Peter Blauner's career has spanned several generations of New York City storytelling, and several mediums as well. A native of Manhattan and current Brooklyn resident, he began as an assistant to legendary NYC newspaperman Pete Hamill. He then spent ten years writing for New York Magazine, covering cops, politicians, boxers, rappers, and other oddities of urban life. His first novel, 1992’s Slow Motion Riot, inspired by a stint as a volunteer as a probation officer and garnered the Edgar Award for best first novel. Five more novels followed, including The Intruder, a New York Times bestseller and a bestseller in England. Picture in the Sand is his ninth novel and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Picture in the Sand?
It was watching The Ten Commandments, the spring after 9/11. Everyone I knew was still pretty emotional about the attacks and looking for comfort in familiar rituals. That movie was always on TV during the Passover seder. But because it was a long meal, I’d only seen the parting of the Red Sea at the end. That year, dinner was delayed, and, as I watched the opening credits, I noticed that the Pharaoh’s Army was played by officers from the Egyptian Cavalry. To most people, that’s trivia. But since I’m a recovering journalist—as well as being a movie fan—I knew it was historical. It meant that Cecil B. DeMille had gone to Egypt right after its 1952 revolution when the king was deposed and had somehow made a deal with its new military leaders when they were battling religious fundamentalists for control of the country. To make a Bible epic. I knew there was a once-in-a-lifetime story to be told—about faith, terror, and show business. It took twenty years, and there were a lot of bumps along the way, but I couldn’t let it go until I saw it between two covers.
Are Alex, Ali, Mona, Sherif, or any of the other characters you created for the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Most of the ones you mention here are figments of my imagination or based on people I know in Cairo and New York. But Ali, the main character, is at least partly me. I know there’s a lot of controversy these days about whether you can write about somebody from a different culture and background. I get why representation matters. But what’s wonderful about fiction is that it can take you to another time and place, and maybe into somebody else’s skin for a little while. So Ali may not look like me. But we’re both guys who love our families and love storytelling, so that’s something.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
There were at least ten major iterations. I tried to avoid making Ali the main character for a while, but deep down, I always knew it was his story because he was the little guy looking at the big guys and had the most authentic point of view.
And yes, there were a lot of darlings that had be killed. I still miss a scene where DeMille and the rest of the Hollywood crew show up at St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai, and the abbot there grills them on how many of the Ten Commandments they’ve kept and how many they’ve broken. Let’s just say no one passes with flying colors.
Have you visited Egypt, Cairo, the pyramids, or any of the other sites/areas described in the novel? If so, when did you go?
I went to Egypt six times to research the book, starting in 2005, including a month during the Arab Spring of 2011. I had many strange and wonderful adventures while I was there and met some terrific people. One of my favorites was an old Greek Orthodox monk I met on Mount Sinai. He asked me why I was there, and when I said I was researching a novel about a film, he said, “Oh, The Ten Commandments? I have the DVD!” He began to get a little terse when he sensed I was not terribly religious. But he stopped me when I started to walk away and asked if I could score him a tin of Captain Black tobacco at Nat Sherman Tobacconists on 42nd Street.
Do you have any favorite places in Egypt? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss, but would only learn about from a previous visitor or a resident?
If you go to Abu Tarek, the koshary joint near Tahrir Square, you’re gonna be happy. And it’s hard to go wrong, having a drink in the outdoor garden at the Marriott on Zamalek or at the Mena House Hotel near the Pyramids. But I have a particular soft spot for the Umm Kulthum Museum in Monastirli Palace, dedicated to Egypt’s most beloved singer. In terms of her cultural impact, imagine the Beatles, Adele, and Dylan rolled into one and then multiplied by about ten. You’re getting close.
How familiar were you with the production of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments prior to your novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Picture in the Sand?
Like I said, it took me two decades, but I wasn’t working on it every minute. I wrote three other novels and wrote for five TV shows to stay afloat in the meantime. But I couldn’t get this story out of my head. So, in addition to the six Egyptian trips, I talked to people like Nina Foch, who played Moses’s mother in the DeMille film (even though, she was only six months older than Heston) and Gamal Al-Bana, whose brother founded the Muslim Brotherhood. The ones who helped me the most were Cecil B. DeMille’s grandchildren, Cece Presley and Joe Harper, who accompanied their grandfather to Egypt for the production. I couldn’t have written the book without their memories and insights.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
That Egypt’s new military leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took the time to make a deal with Cecil B. DeMille, on the eve of the Suez Crisis, while he was also doing battle with Israel and the Muslim Brothers. He gave DeMille 200 of his cavalry officers to play the Pharoah’s Army and twenty Air Force planes as wind machines for the Exodus. Part of the reason for the cooperation is that DeMille agreed to make a documentary promoting Egypt as a new beacon of liberty in the Middle East. That film was made—I’ve seen it—but never shown. But that freed me up to make up a fictional version of the documentary filmmaker and the film he made.
Even more dramatically, both DeMille and Nasser just barely escaped death while the movie was being shot. DeMille had a near-fatal heart attack while directing 15,000 extras in the Exodus scene. At just about the same time, Nasser was the target of eight bullets from a Muslim Brother assassin in Alexandria. A writer in the Egyptian press thought it looked so well staged that "Cecil B. DeMille might have come to Egypt to direct the eight bullets, not just The Ten Commandments." So that’s part of the novel as well.
Do you have a favorite of Cecil B. DeMille’s films?
I prefer his silent movies when he was more of a bold innovator and stylist. The Whispering Chorus is a good one with some psychological complexity—which usually wasn’t his strong suit. And The Cheat—despite some seriously disturbing subject matter and attitudes—is, in its way, groundbreaking. But my personal favorite is the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, which has a clunky structure but some stunning visual artistry. The Exodus sequence was shot at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in northern Santa Barbara. DeMille had the set buried in sand afterwards. Last I heard, archeologists were still excavating the ruins.
Same question regarding Charlton Heston. Do you have a favorite of his films?
For me, his best movie is Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles. I know some people might point out that it’s questionable to have Chuck Heston playing a cop named Vargas, but the movie wouldn’t have gotten made without him. And Ben Hur ain’t too shabby either. It’s interesting that he did so many apocalyptic movies like Omega Man, Planet of the Apes & and Soylent Green, but I guess he was comfortable having his teeth clenched. During the making of The Ten Commandments, Heston suggested himself as the Voice of God. Cecil B. DeMille reminded him, "You’ve already got a good part."
As you mention in your Historical Note at the end of the book, The Ten Commandments was a huge success and is still celebrated with annual broadcasts on Easter weekend in the United States. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how The Ten Commandments is still so popular over 60 years after it was released?
Well, obviously it’s a kind of camp classic with the cast of thousands, the high-tone dialogue and the 1956 special effects. Half the great jokes about Old Hollywood come from that production, including the actress shouting "Who do I have to - - - to get off this picture?" in the middle of the Golden Calf orgy. But underneath all that, there’s something about the Moses story that really gets its hooks into you. Freud worked on Moses and Monotheism for more than twenty years, until he was on his deathbed. Herman Wouk’s last book was about someone trying to make a Moses movie. And, of course, Moses is considered a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. So maybe it’s just that every generation needs to hear that story of searching for freedom redefined for themselves.
If you could ask Mr. DeMille something about The Ten Commandments, or any of his films, what would it be? Is there something you would want to tell him?
I might ask him about those insane paroxysms of sex and violence at the end of Sign of the Cross, but you reminded me of a funny story. The first time I went to Egypt in 2005, someone took me to meet the great Egyptian novelist—and Nobel winner—Naguib Mahfouz. He met regularly with friends at a secret location, because religious extremists had tried to behead him over his novel Children of the Alley. Anyway, I was invited to come and ask a question. Mahfouz was very old then and would be dead within a year. I knew he’d had a government job in Cairo when The Ten Commandments was being shot there, so I asked if he knew what Prime Minister Nasser thought of the finished film. Mahfouz looked at me, half-smiled, and said in Arabic, "I’m not sure, but I’ll ask when I see him."
What’s currently on your nightstand?
David Talbot’s biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil's Chessboard, Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, and I just started Bambi—yes, I said Bambi—by Felix Salten, which I’m told is really a parable about the fate of Jews in Europe. We’ll see, but it’s beautifully written so far.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Raymond Chandler. Like every other writer of crime fiction, I’m strongly influenced by him. But it’s not about the plot, man. It’s gangster poetry.
Edith Wharton. I thought Chandler and Hammett were the tough guys. But Wharton and Jane Austen are the true hardboiled realists.
Donald Goines. I discovered his books at a sidewalk sale, right after college. My head was full of garbage about literary theory and cultural hegemony. But Goines, who wrote sixteen books before he was shot dead at the age of 37, just told the damn story. And that’s what I needed permission to do.
Pete Hamill. I grew up reading him as a newspaper columnist and then worked for him briefly as an assistant. He was a good writer and a good man. And he taught me three things. If you think you might write about an experience, write down every detail as soon as possible. If it makes you uncomfortable to ask a question, you must ask it. And always read writers who are better than you.
Leo Tolstoy. Yes, it sounds pretentious. But he is All That. Anna Karenina is the ultimate page-turner. His spiritual tracts influenced the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But the stuff that lasts for me is in his short stories and novellas. You wouldn’t call him a crime writer, but in Kreutzer Sonata, Haji Murad, Master and Man and The Death of Ivan Ilyich he displays an understanding of sin and transgression that the rest of us can only aspire to.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My mother was pretty tolerant. More than I was as a parent. I tried to stop my older son from reading Hamill’s Forever, because he was young and it had some graphic sexual material in it. But then a mutual friend said, "Do you think Pete has a truly dirty mind that’s going to make your kid depraved and twisted?" I had to say no. So I let him read it.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
The Godfather. Of course, I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, but I used to nod and look faintly embarrassed when people started talking about Page 27. Part of the reason I never read it was that the author Mario Puzo spoke so disparagingly of it. Now that I’ve gotten through it, I understand why. As a novel, I think it’s a bit shlocky and vulgar at times. But everything that makes The Godfather I and II so brilliant starts in these pages. Once again: Books are not movies, and movies are not books.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I looked at the cover of Naked Came the Stranger for a long time. When I was twelve. And didn’t have a buck ninety-five for the paperback. But the time I had enough money to buy my own books, I’d read the first paragraph and decide another way.
Is there a book that changed your life?
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. I was an oddball kid and it’s a story about refusing to compete in a race that everybody else wants you to run. After that, I went running in another direction.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Christ in Concrete by Pietro Di Donato. It came out in 1939, the same year as The Big Sleep by Chandler,The Day if the Locust by Nathaniel West, Ask the Dust by John Fante, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. And it beat out Grapes of Wrath as a Book of the Month Club selection. But now it’s forgotten. Why? Well, for one thing it’s about immigrant construction workers speaking to each other in what sounds to the modern ear like archaic grand opera language. But once you crack the code and get in the club, you get the privileges of kings.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Ramy, the television show on Hulu, written by and starring the young Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. It’s very funny, occasionally raunchy, but just as often serious in being about a young guy trying to find faith and identity in the modern world.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Billiards with my sons, dinner with my wife, a few chapters of a good book, and then sleep with the windows open.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
"What is the common thing that all your books are about?"
"The struggle to be a decent person in the world, as it is."
What are you working on now?
A new novel. Which I hope will be done in less than twenty years. Life is short.