The Eric Lerner Interview: Under Twenty Questions

Today I chat with the author of the new novel Pinkerton's Secret, a historical novel about the passionate life story of the Civil War era's legendary private eye, recounting dramatic exploits and his clandestine love affair with his partner Allan Pinkerton's story opens in Chicago on the eve of the American Civil War.. Eric Lerner has also written a memoir, Journey of Insight Meditation , about his experiences traveling and living in Buddhist monasteries and communities in Asia and America. That somehow led to a twenty-year career as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. Films with his name on them include Bird on a Wire and Augustus, starring Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling.

Why did you decide to make Pinkerton's secret a novel instead of nonfiction?
That was a non-decision. I write fiction. The only non-fiction I've written, aside from the occasional review, was a first person memoir a long time ago, which, unlike some recently published ones, was entirely true. I prefer to uphold the standard of fiction--never bore.

What was your process for researching and writing the book first? Did you write as you researched or you did all the research first?
After reading one book about Pinkerton, the story pretty much came to me. Then I did a lot of research about the man. It extended to tracking down a pretty rare facsimile copy of Kate Warne's logbook account of saving Lincoln's life. Then I spent a lot of time imagining the novel, the way I imagine all the stories I invent, layering the conflicts on top of the themes on top of the characters on top of the plot. Then, as I wrote, over a period of years, I continued to read, but more in a sideways fashion, about slavery, Lincoln, Abolitionism, female spiritual mediums, the trans-continental railroad, the woman's suffrage movement, Andrew Carnegie, and reconstruction, to name a few topics. Finally, I found myself reading about how the history of that period was written, or more interestingly, miswritten.

I've read some discussion of Pinkerton's critical view of Abraham Lincoln and by extension possibly yours: what have been some of the more illuminating sources that you've found on Lincoln?

First, I have to point out that I wrote a novel, and it can be found in the Library of Congress under "Fiction." To speak in one sentence of the actual historical Pinkertons's views, the views of the fictional character "Allan Pinkerton" in Pinkerton's Secret, and the views of the real life author, Eric Lerner, as one befuddled reviewer did, is to reveal a fundamental confusion about the nature of fiction.

That being said, the most illuminating sources I found on Lincoln were Lincoln's own well documented views on slavery, including his statement (paraphrased slightly for this interview) "If I had to free all the slaves to preserve the Union, I would do so. If I had to free not one slave to preserve the Union, I would do so." A recent well reviewed book takes that statement and tortuously tries to explain Lincoln's good intentions behind it for several hundred pages. The book, and Lincoln's many fans, fail to address the issue of why Lincoln never envisioned black people, free or enslaved, entering the civic body of America. Which is, perhaps, why it took a hundred years after the Civil War was "won" for the process to even begin.

What are some examples, do you think, of historical fiction that has worked well and why they were more successful than some of their counterparts?
I like Shakespeare's approach. The play's the thing.

Not to beat a dead horse, but who cares if historical fiction is "accurate," in that it agrees with "scholarly opinion?" Scholarly opinion changes at least once a generation. Good fiction lasts forever.

I read that you read a lot of history: what are other topics you've come across that you think might make for good historical novels?
I read history because it makes me ponder the bizarre nature of human enterprise, in an understandable time line that seems to have no relationship to progress.

For me, and this is strictly for me, fiction begins with some confluence of character and idea. So I am drawn to those periods when ideas loomed large, and seemed to be worth fighting over. For several years now I have been immersed in Ancient Rome and the life of the Emperor Augustus.

Your Pinkerton is not necessarily a likeable fellow: what in your research led you to paint him as such?

As you know, I spent twenty years in Hollywood writing for the screen trade. I grew tired of producers objecting to my characters doing or saying something because, "We won't like them." I do not understand what likability has to do with drama, or even comedy. Characters are either compelling or they are not. To me, a compelling character forces you to empathize with his/her predicament and want to know how everything turns out.

What about the real Pinkerton? His biographers have concluded, based on his his un-sugarcoated papers and letters, that he was a borderline paranoid, autocratic, bombastic son of a bitch. He also happened to stand for most things we would call right. And he fought for them. And he was some kind of genius. And he commanded undying loyalty from his allies that matched the enmity of those he crossed.
He was compelling.

What are some of your favorite detective movie/TV shows?

I don't really like detective movies or TV shows. I am not even sure how this novel has gotten characterized as part of the genre. Oh, well, no control over that.

Pinkerton, at least in your book, had both a wife and a romance with Kate Warne--if he was the prototype for American detectives, how do you think the stereotype of the detective as the loner evolved from that?
Pinkerton went to great lengths to propagandize his own squeaky clean image. He was trying to make detectives respectable! Until a smut minded fantasist came along and created Pinkerton's Secret betrayed his trust and spilled the beans on his illicit affair.
I admit, it is getting hard, keeping the facts straight.

How did you go from being a Buddhist scholar to a screenwriter?
I was more of a pracitioner, as they say, than a scholar, although I did get a BA in Sanksrit. But spiritual pursuits lead an inquiring man on a winding path! I was living in LA because that's where Johus Sasaki Roshi had his Zen monastery, way up on Mt. Baldy. I was editing the journal Zero, a mix of work from avowed and marginal Buddhists like Leonard Cohen, Allan Ginsburg, and a few Pulitzer Prize winners. Then, while trying to raise money for the mag, I had a meeting with a would be contributor at a well known Hollywood watering hole, and there I bumped into an old high school friend who had become a successful producer. She asked me to write her a treatment.

It turned out that my ability to tell stories, such as the brief one recounted above, was a highly valuable entry level skill in that town.

Do you think that you'll return to writing about Buddhism and your travels?
I think it is best to write about Buddhism when you are young, impressionable, and somewhat oblivious to the strong possibility of sounding foolish.
I am older now, travel only short distances, and may write on cooking if I get around to it.

How did writing a novel compare, scheduling wise and difficulty-wise, to your other writing projects?
Screenwriting was easy, schedule wise, since the delivery date of every draft was stipulated in the contract. The hard part was the liquidity of the words on the page, since the revisions to the draft just completed began (per the contract) a short time after delivery, based on the "notes" of a committee. But you've seen that sorry tale in too many movies.

Writing a novel, for me, was hugely more difficult. A screenplay is like a detailed set of blueprints compared to the actual house a novel has to construct, complete with finished cabinetry, ready for occupancy by the reader. I am much happier, though, building the entire house by hand, than sub-contracting out the work.

Do you have any fun on-set stories from watching your films get created?

The only fun there is for a screenwriter is when enough of his actual words make it into the shooting script. I don't think I was the only writer in Hollywood who became obsessed with seeing "What I really wrote" on the screen. Many seek to direct. I tried a very curious strategy of becoming the producer of my own movie, Kiss The Sky. The most fun I ever had was spending three months on location in the Philippines filming it with a director who was co-operative enough to listen to the producer sitting beside him on the set, who happened to also be the writer. Naturally, when a scene didn't work, the producer called for the writer to fix it.

Will Pinkerton's Secret be turned into a film?

I hope not. I would hate to have to explain to people, at some future date, how the book was so much better than the movie.

What are you working on now?
The new novel. Livia was the wife of the Emperor Augustus. They were married for fifty-four years! This writer thinks she was the greatest woman in history. Naturally, she gets to tell her own story, in her own voice.

How do you feel about a guy going around using your name saying that the Big Bang never happened

In the early days of Google (maybe last year) I was the only Eric Lerner since I had a "filmography." Nowadays, lots of people are Eric Lerner, and I wish them all well. It's not a bad name. And I don't have the energy to boost my page ranking.

How does it feel to be the 202nd person interviewed for
Uncensored. To a degree.