The Ambassadors by George Lerner


September 2014  – An Exclusive Authorlink Interview

By Columnist Doreen Akiyo Yomoah

Television journalist George Lerner grants a rare interview with Authorlink, telling us about his first work of fiction, The Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors
by George Lerner

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AUTHORLINK: The Ambassadors is your first novel – can you tell me about how it came by the story?

LERNER: It started with my central characters and with this idea of a broken marriage, and people who took very different approaches in dealing with their personal experiences with the Holocaust. There’s the husband, Jacob, who had been a US soldier involved in the de-Nazification, and his wife, Susanna, who was a child survivor of the Nazi genocide.

“The novel itself was informed by my work as a TV news producer in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The novel itself was informed by my work as a TV news producer in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When I got there around the 2006 elections, it was a relatively stable time. I found myself asking questions that I felt couldn’t really be answered, and I decided to try to approach them through fiction. The main question was, how does war happen? There were some very good nonfiction accounts but I had a different set of questions in mind, and those are expressed through these characters.

AUTHORLINK: When you say that there are certain questions that weren’t being answered, do you mean more from a personal standpoint than an academic standpoint?

LERNER: I’m talking novelistically. I was looking at this non-academically, but I think Susanna, is asking those academic questions. She’s coming from a perspective of biological anthropology, on the nature of formation of human language, and how that brought us together as humanity. She is asking what brings us together as humans, and why that can’t keep us from killing each other, even as she can see that the roots of war and conflict go way, way back.

“. . . I felt that there were questions that I needed to approach that needed to come through a novel.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you make the leap from journalism to writing fiction?

LERNER: I wrote on the peripheries of a television news career. I love and believe in television news, so it’s not an insult to the form, but I felt that there were questions that I needed to approach that needed to come through a novel. There is a greater depth in a 350-page novel that takes many years to complete than in a 2, 5, or 15-minute news piece; a depth of voice and character. I felt that there were things I needed to ask and answer in my characters. Because I was creating them, I wasn’t relying on my approach as a TV news producer, which is to let people convey their voices. This was a different form, because the characters are from both imagination and experience.

“. . . novel is a different beast. It has a power which is beyond television.”

AUTHORLINK: Do you have a preference between journalistic writing and fiction writing?

LERNER: I think they have different functions. I’m not a snob about television; I think you can say an enormous amount in a short piece. You can show grace and sorrow and grandeur, but novel is a different beast. It has a power which is beyond television. I’m not going to make a value judgment, but there’s a greater sense of control in terms of time and what you’re asking of the reader. You really are asking a lot to say “devote yourself and spend your time with me over this experience,” but there is immense capacity with a novel. For example, I was a young freelance reporter in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1990s. Before I left, to prepare I read one of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels, The Beginning and the End. It made me understand Cairo in a way that I couldn’t have gotten from 15 news articles or television news reports. There was something about a world being created. That’s the strength in novels. You get an understanding of the world through eyes of characters you may not necessarily like or understand, but somehow that novel gives a moment of empathy.

AUTHORLINK: Are your characters drawn from real-life people? Is there any of yourself in this book?

LERNER: It’s not autobiographical, but I would say that much of the novel is informed by characters I’ve met, as a journalist and throughout my life. For example, some of the experiences of Bavaria after the war are pinched from my father’s experience as a US soldier, but there’s no character who could be identified as my father in the book.

There’s no real man Jacob who went to get himself involved a civil war, but there are elements of the characters that are drawn from real people. It’s still a work of fiction.

“Essentially what I’ve found was I had to get the voice right.”

AUTHORLINK: How did you make the transition from journalism to writing fiction?

LERNER: Essentially what I’ve found was I had to get the voice right. I had to free myself in a sense, from journalism, to get down to a deeper truth. I think for a long time I felt shackled by the journalistic telling of events. It’s fine, but it’s a very different exercise, and a very different kind of truth.

AUTHORLINK: Did you take any writing courses?

LERNER: I spent a couple of years during college as a fiction major but later went into journalism. I finished with an anthropology degree. I took the novel during formation to a couple of writing workshops; the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, and then Tin House magazine has a summer workshop and I did that in 2009. I really benefited a lot. Tin House’s editor Rob Spillman mentored the novel in 2009 and it was really fantastic. I also worked with Joanna Scott

at an earlier stage of the novel at the summer institute. Joanna really believed in it, and convinced me that I had something.

AUTHORLINK: What do you have coming up next?

LERNER: I’m working on the next book, but it’s not necessarily any easier in terms of the creative process. You don’t get any bonus points having finished one.

I continued to be a journalist through these many years. I’ve had a few spells in-house, but my TV career has been largely in the field. I don’t know if I’ll continue to be in the field or be in a studio setting.

About the Author:

George Lerner is a producer for CNN and PBS and has traveled throughout Africa and has reported on some of the most landmark moments in African history, including South Sudan’s Independence Day, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s elections, and an interview with Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe, which was nominated for an Emmy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

About Doreen Akiyo Yomoah:

Doreen Akiyo Yomoah is a nomadic freelance writer, currently living in Dakar, Senegal.