Friday, October 14, 2011

Mark Helprin on His Satirical Novel on Charles and Diana

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2005)

In his satirical novel “Freddy and Fredericka” (Penguin Press, $28), Mark Helprin fictionalizes the disastrous marriage of Britain’s Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, through the over-the-top experiences of his title characters. Freddy has infuriated his mother Queen Philippa through his awkwardness and very public gaffs and Fredericka has driven the queen to despair by her ever-plunging necklines and desire to steal the royal spotlight. The couple are banished to America with an impossible quest: They must reconquer the colonies for England.

Freddy and Fredericka are parachuted into the Bayonne Meadows in New Jersey, landing virtually on top of a neo-Nazi biker gang. After a swordfight, Freddy and Fredericka steal a motorcycle and start a madcap journey across the United States. They get jobs stealing art in Washington D.C., washing dishes in Chicago and watching for forest fires in the West. Freddy alternates between being a killer commando and and a buffoon, while he learns that Fredericka may have greater depth than he does. Freddy winds up writing speeches for the presidential campaign of Dewey Knott, a bumbling war hero senator, who is more than vaguely reminiscent of Bob Dole. The couple are finally incarcerated in a California mental hospital.

With nods to Voltaire’s “Candide,” Helprin uses the escapades of Freddy and Fredericka to explore the American heartland, the corruption of a presidential campaign and a man’s realization that he is capable of loving his wife.

Helprin, 58, was born in New York, raised in Jamaica and educated at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford. He served in the British merchant navy and the Israeli army and air force. He is the author of eight novels and story collections, including “The Refiner’s Fire,” “A Winter’s Tale” and “A Soldier of the Great War.” He was a speechwriter for Bob Dole during his 1996 presidential bid and is a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Helprin lives in Virginia with his wife and two daughters, and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley in New York City.

Q. How did you come up with this fairytale/nightmare of the fictionalized Prince and Princess of Wales?

A. My children were little and they must have known about the Prince Charles and Princess Diana, whether from my wife and I talking about them or television. We took them to a restaurant where you can see people working in the kitchen. There was a couple, a man and a woman, washing dishes. One of my little girls asked, “Is that the Prince and Princess of Wales?” Of course I said no, but it occurred to me that I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. I’m an expert dishwasher myself. When I was in the Israeli army, we did patrols at night and KP during the day.

My novel is like an alternative ending story for Charles and Diana, a “what if?” It is an imaginary story of what might have happened.

Q. Why did you make Freddy and Fredericka parachute into the industrially polluted Bayonne Meadows on top of a group of drug-addled, neo-Nazi bikers?

A. Very little is by design. They start in New Jersey because it would be too much of a bite out of the beginning of the book to wind up in New York City. Freddy picked the Bayonne Meadows off the map. To him, it sounded like a park-like area. They think it is a trendy neighborhood with boutiques.

Freddy and Frederick have been expelled from paradise. The first step for Dante or Virgil is hell. If you are standing on the Pulaski Skyway, it looks like the circles of hell. It is unbelievable.

Q. Your story of Freddy and Fredericka gets more and more absurd, then it turns serious. Why?

A. There was a professor of mine at Harvard named Frohock. One thing he taught me, which I call Frohock’s Law, is that all comedies end in one of two ways. They either become completely absurd or they become serious. Freddy and Fredericka are on a quest. They go through astounding coincidences. They pass all the tests, gain a sense of maturity and return to paradise with a transformation of soul.

This book was written for pure enjoyment. I wanted to write a comedy. This is the movie I would like to see. Essentially, I made it in my head.

Q. At times, there is an element of a Candide-like morality tale in your book. Was this intentional?

A. There is some of a morality tale in the book. It is more like Tocqueville and a commentary on America. At the heart of it, though, is the story of a man who learns to love his wife.

Q. What do you think of Prince Freddy after spending two years in his head while writing this book?

A. I see him as someone who is genuinely a good person, who is able to overcome his handicaps. His handicaps are that he has become pigeonholed and trapped in a kind of prison. He grew up without knowing how to live in the world and then he learned to to exist in the world. Anybody can learn how to do that.

Q. Frederick gets involved in a doomed presidential campaign for Senator Dewey Knott. Do you see any parallels with your own experience with the Dole campaign?

A. You write about what you know. Dewey Knott is not Bob Dole, though they both refer to themselves in the third person.

Q. As a political commentator for the past 25 years, how do you view the recent presidential campaigns?

A. They are unbelievably absurd. It’s beyond sense and sensibility. Everybody above a certain level in the campaign is only thinking about one thing, and that is whether he’s going to get an administration appointment. If you read the minds of these people, as I can at this point, they are choosing their embassies and their undersecretaryships. They care more about the position in the campaign than doing what it takes to have the candidate win.

Q. Would you call yourself a conservative?

A. I’m an eclectic conservative. I don’t follow any particular line. As each issue comes, I decide it on its merits. I’m for a strong military, but I am for a high minimum wage, like any former dishwasher might be. You can’t raise a family on $300 a week. I’m for a progressive income tax, rather than a flat tax. think there should be just a few brackets, with 25 percent as the top level.

Q. What do you think of the quality of the political and civil discourse in the U.S. today?

A. It’s not a civil discourse. I think it’s because of the educational system, which has blunted people’s sensibilities, and because everything plays to the media, which is now punch and kick rather than talk. You can’t be civil unless you are complex. if you have one position and I have a diametrically opposed position, we have to talk. Now we have politicians who communicate with the people through the electronic press, when they only have a few seconds to do it.

We’ll never have a civil discourse and an intelligent political society unless people are properly educated and trained to think for themselves instead of relying on doctrines.

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