Author Features / Features / Fiction / In Their Own Words

IN HIS OWN WORDS: Hesh Kestin

In Lisa Peet’s profile of “recovering journalist” Hesh Kestin, he was generously forthcoming about growing up in Brooklyn, 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and his philosophy of writing. Below are a few more thoughts from Kestin, rounding out a portrait of a life well lived, and a writer with a strong sense of where he came from. Unless otherwise identified, quotes are from personal correspondence with the author.

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“I know a good deal about the Middle East, its native temperaments and passions and a few vagrant facts, because I spent 20 years knocking around as a foreign correspondent. But I never fictionalize personalities I met, or examine my notebook for a great phrase uttered by some nationalist assassin on his night off. Why? It was always clear I could conjure up better characters than the imperfect ones I met on the job, that the battles I am able to create are far more dramatic than the ones I took part in (not least because my own perspective, both as a war reporter and as a soldier, was rarely further than two hundred yards, and much unimproved by mortal fear).”


“Amazing the reader is the novelist’s job.  How to do this can not be taught, can not be prescribed and can barely be described: Mark Twain used humor, Hemingway got his readers to supply their emotions in the words he left out, Fitzgerald did it by utilizing the most elegant of language to describe the most basic of emotions.  But each had a story to tell, a big story about interesting people (not people with interesting jobs) involved in some great challenge.”


“[T.E. Lawrence’s] Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia—note to Washington: including Iraq—and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: ‘You must know everything.’” —from 2008’s “A Year in Reading” at The Millions


Lisa Peet: “You write with great reverence about two things in particular: horses and smoking. Any comments on either?”

Hesh Kestin
: “The atmosphere in the city rooms of the newspapers I worked on was always thick with well-drawn adjectives and cigarette smoke, particularly the late lamented New York Herald Tribune.  Everyone smoked then. I gave up cigarettes in my twenties, a social smoker at worst, and at best a pack of Luckies was a prop while I pecked away on a Royal about as big as my ego. This must have been a vestige from my newspaper days, where lighting up offered a chance to reconsider your lede.

Horses—ah, horses. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn I demanded only two things from my eventual adult life, a good-sized offshore boat and a horse. The yacht is still waiting for me somewhere, but the horse showed up in Karkur, then a tiny agricultural village in Northern Israel and now a kind of Great Neck; a million immigrants from the old Soviet Union can have that effect. In the ’70s I was one of about a hundred orange growers in this paradise—it looked, smelled and felt like Provence, down to the same orange tile roofs—and one day I was standing around contemplating something or other when a beautiful black Arabian stallion came galloping down the trail.  Ours was the last house in the village, and where the pavement ended was merely a sandy path.  In the stallion’s dust came a jeep full of young guys from the neighboring kibbutz.  It seemed the stallion liked to run away, particularly where a mare (or jenny) was in season within 10 miles. A week later it happened again, but this time I managed to grab the mad beast by his halter.  Within days I had bought myself a horse.”


“Most of the Bhotke members had emigrated in the twenties and thirties; some had sailed out of the then-free port of Danzig as late as 1939, the Hitlerites having sunk the next ship in the harbor. Some arrived in the late forties and early fifties, decorated with blue number on their forearms or, if they had fought as partisans in the forests, a parallel coldness of heart like that of caged animals who were now free except for the memory of the cages and those who had put them there…. Was it any wonder that a Jew who brandished a baseball bat and feared no one, and who was known to fear no one, might become a hero to the Jews who survived?

To the members of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, Shushan Cats was no criminal. The criminal statutes held no validity for those to whom the law meant only authorized starvation, torture, death. Everything done to the Jews of Europe, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the Communists, the Socialists, the crippled, the mentally and physically retarded and the mentally and physically ill—everything done to these had been absolutely legal. . . . Under these circumstances, that Shushan Cats was a Jewish gangster not only could not be held against him, but was a matter for celebration.” —The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats (2009)


“In New York in 1963, the year in which The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is set, a last generation of Jewish gangsters plied their trade. The next generation would be a disappointment: Lawyers, doctors, accountants, business people. Where were the Jewish hoods? The answer was not police efficiency but sociology—not even the strongest DNA can prevail against environmental change.

From its birth the United States, unlike Christian Europe or Moslem Araby, was and remains a secular state. The rule of law prevails, and when it fails it fails all religions alike. Without legalized Jew-hating, Jews no longer were forced into us-against-them criminality. Democracy had put an end to the Jews’ sense of themselves as outsiders, because to be a Jew was no longer, in and of itself, a criminal act. As Buddy the Body Builder might have put it: ‘We was now legit.’” —from “Jewish Criminals I Have Known” in Mulholland Books’ Newsletter, 2012


“Write tight. The reader has other things to do—eat, walk the dog, make love, watch television, or (if truly bereft of gorm) tweet—so the novelist is at least as much in competition with the funfair of 21st century communications as he is with other novelists. Your 19th century novelist—Tolstoy, Melville, Balzac—competed with a limited number of entertainments, and thus could afford to blather on for a thousand pages. Alas, the 19th century novel sure is taking a long time to die. Most current novels are just too long, overstuffed with insipid dialogue that does not propel the story, narrative detail that doesn’t matter, and endless repetition that is mostly redundant explication of the meaning of something or other, as if the reader is too stupid to figure out that, for instance, war is hell.”

Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature piece on Hesh Kestin.

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