Today my Mom and I team up! My mom reviews the young adult novel “Open Wounds” and I get the great experience of interviewing Mr. Joseph Lunievicz, the author of “Open Wounds”!! Make sure you read to the end because Mr. Lunievicz gave me a signed copy of his book to give away to one lucky commenter!
Take it away Mom!
As you may have noticed by reading Erik’s blog, my husband and I are parenting a precocious nine-year old who’s reading abilities far exceed his tender age. When authors send review copies of books to Erik it is with the understanding that his parents get to “look it over” for appropriate content before handing it over to him and there have been a few books that we have politely declined to review because of mature content or language. When I read “Open Wounds” I quickly came to the conclusion that the novel was not for his age (see the review) BUT, I also fell completely in love with this exceptional story! I told Erik I thought some of his readers would really like to hear about it. Erik came up with the idea that I review the book and he got to do the interview. I hope you enjoy them both!
Cid Wymann is growing up in the harsh environment of Queens, New York in the 1930s. Cid suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father who blames him for his wife’s death during childbirth. Cid’s paternal Grandmother, Maddie, ostracizes him because he is a “Jew” (Cid’s mother was Jewish). Cid is not allowed to go to school or to interact with other children. His days are spent working in their apartment doing chores. The only relief Cid finds is when he blackmails Maddie into taking him with her to see movies. The movies are the only escape for Cid. He is enthralled by the swashbuckling adventures of Errol Flynn in movies like “Captain Blood” and he vows to become a great fencer. Cid eventually is able to make two good friends from his neighborhood, Siggy and Tomik, but these relationships disintegrate when he is shipped off to an orphanage after his father abandons him and his grandmother dies. After five years, a war-torn relative of Cid’s, Winston Arnolf Leftingsham (“Lefty”), claims Cid from the orphanage. The wretched man Lefty was horribly disfigured in the War through exposure to Mustard gas and he is slowly “rotting from the inside out.” Although Lefty appears to be quite cruel and even insane at times, he sends Cid to school, teaches him about acting and Shakespeare and even puts Cid in the tutelage of Russian fencing instructor, Nikolai Varvarinski. Lefty offers Cid a chance at the kind of life he deserves. Within a short time, Cid develops admirable fencing skills that serve him when he faces some old enemies.
When Erik received Mr. Lunievicz’s novel “Open Wounds” he was very excited because it was about a young boy learning to fence. I was less enthusiastic because I really didn’t think a novel about fencing could be anything I would want to get near, but as I started to read “Open Wounds” I was captivated by the story. Mr. Lunievicz describes depression era New York so well I could smell it. The ethnic tensions, class divisions and desperate times of that era are eloquently and accurately detailed in the story. The characters are multifaceted and grow as the story progresses. The protagonist, Cid, is immensely likeable and his spirit was inspirational. I kept thinking to myself as I read the book “why am I not depressed because of all the horrific things that happen to Cid?” I realized that it’s Cid’s focus and determination to succeed trumped all that had happened to him. The only character I wasn’t in love with was Cid’s girl friend, Betty. She could have been a strong support for Cid, but she comes off as a childish girl who inserts herself between Cid and his friends. The book has some mature themes (ethnic bigotry, suicide, alcohol and drug use, physical abuse). There is also profanity used here and there in the book, but most of the uses of profanity are not gratuitous and, I think, they actually add to the grittiness of the story. This book is a must read…for young adults and adults too, but not children (sorry Erik).
Thanks Mom! Now for my interview with Mr. Lunievicz!
I always hear from authors that you should write about what you know about. I read on your website that you are a fencer and a choreographer and your book, “Open Wounds” is about an orphaned boy who overcomes A LOT to become a competitive fencer and works choreographing fight scenes, but why did you choose to set the book during the 1930s and 1940s?
I think the saying write what you know is a partial truth. I mean writers make things up. Everything comes from the writer’s experience of the world – through their filter – but for fiction writers it’s changed and made up from there. Even the most autobiographical piece of fiction is still made up to some degree. So there’s imagination involved. An acting teacher once told me it helped, if you were an actor, to have a good imagination so you could become someone else. I think it works that way for writers too. But… I have found, in my own writing, that I enjoy writing about things I love to do, like fencing and stage combat. I find I’m drawn to these subjects also because I like to read about them. I love adventure stories.
Given that, when I first started writing about Open Wounds I had no idea it would end up being an historical novel. I was fencing épée and learning stage fencing/choreography at HB Studio (an acting studio in Manhattan) with this great fencing master named Joe Daly. He was filling my head with stories of the 1930s to 50’s studio system and the beginnings of modern fight choreography, working with Robert De Niro on The Mission (De Niro hired him to teach him to fence for the movie), Madonna in Who’s That Girl, and his fencing coach Giorgio Santelli (who is mentioned in my book!). Then, of all things, I had a vision. Seriously. I did. Other writers laugh at me when I say this but I bet they have them too. Anyway, I had read about some houses that were on the roof of the Hotel Chelsea (a famous hotel in NYC) and one day, walking to work, passing by this beautiful old hotel, I looked up at its roof and saw two people fencing. Now there weren’t really two people fencing up there, but I saw them anyway. And they were not just fencing they were dueling with real small swords (what would be like an épée) and trying to kill each other. I could see one man’s face. It held such sadness in it. His nose was broken, he had a scar on his cheek, and he was in his seventies. The other man had his back to me so I couldn’t see what he looked like. But the man I could see – well, there was just something about him that stayed with me for months afterwards. In some ways he haunted me. As a writer I know when an idea hits like that and won’t go away I need to write about it. I started writing about this man a year later. But I wrote about him in the present day. About a year and some 100 plus pages later, I realized the story wasn’t working. I had created a history for this man – who was now Cid Wymann – and started writing about his childhood. I did a timeline and picked out key dates for him, movies that he had worked on and in, people he had worked with. It worked and I found this material that really interested me about Cid – two events in particular – the opening of the movie Captain Blood in 1936 (Errol Flynn’s first big picture and a great swashbuckler) and Aldo Nadi’s (one of the greatest fencers of all time) coming from Italy to the US and conducting a fencing demonstration with Giorgio Santelli the same week that Captain Blood opened. That’s when I knew my story was meant to begin in 1936 right after Christmas. That’s when I realized I was going to write an historical novel that took place in the 1930’s and 1940’s. IN some ways you could say the time period picked me.
Did you expect to write this book for young people, or did it just turn out that way? What do you hope young people learn from your book?
I did not write this book specifically for young people. It never occurred to me to do so when I began it. When the book was in an earlier version an agent recommended to me that I either tell Cid’s life from beginning to end in a long 5-700 page epic or concentrate on his earlier life as a teen and market it as a young adult book. It was a difficult decision to make but I felt the earlier material really called to me so I focused on his early teen years. I also felt I would write more about him and wanted to keep that option open.
I only really have a sense of what I’d like young people to learn from the book now, after it’s in print and I’ve had time to think about it – get perspective on the story from a higher altitude. I think Cid’s a strong character who does not give up, even in the face of tremendous loss and difficulties. I hope that anyone who reads the book can believe that if Cid can do it, so can they. There is also the idea that people come into our lives who are damaged, like Lefty and Nikolai Varvarinski, but whose love can overcome their shortcomings. Cid struggles to become a whole human being (as all of us do) and through the help of these two men, friends he makes along the way, and his developing sense of who he is in the world, in the end succeeds.
It’s really cool that you know fencing. I never really thought about the sword fighting in movies as being planned out like a dance. Do you think fencing in the movies is anything like it was back when people really did fight with swords?
Yes and no. Movies are choreographed so that they tell a story (if they are good movie fights). Generally most movie swordfights are not realistic and Aldo Nadi, in his autobiography The Living Sword, writes a letter to Hollywood stating just this. He complained because of a famous movie fight in Scaramouche with Stewart Granger, that lasted almost 11 minutes – still the longest swordfight filmed. No real fight would last that long or be fought on the backs of chairs and through curtains, or involve the cutting of ropes to drop sandbags on your opponent’s head when you were within swords reach and could simply thrust into them. Nadi fought a real duel once so he knew what he was talking about but… he also didn’t understand Hollywood. Hollywood is storytelling and make-believe. I loved the fight in Scaramouche because it was entertaining and fun to watch.
Probably the most realistic of the fight-masters is a man named William Hobbs who did the choreography for such movies as Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers movies (with Michael York as D’Artagnan), The Duelists, Rob Roy, and Cyrano DeBergerac (with Gérard Depardieu). His fights are fought at real speed (not speeded up on film) by the actors on the screen, with moves that fit their characters. Most directors don’t want realism in their swordfights, they want stylistic fights that are showy, acrobatic, and use quick cuts to make the fight seem fast. A good screen swordfight shows the whole fight with the camera panned back to show the actual fencers/swordfighters going at it rather than just shots of the arms or faces that give you no sense of what is being done. A good swordfight is a nonverbal dialog with a dangerous weapon. Whether or not it’s realistic depends on what the director wants!
I read on your website that you worked in the Peace Corps in Honduras and that it changed how you see the world. Did that experience help you when you wrote Open Wounds?
Yes. Working in a 3rd World Country, seeing poverty and the effects of poorly planned development projects and watching how people live and survive without the luxuries we have in the US (like flush toilets, computers, soft beds and furniture, clean tap water, and medical care), watching a real machete fight, visiting the jungle in La Mosquitia, getting food poisoning five times, was eye-opening for me. I also realized how privileged I was being white, having an education, and being able to choose to be in the Peace Corps. I got to go home when my two and a half year service was up. The teenage boys and children in the boy’s home I worked at did not. They would probably not live to be adults. Seeing the world in all its glory – the good, the bad, and the ugly – helps all writers to be truthful in what they write about. The more a writer sees of the world, the more he/she has to draw on to write about.
The main character in Open Wounds, Cid, has to deal with a lot of racism against Jewish people. I am just learning about slavery and how racism affected America during the time before the Civil War. My parents told me that during the time period in your book there was a lot of racism between people from different countries or different religion. What do you hope to have young people learn from Cid’s experiences with racism?
Racism, sexism, and homophobia are not new to the world. Unfortunately they have been around a long, long time. Being Jewish during the 1930’s and 1940’s was not easy. But then even Italians, Germans and Japanese were treated badly if they were American’s during the Second World War. Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps on the west coast as if they were the enemy and not to be trusted. In Cid’s case he doesn’t think anything good has come from him being Jewish except for his father and grandmother hating him. He would like to get rid of that part of him but as Lefty tells him, it is better to accept what and who you are because for Cid that part of him is who his mother was. Siggy, Cid’s friend has to learn the same lesson, though perhaps he learns it quicker. I would hope that people reading Open Wounds will see the importance of being the sum of all our parts in addition to the importance of not just tolerance of those who are different but acceptance of diversity as a good and rich part of our existence.
I saw on your website that you teach Yoga. Does that help you in fencing and writing? I train Taekwon-Do and that takes a lot of concentration too. Do you think meditation and yoga can help people in all kinds of areas?
Yoga has been a life saving practice for me. It helps me deal with anxiety that has troubled me since I was a child in addition to keeping me physically and mentally active. Yoga stretching helps me to keep in shape for fencing and keeps my mind sharp for writing. I also enjoy teaching how to establish a yoga practice to my students because I find it really helps people in their lives. It is very fulfilling to be able to help people in this way. Taekwon-Do is a wonderful martial art that is very meditative in practice. Concentration is good for the mind because it directs its energy at one thing for a period of time. It is an inner, not an outer practice and so much of our lives is focused on the things outside and around us rather than inside. Writing is a predominantly inward looking practice. We could all use a little more inward looking. Normally our mind likes to wander everywhere and anywhere. When we can focus it in meditation (whether that’s seated meditation, moving meditation like your forms practice in Taekwon-do, or sun salutations in yoga practice) there are all kinds of benefits in life (lowered heart rate, better concentration, better memory, relaxation, less anxiety) that follow. Pattabhi Jois (a famous Yogi from India who died recently) would say, “Practice and all is coming.” These life-long practices help us to be fuller and more complete human beings. I wish I had learned this when I was younger.
One last question (and this one’s mostly for me), what’s the difference between fencing and sword-fighting? Is it just the weapon used?
This is a great question and one I wasn’t sure of the answer to so I looked it up. I believe the word fencing has been used since the 1700’s and sword-fighting since the beginning of time when the first sword was made. Usually sword-fighting is used when talking about swords like the medieval long sword, the renaissance rapier, or the cavalry saber of the 1700’s through 1800’s. Fencing came about as a term as fencing for sport (as opposed to war and duels) became more prominent. Smallswords (very similar to the modern sport fencing epee that Cid uses) were the last of the sword-fighting weapons and have not been used for war since the late 1800’s early 1900’s. Me, I use the terms interchangeably depending on how I feel at the moment. I’ve never been one set on convention.
THANK YOU MR. LUNIEVICZ!!! To learn more about Mr. Lunievicz and his novel “Open Wounds” please visit his website by clicking HERE.
Now for the give-away! Mr. Lunievicz has generously offered a signed copy of “Open Wounds” to one of my readers!! Want to win it?!? Well all you have to do is comment on this post and I will randomly pull a name from all the commenters this Sunday December 4th!! Please leave an email in the box when you post your comment (it won’t be published) so I can contact you if you win!
Good Luck and thanks for reading!