies and novels (as distinguished from political tracts posing as stories) to bridge the gap. Fiction has a great deal to offer the man in the street. It’s a great clarifier of issues which can be confusing to the most diligent person struggling to wade through propaganda and emerge with the truth.
I’ve lectured over the years about the importance of fiction in the battle of ideas, and I used to talk at length with Ayn Rand about it when Hank and I were her lawyers. It was she who pointed out the obvious: that a compelling novel or movie, far from being an intellectual exercise, is a personal experience. It’s like the difference, she told me, between reading an airplane manual and the actual or simulated experience of flying. You identify with a story’s characters, with theme or overall message, with plot events that pull you in and won’t let you go until the message seeps in.
The catch is that this principle works both ways — to our advantage but also to the Left’s. And worse: far as I can tell, the Hollywood liberal-left mentality has enjoyed a near-monopoly on this particular battleground right from the beginning. Remember the artistically acclaimed films of Costa Gavras? His oeuvre consisted of an interesting balancing act: discrediting fascist regimes while simultaneously glamorizing totalitarian regimes of the Left. And if I may anticipate the skeptic’s claim that I’m exaggerating the impact that fiction can have ideologically, consider celebrated British novelist John le Carre. This man singlehandedly altered the landscape of the entire espionage genre, turning a black-and-white universe into an atmosphere of moral grayness. It was le Carre’s eloquent dramatizations of KGB and British Intelligence as two halves of the same rotten apple that ultimately succeeded in erasing the distinction between Soviet and Western Intelligence services!
FP: Are you a religious person?
Holzer: Not in the conventional sense. But if deep-seated empathy for people who suffer through no fault of their own — if feeling protective of the helpless and the innocent, whether animals or children or the elderly — if outrage of almost biblical proportion in the face of enormous injustice — count, I guess you could say I’m, if not religious, then at least spiritual.
In explaining what motivated me to write my novel Eye for an Eye, I observed in the Rand fiction-writing book: “I wanted the focus to be back where it belonged — on the victim.... A half-forgotten crime scene, which I hadn’t been able to stop myself from visualizing when I’d read about it years ago, rose to the surface like a bloated corpse: Kitty Genovese, lying in her own blood, her desperate screams, as she was being stabbed to death, ignored by her neighbors — people ... who, by their own admission, ‘didn’t want to get involved.’ Well, I did.”
This passage tells you where I’m coming from when it comes to empathy and a sense of injustice.
FP: What are your thoughts on death and mortality?
Holzer: I don’t think about them.
FP: What do you think of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky? What meaning do you see in him reprimanding Christ for burdening humans with freedom and free choice?
Holzer: I think of the Grand Inquisitor in my favorite Dostoevsky novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as the Grand Rationalizer. After all, take away free will and with it goes personal accountability for your actions. Much as this deviant excuse for a human being would like to “justify” torturing people without being held morally responsible, he can’t escape his own conscience, can he? Otherwise, why would he reprimand Christ?
It takes a certain type of fiction writer to be comfortable with the Grand Inquisitor’s rationalizations about free choice being burdensome. In Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, I devote a chapter and an essay to what Rand called the Romantic Realism school of writing versus the school of naturalism. Since one of the distinguishing characteristics of the latter is determinism as opposed to free will, a pure naturalist is likely to devise characters who are buffeted by Fate or “society” or genes or poverty — that whole collection of rationalizations for human behavior so dear to the excuse-making heart of the social scientist. If that’s your approach, it wouldn’t be hard to make excuses for the likes of the Grand Inquisitor. Hollywood indulges in this sort of exercise all the time — giving “redeeming social values” to, say, serial killers and psychos!
FP: Erika Holzer, thank you for joining us today.
Holzer: I enjoyed it, Jamie. Thanks.