Writer in the Spotlight
2011 Winter 2012
In his head and in his lab things aren't always what they seem, and Professor Meyers, tormented by a shameful neurosis and a marriage in tatters, has to uncover the truth behind an unthinkable lie before the wrong person gets punished. Welcome Home, Sir, by Steve Caplan is a masterfully-written, tightly-wound story about a soldier who comes home from war without injuries, but with plenty of scars.
Steve your book features a hero with a condition that isn't usually talked about—he's a hypochondriac— but not in a comical Woody Allen way; on the contrary, it's a condition that's getting out of hand and threatens to destroy his marriage. I'm sure the first question readers ask is, do you have some personal experience with this?
Robin, interviews with you are more difficult than writing a novel! In the novel, I can pretend and simulate, invent and borrow, mix fact and fiction at will. But you are putting me on the spot! Have you ever been an investigative reporter?!
Well when you write that convincingly, Steve...! I absolutely felt like I was right in the guy's head!
Well, I have been trying to dodge this one, but I think it’s fair to say that I certainly have experience with the issue of hypochondria, just as I am familiar with bipolar disorder (I did have a parent who suffered from this disorder). One of the fascinating things about hypochondria is that while many afflicted individuals (perhaps most) are oblivious of their condition, it may surprise people to know that other hypochondriacs—despite being fully aware of their tendencies—are nonetheless unable to control their negative thoughts. For those who watched the film “A Beautiful Mind,” this is similar to the depiction of Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr., whose schizophrenia never dissipated, but he eventually learned to ignore the voices and hallucinatory personas that inhabited his mind.
I think that's what was most devastating for your character... that he knew it was the disorder and not based in reality... but couldn't get a handle on it... even though the stakes were so high!
I agree with you completely. The complete understanding of his own condition—but at the same time his inability to overcome it—really makes Ethan a tragic character. The biological and/or psychological bases of such an odd condition really fascinates me. I've often wondered if I should have chosen this field for my own research.
That does sound like something that would suit you! So, I'm sure the second question is always, Did you serve in the COI in the Golan Heights?
I did! I was an artillery crew commander and later served in the unit’s Combat Operations and Intelligence. I had moved to Israel in 1983, and by mid-1984, found that I had actually spent more time in Southern Lebanon than in Israel itself. Those were very rough years for me, but they did provide terrific fodder for writing.
Again, you do a great job of bringing the reader into each scene, but none of your scenes are typical... that's maybe what I loved most about the book... I never ever knew what was coming... to be honest, by the end I was tearing through to see how it all played out!
I just have to address the fact that you violated one of the major rules in writing—your novel is in the first person but you had scenes that didn't include the “I” character. A literary rebel! Any qualms about that?
I always have been a rebel, nonconformist and someone who goes against the grain. I’m also extremely informal (I don’t own a suit and was probably the only faculty position candidate who ever interviewed without a tie). In addition, I have never had any real training as a writer. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I was a student, biology majors only took science courses, so I was never exposed to literature or creative writing at the post high school level. So perhaps this was intuitively done in blissful ignorance of existing conventions.
Ha ha ha! Well, there's something to be said for that! Another thing I liked was the way you compartmentalized your main character into three opposing identities—the respected professor, the terrified patient, and the unhappy husband. It was a good way to show via sessions with his therapist what he was going through, and the flashbacks worked well too.
Thank you, Robin! First person novels make it notoriously difficult to develop secondary characters. At the same time, I feel that they often allow a closer communion between the reader and the protagonist. But this necessitates the creation of a really well developed and complex protagonist—as I have tried to portray. The therapist and flashbacks to the military were vehicles that allowed more insight and identification with Dr. Ethan Meyer. Perhaps the bottom line was that I wasn’t willing to let Ethan Meyer become too remote from me, making a first-person character essential. At the same time, I felt it necessary to migrate to third person narrative to enhance the development of the secondary characters—and also allow a glimpse of Ethan from others’ perspectives.
Had this book been simmering in your head a long time before you wrote it and got it published?
I would say that individual scenes were simmering and waiting to come out for a very long time. It’s almost 30 years since I was drafted into the Israeli army, yet many of the scenarios feel like they occurred just this morning. But other parts of the novel began to take shape as I wrote.
Gotta love that fodder! What is your writing process like?
That’s a really interesting question. As a scientist, I do a tremendous amount of writing: grant applications, papers, etc. All of this is highly regimented and planned like a military operation. But with my creative writing, anything goes. For example, my first novel, Matter Over Mind, was born within a week of a lab accident that I had as a graduate student. Sick at home and missing work for the first time in my career, the urge to write a novel took over and spilled out in linear fashion so that a draft of the entire novel was done within a week. No advance planning—it just spewed out like lava from a volcano. It did, however, take 13 years to publish the novel!
On the other hand, Welcome Home, Sir was written during the course of over a year. In this instance, I wrote individual scenes that popped into my head, and the story began to take shape in a non-linear fashion. Eventually I was able to weave the scenes into the framework of a novel.
What was your experience with Anaphora Literary Press like?
To answer that, let me compare it with the publication of my first novel, Matter Over Mind. When I completed the novel in 1996, being a previously unknown and unpublished author in Jerusalem was akin to being at the north pole. The internet was still in its infancy, and I spent a proportionally large part of my graduate stipend on photocopying hundreds of pages to send overseas to agents and literary presses—most of which never even bothered to reply with the self-stamped envelope I provided. I even had to arrange for someone to send me US stamps to do this! Eventually I found an agent in Canada who put me through rigorous revisions in the plot and held the manuscript for two years before giving up. When I came to the US for post-doctoral studies, I made myself a promise that I would get the novel published as soon as I had tenure. That took another 10 years…
That's great, I'm always so glad to hear success stories! Welcome Home, Sir is your second novel. Tell us about your first novel.
Matter Over Mind is the story of Dr. Steve Miller, a young scientific researcher at an academic institution who is struggling for tenure while trying to overcome a rather traumatic childhood with a parent who suffered from bipolar disorder. While the cast of characters in the lab and department range from quirky fundamentalist praise-the-Lord Christians to an Opera-loving Sikh researcher (nicknamed “Opera-Singh” of course), the protagonist is frequently drawn to reveries from his childhood that are simultaneously humorous and sad. Ultimately, Steve’s past catches up with his present life in a surprise ending that—I hope—leaves the reader breathless.
Just a coincidence that you're both named Steve?
Detectives and writers will tell you that there are no coincidences—at least not ones that aren’t suspicious. I definitely set myself up to strongly identify as Dr. Steve Miller. But—I wrote this as a graduate student, prophesizing, if you will, what it might be like to run a lab. So I am really a combination of Neal the graduate student, and Dr. Steve Miller. Those who knew me as a student equate me with Neal, whereas those who met me later on claim that I am clearly Steve the principal investigator. People tend to see what they want to see. A woman who was a technician in my graduate lab and served in part to inspire the rather comical character “Opera Singh” in Matter Over Mind read the novel and did not pick herself out as this character (whew!) On the other hand, she nailed one of the people who partially served as an inspiration for the semi-evil Smithers character.
One more interesting point. Ethan in Hebrew is Eitan, which means “strong.” Coincidentally (note the word usage!), this is very close to the French Etienne, which is synonymous with Esteban (Spanish) and Steve. So Ethan/Eitan/Etienne from Welcome Home, Sir is really also the equivalent of Steve.
Oh, okay. Interesting! Anyway, your writing falls into a new genre called Lablit, which are stories that take place in real time primarily in scientific labs. Any advice for other authors of Lablit?
Both my novels do fall under the category of Lablit, which was coined by scientist-author Dr. Jenny Rohn (see www.lablit.com). When I read Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith years ago I didn’t realize that there would ever be such great interest in scientists as literary figures. However, in the mid 1980s, scientist Carl Djerassi began to write books and plays that depicted realistic scientists. He called this genre “science-in-fiction” (as opposed to science fiction). I think that the decision of an outstanding (and best-selling) author such as Allegra Goodman to take on Lablit (in her excellent novel, “Intuition”) really demonstrates the interest that there is for Lablit. So my advice for Lablit is authors is clear: keep writing!
Do you ever write short fiction or poetry?
Before undertaking a novel, I wrote some short fiction and managed to publish several stories on e-zines/online journals. One example is "The Recovery," published in 256 Shades of Gray (http://www.mindspring.com/~blkgrnt/footlights/foot54.html). But I feel that novels, with their opportunity to develop characters and plot, work better for me. As for poetry, I've never tried my hand at that.
So what's next for you, any projects in the works?
I've been toying with outlines for two new novels, and have been having a tough time deciding which to start with. As usual, though, with me the more serious topic seems to be winning out. Tentatively titled Let My People Go, my new project will deal with a female biomedical graduate student whose mentor abuses her by not allowing her to graduate, and the mysterious death of that mentor and the aftermath that follows. Moving into the realm of mystery, but addressing a serious issue for anyone in academia—the tricky relationships between mentors and students.
That sounds like a great story—I'll watch for it! Hey, thanks so much for sitting down with me today, Steve, and good luck with your writing!
Thank you so much, Robin. I also look forward to seeing your upcoming novel In His Genes in press and a great new addition to the Lablit enterprise. I need to go now, I haven’t checked my blood pressure for a few hours…
Ha ha ha!
Dr. Steve Caplan received a Bachelor of Science degree and both masters and doctoral degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since 2003 he has been principal investigator and Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. He has won a number of prestigious awards for his research and mentorship and is the author of numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers. To visit him, go to: http://www.stevecaplan.net.