Forsaking Hollywood, a screenwriter gets medieval with his first novel. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Forsaking Hollywood, a screenwriter gets medieval with his first novel.

Mitchell James Kaplan calls his debut novel, By Fire, By Water, "my rebellion against Hollywood." But that rebellion goes deeper than this new historical novel's rejection of simplistic characters and a formulaic plot.

Starting in the late 1980s, Kaplan spent 18 years in Hollywood. He began as a production gofer for director Michael Ritchie. He later became a screenwriter -- often a rewrite guy, though he did work on an early version of the script that became Cool Runnings, the flick about the Jamaican bobsled team.

Kaplan made a very nice living. But he didn't, to put it mildly, feel fulfilled: "I felt like I was a whore." 

Finally, Kaplan returned to his first ambition, writing fiction. It had been nurtured in his undergrad years at Yale, where mentors included novelist William Styron. In 2006, Kaplan and his wife and two teen-agers downsized, relocating to Mount Lebanon. And that let him complete, and market, his novel about religion, politics and the end of the Middle Ages, set in late 15th-century Spain. 

By Fire, By Water (Other Press) centers on Luis de Santángel, a real historical figure who as a royal chancellor was crucial in financing Columbus' first voyage to the New World. But Santángel was descended from Jews forced to convert to Christianity. And along with falling in love with Judith -- a Jewish silversmith living in Muslim-ruled Granada -- he runs afoul of the Spanish Inquisition, personified by one Tomas de Torquemada.

Though Judith and other characters are fictional, Kaplan says the copiously researched novel hews close to history. His real challenge was getting inside the minds of these historically and culturally distant characters, for the emotional and psychological truth that underpins any good story. 

He deliberately avoided positing good guys and bad guys. Take the brutal Torquemada, one of history's least-favored names. "In my mind he's not an evil character," says Kaplan. Rather, the Inquisitor General and torturer-in-chief is "completely mystified by people's inability to see the truth as he sees it." 

Likewise Spanish royals Isabel and Ferdinand, whose very Inquisition defied Rome. "I think they're very complex characters," he says.

 "I wanted to look at [the Inquisition] from many angles," Kaplan adds -- to explore "how people with good intentions can be in severely violent conflict with one another, and actually bring about great destruction."

By Fire, By Water has drawn good early reviews. Kirkus Reviews said Kaplan "[d]eftly moves through a complex web of personal relationships, religious zeal and political fervor." Publisher's Weekly enthused: "Kaplan has done remarkable homework on the period and crafted a convincing and complex figure in Santángel in what is a naturally cinematic narrative and a fine debut." 

"Cinematic": Many readers have described the book thus to Kaplan. But he says he'd sell the rights to Hollywood only if he could retain creative control. And, having worked there, he's pretty sure that's not going to happen.


Mitchell James Kaplan reads and signs By Fire, By Water 4 p.m. Sat., June 5 (Penguin Bookshop, 420 Beaver St., Sewickley; 412-741-3838) and 7 p.m. Thu., June 10 (Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 510 S. 27th St., South Side; 412-381-3600).