Over the course of his 26 years writing and directing documentaries, Arthur Mokin has won a host of awards for his work and has lectured at several American universities. Mokin’s also the author of two historical novels: Ironclad, a tale of the early days of the Civil War, and Meribah, a love story of the biblical Book of Exodus.
Regarding his historical fiction, Mokin says, “Researching Ironclad taught me the truth of the maxim that history is myth agreed upon.” We recently spoke with the author about his work turning biblical history into a novel that our review called “beautifully conceived.”
Read more notable books by Indie authors this June.
Meribah is a story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, told largely from the perspective of an Egyptian traveling with the Hebrew people. Why did you choose to use the perspective of an outsider to shape the novel?
At its intellectual core, Meribah is a work of comparative religion. Except for an enlightened few, notably Moses, Aharon and Miryam, Judaism is on trial. Time after time we hear the people complain that the sacrifices they are asked to make in the name of Judaism, i.e. freedom, are too onerous, especially in view of the fact that none has experienced Judaism or freedom.
I needed a coherent voice to humanize the sentiments of the people. It seemed logical to choose a surrogate who would come to the task with a certain innocence, even perhaps skepticism, with regard to Judaism. The Egyptian fills that role, given his background in a polytheistic and animistic tradition.
Throughout the majority of the novel, the Egyptian has no name. In fact, the reader never learns the Egyptian name he was born to. What is the significance of his remaining unnamed?
A novel is often less contrived and calculated than the finished product would make it appear. The fact is that when I began Meribah, I had no name for the Egyptian. Names of protagonists are significant inasmuch as they furnish the first impression of character, so naturally I wanted to give him an appropriate name. Rather than take the time to research Egyptian given names, I decided to proceed in the hope that a name would surface.
As I got further into the book without having named him, it occurred to me that since he was wrestling with his identity, it would be fitting to give him a name after he had resolved his conflict.
You’ve been writing and directing documentaries for 26 years. How do you compare your work writing for screen and writing novels?
Ideally, a documentary film is not scripted. The true documentary is investigative: The subject takes the camera with it. The onus of the documentary falls on the director. Provided only with a thorough understanding of what his film is intended to document, the director chooses his locations and, again ideally, arrives on the scene with no preconceptions.
The art of directing a documentary film lies in choosing those scenes or objects or people that best demonstrate or reveal the nature of the subject being investigated. The intended audience can be one or two interested specialists, or a general theatrical audience. In the event of the latter it falls to the director to make the film as interesting and entertaining as possible while he pursues the investigative function.
As for the difference between writing a novel and producing a documentary film, the major one, for me, is that film is inevitably a cooperative venture, sometimes requiring a battalion-sized crew. The glory of writing a novel is that the lone author is solely responsible for what lies between the covers.
In addition to writing, you’ve also worked as a lecturer in universities. Was your academic background a help in conducting your research for both Meribah and your other historical novel, Ironclad? Tell us a little about your research process.
My academic background is, by today’s standards, rather scanty. I have only an A.B. degree in English from Brooklyn College. I say unhesitatingly that the most practical, tangible and valuable benefit of a liberal education is that it teaches one how to learn, which, of course includes the research capability. One really acquires knowledge after college.
As for my research process, the subject of the work determines method. In the case of Ironclad, a Civil War story, there was no lack of sources. The Civil War is probably the most documented event in American history.
It was a delight to read current newspaper reports, both Union and Confederate, supplemented by journals of the day, followed by the official or government version, the whole often enriched by personal accounts, as in correspondence and diaries. I remember sitting in the rare book room of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, holding in my hands the actual letters of Monitor crew—an experience that can only be described as thrilling.
As for Meribah, the Exodus story has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. Jews are formally reminded of the event at least once a year at Passover. Happily, the Bible is the one authenticated source. It was largely a matter of writing the book with the Bible at my side.