Michael B. Oren Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

War in History and in Fiction: Conversation with Michael B. Oren, Historian and Writer; Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem; November 8, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Michael, welcome to Berkeley.

Hi, how are you? Good to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in a small, god-forsaken place known as Johnson City, New York. I wasn't raised there. I was raised in New Jersey, northern New Jersey.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Oh, very much so. First of all, I had a fairly conservative Jewish upbringing, a Zionist upbringing to the degree that American Jews are Zionists and they support the Jewish state but don't want to move there and they don't even want their kids to move there; but I took that education and took it the next step and actually did move there. My father had been a career office in the U.S. Army, landed on Normandy, fought through the battles of World War II, and he instilled in me a great sense of history. We'll talk about it later when you talk about the novel I wrote based on my father's stories, but it had a big influence on me, certainly. For a period there, if I was any better at mathematics, I would have gone to West Point.

What about your mother?

My mother was a teacher who at the time was a frustrated novelist, now she is actually a novelist, she's managed to publish a novel, and she was very encouraging in my writing.

So, this interest in military affairs was there early?

Very early. I went to all my father's reunions.

Aha! And you heard the stories and ...

Heard them and listened to them and recorded them secretly.

Did you go to schools in New York?

I went to schools in northern New Jersey but at a very early age I started going to Israel to work on farms, on kibbutz. I was a cow herder and an alfalfa raiser, and probably if I was better as a farmer I would've stayed on kibbutz, but it turned out I was better at studying history. So, I came back from Israel and I studied. I did my undergraduate work at Columbia and my graduate work at Princeton.

And you chose history as your field, obviously.

I have, at last count, about four degrees in Arab history, in Middle Eastern history.

I assume you've acquired a number of languages.

Well, particularly Arabic and Hebrew.

All during this education period, formative years, were you also writing stories, writing fiction?

I started writing poetry when I was about twelve and I wrote my first novel, a painful experience, when I was nineteen. I wrote many novels before I succeeded in publishing one. The Reunion novel is not my first. I have a collection of all my rejection slips at home and they're in a folder, and that folder's about the size of the Manhattan phone book.

During this period, not just when you were getting your formal education, were you a student of war? Did you follow wars as they were occurring? For example, the Six Day War in the sixties when you were only twelve?

I was very much interested in war. I think a lot of young men are, a prurient fascination. There's always that desire to know what you would do had you been in your father's situation. There were several primary events in my father's wartime experiences. One was crossing the Rhine River under fire in March of 1945, and the other was blowing up a German tank with a bazooka at a range of about ten yards in the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944. I guess as a kid you listen to these stories and you say to yourself, "Gee, what would I do if I was in that situation? Could I exhibit the same type of courage and resilience that my father did?"

Is that part of your creative process when you work as a novelist? Are you remembering stories and changing them and looking at alternatives?

The creative process comes from a place very deep, sort of like behind your kneecaps. I'm not quite sure where it comes from. And that's true whether I'm writing fiction or whether I'm writing history. There are times when I look down at what I've written after a day of history writing and I say, "God, where did that come from? Where did that idea come from?" If it's a good idea I'm grateful for it. I'm not entirely certain. But I do know that when I later became a soldier in the Israeli army and participated in a lot of combat, I used to say to myself, "God, how did my father ever do this?"

Next page: Writing Fiction vs. History

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