Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Rob Levinson author of The Leper Messiah.
NORM: Good day Rob and thanks for participating in our interview.
Please tell our readers a little about your personal and professional background:
ROB: Norm, thank you for this opportunity to share my little desert tale with you. It is a huge pleasure to reach out to your readers and to you in order to explain a little about the writing process and research that went into the making of The Leper Messiah.
My personal and professional background is a high-wire balancing act. As Leon Russel once wrote in his song Tightrope, “I’m up on a tight rope, one side is hate, the other is hope.”
Norm, you and your readers “like rubber-neck giraffes, look into my past.”
As a young man, my world was a sea of words, sentences and phrases. If I came upon the right chapter title, I became drunk with delight and the hangover would last for days. I left home at 16 and grew up in coffee houses and bars. I would arm wrestle for beer and often emerged intoxicated from bars. My tongue, however, was my strongest weapon and my words wounded sometimes. Words were the coin of my realm.
I have a very adventurous spirit and travelled to Israel and Europe before attending university. I am not sure why I enrolled at the University of Toronto but I did.
My father, Mark Levinson, received his PhD in Aeronautical engineering from Cal Tech, but his world of planes and engines did not jive with my bohemian nature. I had a strong inner compass that pulled me in my own direction, far from the land of conservative norms. (Norm, my apologies. I love puns).
I visited the far side of the world in my mind where I would not see land for days. I was lost in wave after wave of plots and dialogue. I was so far out to sea that albatrosses were my only friends. They would circle and bring me my daily ration of lemons and a few ounces of rum to keep up my spirits.
But those travelling days passed and on my return I needed to feed my soul and put a roof over my head.
The hopes and dreams of a young man were traded for legal tender. I found work wherever it paid the most: night shift at hospitals, oil rigs, and hard labor became my trade.
Not long after that, I traded a hard hat for a suit and tie. I found work in the telephone companies and made a living talking to big business types and housewives.
On occasion, I would drop into a nearby library and lose myself in the book stacks, recalling those intoxicating days filled with a writer’s hope. I saw myself inching away from those days as the fog of everyday life rolled in and surrounded me.
Still, I managed to have one foot planted in reality and my head in the clouds.
Shortly thereafter, I married a librarian and we had a child, a daughter named Sarah Rose. Bringing up baby was a full time job. I moved into the advertising world. My gift of gab helped me climb the marketing ladder, yet I still held onto dreams of creating a tale that was worthy and good.
My dreams were still far out to sea, between earth and sky.
“I’m up on a tight wire flanked by life and the funeral pyre, putting on a show for you to see. I’m in the spotlight, oh does it feel right, oh the altitude really gets to me.”
As the years crashed forward, I found a marketing job where we sold ads from major corporations on billboards in Times Square. I was back home again in New York where both my parents, children of the Depression, had been born. My grandfather had come from Russia to Ellis Island and worked at the City Health Department where he, after years of service, became the Chief Health Inspector. New York fed my family.
New York smiled upon me just as my grandfather used to smile from his sidewalk window at Sardi’s, flashing his eyebrows and smoking his cigar while a crowd gathered to see Groucho Marx.
After a few years of success at the ad game, I opened my own out-of-home company and sold air time to multinational companies such as Lufthansa, Disney and The US Coast Guard.
When Hurricane Katrina, the largest natural disaster in US history to that date, slammed into New Orleans, I had my company donate $250,000 worth of air time nationwide. I asked all my business contacts to help and we gave away air time from New York to San Francisco. The city of New Orleans provided me with a citation, personally thanking me for “helping rebuild the city of New Orleans.”
That was, and still is, my proudest business moment. The bohemian businessman was giving back!
NORM: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? And how has your environment /upbringing colored your writing?
ROB: In 1958, I was born into a Gypsy clan in the Pacific Northwest and, for reasons long beaten back by time, given up to the Waverly Baby House, an orphanage tucked below the tree line of the mighty Pacific forests.
“Gypsies steal babies; they don’t give them up,” I remember thinking.
To this day, when I think of Gypsies, I envision painted wagons huddled around midnight fires in the depths of the forests.
The years in the orphanage were a blur, but what I learned was that I would always be an outsider desperately searching.
My adoptive parents saved
a lost Gypsy boy, and I was soon being spoon-fed literature at my
Stories of great adventure and mystery such as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde filled my childish mind. Charles Dickens was Mom’s favorite and through it I learned of social injustice. My mother Suzanne protected me from the harsh realities of life and we both were able to disappear into these great literary works.
The little Gypsy boy was raised in a library and, somewhere in my mind, I began to think that since my adoptive mother loved these master authors so much if I could write a story as well as her favorite authors perhaps she would love me that much more, and maybe as much as these famous men and women.
My fortune was sealed.
There were certainly telltale signs of a modicum of talent. Teachers happily read my poems and talked of a gift and a responsibility to use it wisely. But at age 15 I started brooding. Suzanne had a flair for the dramatic, and one night when we were watching Alexander Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask she had let slip the fact that I had a twin sister.
My world tumbled down around me. I felt lost and once again an outcast, living a lie in the comfortable home of a professor and his kind wife. But they were not my people.
My people, the Gypsy clan, were lost to me among the great forests of the Pacific. They were as fascinating to me as a campfire that never went out.
I was an outcast, and I wore toughness like a leather hide. My words were weapons that wounded others often. I raged at the night and wrote poems by candlelight. What did my sister look like?
My personality was impetuous, my thoughts quick and wild. Still, I wrote. I anguished over each word, each title, each phrase, and then began to study the great writers and tried to write stories in their style.
I left the family home and lived in the small coffee houses of the city of Hamilton. I prowled the streets by night, only to find myself the next morning back again in the coffee house writing of midnight adventures.
In my early twenties I traveled to London and then Israel, where I continued to write and study the masters. I looked out over Mount Gilboa, where David lamented “How have the mighty fallen,” and wondered about this great historical figure. Who was he as a boy and a young man? Was he as desperate as I?
In May 2003, my mother Suzanne died. This triggered in me the realization that time was not my friend and so I began the task of gathering the modicum of talent I had in order to write a book of historical fiction born in the Bet Shan Valley and raised high on the shoulders of King David.
NORM: What do you think characterizes your writing ?
ROB: Norm, that is a very difficult question because whatever I do is still a slight mystery to myself. I find it hard to break down my writing. Some say that I bring characters alive through dialogue, but what I do know is that I am very critical of my character development. Further, I do enjoy setting scenes that will transport readers to another time and place. Perhaps that makes up a large part of my style. I wish I could be more helpful on this point.
NORM: How did you become involved with the subject of The Leper Messiah and how did you decide you were ready to write the book?
ROB: While living with my cousin Elizer Ritterband and his wife Haha in Ramat Ghan,Tel Aviv, Israel, he contacted friends in Kibbutz Sede Nahume in the Bet Shan Valley. Elizer had fought with Menachim Begin in the Polish underground during World War II and was a tough as nails soldier but also a wonderful host.
My cousin secured a place for me as a volunteer at the Kibbutz and we all took the long drive out to the Bet Shan Valley. Across the Valley was brooding Mount Gilboa, and at night in the coffee house or in my rustic cabin I would wonder about the historical events that had taken place on that mountain.
I did some research and found out in Second Samuel of the Old Testament that it was on this dark mountain that David had lamented, “How are the mighty fallen?” From that moment on, I was enthralled with David.
I never decided that NOW was the time to write the book but rather the book took shape through an ongoing process of wondering about David and his times.
NORM: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them.
ROB; The book is imperfect like most writing. I get carried away and push the limits sometimes, even by the standards of historical fiction. My goal was to build an ancient world that readers could enter as an escape from their everyday lives. I want readers to be able to taste, touch and feel a very ancient world as well as to try to understand the belief systems of that world.
One goal is to have readers compulsively turn the pages through interest and excitement. “A dark page turner” is how I explained it at one point because that is the key. Keep turning the pages!
As mentioned, the book is imperfect. On some level I am glad to see the book completed, but I doubt myself and so I swing between the idea that the book has cultural significance and that it is not very good. Maybe the answer is somewhere in between those extremes.
NORM: And what do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book.
ROB: I trust that readers who finish the book will think that, for a brief moment, the Bible sprang to life for them.
NORM: What are some of the references that you used while researching the book?
ROB: Well, that is a question lol. The book took ten years to write due to a nasty little thing called life getting in the way. I read many different books and used many guides for research. The main references were (as you would imagine) The Old Testament, The Quran, and The Egyptian Book of Going Forth, commonly known as the Book of the Dead. I got really lost trying to read the Zohar and to understand Kabbalah.
I wrote this in order to try to make a mystical link with David but went off the rails with that idea. I also read books on finding the Ark of the Covenant and did research on the Templar Knights simply out of interest. I read the Hittites’ instructions on training horses in the Kikkuli from Anatolia as well as Athenian General Xenaphon’s book on training cavalry horses.
I also have stacks of articles (too many to mention) on esoteric subjects that revolve around David and his times. Finally, I took a cursory read of The Code of Hammurabi, which was fascinating.
NORM: What is the most important thing that people don’t know about your subject, that they need to.
ROB; Well, I believe that we in the 21st century are not really aware of how human David was. He comes to us through the mists of time, this large figure of Western civilization, but he is frail and prone to wild bouts of passion and depression. He is more like us than we know. I don’t think God talks to him, although one can argue that David is God’s most beloved, at least in The Old Testament. He is mentioned about 1,000 times, which is more than any other figure, and God said He wanted David’s rule to be everlasting. But David is human. He is alone!
NORM: Did you write the book more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
ROB : Norm, I wrote the book by stewing over it for ten years. I would read an article or book and then try to put my characters into action. I would research and then try to form a story or a plot, or make my characters do certain things. It was all intuition. I don’t do things in a logical fashion; I just research a topic, then write a story within a story when it’s time.
NORM: What was the most difficult part of writing the book and what did you enjoy most about writing the book?
ROB: The most difficult part of writing the book were the aspects that were so deep, dark and powerful that I felt myself going down a rabbit hole, never to emerge. I had to have enough discipline to move away or move forward without getting too deep into the mud with these issues.
The most enjoyable part was what comes next. I would reread parts of the book and as the writer wonder, “Okay, what comes now?” I hope that excitement was translated from the writer onto the page and into the reader’s mind.
NORM: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Leper Messiah?
ROB : The book is available on Amazon and across multiple social media sites. My WEBSITE and I would love to talk more with you, Norm, at any time.
NORM: What is next for Rob Levinson?
ROB: I am in a “wait and see” mode. I have about 90,000 words ready for a follow up to The Leper Messiah, which tells the story about the characters from the West who meet David. They return home to the Isle of Burton and Greythorn Castle, the largest hill fort in the west. That book’s title is The Bethlehem Scrolls.
NORM: As this interview comes to an end, what questions do you wish that someone would ask about the book, but nobody has?
ROB; Well, Norm, first let me thank you for allowing me to tell you and your audience about my book. It has been great fun. I like to think of the book as a prism with many different sides. My hope is that if a reader has a question they will send me a note on my website or get in touch through you.
Once again, it has been a pleasure. Thank you, Norm.