The words just keep coming

The words just keep coming

Richard Kluger is 90 and planning his next writing project

Richard Kluger shows off his most recent work.
Richard Kluger shows off his most recent work.

Richard Kluger is frustrated.

It seems that Bob Dylan was correct. The times they really are a changin’ — and when it comes to publishing, Mr. Kluger doesn’t think it’s for the better.

Part of the problem is that his new book, “Hamlet’s Children,” is not getting review attention. And he knows why.

“If you look at the imprint, which I suspect you did, you’ll say ‘this is a publisher I never heard of,’” Mr. Kluger said in a telephone interview.”

That publisher is Scarlet Tanager Books, a small Oakland-based company. (That’s Oakland, California, not the closer-to-home Oakland, New Jersey.) The book had been submitted to — and rejected by — the usual suspects.

Mr. Kluger knows it’s difficult enough getting reviewed. Few papers review books now. After all, who reads? And those that do have limited space they mostly save for books vetted by a major house. But Scarlet Tanager? To quote Tony Soprano — he’s from New Jersey, not California — fuggedaboutit.

Which brings Mr. Kluger to the other part of the problem. Kluger is 90 years old. He is not a newcomer to the business. He has an extensive track record, which includes winning a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, heading several publishing companies, and writing several well-reviewed novels. He hasn’t changed. His skills haven’t diminished.

He believes a new breed of younger editors are less interested in what an older man has to say. It’s easy to dismiss that as sour grapes, except — confession time — the book is 463 pages, and to save time I’d expected to skim it preparing for this story. But I got hooked early on. It is an engaging story about an American youth stuck in Denmark during the Nazi occupation.

Back to Mr. Kluger, a New Jersey native — born in Paterson — who grew up in New York after his parents divorced when he was 7. He lived on the Upper West Side and was a bar mitzvah.

“My parents were not particularly religious,” he said. “My mother kept a kosher home, largely in honor of her mother, so I did not eat pork or bacon or anything like that at home. Never.

“We were proud of being Jewish, but we were not highly religious in terms of practicing ceremonial Judaism.”

Neither of his parents graduated from high school, so there weren’t many books in his house. But Mr. Kluger was an avid reader of the newspapers and magazines, “especially the photo magazines, Life and Look, which were big at the time. I was fascinated by being able to create your own world on paper.”

He turned to writing early, editing the student monthly at his grammar school and then the weekly paper in high school. He even became chairman of the Daily Princetonian during his senior year at Princeton.

Ironically, he chose Princeton because “I was aware, even as a kid, that it had a reputation for antisemitism,” he said. “That was something of a challenge for me. I had been brought up in a protective bubble. The Upper West Side was largely Jewish. Attending Princeton I felt was more like moving into the real world.”

On the plus side, during his sophomore year he met Phyllis Susan Schlain of South Orange. They eventually were married by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham, then in Newark and now in Livingston.

He also got his first taste of professional journalism, working summers at the Paterson Evening News and Newark Star-Ledger.

After a brief stint at Columbia’s prestigious journalism school — he left early to secure employment that would finance his nuptials — he landed jobs at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post — the old liberal pre-Rupert Murdoch Post, he stresses — and Forbes magazine. During this time, he founded the Clarkstown Citizen — that’s the Clarkstown in Rockland County. He ran that weekly for a couple of years, until he ran out of money.

He then became the literary editor of Book Week, the New York Herald Tribune’s weekly literary supplement, which he vitalized by hiring top writers and ironically reviewing books from small publishers. For example, a front-page review Mr. Kluger commissioned helped propel Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” from the fairly obscure Grossman Publishers, to the top of best seller lists.

It turns out that Mr. Kluger was not only an excellent writer and editor, but a pretty good reader as well. He could read the writing on the wall, and soon it was clear that the Herald-Tribune was going down the same road as the Clarkstown Citizen. So he began his second career, as a books editor, starting as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, advancing to executive editor, then to editor-in-chief at Atheneum, and finally to his own imprint, Charterhouse.

An eye ailment that made reading difficult forced him to resign from the last position, but he already had a third career in the works. He’d published two novels while working full time, including “When the Bough Breaks,” based on his experiences in Clarkstown, and now had time to work on a nonfiction book about the landmark 1954 school desegregation ruling.

Called “Simple Justice,” the work was nominated for the National Book Award and was both a critical and a financial success. It enabled him to get sizable contracts that allowed him “to do the kind of legwork and homework that’s required of a major work on big subjects,” he said.

He followed “Simple Justice” with “The Paper,” a history of the Herald Tribune, which also garnered a National Book Award nomination. And now, living in Princeton, he began his study of the U.S. tobacco industry, “Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred Year Cigarette War, the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.” That won him the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

His fiction, too, is rooted in fact. His third novel, “Members of the Tribe,” is loosely based on the Leo Frank trial. Probably his bestselling work of fiction, “The Sheriff of Nottingham,” written with his wife, is not about Robin Hood. Rather, he explains, “It’s about the real sheriff who was around when King John was the king.”

“Hamlet’s Children” came about because when he was growing up, he felt his worldview was shaped by World War II. “I always wanted to write about the war, but it’s such a big subject I wasn’t sure how to do it,” he said. “It occurred to me to write about what it would be like if I didn’t have the benefit of witnessing the war from the comfort of my home.

“Suppose I was an American kid who because of circumstances found himself in a Nazi-occupied country. What would it be like to Iive through that?”

He chose Denmark because the country surrendered to the Germans without resistance but insisted that its small Jewish population be spared. And for 3 1/2 years, the Germans pretty much laid off Denmark’s Jews.

When the tide did turn, Danes helped much of the Jewish population cross the border to a safe haven in Sweden. Adding verisimilitude, the book is populated by real characters, ranging from the pianist and comedian Victor Borge and physicist Niels Bohr to the anti-Nazi co-founders of a sound equipment company, Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen.

“It’s about Denmark during the Second World War,” Mr. Kluger said. “But it’s also a parable about how do you save your self-respect when you are a small peace-loving society that gets overrun by your monstrous neighbor, and your choice is to be enslaved or play along with them and be perceived as a de facto collaborator.”

Mr. Kluger says his experiences with “Hamlet’s Children” haven’t stunted his ambition. “I’m just about to wrap up a new novel,” he said. “Believe it or not, this time I hope to get one of the majors.”

read more: