Our Fall event season rolls on this Tuesday, as City Lights welcomes Joseph Matthews who will be reading from his new novel, Everyone Has Their Reasons (PM Press). Joseph took the time to answer our 5 questions below.
Event: Tuesday, September 15 at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.
About the Book: On November 7, 1938, a small, slight seventeen-year-old Polish-German Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris and shot dead a consular official. Three days later, in supposed response, Jews across Germany were beaten, imprisoned, and killed, their homes, shops, and synagogues smashed and burned—Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Based on the historical record and told through his “letters” from German prisons, the novel begins in 1936, when fifteen-year-old Herschel flees Germany. Penniless and alone, he makes it to Paris where he lives hand-to-mouth, his shadow existence mixing him with the starving and the wealthy, with hustlers, radicals, and seamy sides of Paris nightlife.
“A tragic, gripping Orwellian tale of an orphan turned assassin in pre-World War II Paris. Based on the true story of the Jewish teen Hitler blamed for Krstallnacht, it’s a wild ride through the underside of Europe as the storm clouds of the Holocaust gather. Not to be missed!”—Terry Bisson, Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Fire on the Mountain
About the Author: Born in Boston and raised there and in California, Joseph Matthews was for a number of years a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco, engaging in the criminal/political cases of anti–Vietnam War activists and Mission District barrio residents, defending prisoners during the California prison rebellions of the 1970s, serving as a public defender, and teaching at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. He spent considerable time in Greece in the 1970s and 1980s, where his novel Shades of Resistance (1996) is set during the period of the military junta there. His other previous books are the short story collection The Lawyer Who Blew Up His Desk and Other Tales of Legal Madness (1998) and the political analysis Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2005, with Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, and Michael Watts).
City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?
Joseph Matthews: I had a wonderful time years ago giving a reading at City Lights from my first novel, Shades of Resistance, set during the period (the 1970s) of the military dictatorship there. We had a big, lively crowd, people asked great questions about both literary aspects of the novel and about its politics, and then many of us repaired across the street to Specs bar, where the conversations continued into the night.
CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?
JM: Certainly nothing with an accordion … (a joke, but you’ll have to read the novel to get it). Probably not music but rather the recorded voices of people who became refugees in Paris before WWII, like the protagonist of the novel, Herschel Grynszpan, quietly telling stories of their daily lives there, not about the politics of it all but about just figuring out how to survive.
CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?
JM: I don’t remember the title, but it was a kid’s book about a boy who thought he had found a charmed baseball bat that allowed him, for the first time, to get hits, and later understands that it was just a matter of believing in himself. Not great literature, of course, but it was the power, the magic spell, of reading that mattered.
CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?
JM: Well, I wouldn’t return to being a criminal defense lawyer, which is what I did in my 20s and 30s. It was a great, enriching and valuable thing to have done, but once you burn out, there’s no going back. Maybe I’d be the first 60-year-old to play basketball in the NBA.
CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi).
JM: A collection of Rhythm & Blues discs, a supply of focaccia from Liguria Bakery in North Beach, and a regular UPS delivery of books from City Lights, chosen by the folks who work there.
For a complete calendar of events this fall, go here.