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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Writing Fiction vs. History

Let's compare these two vocations that you have, a novelist and a historian. Let's talk first about being a historian. What are the skills and temperament required to do history well?

The ability to be alone for long periods. Sometimes I'll look up from my desk and realize I haven't talked to another human being for three days. The ability to process sometimes vast amounts of material from a multiplicity of sources. For example, my current book on the history of America and the Middle East that I'm due to finish shortly, I'm dealing with, oh, about a fifty-page bibliography, and culling from this bibliography, which includes twenty different archives. And this material is coming in all the time. I have to somehow process this. But the biggest skill, the most important skill, I think, for a historian is the ability to make decisions. In any given time you have to decide what is important, what isn't important, what goes in, what goes out. Sometimes the decision making process is acute, it's painful. A quote that is just a fantastic quote, you just have to somehow excise it, you have to get rid of it. And every given minute you are making multiple decisions.

Has your education been the thing that most prepared you to do that, or was it just reading history?

Both. I don't think you can be a writer, in general, without reading a tremendous amount. I was very fortunate in my education, both undergraduate and graduate, had very, very fine professors, and felt that I really was prepared with skills to take on the profession.

What is your philosophy as a historian? Are you hoping that through this work you will find the truth?

That's it. You said the "T" word. I have one very basic philosophy, and that is a relentless and uncompromising search for the truth. Sometimes I'll drive my family crazy, drive my assistants crazy, drive myself crazy looking for one fact.

I'll tell you a quick story because in our pre-recording conversation you mentioned Walter Russell Mead, and it's a story that relates to him. In the book I'm currently writing about America in the Middle East I wanted to see the impact of the Middle East on the making of the U.S. Constitution. In the spring of 1787, when delegates from twelve states were convening in Philadelphia to consider whether to transform the United States from a confederation into this federation, the greatest foreign policy issue present in the United States was the Barbary pirate threat, and there were 127 Americans who had been captured by the states of North Africa -- what today is Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. There's only one record of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison's record, and it makes no mention of the Barbary pirates. I later found a quote from George Washington, as the presiding chairman of the meetings, where he asked delegates not to discuss it, it was too divisive an issue. And yet, I knew that the pirates had to have had some impact on the making of the Constitutional Convention because without a navy, which the United States didn't have at that time, they couldn't fight back against the pirates. You couldn't have a navy unless you had a federal government.

So, I went to Walter Russell Mead (I greatly admire him as an historian of American foreign policy), and I said, "What can I do? I have this historian's gut feeling that it's out there. Where is it? Where is this truth?" He said, "You're looking in the wrong place. Go to the ratification debates of every single state." I went to these ratification debates, multiple volumes -- twelve volumes, just the Massachusetts [records]. There is so much in there that there wasn't room to quote it all in the text. American delegates from Massachusetts, South Carolina, Georgia, saying, "We cannot fight this threat in the Middle East unless we have a navy, and we can't have a navy unless we have a federal government. We need a constitution." So, the search for that particular one truth, the impact of the Middle East on the making of the U.S. Constitution, cost me weeks of work. But I don't regret it.

So, you're describing an informed hunch and persistence. You're going to drill until you find that well.

Sometimes it doesn't play out. Right now I'm writing about the history of American involvement in the Middle East during World War II. Mmy book is more than just a political military history, it's also a cultural and literary history, an economic history, and I'm looking at memoirs of American GIs who served in the Middle East during World War II to get [a sense of] what did the Middle East look like to a GI from Oklahoma in 1943? It's fascinating. I had a hunch that the American slang word, "hubba-hubba" -- remember? remember Danny Kaye saying "hubba-hubba"? -- came from Arabic, because the word for love in Arabic is "hubba." I had heard a little rumor that American GIs serving in North Africa in World War II heard Arab men commenting on Arab women, going, "hubba-hubba," and this later found its way into the American vernacular. I spent, oh, I think, two days searching that out and found that "hubba-hubba" comes from Chinese.

So, you were wrong about that.

I was wrong about that.

Let's ask the same questions of you as a novelist. Are there similarities in the temperament and the skills that you deploy when you write fiction?

Yes, and that's on the level of gripping your reader. The most important lesson I've taken with me from fiction writing to history writing is the need to keep your reader riveted. A book, basically, is an information delivery system, and the more effective that system is, the better you will be able to educate your reader. Readers, being human beings, like to be entertained, and they like vivid language, and they like fully drawn characters, and they like plots that move. When I write a history book about the Barbary pirate wars or about the American involvement in World War II in the Middle East, I'm asking myself on every page, if not every paragraph, "How am I keeping my reader interested?" Now, you have to balance that consideration over the consideration of the truth. Not all truths are equally interesting. They may be equally true but they're not equally interesting. And one has to balance that as well. So, that's an important lesson.

What is the search for truth like for a novelist? You've just suggested that you have to respond to the market to a certain extent, to what people want to read and what will draw them in, but on the other hand, for example, in your novel you're pursuing whatever truths there are about men in war and the complexity of their characters that they bring to that war, and the stories they tell about that war.

To strive for truth in fiction is far more difficult, far more challenging than it is in history. The search for truth in history is based on documents mostly, and sources. You go to the documents, sometimes you need two or three documents to establish a truth, but in fiction one has to look for truth in the human character. The writer has to pause and not consult a book or an archive but has to look in his and her experience of the human drama and to say, "Oh, would this character act in this way, in this circumstance? To what degree does this situation or this personality have verisimilitude?" These are very important questions. book coverBut as a novelist you wrestle with them all the time.

Let me show your most recent novel to our audience, Reunion: A Novel. We won't go into detail with this book because I don't want to give it away, I want people to buy it, but it's about a coming together of soldiers to a reunion at the battlefield where they fought. Did your father's stories make a contribution, not in the sense that you're repeating his stories, but they were the material that you worked with?

They were certainly the raw material. This is a story about a unit from World War II, an infantry unit that in the winter of 1944 and 1945 fought a pitched battle against advancing German forces in a small Belgian town, and sixty years later the survivors of this unit, now in their late seventies or eighties, come back to this village and have a final reunion. It's about finishing up old business, closing old wounds, dealing with aging -- aging and youth is a big theme here.

I attended my father's reunions from a very early age. Unbeknownst to him, I was quietly recording everything that was said and I filed away dozens of these stories and characters. Many of the characters in this book are composites of real people, and I drew on it. Now that doesn't mean everything in this book happened in truth -- I would say about 85 percent of it is true. What is interesting is that my father had a difficult time with this book, and one of the reasons he had a difficult time with the book was, first of all, because I touched on so many painful incidents, the whole [experience] was rife with pain, and also, because I intuited -- and going back to your question about truth and the search for truth -- I intuited aspects of characters in the book that I really just made up but turned out were true. And my father looked at me and said, "Well, how did you know this?," and, "I'm not comfortable with this being published." But it was too late.

In fiction, I assume, you can have more license, you can imagine things and go places, whereas in history you're bound by the facts and the facts that you dig up, [although] you can interpret them.

You even use the word "imagine" very guardedly with history. As a small example, again in this book about America in the Middle East, the second most popular book on the American colonial book shelf, after the Bible, was A Thousand and One Nights. I quote from an eighteenth-century translation from A Thousand and One Nights which is very sexual, if not pornographic, and in my text I say, "Imagine the sort of sexual overdose evoked by this passage on a New England Puritan or a Southern plantation owner," and I quote the passage. So, I use that word -- I think it appears once in a book of maybe 600-700 pages. You use that very guardedly, whereas in fiction it is all about imagination.

In the book Six Days of War, which we'll talk about in a minute, one is struck by the way you capture in your narrative the story of the soldiers acting on the battlefield. Obviously you must have gotten these from messages that were written down and interviews, and so on, but it was also a compelling portrait of soldiers on the battlefield trying to figure out what to do as they went along.

I've been fortunate or unfortunate, I'm not quite sure which, to have been a soldier, to have been a soldier in wartime, and to realize that soldiers in wartime, their behavior, their bravery, their lack of bravery, is very often an arbitrary matter. Battle is about confusion, more than anything else. It's about uncertainty, it's about just bum luck most of the time, and many people who don't have that experience will try to search for causes and try to portray courage as this sort of exulted characteristic when, in fact, it may be just a whim of the moment.

Next page: Researching the Six-Day War

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