Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview with David Halperin and Book Giveaway

Posted by Simcha 11:59 AM, under | 3 comments

David Halperin's first novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator, was released by Viking Press in February and I very much enjoyed this unique coming-of-age story about a teenage UFO investigator. I also enjoyed getting the chance to ask David some questions about the book and about his own experiences as a teenage UFO investigator.

Hi David, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview.

So your biography mentions that you were a “teenager UFO investigator.” What exactly does being a UFO investigator involve?

Mostly, reading all the UFO books I could get hold of, gathering every crumb of UFO-related news I could find, and exchanging 10- and 20-page letters with other teenage UFO investigators, most of them dateless boys like myself. In these letters, my fellow-“UFOlogists” and I would debate and evaluate what we were reading with what now seems to me a very high degree of intellectual sophistication. (I’ve kept a fair number of my files of UFO correspondence, which I reviewed while working on Journal of a UFO Investigator.) In some ways—the development of critical thinking, within a circumscribed framework—UFOlogy prepared me for college at least as well as high school did.

Every now and then I got lucky, and a UFO was spotted—or actually landed—at some place accessible enough to the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up that I could go out and “investigate” it, take photos of pertinent evidence, interview witnesses and police, and the like. I am amazed, looking back, at how seriously I was taken, at age 16, by the adults. The UFO landing I mentioned took place in Glassboro, NJ, in September 1964; it turned out to be the work of a college-kid prankster who dug holes in the ground and set off a cherry bomb. I put my heart and soul into investigating that landing. It was months if not years before I could bring myself to admit it didn’t really happen.

It was an easy train ride from where I lived to New York City. Occasionally I went there to meet some of the older UFOlogists whose work I knew and admired. Some of them were genuinely very remarkable people. They were the first grownups I’d known who treated me as a full equal, their partner in quest of the truth. For me this was an exhilarating and, I think, on the whole a beneficial experience. That we were all engaged with what I now regard as a shared delusion in no way lessened its value.

How did you first get interested in UFOs?

I read a book: Gray Barker’s
They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers This happened in the fall of 1960, when a friend and I were doing research for a paper on UFOs that we’d agreed to write jointly for our eighth-grade science class. I became an instant believer. Not that UFOs were from outer space—it took a while before that began to seem probable to me. But I was convinced they were real, crucially important, and probably the custodians of a terrifying secret. This followed from the stories Barker told in his book, of the “three men in black”—humans? aliens?— who visited those who’d come close to solving the UFO mystery and frightened them into silence.

They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers was a bestseller when it appeared in 1956. It’s a scary read, persuasive to the extent that you trust the author not to have made it all up. What was there in it that carried such conviction for me? I think it was this: the “three men in black” faithfully mirrored the reality I knew from my own household. Our family had a terrible secret, which we hardly dared to utter: namely that my mother was not merely a “semi-invalid,” as we called her, but was slowly dying of an untreatable heart condition. Barker’s book seemed to speak the truth that we couldn’t. That was why I believed it; and if you believed Barker you had to believe in UFOs, and to believe that we’d better solve their mystery pretty quick. Everything followed from that.

Do you still hold any of the same beliefs about UFOs that you did as a teenager?

Only this: that UFOs are immensely important, and that belief in them is something vital—from a purely human perspective—and never to be mocked. My original intuition was right. UFOs don’t come from outer space; they have nothing to do with space travel or life on other planets. They’re about us, our yearnings and our terrors, most especially our confrontation with the end of our existence. (Death is at once an intimate part of us, and the most alien thing we might possibly contemplate.)

After I finished Gray Barker, I tried reading C.G. Jung’s classic
Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958). I couldn’t make much of it; I doubt most 13-year-olds could. I sometimes wonder whether I would have understood it better if I’d had someone to explain to me that, when Jung calls UFOs a “myth,” he’s not putting them down but rather emphasizing their importance, even their truth. This is about my current position.

How did you come to write Journal of a UFO Investigator and how much of it based on your own experiences growing up?

The simple answer is that one January morning in 1997, I sat down at my computer and began to write a story based on my experiences, dreams, and fantasies as a teenage UFOlogist. My wife Rose looked at the first few paragraphs and said, “It’s good. Keep on going.” But what brought me there in the first place? This requires a somewhat longer answer.

After going to college and “graduating,” as it were, from UFOlogy, I trained as a specialist in Judaic studies. What sorts of issues did I gravitate toward? Ezekiel’s vision, of the “living creatures” and the “wheels” and so forth—which a few years earlier I’d been ready to call a UFO—and the rabbinic “merkavah mysticism” that seemed to involve an otherworldly journey toward the vehicle that Ezekiel saw. This journey, it turned out, had much the same contours as a UFO abduction. And slowly I came to realize I hadn’t left the UFOs behind me; in large measure I’d sublimated them into more socially acceptable arenas of study. They were an inescapable part of me; and since nothing human is alien to me, as the old poet says, I supposed they were also a part of the human experience that could be explored through my own share in it. And what’s the best way to explore a myth? I decided: to tell it, from the perspective of me who had lived it.

Of course most of the things in Journal of a UFO Investigator didn’t really happen to me. But in a paradoxical sort of way they really were part of my teenage experience. I remember imagining, when I was about 13 years old—and this picture was very vivid within my mind—that I would be standing outside my family’s home, looking into the starry sky, and would see there a luminous red disk blazing its way across the heavens. I never actually saw any such thing. But I was convinced I would see it, I could see it, it was there for me to see. This conviction, or more exactly the memory of this conviction, generated the first scene of my book.

And I remember a dream I had when I was a teenager. (Or maybe it was a waking fantasy; but I incline to think it was a dream.) In this dream, I was in a rambling old house somewhere in the country, at a meeting of ultra-serious teenagers like myself, dedicated to exploring the mysteries that lie just beyond the borders of science. Among them was a beautiful blonde in an evening dress … And this dream, or the memory of this dream, grew into the scene in the novel where Danny Shapiro pays his first visit to the headquarters of the “Super-Science Society,” and meets Rochelle.

Did your parents encourage your interest in UFO investigations or were they as bewildered by it as Danny's father is in Journal?

My mother was bewildered and tolerant, my father bewildered and mostly hostile. Yet he never prohibited me from UFO research, and both my parents enabled my interest in subtle but important ways. (I wouldn’t quite use the word “encourage.”)

This makes more sense if you remember that all three of us were grappling with an almost unbearably painful burden—my mother’s slow decline toward death—which none of us were able to face, much less speak to one another about. The UFOs helped me bear that burden; I’m convinced that by doing so they saved my life. I believe my UFOlogy also served a function for my parents, relieving or channeling tensions that otherwise would have torn the family apart. That’s why they put up with it.

And I can think of at least one time a UFO investigation led to adventure for both my father and me. I’d telephoned a local private airport to get the details of a sighting that had supposedly occurred over that airport. The pilot I spoke to was at first irritated, thinking (I suppose) that he was being pestered by some nut case. When I shamefacedly admitted I was only 15 years old, his anger turned to amusement. He invited me to come to the airport to interview him. I didn’t yet drive; I had to ask my father to take me. To my surprise, he agreed. It was a beautiful, chilly afternoon, autumn or wintertime—I don’t remember. I do remember we had a good time chatting with the pilots. I remember the conversation ended with a special plane ride they gave the two of us. I don’t recall much about that flight beyond that it was an extraordinary experience, for me and I think also my father. For that hour or half-hour, the UFOs had made it possible for us both to take wing.

Have you remained in contact with any of those other UFO investigators from your childhood?

Funny you should ask. The past several months have been almost like a high school reunion—reconnecting with my old UFOlogy buddies, most of whom I hadn’t heard from for at least 20 and sometimes more than 40 years. I’m impressed by how many of them have stayed involved with UFOs. My experience, that the more I thought I was putting the UFOs behind me the more they seemed to follow me, seems to have been true of these people as well.

Among my old/new UFO friends is Jerome Clark, author (almost single-handedly) of the multi-volume UFO Encyclopedia, an extraordinary reference work which no one with any interest in UFOs or UFO belief can afford to ignore. Jerry and I exchanged a voluminous correspondence when I was 15 and he 16, and the distinctive style of his letters is still there in his most recent writings. (We’ve never met face to face.) Another is Gene Steinberg, whom I last saw in Brooklyn in 1965. Now he’s host of The Paracast, a paranormal radio show on which I was interviewed last February. Looking through the Paracast archive has sometimes felt like reading a roster of the teen UFOlogists of my day, all of us now in our sixties.

What are some of the challenges you faced while writing Journal of a UFO Investigator?

The hardest was how to get it down to a manageable length. Originally I wrote the novel in alternating chapters: Danny’s UFO journal, and the story of the day-to-day experiences that are the background and context of the journal story. (These “day-to-day reality” chapters were heavily autobiographical.) These two parallel stories flowed out of me, plenteously. By the summer of 1999, I had 1500 manuscript pages.

Of course this was unpublishable. I cut it down to about 850 pages; still way too long. I set it aside and worked on other projects. When I took it up again, in 2004, a friend of mine who’s a fine novelist read the early chapters and said: you’ve got two stories here, and they keep getting in each other’s way. The UFO story is the more exciting. Keep that; get rid of the other. Which I did. That’s how the novel, in its present form, was born.

There’s some material I cut that I wish I could have kept. In the original draft there was a long section told from the point of view of Danny’s father. In those chapters, Leon Shapiro appears, not as the terrifying ogre that Danny (inevitably) perceives, but as a struggling, limited human being with his own story and his own suffering. I much regret cutting all that; it gave Leon’s character a dimension he’s now lost. But I didn’t have a choice. The story had to be Danny’s.

Are you currently working on any other writing projects?

I’m working on a sequel to Journal, to be entitled
The Color of Electrum. (The title is taken from Ezekiel 1:4, ke-eyn ha-hashmal.) This novel begins the year after Journal leaves off, Danny Shapiro is once more the main character … and I think that’s all I want to say about it right now.

There’s also a novel I’ve been working on, off and on, for several years. It’s called The Mending; it’s about a woman psychiatrist (Jewish) in the year 2000, one of whose patients starts to recover memories and dream fragments belonging to a 17th-century Jewish Messiah. Like all my fiction, it draws heavily upon the research I’ve done as a Judaic scholar.

Oh good, I'm really glad to hear that Danny's story will be continuing.

Since all of your books seem to have strong Jewish themes I'm curious if there are any Jewish science fiction authors that have influenced your writing.

The one who comes to mind is Lisa Goldstein, author of
The Alchemist’s Door. I’m completely bowled over by her story “Split Light”—a brilliant evocation of the would-be Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, told from a perspective, not of alternate history exactly, but of a world for which an alternate history is thinkable. A perfect example of how science fiction can give insights into religion that no other genre can provide.

Speaking of which, I’ve long been under the influence of Walter M. Miller’s
A Canticle for Liebowitz, which I read back in my UFO-investigator years and which strikes me, each time I dip into it, with how extraordinarily good it is. Miller was of course not a “Jewish science fiction author.” To judge from Liebowitz, he was a devout Catholic. Yet the book is not only deeply engaged with religious issues, but features an enigmatic Jewish character who recurs in each of the book’s three sections, each time speaking Hebrew (printed in Hebrew script!). From this, and from the choice of “Saint Liebowitz” as the book’s patron, it’s hard to escape the impression that Miller wanted to use his S-F to say something, not only about his Catholic faith, but about Judaism as well. It’s a book that spoke to me at an impressionable age, and has stayed at the back of my consciousness ever since.

And now for the two questions that I can never resist posing to any new acquaintance, who are three of your favorite authors and what books are you currently reading?

The three that come to mind are all British; I don’t know what that says. The first is George Gissing (1857-1903), a fantastically good, under-appreciated novelist whom I’d love to see in the canon of the Victorian greats. His
New Grub Street, published in 1891, gives a description of the London literary life, its squalors and agonies, that feels so contemporary you squirm to read it. The second is George Orwell, born the year Gissing died. I’m not talking primarily of 1984, which I haven’t dared to look at in years; to open that book is to be sucked into a whirlpool of horror that won’t let you go until you’ve read to the gruesome end. I’m thinking of his wonderful so-called “lesser” novels, like A Clergyman’s Daughter and Burmese Days, and the marvelous four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, each volume a storehouse of humane wisdom, expressed with a vigor and brilliance that leaves me gasping.

My third favorite is contemporary: Iain Pears. Of his novels, I loved
The Dream of Scipio. But An Instance of the Fingerpost is his masterpiece. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery set in the 17th century, but it’s really … And I can’t say what the book is really about, without spoiling it for everyone who intends to read it. It’s something beyond extraordinary.

One book I’m in the middle of reading is Thomas E. Bullard’s
The Myth and Mystery of UFOs (University Press of Kansas, 2010), an exploration of UFOs by a trained folklorist who’s also, at least in some measure, a UFO believer. Another is Ke-Zohar ha-Rakeea (“Like the Radiance of the Sky”), by Ben-Gurion University professor Boaz Huss (Ben-Zvi Institute / Bialik Institute, 2008). I’ve been interested in Kabbalah for more than twenty years now, and Boaz has written the book I’ve always wanted to read: an investigation of how the amazing text called the “Zohar” came to be, how it was put together, transmitted and interpreted. He’s a wonderful scholar and a wonderful person, and everything he writes I read with pleasure.

Recently I’ve also gotten caught up in A. Scott Berg’s biography Lindbergh (Berkley Books, 1998). I originally got hold of it for its remarkable story of how Lindbergh and C.G. Jung nearly came to blows over UFOs, Jung allegedly insisting they’re real, Lindbergh that they aren’t. (I’ve discussed this story in two recent blog posts) But I kept on reading, repelled and fascinated by Charles Lindbergh. I no longer have the smallest doubt he was anti-Semitic; his affection and admiration for Hitler and Nazi Germany, of which he seems never to have repented, are vomit-inducing. Yet he was also a genuine hero, and a person of humane sympathies and at least intermittent wisdom. “What a piece of work is a man …”

Thank you so much David for patiently answering all of my questions. I really enjoyed getting to know more about you and about UFO investigating, in general.

And thanks Viking Press I have a copy of Davd Halpren's
Journal of a UFO Investigator to give away to one luck reader. To enter please fill out the form below.

The giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada, and possibly a few other locations as well, though they haven't been specified. So on the form I have asked that you include your country of residence and if the winner lives somewhere other than the US or Canada I will check with the publisher to see if the book can be mailed there.

* Photo of David Halperin credited to Anora McGaha


Nice interview :) Perhaps bf would like the books. Just yesterday I saw him reading something about aliens on the computer ;)

I love that memory of you as a teen interviewing pilots and UFO investigators. It must have been daunting to work up the courage to ask questions and try to be taken seriously at that age.

It was daunting. Yet somehow I trusted myself, at least in that way. (It was quite another thing to phone a girl and ask her out!)
Thanks for the comments.

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