Mark Helprin has been a scholar, soldier, farmer, commentator, and a speechwriter (unpaid, he insists) for Bob Dole. He's best known, though, as a writer of great fiction, and his 1983 Winter's Tale is widely regarded as a classic.
His new novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, is the story of a young man who returns from heroic service in World War II to take over his late father's leather business. He soon becomes involved in an unlikely romance with an heiress and a dangerous conflict with a local mafioso. Helprin tells Kurt Andersen that the plot is actually "80% true" to events that happened to him and his parents, and that the characters are all based on people he knew as a child.
The novel is largely realistic, but fantasy and reality have blurred in Helprin's fiction. He remembers studying The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with a group of students at Princeton who were befuddled by descriptions of glowing fish in the poem. His classmates felt certain the mysterious creatures were metaphorical, but Helprin insisted he'd seen the real thing in the British merchant navy – bioluminescent fish. "Just like the ancient mariner," he remembers telling them, "at night we took lifeboats out and we rowed through the Sargasso Sea and looked down and you see all these incredible fish that were gleaming and glowing… They thought I was insane."
Helprin is also an outspoken conservative, writing editorials in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. "I have no desire to come into the modern age or to follow a fad," he says. "The old fashioned values still serve me well." He's concerned about America's standing abroad and, in particular, maintaining a military strength that sustains a balance of power that secures peace. But Helprin says he has never been tempted to force a political message into one of his novels. "I wouldn't dream of it," he says. "It's bad art and it wouldn't last."