A Funny Man Writes A Serious Historical Novel

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Gene Wilder, the son of russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Milwaukee in 1933. A graduate of the University of Iowa, he studied with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before embarking on a film career that over the last 40 years has included such classics as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Producers (1968), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask ) (1972), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and The Frisco Kid (1979). He has directed four films and twice been nominated for an Oscar, once as a supporting actor in The Producers and once as a screenwriter for Young Frankenstein . His enchanting 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger , included candid reminiscences of his relationships with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and his third wife, the actress and comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, and in whose memory he founded Gilda’s Club, a support group to raise awareness of the disease. I spoke with him just after his first novel, My French Whore , set during the First World War, was published by St. Martin’s Press.— Allen Barra

Congratulations on your lovely and elegantly crafted book. You write in your acknowledgments, “For whatever simplicity of language I’ve achieved, I thank my two mentors: Ernest Hemingway and Jean Renoir.” In what sense are they your mentors?

I mean, of course, Jean Renoir the great film director. I named both Renoir and Hemingway for their clarity and precision as prose writers. I wish I could get everyone to read Renoir, My Father . He directed that way too.

Of course, both Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms and Renoir with Grand Illusion touched on the same territory as you have with My French Whore—World War I. But you are saying that in your book you were more influenced by them as writers?

Yes. They are simple and deep, not a lot of convolution. They wrote sentences that go to the brain and the heart. I read a lot, and I read some books and say, “What in hell was that sentence about ?” I never say that when I read Hemingway.

I enjoyed your memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, but it gave me no indication of what My French Whore would be like. I opened the book not knowing what to expect.

Good. I didn’t want people to expect an uproarious comedy.

Your subtitle is “A Love Story,” but it just as easily could be a war story or a spy story, as the hero, an American private, becomes a spy behind German lines. In fact, he impersonates a famous German spy. How did the plot come about?

I can tell you precisely: I got the idea around 1970. I was living in Paris, and stories I’d hear about World War I gave me the idea for the plot. When I got back to New York I wrote a screenplay, and when I read it, I thought, “This is no good. The plot is good, but the screen-play isn’t.” Thirty years later, I was at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center having a stem-cell transplant [for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma], wondering whether I was going to live or die. I had no complaints about how life had treated me, but I was worried about what might happen to my wife, Karen, if I died. I had found her so late in life. The story I had thought of so many years before had stayed with me, and it occurred to me it might work very well as a novel.

But what compelled you to write a story set during the First World War?

Setting it in World War I was to protect the innocent. I wanted to distance myself from my own thoughts and feelings while still being able to use my own experiences. The idea of a guy being unhappy at home, leaving his wife, and having an affair with a woman overseas seemed much more romantic set in that period.

It also gave me an opportunity to write about Germans in a way that isn’t possible after World War II. Back then, there was still a degree of civility between enemies that vanished with the Second World War. I’m not saying that war wasn’t hell. The first great war was probably more of a hell on earth than anyone has ever seen. But I do think on the whole it was fought by men who had less of a hatred of one another than they did twenty-some years later.

Do you think that might be because of the absence of inflammatory ideology?

I think that had a great deal to do with it. I think you were seeing the last vestiges of an older, more civilized society swept away. I think you see that as an element in Jean Renoir’s great film, Grand Illusion .

I absorbed a lot of German culture while growing up, and I have a lot of fond memories of the German community I knew in Milwaukee—the beer, the cheese, the good times at the state fairs my father took me to. In 1917, it was still possible, I think, for an American boy who grew up in that sort of culture to pass himself off as a German spy, as my character Paul Peachy does. After World War II, obviously, a lot of German Americans were less likely to be as open about their heritage.

Your protagonist comes from Milwaukee, speaks German, and has a theatrical background.

The background of the story was influenced by a number of American and German films. I took a lot from their ambiance, though nothing specifically for my story. The 1956 German film The Captain From Köpenick (about a shoemaker who impersonates a Prussian officer) is a film I very much enjoyed. Chaplin has always been an influence on my work. I like to mix absurdity with the dramatic, and that came from Chaplin.

Did you write My French Whore with the idea of it becoming a movie?

No, I’m convinced the idea works much better as a novel. My agent thinks it would be a good movie. Perhaps it might, but that wasn’t my motivation.

Having now mastered three literary forms—the screenplay, the memoir, and the novel—which are you most eager to pursue?

I just finished the third draft of my next novel.

What’s your title?

The Woman Who Wouldn’t.

Is it contemporary?

No, it’s set in 1903. Anton Chekhov is one of the main characters.

Between writing for the screen, writing your memoirs, and writing fiction, which type of writing is the most difficult? Which is the most satisfying?

Well, I’ve had eight screenplays produced, and I’d say writing a good screenplay is the most difficult kind of writing I know. It takes a long time.

Why? Because the conventions of screenwriting are so restricting?

Not necessarily because of that. When I wrote for the screen, I was under contract to 20th Century Fox, and even for a really good producer like Alan Ladd, Jr., there was that clock ticking. Now, when I write fiction at home, my wife will bring me a cup of tea and a kiss, and all the tension melts away.