The story behind the story behind the story.
My Sometime Writing Companion
Q + A

Tell us the story behind the story. How did PRINCES OF NEW YORK come to be?

There are at least three overlapping answers: 1, Blame it on the Amherst prof; 2, Blame it on the literary quality of the fifteen or so "school novels" that have been published in the last twenty years; 3, Blame it on the Jewish Bride.
And there is the real reason in number 4 below.

1. Professor Allen Guttmann (whom I did not know at the time) reviewed my award-winning cultural history of college football and finished with, "Lester tells the stories . . . with the skill of a mature historian (or is he a budding novelist?)." Well, although I had never knowingly written fiction as an historian, I had come under the influence of Saul Bellow and Richard Stern at the University of Chicago, and considered novelists as the only contemporary form of demi-gods. And then, too, I was heartily sick to death of foot-notes—could I do without them?
2. The fiction that purportedly addresses private schools has been poor or mediocre, and has seldom been authentic to those of us who have lived and taught in those schools. Marginal writers and greedy agents and editors were prompted to produce spicy dross about the imagined privileged and powerful. I joined many other teachers and school heads who recognized the paucity of good school novels, and that was sufficient motiva-tion for me to attempt to put it right.
3. I have loved the revolutionary painting by Rembrandt since I first saw it in my late teens. At that time, living in the Netherlands, I made weekly pilgrimages to stand and gawk at the picture that van Gogh pronounced the finest when he was a young man. I didn't know about his judgment at the time; I only knew that it moved me, every time. Hence, I've always thought it worthy of a novel. I have given "The Jewish Bride" only a few brief passages and one description. But then, I dare not attempt more; I am not worthy of such a timeless and universal work.
4. Then, there is simply the desire to write about why it is so difficult for humans to be good. And what we can do about that predicament.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing PRINCES OF NEW YORK?

Everything. I had never had a creative writing course or workshop; and I possessed an expository essay and history monograph frame of mind for sixty years. In today's parlance, I was fictionally challenged.
It was renowned editor Dick Seaver (a favorite New York school trustee) who both encouraged and warned me about writing a novel. "We could use a good New York school novel. But your background as an academic historian is likely to be a liability. You guys like to pursue a story A to Z, based on cause and effect; but most people and novelists don't think that way." For the past fourteen years I've tried to remember Professor Guttmann's note and forget Dick's caution. And visit my Jewish Bride every year in Amsterdam.

Describe your background.

I'm one of those Americans born on the Great Plains who was never fed any triumphant stories of family connections or influence. I do remember the comment made by my maternal grandfather, Albert Edward Robinson (an English boy immigrant in the 1880's): "We weren't born in a barn, but we moved into one as soon as we could afford it." He wasn't kidding, his English family survived their first Nebraska winter in a canyon cave lean-to, built a sod house the next year, and perhaps could afford that barn after that. My parents were both teachers just out of college to face the Depression. My father served as county clerk and married his secretary, a local beauty. They risked much to buy a farm at that time and became civic and church leaders.

What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

That they have perhaps experienced a different world from their own, but one that deals with familiar struggles over identity, power, sex, and money.
Always include a good soak/read in your day.
A Short Soak in Athens

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline?

I began in September of 1998 following an invariable six day/week novel-writing schedule: rising at 4:30, writing until 8:00, a break for breakfast at the keyboard reading the London papers, a brisk four-mile hike with my wife (a children's author) and dog, and back to the manuscript from 10:00 until 13:00. Then, lunch, a nap, another walk in the woods, reading, dinner, reading. I thought I was getting somewhere letting my characters develop as I put them into difficult situations. And then, Jane O'Connor, ace editor and best-selling novelist and children's author, read my manuscript. Her conclusion—I had enough "stuff" for three novels. I soon learned to outline.

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I just checked: Emerald City by Jennifer Egan; Hotel No Tell by Daphne Uviller; The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich; Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fisher; The Celestials by Karen Shepard.
Currently reading: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford; Almost True Confessions by Jane O'Connor; The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Middlemarch, my biannual favorite.

Which authors inspire you?

Early on, the diarists, playwrights, and novelists I read as cultural backdrop to my historical periods, such as Shakespeare, Pepys, Fielding, Boswell, Moliere, Franklin, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Shaw, Wilde, Sinclair, Dreiser, Greene, and K. Amis. Then, over the past twenty years, more contemporary novelists, Wright Morris, Marilynne Robinson, Ron Hansen, T. C. Boyle, Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Haigh, Peter Blauner, Ron Rash, Richard Yates. Best of all, the psychological insight of George Eliot and the spare beauty of Willa Cather and Georges Simenon.

What have you learned from this experience?

Just three things: Patience/grit X3.
My Writing Companion didn't stick around.
"I'm outa here; this guy will never finish this thing."

What is your advice for aspiring writers?

Can I, an amateur, aspiring writer, give any advice?
Spare us all, Robin—especially as my best writer friends and editors—clearly my superiors—are barely half my age! But I can tell them to choose a large-hearted companion, preferably human, not just a drooling canine, who might conceivably stick around until their final chapter or act. That will take considerable luck. Then, while they suffer as writers, live generously and optimistically—that'll take more than luck.

I do have a little sign near my keyboard that I made up as a rationale for tackling a novel:
"I write fiction because it is too true to bear.
We call it fiction because it is too true to bare."

What are you working on now?

A prairie coming of age novel set in Willa Cather country. That would be south-central Nebraska where I grew up.