Joe Lunievicz has excelled in many areas over the years – as competitive fencer, public speaker, yoga instructor, and improvisational actor – but in his heart he always knew he was a writer. For years he wrote early in the morning before work and then, after his son was born, late into the night. At 16, Joe began writing stories, essays, and poetry that illuminated the unique subcultures he’s been part of in his native home of New York. His work has explored the worlds of amateur rugby and fencing, fantasy and science fiction gaming, and stage combat and theatre. These experiences certainly inspired Joe’s debut novel, Open Wounds (WestSide Books, May 2011).
*Bio taken from Joe's Website
Joe was kind enough to answer some questions for me and his incredibly detailed and well-thought out answers will be gracing the blog both today and tomorrow, so make sure you come back on Thursday to see part two of the interview!
My road to publication has been a long and rocky one. Open Wounds is the fifth book I’ve written and the third I’ve marketed over the last eighteen years. I’ve had five agents over this time also. Just to give you an idea of how the process has gone for me, it took me 76 query letter submissions to agents to get my first agent. I worked from A to Z in the great book of how to get an agent - Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. One agent died. One agent moved on to open a gourmet deli. One moved on to do PR work with a hospital-based insurance company and one moved on to investment banking. Publishing is a crazy world. I think the Gods are always laughing. Open Wounds took over three years of marketing to agents (I only had to market to about twenty this time before I found the right one) and publishers in addition to the seven years it took me to write. I had all but given up when I heard from my agent last summer (then agent number 4) that Open Wounds had been accepted for publication. In many ways I still can’t believe it.Wow, that is quite the journey, Joe. Your perseverance paid off though and I'm so happy that Open Wounds was able to grace the bookshelves.
I used three techniques to do this. The first one is obvious in that I simply read a lot of books about New York City during that time period. Two books that were invaluable in giving me the correct geography, building history, cost of the subway, places where people hung out were: The WPA Guide to New York City, The Federal Writers Project Guide to 1930s New York and Manhattan ’45, by Jan Morris.It sounds like interviewing people who lived during the time was both invaluable to your writing, but also fun. I love hearing listening to my step-dad's father talk about his life in Ireland and I imagine all the little things you learned (like the vinegar) are things only those who have first-hand knowledge would recall or even consider important.
The second technique was to read memoirs and oral histories. These were great for dialect, catch phrases from the times and the small details of home and neighborhood life. Two that were very helpful were: Tea that Burns, A Family Memoir of Chinatown, by Bruce Edward Hall and You Must Remember This, An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890’s to World War II, by Jeff Kisseloff.
The third technique I used was to interview people who had been alive at that time. My favorite two were my father and father-in-law, both of whom were Cids’ age during the thirties and forties and both of whom gave me great stories and details of the time that I couldn’t get from a book. I’m embarrassed to say they gave me so many I couldn’t use them all. My father grew up in Queens and my father-in-law in Brooklyn. For example, ashtrays on the back of movie seats my father-in-law gave me along with brown bag lunches brought to the movies. My father’s description of a battle in a sandlot in Queens with wooden swords and peach basket shields gave me the idea for the war scene in Sunnyside that pits the east-siders against the west. I also interviewed two fencing masters, Joe Daly from HB Studio, an actor, stage fencing teacher and competitive fencer and Joe Brodeth the coach of the St. Johns fencing team. They helped me with the details of fencing and theatre from that time period. Joe Brodeth is the man who told me that vinegar was used to clean off jackets between competitive épée bouts to get rid of the red marks from the dental floss and red ink that was used on pronged tips to mark opponents with. The smell of vinegar was not in any book on fencing that I could find. But Joe had such a strong association of the smell of vinegar with fencing at that time that I just had to use the detail in the book.
I have a lot of favorites but three come up right away.The Chinatown scene was one of my favorites in the book. One of my favorite lines comes straight from that scene.
There is a short scene in the beginning when Cid meets Siggy and Tomik. They talk while tenants of a home are being evicted by police and fight back by dropping flour and pepper bags on their heads. I found this detail in a local paper from 1938 that had been put on the internet. It was one line about flour and pepper and just set my imagination off. Cid watches the struggle while Siggy and Tomik introduce themselves and they shake hands. It’s his first contact with possible friends – ever – and it’s juxtaposed with the darkness of the depression and the struggle of survival that his community is going through.
There is another scene after Cid meets Lefty when he asks Lefty to teach him how to act and Lefty gives him an acting lesson. Left tries to get Cid to “pretend” and realizes that Cid hasn’t played like other kids. The true environment of the orphanage Cid grew up in becomes apparent to Lefty. He pushes Cid to use his feelings of anger towards Siggy and Tomik as a way to play the role of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet in his fight scene with Mercutio. What I like about the scene is that it was one of the last scenes I wrote and I think became a key scene for Lefty to really get who Cid was. After Lefty is finished with his lesson and Cid is shook up about what he has said out loud, he places his hand on Cid as a gesture of comfort and caring. This moment seemed so real to me that I knew I had the scene I wanted.
The third scene is when Cid travels to Chinatown with Nikolai and finds Lefty in the opium den. The research into the background for the scene and to get the details of Chinatown just right was hard but really enjoyable. I read the memoir Tea that Burns, A family Memoir of Chinatown, by Bruce Edward Hall, just to help me get this one scene right.
I worked my way back in time with Cid from age 72 to birth. Staring at the roof of the Hotel Chelsea some ten years ago I saw an image of him on the roof of the Hotel Chelsea dueling with sharps with a faceless man. That’s how I found Cid Wymann – as an image on the roof of the hotel. I saw it as if it was real even though it was not. This image resonated with me so deeply that I couldn’t get it out of my head as days turned into weeks and months. His history unraveled for me one piece at a time. I found he had a friend named Tomik with whom he hadn’t spoken to in a long time who was the same age as him and I saw what their relationship was and worked my way back in time to see when they had met. I found Siggy Braun along the way and knew they all three had to be friends as children when I read Sabatini’s book Captain Blood. In a new edition to the book, originally written in 1922 but reissued in 2002, there was a forward by (I think) Bernard Cornwell (but it might have been someone else) who talked about seeing Captain Blood as a child and recounted how every boy in town would say the lines from the movie:I don't think I've ever heard an author develop their story backwards, but it worked really well for you. I mean, Open Wounds is proof that it worked. I couldn't imagine the person Cid would have been without Siggy and Tomik.
“You shall not take her while I live.”
“Then I’ll take her when you’re dead!”
I knew then that Siggy and Tomik were friends first and that it would all begin with Captain Blood in 1936. I also knew two lines that both Siggy and Tomik would say and that Cid would overhear, with his ear pressed to the wall.
Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the interview and for a giveaway!
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