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Mark Helprin’s Well Observed Life

The author returns with another big novel set in New York City

Unlike many contemporary authors, Mark Helprin does not tweet, blog or cultivate a Facebook following. He has little interest in creating e-book singles or apps. What he does do is write epic, emotional novels at his own pace—and write them beautifully.

In 1983, Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale, a panoramic tale of love and loss set in New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries, established his reputation as a master of fiction. This fall he comes full circle with In Sunlight and in Shadow (out now), a sweeping saga set in the same city. In six novels and three short-story collections, Helprin has returned time and again to themes of fate, honor, character, sacrifice, duty and truth. In Sunlight and in Shadow touches on these motifs, but it’s largely devoted to another favorite topic of his: passion. The book follows the incendiary affair between Harry, a virtuous soldier freshly returned from the battle fields of World War II, and Catherine, an actress and heiress already promised to a wealthy, vengeful, older man.

Helprin, 65, set the novel in post-war New York, because that’s when and where he grew up. Of his inspiration for his main characters, he says, “I wanted to write about my parents.” Like Harry, Helprin’s father was a World War II veteran and his mother a stage actress (although far from an heiress). But, he adds sheepishly, “I ended up falling in love with Catherine and you can’t fall in love with your mother so it’s only partly about her.” After a chance meeting on the Staten Island Ferry, Harry and Catherine pursue their connection despite increasing threats from her jealous ex- fiancé and his gangland connections.

It’s no wonder Helprin’s imagination was fueled by his parents—their backstories alone possess enough drama to fill shelves and shelves of books. His mother grew up in Brooklyn speaking Yiddish. She was apprenticed as a child to a Shakespearean acting company so that her impoverished family would have one less mouth to feed. “Her English was magnificent although she never got beyond the eighth grade,” he says. His father’s eclectic, impressive résumé includes rounding up children to serve as focus groups for Charlie Chaplin’s films (he himself was only 8 at the time!), traveling through North Africa, Asia and the Middle East to purchase sheep intestines for his family’s meat-processing business, writing about theater and film for the New York Times and, eventually, running a movie studio. On the side, he helped gather intelligence for the U.S. and British governments.

Helprin’s bio is almost as varied. He served in the British Merchant Navy and the Israeli infantry and Air Force, studied at Harvard, Oxford and Princeton, and earned a living as a dishwasher, surveyor, factory worker, stevedore and speechwriter for Bob Dole.

In recent decades, he has limited himself to three occupations: crafting fiction, writing commentary on military and foreign policy for the Wall Street Journal and other publications as a senior fellow of the conservative Claremont Institute and making hay on his farm in Charlottesville, Va., in the shadow of Monticello. (Helprin is married with two grown daughters.) He says, “I’ve always been attracted to the Jeffersonian ideal: self-sufficiency, closeness to nature, modesty of aims.”

Modesty does not apply to his ambitions as a novelist, Helprin admits. “What I try to do is to look at something and express the truth of it and by so doing, perhaps express the beauty of it.” He feels that too many of today’s writers favor detachment and coolness over the messiness and pain of real life. “This is the ethos of modern literature as far as I can tell,” he says. “You pare the language. You pare the emotions. You look with a cold eye upon them. I don’t do that, because I frankly think it’s cowardly.”

For Helprin, whether in fiction or reality, embracing love is the most courageous act of all since we will eventually and inevitably lose it. In his newest book, he continues to show us the glorious rewards of choosing the passionate life.

Book: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt