I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Lazar

A Serious Playfulness
An exclusive Authorlink interview with
Zachary Lazar, author of I Pity the Poor Immigrant

By Ellen Birkett Morris

May, 2014

I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a novel rich in artifacts including an essay, biblical quotes, letter and e-mail excerpts, poems, a family tree, court documents, and photographs. Together these pieces and the story that surrounds them help weave a complex tale that is part mystery and part meditation on what it means to be Jewish.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant
by Zachary Lazar

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Author Zachary Lazar said the artifacts lent “a serious kind of playfulness” to the book and served as a way for him to “unlock his imagination.”

“I hope it mirrors the way we experience consciousness with flashes of insight. I wanted to be innovative and at the same time write a story that moves forward in the right way,” said Lazar.

“All novelists struggle with exposition. It is the glue that holds the story together. . .”

Artifacts, like an essay by the fictional writer David Bellen, were also used to provide background information in a shortened form that was needed to understand the story.

“All novelists struggle with exposition. It is the glue that holds the story together, but it can be cumbersome. What are really interesting to read are the scenes.”

Lazar said information from the Bellen essay may have taken as many as 70 pages if it was woven into the narrative in the form of exposition. The book began with his desire to write a novel in which Meyer Lansky and King David both appear.

“I wanted to have these two tough Jews, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world, in there. I figured I would write and see what worked and what didn’t,” said Lazar.

Lansky’s story is interconnected with the story of American journalist Hannah Groff, who travels to Israel in 2009 to investigate the killing of Israeli writer David Bellen. She finds herself amid a web of violence that involves the American and Israeli Mafias, the biblical figure of King David, and the modern state of Israel. Hannah discovers connections between the murdered writer, Lansky, his left-behind mistress, Gila, and her own father.

“Hannah evolved accidently. I couldn’t get the King David element to work so I created a fictional Israeli writer David Bellen, who wrote a controversial book. Bellen is murdered, possibly because of the book.”

“As a reader I like it when I have to do part of the work.”

Lazar said Hannah serves to unify the narrative and help readers make connections as she meditates on how the pieces of the story fit together. “As a reader I like it when I have to do part of the work. There is a balance between offering enough information to keep the reader interested and not so much that they get bored,” said Lazar.

Lazar said he often starts with character when writing. “That’s why I read too. One of the main pleasures as a reader is the ability to intimately explore a person’s consciousness and emotional life.”

The desire to create that intimate connection heightened Lazar’s challenge as writer whose book focused on a character as reticent as Lansky. “I discovered I needed to have women in the book who would give the reader insight into the men. Lansky was so silent, but I imagined he might open up to his mistress, so Gila came to be,” said Lazar.

In order to build a credible world, Lazar read voraciously about Lansky, King David and Israel. He went to Israel twice, not sure what he would find. “I didn’t expect to have such positive feelings. I was seduced by the history and how physically beautiful the place is.”

His greatest challenge in writing the book was “landing the plane.”

“It is easy to set a plot up with mysteries and questions and hard to wind things down . . .”

“It is easy to set a plot up with mysteries and questions and hard to wind things down and make connections between subplots. I didn’t know who killed Bellen until the end,” admitted Lazar.

Over the course of writing three books, Lazar noted that his process has changed as he has gotten a better idea of his strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

“I used to spend a lot of time tinkering with and polishing my language. Language is my strength and storytelling is my challenge, so now I focus my energy on making sure the story is moving forward and that my scenes are creating suspense.”

“Perseverance is way more important than talent . . .”

In addition to writing, Lazar teaches at Tulane University. He is heartened by the fact that his students are good writers and avid readers. He advises novice writers to keep working. “Perseverance is way more important than talent in this business. If you believe in your work keep doing it.”

Lazar is currently working on a nonfiction piece about a passion play about Christ that is being performed in Angola Prison and thinks this will make its way into the plot of his next novel.

About the Author

Zachary Lazar is the author of three books, including the novel Sway, chosen as a Best Book of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Publishers Weekly, and Newsday, and the memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, a Best Book of 2009 in the Chicago Tribune. He is the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a prestigious year-long Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.