Author Interview "Jan Notzon"
Jan Notzon is a critically acclaimed novelist and playwright.
Born and raised on the Mexican border in Texas, he pulls stories from his own life in the hopes that they will provoke you to reflect on you own. Jan's riveting stories explore the perplexities of this strange conundrum called “life” that we share. They are deeply personal. Yet, at the same time, universal. We are all, beneath the skin, as one.
You started as an actor, tell me a bit about that journey. When I was seven or eight, I asked my father if we could listen to The Barber of Seville on his old Hi-Fi so I could hear Figaro whistle. He said he wanted to watch something on TV. It was the Maurice Evans/Dame Judith Anderson Macbeth. I was entranced. And from that moment, I wanted to be an actor. It runs in the family: my paternal grandfather wanted to be a professional actor, but his father absolutely forbade it saying that that was a profession for gypsies and whores. So, he became a banker and started the Laredo Little Theatre in Laredo, Texas.
Owing to my siblings scathing discouragement, I gave up the idea for a time. But while in college at The University of Texas at Austin, I chanced upon an English class studying Shakespeare through performance. I received such glowing praise for my performances that, once again, I was bitten. I headed to New York, studied at Herbert Berghof Studio and pursued a career. I had some limited successes, appearing on Another World and Search For Tomorrow, and, of course, I did a lot of off-off Broadway. But I kept having near misses: one agent who was wild about my work but succumbed to AIDS two months after I signed with him; another who was also ready to sign me, then got married and left the business; the casting director for Another World, who was gone a few weeks after she hired me for a week on the show. Sometimes I wonder if there was a hand at work leading me to writing. The problem there was that I never felt at home in NYC. It is the greatest city in the world, but some are just not cut out for it. So, I auditioned for graduate schools and got a very generous assistance ship and fellowship to go to the University of South Carolina which included an internship at The Folger Shakespeare in Washington, D.C. And it was quite a surprise that I worked (and was paid) more as an actor there than I ever did in New York, appearing on Matlock, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, two national and numerous regional commercials, many plays and a Hallmark movie: Beverly Lewis’ The Confession, directed by Michael Landon, Jr. I also had some wonderful opportunities on stage, the two most memorable being the role of Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, and John Proctor in The Crucible. It was while I was at USC that I wrote my first play, a one-act called The Forsaken. The production was hugely successful owing to two wonderfully talented actresses who played the two characters in it. It’s also been produced at two different venues in NYC and once here in Charlotte.
When did you make the transition from actor to author? Work as an actor can be the greatest high in the world. But it is also spotty. Those times there were no projects to work on left me with a feeling of profound emptiness. I think that is why I continued writing. It was only plays at first; I’ve written seven full-lengths and the one-act mentioned above. I got involved with a group doing radio drama on the internet and that was the inspiration to write a play for voices, which I did, called The Dogs…Barking. After looking at it, I realized that all it needed was narrative to work as a novel, and that became my first under the same title. And boy, was it fun! I continued working as an actor, the last things being the Hallmark movie and the role of John Proctor which I had coveted since I first read the play as a young man. That dream fulfilled, I turned to writing full time. Creating a role onstage or in film is wonderful, but at the end of the run you have nothing to hold onto. A published novel or play in which you have put blood, sweat and tears—your very essence—is a treasure that endures. And sharing what you think, believe and feel with others when they read your work is the greatest gift I can imagine ever receiving.
You work both as a novelist and a playwright, is there one form you prefer? At this point in my career, novels have taken me over. I just haven’t been inspired to write another play (although there is one in the back of my mind). And I can’t say why. Perhaps it’s because the novel is freer and can include more opportunity to explore questions about this life that we share, which is the primary reason I write anything. I love exploring this curious enigma of life, of purpose, of meaning, of what drives us, what fulfills us, what, if any, is our destiny as a reasoning species—and to do it through a story that is engaging to the reader is the greatest of joys.
Tell me a bit about the "Id Paradox." This work started out as one of two stories that intertwined. When I finally looked at the word count, I realized that together the stories created a much too extensive tome. Both stories dealt with the nature of evil, but both were very different though connected. There are refences in each to events that occur in the other. The protagonist is the same in both novels. The first, And Ye Shall Be As Gods, though including considerable adventure, is, I would say, more cerebral. The Id Paradox, while dealing with profound questions about the nature of evil, contains a great deal more physical adventure, with a canoe trip through the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park that almost ends in disaster and a harrowing escape from a Mexican prison. The second half of the novel, however, is told from the point of view of the psychiatrist, Judith Lozano Neuwirth, who treats the protagonist’s best friend for acute severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after his escape from the Mexican prison mentioned above. The protagonist, Jake Kazmareck, is intimately involved in the process. The novel explores the human mind, the nature of justice and the limits of the law, and what makes people indulge in true evil. Is it a psychological or a spiritual phenomenon? Or, is it both? It also poses the question of whether we need that primitive part of us, the Id, that, indulged, can perpetrate such unspeakable horror.
What was it about that story that drew you to it? I’ve always been fascinated by what it is that makes us who we are. How much is a function of electrochemical processes in the brain and how much our own will—the spirit, if you will. I was drawn to the prospect of delving into a mind, a spirit, that is broken and how successfully it can be put it back together. I’ve read accounts of people in drug cartels who torture and murder and then, in jail, become devoted Christians. Are we all capable of such evil? What makes some give into it, even embrace it, and others turn away in abhorrence? What makes up that hero that in a mob manages to avoid being pulled into committing an atrocity—actually stands up to the crowd and stops it? Are there people who are born evil, or is it always a question of nurture, not nature? I was also very taken with the story of friendship and the dedication of one friend to another that truly fills us. And how working through adversity can tie souls together in an unbreakable knot that endures.
What would you like the readers to take away from that book? First of all, and above everything else, I want the reader to enjoy the story. I want him or her to be taken up and hopefully, lost in it. Beyond that, it is my fondest hope that this story will encourage people to think about their own lives: what is it that is truly valuable, that gives us a genuine feeling of fulfillment? How do we measure the success of our lives? I hope the reader will come to love the characters, Jake Kazmareck, Artie Cavazos, Connors McClain and Judith Lozano Neuwirth, and to root for them. If this story is cherished and remembered, that is worth all the gold of Croesus to me. But chiefly, I want the reader to take away whatever the story might mean to him or her. I hope each reader will take something (perhaps many somethings) different from the story than any other reader. I want each of them to tell me what the story is about.
Are you currently working on any other books or plays?
I’m currently working on another novel that is a fictionalized version of my father’s family’s immigration from Poland in the nineteenth century. It is quite a challenging project as it is totally foreign to me and there is no information available (or that I can find) on what peasant life in Poland in the nineteenth century was like. My imagination is taxed to the breaking point. I’m also working with a director and co-writer on a screenplay. It is a psychological thriller about a young idealistic police officer who, through a series of gruesome and highly symbolic murders, comes to fear that he himself might be the killer.
After disastrous experiences as a lawyer and then as a teacher, Jake Kazmareck tries to hide out from the world in a job picking melons on a farm in the wilds of south Texas. An estranged friend, Connors, tracks him down with news that their mutual bosom buddy, Artie, is not dead as they both believed, but rotting in a Mexican prison. The stage is set for Artie’s rescue. Jake, Connors and Artie’s friendship was forged years earlier, during an almost fatal canoe trip in which only Artie’s genius for survival kept them alive. That brush with death unleashed a primitive beast in Jake that has never stopped plaguing him. The prison rescue is successful, but Artie’s experiences in captivity have destroyed his spirit. Jake and Connors immediately enlist the help of psychiatrist Judith Neuwirth to try to piece together Artie’s shattered self. In the process, Jake is again confronted by the beast in himself. Will he learn to accommodate it, or will it destroy him?
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