Interview with Erika Holzer
After college (B.S. from Cornell University) and law school (J.D. from New York University), Erika Holzer practiced law with her husband Henry Mark Holzer, and wrote numerous articles, syndicated columns and reviews for various publications, as well as a couple of short stories.
She co-authored with her husband two nonfiction books: "Aid and Comfort": JANE FONDA IN NORTH VIETNAM (McFarland, hard- and soft-cover), and FAKE WARRIORS: Identifying, Exposing, and Punishing Those Who Falsify Their Military Service.
The theme of her first novel, DOUBLE CROSSING, is human rights. It has an espionage background and takes place in the Soviet Union and East Germany. EYE FOR AN EYE, her second novel, is a morality tale with all the trappings of a psychological thriller. Its theme is how a criminal justice system that coddles the criminal — especially juveniles — can drive the victim of violent crime to vigilantism. In 1996 Paramount Pictures produced a feature film of EYE FOR AN EYE, directed by award-winning John Schlesinger, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sally Field.
Holzer's most recent book, part memoir, part literary journey, part fiction-writing guide, is AYN RAND: MY FICTION-WRITING TEACHER: A novelist's mentor-protege relationship with the author of ATLAS SHRUGGED.
In the mid-60s when Erika Holzer and her husband represented Ayn Rand, they learned about an Italian film based on Rand's first novel, WE THE LIVING. This film, unauthorized by Rand, had opened in fascist Italy in 1941 in two segments, had won awards, and, for complex reasons, had been withdrawn from theaters by fascist authorities Years later Rand was shown a copy by one of its stars, Rossano Brazzi. When she told the Holzers about the film — how she thought it was better than the movie version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD but that it was lost — the Holzers vowed to track it down, which they did. When they returned from Italy and first ran the two segments for Ayn Rand, she gave them and film editor Duncan Scott significant input on how the movie should be edited. The Holzers and Duncan Scott went on to co-produce the movie, and Erika Holzer and Duncan Scott, after persuading Rand not to dub the film, went through a lengthy, laborious process of writing a script — roughly 4,000 subtitles. The Italian two-parter NOI VIVI and ADIO KIRA became the internationally-acclaimed art film WE THE LIVING. (For a complete history of the movie, including cast and credits, see www.wethelivingmovie.com, — and check this site for when a DVD of the film, now being finalized, with added features by people associated with the film, will be available.
Iwan Morelius: I had the pleasure of meeting you in New York City many years ago at an "Edgar" weekend sponsored by MWA — the Mystery Writers of America. Are you still a member?
Erika Holzer: Not since I left Manhattan and moved to the West Coast.Morelius: It was at that MWA event that you and I started to talk and found we had an interest in one special author — Ayn Rand. Didn't you tell me it was she who triggered your first novel?
The Swedish edition of Atlas Shrugged
Holzer: Iwan, I remember when we met as if it were yesterday! It was a delight to discover at that literary gathering a kindred soul, philosophically speaking. And yes, it was indeed Ayn Rand who eventually triggered my life-altering career change from lawyer to novelist. I say "eventually" because it didn't happen right away. After my husband-to-be, Hank Holzer, and I met at NYU Law School, he gave me a copy of Rand's magnum opus ATLAS SHRUGGED and told me — these were his exact words, "This book will change your life." He was right on the money. I have never — before or since — been so profoundly affected in every important aspect of my life by any book, fiction or non-fiction, as I was by ATLAS.
Roughly half a dozen years later when Hank and I began to represent Ayn Rand, I had no intention of abandoning the law for a fiction-writing career. I remember being captivated by Ayn's intelligence and charismatic personality. And because I loved her novels and agreed with her philosophy, naturally I was eager to get to know her better. But it never occurred to me to drop out of the legal profession. Apart from practicing law, my writing at that time consisted solely of nonfiction articles — some with my husband, some not — as well as a lot of columns, reviews, editorials, that sort of thing.
Morelius: This was in the 1960s, as I recall.
Holzer: The mid-60s, yes.
Morelius: So at what point did you start to study the art of fiction writing with Ms. Rand?
Holzer: It was a very gradual process. Looking back I think the intimate atmosphere — doing our legal business in Ayn's apartment instead of at our midtown law office — was very conducive — a contributing factor, you might say. Let me explain. Because Hank and I held Ayn Rand in such high regard, we afforded her the convenience of not having to travel to our office. Instead we'd meet at her place once or twice weekly in the evening for a few hours — which, by the way, was no hardship for us since we happened to live only a few blocks away. But as soon as the legal sessions were concluded, it was as if all of us needed what I thought of then as a "pleasure break." The legal business, you see, was more often than not rather tense and unpleasant.
The Swedish edition of The Fountainhead
So when it was done, we three would sit on Ayn's couch having coffee and cake and talk about writing — mostly about her novels. Because the conversation was so fascinating and because Hank and I knew we were literally five minutes away from our own apartment, we'd lose all track of time and invariably stay until three or four in the morning. Nor was I shy about bombarding Ayn with questions about my favorite scenes or characters in THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED. What an exhilarating experience it was! And Ayn, far from growing tired at the lateness of the hour, was always animated by my endlessly probing questions — all of which she would answer with infinite patience. But more than that, it was clear to me from the start that Ayn was enjoying herself.
So while I didn't start out studying the art of fiction writing from Ayn Rand in any formal sense, the learning process gradually evolved over time during this unforgettable late-night give-and-take. And just as gradually, I might add, as Hank's and my professional relationship with Ayn evolved into friendship, so my discussions with her about fiction writing segued into mentoring.
Morelius: What form did this mentoring take?
Holzer: At first we'd have a sort of informal discussion that revolved around Ayn's answers to my specific questions — which of course in turn led to more discussion. But Ayn also lent me some invaluable tapes of a fiction-writing course she'd given about ten years before — thirteen lectures in all — which incorporated not only fiction writing principles she'd used in her own novels, but a critical analysis of other novels as well. Ayn encouraged me to make detailed notes from the tapes, after which she spent a lot of time going over these notes with me. It was my good fortune to receive a thorough indoctrination in the four elements crucial to the well-constructed novel: theme, plot, characterization, and style. Ayn had such a great gift for imparting her knowledge and her skills! Time and again, she would guide me from error to enlightenment with unstinting patience — whether it was explaining a single point or an entire methodology.
So yes, Ayn was singularly responsible for my career change from lawyer to novelist For roughly five years, she taught me how to master the craft of fiction-writing — principles and insights that I went on to apply to my own novels. And to my knowledge, I am the only person with the unprecedented experience of learning to write fiction one-on-one from Ayn Rand.
Morelius: And once Ayn Rand started mentoring you in earnest, you left the law for fiction?
Holzer: Actually, I didn't. One doesn't lightly walk away from a Juris Doctor degree and a professional career, especially if, as in my case, you come from a long line of lawyers — aunts, uncles, siblings. I continued to practice with my husband for many years and I continued to write non-fiction, even as I immersed myself in the principles I'd learned from Ayn. My goal was to hone my fiction-writing skills before making the big plunge. And as with any beginning fiction-writer, I had a number of false starts. But why spoil the fun for those of your audience who might want to read all about it in AYN RAND: MY FICTION-WRITING TEACHER? I spell out some pretty amusing anecdotes about the pitfalls and problems a neophyte can run into, and how Ayn patiently guided me through them in that memorable mentoring process. There's a phrase that applies to beginners in any field of endeavor: developing your "sea legs." It entails acquiring a certain calming familiarity with the rules of the game before you walk onto the playing field.
Morelius: EYE FOR AN EYE deals with the vigilante problem. Why did you choose that subject? Was it a personal experience or just that the subject interested you?
Holzer: The latter. What drew me to the subject, in a word, was empathy. But indirectly, I credit Ayn Rand for pointing me in the direction of choosing vigilantism as my subject, and our flawed criminal justice system as my theme. Early on, Ayn had advised me that when searching for a theme, a novelist should make sure it's something about which he or she feels truly passionate. I took her advice when I chose the subject and theme of my first novel. Even though I was tempted to put my legal background to work in, say, a courtroom drama, I realized that while this would have been a practical choice, it was not necessarily a wise one. At the time, I was learning more and more — mostly from Ayn herself — about the outrageous spectacle of people locked behind an Iron Curtain. About the barbed-wire totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and East Germany. That's where my passions lay. The end result was my human rights novel DOUBLE CROSSING.
Morelius: Was DOUBLE CROSSING a movie? It would have been a good one, I think.
Holzer: To my great disappointment, it didn't make it to the big screen — and you're right, it would have been a good movie, given the inherent drama of its storyline. But my timing was bad, politically speaking. DOUBLE CROSSING's blistering anti-communist theme clashed with the policy of detente — a thaw in Soviet-American relations, courtesy of Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. As you know, EYE FOR AN EYE, the novel that followed DOUBLE CROSSING, had no such obstacle in its path. Paramount Pictures released the feature film, also called EYE FOR AN EYE, in 1996, and it's been replayed endlessly on cable television ever since.
But getting back to why I chose to follow DOUBLE CROSSING, with EYE FOR AN EYE, for a number of reasons I was interested in the phenomenon of vigilantism and the implications of a justice system that coddled criminals at the expense of crime victims. Why do I say that Ayn Rand indirectly helped me to make that choice? Because once again, as with my first novel, I was tempted by a practical consideration to follow DOUBLE CROSSING with another espionage-style thriller, even though my preliminary research into the criminal justice system was already making my ingrained sense of injustice kick in. My publisher, understandably buoyed by the success of DOUBLE CROSSING, its multiple printings, and its long list of impressive accolades from some pretty heavy hitters in the thriller genre, wanted me, not unreasonably, to continue writing novels in the same vein. Adding to my conflict was the counsel of a few of my endorsers — world-famous novelists with whom I'd become friends — who urged me to write a string of espionage-style thrillers because, in this way, I could cash in on reader expectations, continue to build a following, and enhance future sales. I couldn't argue with the logic, the well-meaning advice — but in the end, Ayn Rand's advice trumped theirs: Write about what you feel, Erika. Choose something you're impassioned about. Which is what I did.
So while it's true that I had no personal experience with vigilantism and was never a victim of violent crime, I had, on the one hand, great empathy for crime victims and, on the other, outrage that ultimately reached the boiling point over a justice system that continued to fail these victims — especially when it came to juvenile crime. The more I learned, the more I saw the need to structure my novel not as a paean to vigilantism or a psychologically satisfying revenge thriller (which is what more than one editor wanted from me), but rather a thriller with a cautionary tale as its theme — a warning that the current system of "justice" could drive otherwise responsible citizens to take desperate measures. To take the law into their own hands. Unfortunately, even though my message rang out loud and clear — not just in novel form but as a movie that opened across the country and worldwide — incidents of vigilantism have continued to bubble to the surface, some of the more notorious blown up in the press but a lot more, I suspect, not.
Morelius: When you wrote EYE FOR AN EYE, were you influenced by novels such as DEATH WISH or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE?
Holzer: No to both. And in the case of DEATH WISH, I actually knew and was on friendly terms with the author, Brian Garfield, so I'd read not just that novel but most of his others.
What did influence me was something that was splashed all over the news long before I embarked on EYE FOR AN EYE but was so upsetting that, years later when I started to look into vigilantism, this incident — so graphic that I had visualized it in detail — rose to the surface again like a bloated corpse . . . Kitty Genovese, lying in her own blood, her desperate screams as she was being stabbed to death ignored by neighbors who didn't want to get "involved" — not even to dial 911. In a sense, it was this horrific tragedy that helped push me in the direction of writing a novel that lays bare an often indifferent public and a flawed criminal justice system.
As for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, while I never read the novel, I did see the film — a chilling drama. Can't say I "enjoyed" it but it was very well done. So when best-selling novelist Nelson DeMille gave me a long and ringing endorsement for EYE FOR AN EYE, I was very pleased — not to mention stunned — when he wrote in part:
"Erika Holzer's EYE FOR AN EYE is a serious and disturbing look at street gangs, urban violence, and the criminal justice system. Holzer, an attorney, understands the system, and more importantly, she understands the society she and the rest of us live in. She has created a plot from what could be, and often is, any newspaper headline, and carried it a step further, a step many of us would not take but think about in our darkest moments. Holzer's characters are vividly created, impassioned, and interestingly flawed so that we relate to them and believe they exist. The writing is sharp and terse, moves at a fast pace, and the dialogue is snappy and to the point. Highly recommended, a sort of American CLOCKWORK ORANGE."
Morelius: Who are your favorite authors in the mystery-thriller genre?
Holzer: The gentleman I just mentioned — Nelson DeMille, Robert Tanenbaum. Lee Child. Nora Roberts's J.D. Robb series. I'm also about to launch into two more novelists who come highly recommended by my husband: David Baldacci and Stephen Coonts.
Morelius: Are you working on another novel?
Holzer: I am. After all the time-outs from fiction, and for the writing and promotion of my non-fiction books and articles, not to mention promotion on behalf of the movie version of EYE FOR AN EYE and a couple of time-consuming cross-country moves, I'm gearing up to write a courtroom drama that I can feel passionate about.
And I am so intrigued by my protagonist-hero and what makes him tick that I'm playing around with the idea of building an entire series around him. So stay tuned to my website for further developments!
Morelius: I certainly will. Erika, I recently reread all of Ayn Rand's books published in Sweden and found them well worth reading again. Written so many years ago, early 40s and 50s, they are all still so relevant. Can you talk about why that is?
Holzer: Let me put it this way. Ayn Rand, thanks to the philosophy she brilliantly dramatized in ATLAS SHRUGGED, is so relevant to the times we live in that not a day goes by when Hank and I don't reflect, as we check out the headlines or turn on the news, just how prescient she was about how — due to the recent political machinations of, first the Bush administration, and now Obama and his henchmen — our Constitution and the Founding principles it is based upon are in grave danger. Capitalism is embattled as never before, and Ayn spelled out the how and the why as long ago as the 40s and 50s Iwan, it's a case of life imitating art! And because more and more people, here and abroad, are seeing the parallels between events Rand depicted in ATLAS and the fascist-collectivist edicts being imposed by a Democrat president, both houses of Congress, and in fairly short order the U.S. Supreme Court, the sales of ATLAS SHRUGGED are off the charts. According to TitleZ, an online firm that tracks bestseller rankings on Amazon, ATLAS's 30-day average rank was 127 in late February (well above its average over the past two years of 542), in mid-January it was 33, and in March ATLAS surged into the top 20, climbing as high as 16. According to The Economist, the novel's sales coincide with the news. News such as the Bank of England's bailout of a troubled mortgage lender. Such as the Bush administration's decision to "coax" banks to assist subprime borrowers. Such as the well-publicized debate over the Obama administration's stimulus plan.
There are a couple of excellent blogs that reliably track, comment on, or, in the case of Rule of Reason, publish commentary about how Ayn Rand's philosophy ties in with what's going on in this country and in the world at large.
See Ed Cline's regular and archived commentary on Rule of Reason.
Subscribe to Robert Tracinski's TIA Daily by contacting editor@TIADaily.com.
Sign on with www.henrymarkholzer.blogspot.com (and then be sure to confirm with Yahoo).
And look for the new blog: Ayn Rand and America Today by Erika Holzer.