FLORIDA, Fla., October 8, 2012 — Sometimes, fiction can help us come to terms with the most demanding of life’s complexities.
Few contemporary novelists have written about the pinnacles and pitfalls of life as Jack Engelhard has. The international bestselling author is best known for his 1988 smash hit “Indecent Proposal,” which continues to captivate readers to this day.
In this first part of a candid discussion with me, Engelhard explains why he writes about moral crises, the reasons for the enduring appeal of “Indecent Proposal” and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: Your novels typically feature characters confronted with a serious moral dilemma. In your opinion, do readers find this to be more interesting than typical thriller plots?
Jack Engelhard: Truly, I don’t think about the reader while I’m writing. If you’re trying to please the reader and you manipulate your stories to make people come around to you — to me that’s not writing and you’re pleasing nobody. You’re doing commercials…and you’re in it for the money alone. For me, the act of writing — and reading — demands much greater respect. So I write what I’m passionate about and “let the chips fall where they may,” as JFK said when he honored Robert Frost. Writing is a sacred endeavor.
Cotto: What inspires you to write about moral crises?
Engelhard: That comes naturally. In real life we face moral crises every day and literature ought to reflect that, so that, in other words, fiction doesn’t mean “pretend.” Fiction ought to hit us where we live. A novel should contain moments when we smile and say, Yes! (Think Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”)
As for moral crises, we face them big and small. As kids, do we tell the teacher about the kid who is cheating or, as grown-ups, do we tell the boss about the guy at the next desk who’s handing in inflated expense reports? So there’s that, and then there’s the question of going to war. Every day brings us at least a dozen moral dilemmas.
Cotto: Twenty-five years after its publication, “Indecent Proposal” remains a popular read. Why do you suppose that it has had such enduring appeal?
Engelhard: Thanks for the compliment. The book (as opposed to the movie, which came later) is not just about temptation or, more specifically, what would you do for a million dollars. The counterpunch is about the Arab-Israeli conflict, which makes “Indecent Proposal” a current read. (Even prophetic? As some have suggested.) The New York Times said that it deals with “primal issues” and described it as a microcosm of the Middle East conflict.
Remember, in the novel we have an Arab sheik facing off against a Jewish speechwriter for the love of a gentile woman. (The movie skipped all that.) As one reviewer wrote, “It’s more than a conflict between two men, but rather a conflict between two histories.” As for its enduring appeal, I’ll take the word from the most recent review that appeared for the Kindle edition, where the heading read: “Stunningly good book.” Maybe it’s as simple as that.
Cotto: The conflict between romance and money is a key aspect of “Indecent Proposal.” Which of these would you say is a more potent force in our society?
Engelhard: That’s the big question within the pages of “Indecent Proposal”…and it’s not for the writer to figure out. It’s up to the reader. Great books ask questions. The reader fills in the blanks and finds whatever hidden messages exist. Some “codes” may have been planted by the writer and some may have been personally interpreted by the reader…we call it “the fire between the words.” In any case, this is intimacy between writer and reader; more intimate than sex.
Cotto: Why are the cultural backgrounds of the three main characters in “Indecent Proposal” so important to the story?
Engelhard: Another reviewer (again, the Kindle edition) wrote that while the movie was generic, the novel has “depth and soul.” You get that – depth and soul – when you investigate what’s really making these people tick. The novel may well begin with two guys and a woman, but, as the narrative moves along, we find that there is much more going on, yes, two histories in conflict. I once wrote, “As long as there are women there’s going to be trouble.” Well, the gods of political correctness never got the joke, which is why I seldom got along with traditional publishing.
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