Mark Helprin

from The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Why don’t you like to give interviews?

MARK HELPRIN

When I was young it was impossible to stop me from talking about myself, but I now find it difficult to start. As an adolescent (which stage in life took me to about the age of thirty) I had a facile tongue, a prodigious memory, and an all-consuming fear of sociality (a fear and distaste that is, if anything, stronger now than it ever was, but now I am disciplined enough just to suffer through it and, quite frankly, I’m tired of trying to keep back a sea of discomfort with the flood of my own words).

The source of my aversion is partly hereditary, in that my father and many of my relatives were much the same, and partly an acquisition that I owe to my early upbringing. When this was far more serious a matter than it is now, I was born two months prematurely, with malformations of the spine (spina bifida) and lungs, and what was later diagnosed as “hyperconvulsive neurological syndrome.” Whatever that is, it was sufficient to have kept me out of the United States Army, though not the Israeli infantry and air force or the British Merchant Navy.

To make a rather long story extremely short, I spent many weeks in an incubator, came home as damaged goods, and spent much of my early life in the throes of respiratory diseases that kept me out of school and apart from others. As a small child, I once ran a fever for, literally, a year. I had pneumonia half a dozen times, double pneumonia, whooping cough—all because of the circumstances of my birth.

Now, combine that, and all that you can imagine might flow from it, with the place in which I was raised—Ossining, New York. Culturally, the character of the area was formed during the Revolutionary War, when it was a no-man’s-land between the Americans and the British, and every criminal, deserter, and malcontent for hundreds of miles found his way there and left his genes. When I was a child, I would always look at people’s hands, to see if they had six fingers, and sometimes they did.

My draft board, I am told (although it may be myth), had, of all draft boards in the United States, the highest proportion of men killed in Vietnam—where, incidentally, my godfather, the photographer Robert Capa, was the first American to die, though he was a Hungarian and had nothing to do with the Hudson. The area was salted with military institutions—West Point, military academies, veterans’ hospitals—and old soldiers, including even, when I was young, some from the Civil War. The play of the boys was guerilla warfare in the extensive woods. Every stranger was a threat, an enemy. Indeed, there were a lot of bad apples around—escaped convicts from Sing Sing (twice as I remember), standard criminals, gangs in the fifties, child molesters (a beautiful little girl was taken from my third-grade schoolyard and raped and beaten over a period of many hours), and hoboes (not Shakespearian woodwinds) on the rail line that was the geographical locus of my childhood. I ran wild through all this, protected by my paranoia, by my sharply-honed guerilla skills, and by a rather extensive arsenal. Had you turned me upside down and shaken me, the floor would have looked like a military museum after an earthquake.

INTERVIEWER

I was asking about your dislike of being interviewed.

(photo found here, by Jim Harrison for Harvard Magazine)



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