HAVE I ever written poetry? Yes, but not well. I love poetry, especially lyric poetry, but when I try to write it I am like someone who sings, but shouldn't. I don't have that inner good voice, that combination of melody and power, which makes a poet. My best poetry was a kind of light verse, of which I'll give you an example: ``Roses are red,/ Violets are blue,/ Do you sniff flowers/ Or do they sniff you?''
What is the main source of inspiration for my work?
Actually I don't think I have ever felt inspiration in the creative sense. I write out of a need to understand, to clarify, to get at a truth that is not only mine but anybody's who needs it. There are more things to write about in any one day of my life than I could do justice to if I lived to be as old as the moon. There's something in the way the hands of a fellow passenger on the bus seem to clasp each other in sympathy. Something in someone's climbing a hill with great effort and then going over the top, singing. So much.
Did I always want to be a writer?
Yes, from childhood. I always listened closely to the stories people told, and to the way they told them. I grew up in a family where stories, or tales, especially Hasidic ones, were constantly being told, and in many languages - Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, English. It was like living in a kind of little Europe all my own.
I also told stories, child stories, not to grown-ups, who were higher to me than the treetops, but to my dog, my dog's friends, and once, to a horse. The horse whinnied and stamped its feet, and from this I concluded that he liked my story very much.
My childhood gave me the impression that everything is a story, a story being told or waiting to be told. Life itself is a story that only God knows in its entirety.
From whom have I learned the most?
I don't know. I learn from everyone; in everyone is something unique to discover. There is an old Hasidic tale that a disciple of a rabbi woke early every morning to go and peek in the rabbi's window. When someone asked him why did he do this, he answered, ``I go to watch the rabbi tie his shoestrings. Every day he ties them differently, and every day I learn something new.''
Which do you think is more important to a writer, a good head or a good heart?
Both are important. But I would side with the heart. Nowadays the heart isn't too popular. Coolness and cynicism are fashionable. The heart feels like an outsider, like a kind of schlemiel. Yet, brilliance alone leaves people feeling empty, even neglected. They want a writer to care about them, to lift the stones off their already bent-over backs and help them to walk more easily and cheerfully.
How do I handle rejection?
We have to take the bitter with the sweet. If we can't endure the disappointment in life, how will we survive to enjoy the fulfillment? And the fulfillment is so much greater.
What do I want readers to get out of my work?
I would like them to get the feeling that they can relate to my experiences, can see in themselves the same curiosity about life that I have, the same reverence for it, and therefore know that they are interesting and valuable persons.
Have I enjoyed my life?
That sounds a bit final, but yes. My joy is never free of sadness, because there is so much coldness and cruelty and indifference in the world. But I can still smile and even laugh.
What advice would I give to students today?
I don't like to give advice. I don't think of myself as an authority on anything, even my own mistakes. But I would say to you as students of English, in overcoming the snags that make writing difficult, try to have not only the best of intentions but the determination not to lose heart; don't let the snags overcome you and render your lives a misery instead of a blessing. And I would say to you as human beings, try to be as much like angels as possible. I am thinking of angels as defined in this little story:
Once there was a man who had a hard life, who had suffered much, but who had also been helped, and even saved, by good people along the way. He became a teacher, working with young children. One day one of the children asked him, ``What is an angel? We do not understand what an angel is because we have never seen one.'' He answered, remembering his life, ``An angel is someone who just when you feel all is lost, when you feel no one will ever help you, that nothing is possible, all of a sudden, an angel is there to help.''
Do you have hope for your future as a writer?
I'll tell you a secret. I have written a book that has been praised by the former governor of Colorado, Richard D. Lamm, and by Theodore F. Wolff of the Monitor. Surely when a writer is praised by both a ``Wolff'' and a ``Lamm,'' his future is unlimited.