(INTEROFFICE MEMO, 11:20 A.M.)
BSW LITERARY AGENCY
Sorry to trouble you. That Andrea with the British accent just rang yet again. She already rang at 9 this morning on the dot. She said Mr. Warshaw would make it worth my while if I would put him through to Mr. Wouk on the phone even for a minute or two, “by mistake.” (A gross offer of a bribe?) She still won’t say what it’s about.
I ignored 3 calls from her yesterday and 2 on Friday. This will just go on and on.
(HW OFFICE PHONE RINGS, RINGS, RINGS.)
(Secretary on speakerphone) Look, HW, Tim Warshaw got through to me, told me what he wants to say to you, and asks for a couple of minutes, no more. I can’t take the responsibility to pass this up. I told him I’d have to stay on the line and take notes. He laughed and said, “Why not?” Here he is.
WARSHAW: (slow, deep voice) Mr. Wouk?
WARSHAW: Sir, would one million dollars for a half-hour conference interest you?
(Insert by HW: A jolt. These Hollywood hoodlums! He has the money, he’s riding high, Best Picture Oscar for his art-house breakout from the big disaster films. A million! . . . Family foundation, charities . . . son’s divorce . . .)
HW: Mr. Warshaw, I’m ninety-six years old, trying to get one more book done while I last. Thank you, but—
WARSHAW: Sir, dare I ask what the new book is about?
WARSHAW: May I tell you what I’m calling about, and I swear that’ll be that? I’ll thank you and hang up—
HW: Go ahead.
WARSHAW: (pause—slow, deep) Moses . . .
WARSHAW: Moses, sir. Pharaoh, Burning Bush, splitting the sea—
HW: Oh, yes, that Moses. The one Cecil B. DeMille did twice—
WARSHAW: Sir, this would be all different. Think twenty-first century, think special effects—think maybe three-D—
HW: Mr. Warshaw, I’ve appreciated your approach. Most of all, your offer to thank me and hang up.
WARSHAW: Thank you, sir. I’m hanging up.
(He hangs up.)
(HW NEW NOVEL WORK JOURNAL)
Blasted day yesterday, when I was just getting a handle on the new approach to this confounded book, or thought I was. Timothy Warshaw, the red-hot moviemaker of the hour, with an artsy departure from his disaster blockbusters—he copped an Oscar for Best Picture, Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by a nutty Japanese with a cast of all unknown teenagers in masks—the critics rolled over neighing and kicking their hooves in the air—this Warshaw phoned and offered me “one million dollars for a half-hour conference.” Turned him down rudely. Last night at dinner we talked about it.
BSW: Good. That half-hour conference is baloney. He’d get his money’s worth out of your hide, one way or another. Is this new “impossible novel” of yours really started?
HW: Two preliminary journal files. No copy yet. I was drafting the first page of an opening scene when Warshaw bulldozed past Priscilla and got to me.
BSW: What do you want to do about it?
HW: Nothing. Write the book.
BSW: Well, I’ve had my doubts, you know. Not much interest in Moses nowadays.
HW: Oh, no? What do you suppose Warshaw wanted to talk to me about? (Imitates Warshaw.) MO . . . SES . . .
BSW: No! Wow.
HW: Coincidence? What else? Security breach? Nobody, but nobody, except you—and Priscilla, typing my notes, and she’s a silent tomb—knows that I’ve been working on a Moses novel.
BSW: It’s a ploy.
HW: Forget it, then.
BSW: No. Give him the half hour, but don’t take his money. Just listen.
HW: What’s the point?
BSW: I’m curious. He’ll spill something.
HW: You sit in.
CENTURY CITY, CALIFORNIA 90067
Nullarbor Petroleum, Houston
Well, Hezzie, I did manage to get through to Wouk. You can tell this mysterious Australian investor of yours that it wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t encouraging. Wouk doesn’t sound over the phone nearly as old as he is, going on 97, but he was abrupt and peevish. No interest whatever.
Surely if this investor is at all serious, his proposal can’t hang on getting that mulish ancient to write the film. That’s an irresponsible whim. It won’t work. It’s a deal breaker up front. Otherwise his offer is certainly intriguing and exciting. Why can’t you put me in direct touch with him? An e-mail address, if not a phone number? I have persuasive power, you know. I got the bank to fund Yoshimoto’s Dream, when you and other investors ran for the tall grass, telling me such dizzy nonsense hadn’t a prayer. I’m looking at my Oscar on the desk as I write.
From the desk of
Andrea, hold everything. Call Hezzie Jacobs in Houston, tell him Wouk just phoned me. I’m off to Palm Springs in the Falcon. Order a limo to meet me Signature Airport. T.
(HW NEW NOVEL WORK JOURNAL, THURSDAY)
Another day shot, no new writing, no nothing. Warshaw’s half hour—and he stuck to it, I’ll say that—killed the day. Waiting for him to get here, settling him in for the half-hour conference, seeing him out the door, then chewing over this strange business with my lady, and here I am with one day less in my life to do what haunts me, “the impossible novel.”
Here’s Warshaw’s pitch in brief. An Australian eccentric of great wealth wants a movie made about Moses, and is ready to fund it. The approach came via one Hezzie Jacobs, a Texas venture capitalist who sometimes dabbles in films, though his main interest is oil from algae. Jacobs has a vast project of algae ponds going in Nullarbor, Australia. This eccentric investor, a uranium tycoon, has money in it. When Jacobs told him a Moses film might cost two hundred million, all he said was, “Fair dinkum,” Australian slang for okay, or the equivalent.
Now, here’s what Warshaw left out, and it’s crucial. My accountant, who’s wired to insiders in the film game, tells me Warshaw in fact is over a barrel. The Oscar went to his head, he’s always been a high flier, cross-collateralized up to his ears. He’s put some new projects into development, and another of his disaster productions is getting filmed in Turkey right now, Aeneas and Dido, a sexy epic based on the Aeneid, with a fall of Troy bigger than D-day in Saving Private Ryan. He’s been close to freezing that production, short of cash and low on credit, so the rumors fly. Still, he’s meeting his huge budgets week by week and acting carefree as a hummingbird. And the back story on that (my accountant again, and this gets convoluted) is that Jacobs, knowing Fair Dinkum’s obsession to get a Moses film made, has started quietly bankrolling Warshaw, gambling that sooner or later it’ll happen, Fair Dinkum will come across with an investment of four or five hundred million dollars in WarshaWorks, and Jacobs figures to skim off lots of cream.
What it seems to come down to—and I begin to see why Warshaw was ready to pay me a million for a conference—is this: the uranium nabob either backs WarshaWorks with a whopper of a “stimulus” or Warshaw is in real trouble, and that seems to depend on whether he can get me to write a Moses film! So the thing stands. Distracting, but diverting, I have to say. Meantime, no work.
Rabbi Mordechai Heber
Mr. Herman Wouk
Sorry to bother you, Mr. Wouk. A venture capitalist who owns a winter home here wants to see you. Mr. Jacobs is a good man, not religious, but he’s kept my little day school alive. You know how I guard your privacy, but as a special favor to the children of our school, will you see him if he flies here tomorrow? I need an answer right away.
(HW NEW NOVEL WORK JOURNAL, FRIDAY)
The plot thickens. Exponentially. Not for my book, my third false start goes into the files, hopelessly wrong. It’s the Fair Dinkum thing. Turns out that this Hezzie Jacobs owns a home here and is coming from Houston to talk to me. Rabbi Heber interceded for him. I don’t say no to the rabbi . . .
NULLARBOR PETROLEUM LLC
“Freedom from Mideast Oil Through Algae”
HOUSTON — MELBOURNE
FAX (STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL)
Algae, Air Force, Moses, etc.
Lou, good news about Wouk and Moses! A Palm Springs rabbi got me in to see him, and I told him all about you. I took a big chance, Louie. I told him that you’d fly from Australia to talk to him. You can always say I’m crazy, or your doctors won’t allow you, but depending on how keen you are on the Moses film—which I still don’t understand, but it’s your time and money—this is your opening.
Now, Lou, the big news is that the air force is sky-high on the algae! Those Arizona people put on a great show for the generals, took them around the ponds, had a Nobel Prize molecular biologist there, talking plain English about algae molecules and all that. The main thing was the green gasoline! It even smells different, kind of pleasant. They filled the tank of a jeep with it and went roaring down a highway and back, & those stiff generals with all their medals were joking and laughing, and they had a great buffet lunch with fine wine, and in short, the air force is interested, though at the moment that tankful of algae gasoline figures out at $54,000 a gallon. Louis, this can be the breakthrough. Yes, right now oil prices are down again, which is bad for algae, but looking ahead the world’s oil is running out, no doubt of it. Now is the time for Nullarbor! Of the fifty-odd start-up companies doing algae, Arizgrene is the slickest, they know how to promote, but that’s all. About Nullarbor’s genetically altered molecule they haven’t a clue.
This thing is starting to snowball, Louis, don’t let it roll away from us! Where’s your comment on the new prospectus?
Meeting with Louis Gluck
I’ve never felt the need of a tape recorder until now. In former days when I was badgered into an interview, I never allowed a tape recorder, maybe Gluck wouldn’t have, either. Anyhow, here goes to bang out my recollections of the long, bizarre meeting while they’re fresh and copious.
Mr. Gluck is something else. Uninvited, he flew here from Australia to see me. Hezzie Jacobs called me up out of the blue, said Fair Dinkum was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and would come down to Palm Springs before flying on to Toronto, and from there to Paris, then to Beijing, and so back to Australia. Jacobs said he’s done this globe circling for years. This is his second time this year, in February he went the other way from Melbourne via Mumbai, Capetown, Rio de Janeiro, Quito, and home. So Jacobs says, and I can believe it.
Whatever happens, I don’t think I’ll forget my first sight of Gluck, rolling through the door in a wheelchair, with one leg propped up on a board and a dark-skinned fellow pushing him. “Louie Gluck,” he said holding out a hand. “You’re going to write The Lawgiver. There’s nobody else. This is Ishmael.” The companion grinned and rolled him into the living room. Gluck’s an old, old gent, round face, thin white hair, sharp blue eyes, voice hoarse but clear, piquant Jewish-Aussie accent. “Jacobs told me that you turned down Warshaw’s million dollars and gave him half an hour for free. Smart, smart.” I said that that was my wife’s idea. “I want to meet her.” I explained that I was trying to write a Moses book, and he should forget about involving me in a movie.
“You’re making a big mistake. Nobody reads books, everybody watches movies.”
“People read my books.”
“I’ve read them all. That’s how I know you’ll write the Lawgiver movie. I’m talking volume. Take your Winds of War, for one person who read the book how many people saw the miniseries movie, all over the world? A million to one? Or counting all the Chinese who watched pirated copies of the miniseries—like the pile I saw in a Beijing supermarket—three million to one? Why are you trying to write a Moses book at your age?”
“Because I want to, and can afford to take the time, and I don’t have that much time.”
“Who knows how much time you’ve got, and why waste it? You want to say something worthwhile about Moses, something people will take away with them . . . Where can Ishmael get something to eat while we talk?” I sent Ishmael off to Sherman’s Deli. “He’s an aborigine,” Gluck said. “Smart, smart. So, you want to write a book about Moses. You can do it, because you understand Moses, but you’re wasting the time you’ve got, because—”
He was getting under my skin. “Nobody understands Moses,” I barked at him. His face only lit up and he reached to shake my hand. Bony claw like mine. “See? I’m right. You’re the man for the movie. Who else understands that nobody understands Moses? So let me ask you, why try to write about him altogether?”
Well, that triggered, against my better judgment, my song and dance about Moses as Atlas—Western world resting on his shoulders, Christianity and Islam meaningless without him, Lawgiver of the Christian Bible, “Divine Teacher” of the Koran, etc., etc. Gluck listened with a hungry look, nodding and nodding, and broke in as I was citing a Koran passage about Pharaoh, “All right, all right, I take your point, I’m a reasonable man. The few people who read books are important to you. So write your book and the movie, what’s wrong with that? One day the screenplay, next day the book, next day the screenplay, and so on. Isn’t that a good plan?”
“Mr. Gluck, I can’t write a movie. I don’t know how.”
“You wrote those two miniseries.”
“To protect the history, yes, just doing what the director told me. Anyway, it was another era. Winds ran eighteen hours, Remembrance thirty hours—”
He shifted ground. Yes, yes, he could see I was making sense, he was new in all this. Warshaw would get a younger writer, best in the business, money no object, the writer would consult me, and I’d have approval of every page he wrote. How about that? I told him wearily that the director creates the film, not the writer, and Spielberg was his man, a great writer-director, a giant of the film industry, a good Jew—
“Oh? So why did he make Schindler’s List about a goy?”
Now he had me defending Steven Spielberg. “You missed the whole point. Because Schindler wasn’t a Jew, the world audience could identify with him and enjoy a big Holocaust movie—”
“Why was Munich all about how wrong the Mossad was to hunt down the terrorists who killed the Israeli athletes? Did you feel sorry for those terrorists? Well, never mind, never mind, he’s a good man, he does good things, he should live to be a hundred and twenty, making his fine movies, but you’ll do The Lawgiver. We’ll find a writer-director you approve of, and he’ll get your approval on every scene. Let’s settle on that—”
Ishmael returned at this point, full of praise for Sherman’s pastrami, and reminded Gluck that his connection to Toronto was due at the airport in half an hour.
“No good. Get us on the next flight.”
“Louie, we’ll miss the plane to Paris.”
“Phone Smodar, tell her to reschedule all the flights, I have to talk more with Mr. Wouk—” Aside to me, “My Gulfstream is down, I have to get to Beijing Tuesday—”
“Smodar, sir? It’s three a.m. in Melbourne, what can she do?”
“The Qantas line’s open all night—”
I had to put an end to this. I swiveled around and batted off as fast as I could type:
Dear Mr. Warshaw:
Mr. Louis Gluck is here in my office. If you find a writer-director who I believe can make a Moses movie measuring up to the subject, I’ll consider acting as a consultant. Frankly, I see no possibility that you can come up with such a person. Even if you do, or at least think you do, I’m not bound by this note at all, except to consider your choice.
I signed and handed the printout to Gluck. “Here,” I said. “Don’t miss your plane.” A quick businesslike glance, a nod, he asked for two more printouts, got me to sign them both, and I saw him out to the limousine. This Ishmael folded up the wheelchair and board and slid Gluck into the limo smooth as glass. That’s how it went. BSW thinks I was an idiot to give him the note, says I’m in for a siege of nagging by Warshaw and pointless talks with writer-directors. Maybe. I had to get that Gluck out of my office, off my back.
NULLARBOR PETROLEUM LLC
“Freedom from Mideast Oil Through Algae”
HOUSTON — MELBOURNE
FAX (STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL)
Sorry about your ulcer, Tim. It’s a wonder these past weeks haven’t put you in Forest Lawn. You’re an iron man and you’ll soon be fine. This is urgent, or I’d let you alone. Gluck is cooling off, Tim. Not about the Moses film, about you and WarshaWorks. Lou is a nice guy, but peremptory. He doesn’t understand the writer-director problem that’s stymied you for so long, isn’t interested, and is asking me about other studios.
What do you know about Margolit Solovei, a young writer-director? Wikipedia calls her a “phenom,” a film business term for a fast starter, at 26 she’s made three art-house movies and had a play on Broadway. Her brother and Rabbi Heber were yeshiva buddies, as it happens. She’s the black sheep of the Solovei family, disappeared into showbiz, never mentions her deep Jewish background. Once when the rabbi and I were discussing Hollywood Jews, he cited her as a sad example. Why not consider Solovei? At least she’s knowledgeable, and might conceivably hit it off with Wouk. A desperate long shot, but what’s to lose, with Gluck getting damned impatient?
Something has come up that you must tell Tatti. Not that it will change his mind about me. Just to show him that I’m not quite a lost soul, not altogether a worthless schmata. I’m going to Palm Springs tomorrow to confer about a Moses film with guess who, Herman Wouk. Tatti’s never read a novel in his life, and never will, but he did read a God book Wouk wrote back in the ’50s–I remember that because I got it for him from the library, though I needed another card after he tore up my first two. I’ll write you again after I meet the author. I didn’t know he was alive.
Your loving daughter,
MARGOLIT SOLOVEI ENTERPRISES LLC
10235 SUNSET BOULEVARD
LOS ANGELES, CA 90077
Mr. Joshua Lewin
Lewin, Rubinstein & Curtis
1440 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
I received your semiannual letter, and to be honest I had no idea Rosh Hashanah was so close, I’m very busy and of course it means nothing to me, I haven’t seen the inside of a shul in a dog’s age. Sorry for this belated response, thanks anyway for your New Year wishes. Your letters are very touching, but disturbing as the years pass. It was all very well for you to say when we broke up that you’d wait for me until you die, but isn’t it getting a bit silly? You can have your pick of a thousand religious Jewish girls, from the prettiest young ones to the few leftovers of my time. With your international law practice and your deep learning, you’re as big a fish as was ever reeled in by a nice Jewish girl.
I’ll reply to your letter more at length when I return from a meeting with Herman Wouk—yes, your favorite—to explore writing a Moses film. A major producer wants me to consider it, but it seems to be up to Mr. Wouk, I don’t know why. So much for your gentle semiannual hints that I’m wasting my life out here, writing and producing ephemera while my biological clock ticks off the years unheard.
A romantic and suspenseful epistolary novel about a group of people trying to make a movie about Moses in the present day, The Lawgiver is a story that emerges from letters, memos, e-mails, journals, news articles, Skype transcripts, and text messages.
At the center of The Lawgiver is Margo Solovei, a brilliant young writer-director who has rejected her rabbinical father’s strict Jewish upbringing to pursue a career in the arts. When an Australian multibillionaire promises to finance a movie about Moses, Margo does everything she can to land the job, including reunite with her estranged first love, an influential lawyer with whom she still has unfinished business. Two other key characters in the novel are Herman Wouk himself and his wife of more than sixty years, Betty Sarah, who, almost against their will, find themselves entangled in the movie.
As Wouk and his characters contend with Moses and marriage, the force of tradition, rebellion and reunion, The Lawgiver reflects the wisdom of a lifetime. Inspired by the great nineteenth-century novelists, one of America’s most beloved twentieth-century authors has now written a remarkable twenty-first-century work of fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Young Margo Solovei is brilliant and talented, but a relatively unknown writer-director in Hollywood. She is also a secular iconoclast, despite having internalized the lessons of her rabbi father during her strict Jewish upbringing in Passaic, New Jersey. When Louis Gluck, an eccentric Australian multi-billionaire, promises to finance a movie about Moses if the script meets exacting standards, Margo surprises herself and the rest of the movie industry by landing the job. In order to move forward with the ambitious project, Margo must convince a legendary author and his guarded literary agent that her screenplay truly captures the spirit of Moses. In The Lawgiver, Herman Wouk has created a work of divine metafiction—incorporating both himself and his real-life wife/agent, Betty Sarah Wouk, into the thick of the plot. When Margo resumes a relationship with her estranged first love, Joshua Lewin, an influential lawyer with whom she still has unfinished business, she finds herself propelled into an epic story even she could ne see more
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