Andrew Lewis Conn’s second work of fiction, O, Africa!, follows Jewish twins Izzy and Micah Grand, two upcoming filmmakers in 1920s New York. Amidst the chaotic blend of silent films, race relations and sexual exploits, the brothers are forced to take a trip to Africa to save their careers–and lives. Both Kirkus Reviews and The New York Times Book Review have praised Conn’s witty writing style, and Jewish author Gary Shteyngart called the book “a strange, cool, hilarious and oddly moving masterpiece.” Moment spoke with Conn about his latest work, released last month.—Deborah Altman
How did the idea for the novel come about?
The real seed of inspiration came from a one-line reference to the Korda brothers in a magazine article. The article was about someone who was compiling a vault of B roll footage about 9/11 and the magazine mentioned that the Korda brothers, in the 20s and 30s, had made a series of trips to Africa and created a vault of B roll footage that was used in a number of Hollywood films for a generation. That one line, I thought, oh my God, there’s a huge historic fiction novel in there. And then, it started building from there. The idea of writing about the birth of movies in America and the moment when culture went from a literary culture to a visual culture and what does it mean when pop culture distorts history. That was one big stream.
Another stream of inspiration was Norman Mailer, one of my boyhood heroes. He has this great line that, “minorities are the nervous system of America.” I was always very struck by that idea. So, thematically that was another thing I wanted to dig into. In the early part of the 20th century, it really was minorities, blacks, gays and Jews who were creating what became the most vibrant and unique parts of American culture.
Something I found really interesting was the moment when African-American gangster Waldo expresses how he identifies with Jews as a persecuted minority, whereas his protégé Bumpy sees Micah and Izzy as privileged whites; their Jewishness doesn’t make a real difference. Why is it that the two characters have such different views?
First of all, the Bumpy Johnson character, he’s a real life figure. He was a very famous gangster for many many years and when I did a little research on him it turned out he’s something of a poet. You have these different minority characters who are trying to find a way in, a way into the culture and, you know, it could be either through some sort of artistic endeavor or criminality. But the instinct is the same. It’s all trying to break through somehow. And the touch points between blacks and Jews, that’s a really interesting relationship. You know, Jews played a big part during the Civil Rights movement. Even Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman dying together in the car and things like that. Now that relationship might be more fraught, but in the book, just finding those points of similarity, I had fun doing that.
Was it hard to capture Congo in the 1920s?
I had never done any historic research before, so the outset major question that I had was, how do you do that? I found that the more important thing, at least for me, was finding a voice that felt comfortable and authentic.
Another thing is when I started the book I had also started private tutoring. A lot of that work included following the English curriculum, so I was rereading a lot of books from the 20s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all those guys. Something that hit me when I was reading those books was that a book written in a given period isn’t necessarily a period piece. You’re reading A Farewell to Arms and the guy doesn’t say to Catherine, “here’s a Clark candy bar, the number one candy bar in 1929.” He just says, “Hey, you want a piece of chocolate?” The research for historic fiction isn’t just marshaling a thousand factoids; it’s more about seeding the text with two or three facts in the right spot and you earn the readers trust that you know what you’re talking about.
Part of the question about the research was: Do I set the Africa scenes in a real African country or not? I ultimately decided not to because if you set it in a real country you’re going to be hemmed in, you’re going to to feel very constrained. And also, part of the meaning of the book is that the brothers don’t know anything about where they are going but they have the power of cinema to influence how people feel about this place. So I felt I should keep my own ignorance to a certain degree, just like the characters.
Do you have a favorite character?
I wouldn’t say a favorite. I love my characters, I really love them. I’m the kind of writer, I joke with a friend of mine, they’re method actors and I’m a method writer. I can put my self to bed for 6 months if my characters do something that is foolish or that I disagree with morally or whatever. I would say that I spread myself out among my characters. With Izzy and Micah, it was interesting to write about twins and have two co-leads. They more or less form one person and through those tubes I think they explore parts of my own personality. There were definitely parts of the books were I thought oh this is Izzy’s book or no, it’s Micah’s book but by the end of the book I thought, no they’re conjoined.
In your last book, the Jewish character Milton Minegold says: “Film steals fire from the gods twenty four frames per second.” Is film, which often necessitates manipulating reality and time, in a way idolatry?
I don’t know if I’d go so far as idolatry. A unique thing about film is that, whether it’s a fiction film or not, every film has a documentary element. You are capturing something in front of you, whether it’s a person or a city or whatever, you’re capturing something as it is in the moment. I don’t think any other art can do that, so there is a sense that you do achieve a kind of immortality in film.
Would you be open to the book being made into a movie?
Yeah! Sure, of course! (laughs)