The Serious Business of Storytelling
Andrew Klavan is the author of such internationally bestselling novels as True Crime, filmed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Don’t Say A Word, made into a film starring Michael Douglas. Klavan has been nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award five times and has won twice. His books have been translated around the world.
Tell us about your immediate family.
My father was Gene Klavan, a popular New York radio entertainer. My mother was a homemaker. I was born in New York City in 1954. I have an older brother and twin younger brothers.
Did you have any childhood thoughts about God?
Oh, I guess I had the usual kid’s relationship with God. “Hi, God. Help me. Give me stuff.” That sort of thing. I remember calling out to him in times of trouble. But I don’t think my belief ran particularly deep. I certainly never associated him with religion or my religious training.
What did your Jewishness mean to you as you grew up?
Well, I was raised Jewish, sent to Hebrew school, bar mitzvahed and so on. But my parents made it clear they didn’t really believe in any of the religious part of it. My father just wanted us to get the sense of belonging to the culture. As a result, by the time I was bar mitzvahed, I felt like a total hypocrite, mouthing words I didn’t believe. At that time, in that particular neighborhood, people gave you a lot of jewelry when you got bar mitzvahed: watches, bracelets, pens, money clips… so I got thousands of dollars worth of stuff. And at first, I was very pleased to have so much wealth. I kept it in a leather box and I’d take it out sometimes and look at it. But after between six months and a year, I became ashamed of it. It was ill-gotten gain, you know, given to me for lying about what I believed. One night, I waited for everyone to go to sleep, then crept downstairs and threw the leather box away, burying it under the garbage so the garbage men would take it away before anyone else found it. That was meant to be the end of my religious life.
And was that the end?
After my bar mitzvah, I was done with the religious part of Judaism. Or any religion. I was always comfortable as a cultural Jew, though. I kind of liked being a bit of an outsider in that way. It didn’t mean very much to me but it was there. As for God, as I became more of an intellectual, I became an agnostic. For a brief, though important time, I was an atheist. I just figured it was not something you could know the answers to. I felt a true thinker had to carry the burden of unknowing.
How did you become a fiction writer?
I always wanted to be a novelist. But I had to make a living. So I worked as a radio reporter, a newspaperman, a radio news writer, a script reader… along with stints as a cab driver, a security guard, a secretary, a warehouseman – anything to make money and survive. Finally, I wrote a book called The Scarred Man that got a big movie sale. That’s how I became a writer full-time, even though the movie was never made.
At some point you began to consider Jesus. How did that happen?
I knew who Jesus was, of course. I had plenty of Christian friends and he was all around in the culture. But I think my first serious engagement with him was literary. When I was about fifteen, I read the King James Bible – not religiously, but because I wanted to be a writer and I knew it was a seminal work of literature, like Shakespeare’s plays. One day my father walked into my bedroom without knocking and caught me reading Luke’s Gospel. He was livid. He told me if I ever thought of converting he would disown me. I find this kind of funny now, when you think of what you could find your teenaged son reading if you burst in on him like that!
Did you object to what you read in the New Testament?
I had no objections to it because I simply regarded it as a work of literature. You don’t object to David Copperfield or Moby Dick. You don’t believe they’re true, but you don’t object to them. However, Jesus himself became important in my thinking because he was a figure of such importance in Western thought. I wanted to explain him, to interpret him, to understand why he stood at the center of everything. But again, it was an intellectual and literary endeavor, not a spiritual one.
Did you find anything particularly convincing in the New Testament?
Well, what got me was that when I came to believe in God, when I came to engage with the nature of God, I came to realize that the God I was engaged with was always the God of the gospels. If you think of God as a great city you have to explore, it was like, every street I walked down, there was Jesus waiting for me.
Were there particular passages in the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament that grabbed you?
By the time I came to faith – and that wasn’t until sometime between 2003 and 2004 – I had read both Testaments many times. And it wasn’t like Saint Augustine… you know, the book blowing open to a specific page and I was convinced. It was more that the Bible seemed to envelop my faith, that there was nothing I could think about faith without finding reference to it somewhere in the Bible.
How did you finally come to believe in Jesus?
No one could’ve been more surprised than me, really. I had started to pray – almost off-handedly, almost as an experiment. But the effect of it on my life was huge. In fact, over the course of, say, three or four years, I realized that steady personal prayer had changed and improved my entire life, inside and out. And I was humbled by that, you know, and I sort of said to God,“Dude, you’ve done this incredible thing for me, and I’d like to do something for you. But I’m just me and you’re, like, God. What can I possibly do?” And the answer came back to me almost instantly: I had to get baptized. And I was, like, “You gotta be kidding me! Do I even believe in that?” But when I started to think it through, I realized that I did.
One of my biggest fears confronting baptism – took me five months to work through it – was I didn’t want anyone to think I was turning my back on Jews, trying to escape my Jewish identity. The default mode with some Jews is to assume you’re trying to “pass as gentile” or blend in or that you hate your Jewishness and are joining the enemy. All understandable, because the Jews are the most mistreated group of people on the face of the planet and some of that trouble has come out of Christian sources, which stinks. Oddly, though, accepting Jesus made me feel more Jewish than I ever had, religiously at least. I had no connection to the Old Testament particularly until I accepted the New.
How has your life changed since you came to believe in Jesus?
It’s pretty dramatic to the few people who know me well. I’m much more at peace, much more able to do what needs to be done without a lot of grief about it. Plus, I’m virtually fearless. It’s almost comical. I don’t mean I’m base jumping without a parachute or anything, but when it comes to doing what I know is right, saying what I know has to be said, I do it without hesitation and – even when a lot of people say very nasty things about me, which they do – I feel perfectly cool about it. I was never a wilting flower or anything. I was always a scrappy guy. But now there’s a lot less belligerence to it. I don’t have anything to prove. I just want to do what I was created to do, write what I was created to write.
Tell us about your latest adult thriller, Identity Man.
Well, in some ways it deals with these very issues. It’s about a thief who gets accused of murder. The police are closing in on him when suddenly, a mysterious stranger approaches him and says, “I’m going to give you a second chance. A new face, a new name, new records – a new life.” But of course, that’s just the beginning of it. The story examines the questions: How free are we to choose our identity? How much is race a part of that identity? What’s the core of who we are? All questions I had to ask myself as I wrestled with baptism.
What is your new young adult novel, The Final Hour, about?
A: The Final Hour is the conclusion to the Homelanders series. The series is about this straight-arrow teenager who goes to bed one night in his own house and wakes up being tortured by Islamic terrorists. He breaks away – and then finds he’s wanted by the police for murder as well. The first three books, The Last Thing I Remember, The Long Way Home and The Truth of the Matter followed the hero’ s desperate attempts to find out how all this happened without getting killed in the process. Now he’s got the answers, but in The Final Hour there’s a last do-or-die confrontation between this kid and the evil that’s been dogging him this whole time.
Tell me about your family.
I’m blessed in my marriage, truly. Insanely blessed. I picked my wife up hitchhiking more than 30 years ago, and I’ve been wildly, passionately in love with her ever since. It’s nuts. It’s transformative. Her name is Ellen and we were married in 1980. We have two children: the older one is Faith, who’s married and a schoolteacher in New York City, and Spencer, who’s a college student.
What is your work life like? What is a typical day like for you as a writer?
I’m a workhorse. I’m at my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and I write till noon. I take a long lunch, but by 3:00 p.m. I’m back, usually doing research, phone calls and so on till 7:00 or 7:30. Then after dinner, I do my reading till about 10:00 p.m, sometimes later. I don’t get out much.
At the conclusion of a 2007 interview with you, the interviewer added this postscript: “Reader advisory: Klavan novels realistically depict violence, unbiblical sexual activities, and characters unable to put together a sentence that does not include an obscenity.“* Is there a conflict for you as a writer who is a believer in Jesus to include this type of content in your writing?
Not in the least. I’m glad you asked that because I really hate squeaky clean Christian storytelling. Storytelling is a serious business, a vocation, a way of getting at the heart of what it means to be alive. At its core is truth-telling – telling the truth about the way people live and the ways they treat one another and the aching core of the human spirit. People in my books love and hurt and betray and kill each other and God doesn’t drop down from heaven and solve their problems because that’s not how life is. I want to read – and to write – stories that deepen the reader’s understanding of his position in the world. So… I write the stories God gives me to write and I write them as truthfully as I can. That’s why I’m here.
* Andrew Klavan, “Too Nice for Vice?” interview by Marvin Olasky, World, February 10, 2007, http://www.worldmag.com/articles/12661.
When Hall of Fame baseball player Gary Carter died at age 57 from cancer in 2012, Andrew Klavan wrote this tribute to him in The Wall Street Journal: