1. Open Wounds is a very unique young adult novel, and the history is factual, correct? What’s the story all about, and why did you want to write this book?
ANSWER: I wrote Open Wounds because I had to. I’m one of those writers who walk around with characters in their head waiting for them to be born. It’s just my process. I had the character of Cid Wymann in my head and he wouldn’t leave until I figured out who he was and why he wouldn’t go away. He stayed in there for two years while I finished another book and just waited for me. I had an image of two men, dueling with small swords on the roof of the modern day Chelsea Hotel. One was a man in his seventies, grey-haired, broken nosed, filled with sadness and regret. I couldn’t see the other man’s face or tell his age. I wondered who these two men were and why they were on that roof trying to kill each other. The man whose face I could see I started to write about and image a history for. My love of fencing, the swashbuckling movies of the 1930s and 40s, and New York City during World War II, came together to give me Cid Wymann, as I worked my way back from that rooftop to see what placed him there. Open Wounds became the first fifteen years of his life.
Open Wounds is an historical YA novel that takes place in New York city during the 1930s and 1940s following the adventures of Cedric “Cid” Wymann through the first fifteen years of his life. Enthralled as a child by the silver screen images of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, Cid, a half-Jewish fencing protégé, comes of age in a rough and tumble New York City during the Second World War. Orphaned as a child, Cid is taken from the orphanage at the age of 13 by a distant relative from England, a shell-shocked survivor of the First World War with a ruined face and a crippled body, by the name of Winston Arnolf Leftingsham. An ambiguous father figure, “Lefty” offers Cid the only family love he’s ever known. Along with a drunken Russian fencing master, Nikolai Varvarinski, Lefty enlists to teach Cid the art of combat with a sword, he helps cid come to terms with the violent blood-legacy of his abusive father and violently anti-Semitic grandmother.
2. How did your experiences as a fight choreographer, playwright and competitive fencer help in writing Open Wounds?
ANSWER: First they really gave me a love for what I was writing about. I’ve been fencing since I was nineteen but I didn’t learn anything about stage fencing until I started taking acting classes at HB Studio in NYC. I took the acting classes to help me read my work better aloud. A writing workshop teacher had recommended this. I liked it so much I took improv and fencing classes too. That’s how I met Joe Daly, the Studio’s stage fencing teacher. When I found his class I was in heaven, like a kid in a candy shop and the swords and choreography were my candy. Over a five year stretch he took me under his wing, taught me the art of fencing for the stage, and allowed me to teach classes under his direction. He also filled my head with stories of the theatre, movies (he taught Robert “Bobby” DeNiro to fence for The Mission), and the history of the sword on the stage and off. During this time I also wrote and had produced a short one-act play called The Pell, that I choreographed the fights for. Much of my desire to write about Cid Wymann in Open Wounds comes from the inside view of these worlds that Joe has given me. I also learned how to fence in the Italian style with a teacher named Joe Brodeth – a contemporary of Joe Daly – who was both the fencing coach at St. John’s University and a teacher at Metropolis fencing in New York City. Joe Brodeth allowed me to interview him about competitive fencing back in the day, and gave me lessons in how to fence with an Italian grip. He even gifted me an old Italian grip foil with the promise that I would continue to learn how to use it. Perhaps you can see that I have found in my writing that doing what my characters do whether it’s fencing, stage combat, playing Magic the Gathering, or practicing yoga, helps me to be able to write about it from a realistic perspective. It’s also just fun. It makes me wonder what I’ll be drawn to write about next.
3. Fencing is such an interesting sport – how did you get involved in it?
ANSWER: I had to take a physical education course in college so I looked through the course catalog and when I saw fencing listed I knew I was set. Even though my first instructor was not very good – she believed in form first, then combat – I was so in love with the sport I took it a second semester and got a great Russian teacher, named Tanya Adamovich. She was a Russian champion who had defected to the states as a teen and she believed in getting you to fight as soon as possible. She asked a friend of mine and I to go with her to demonstrate fencing at high schools on Long Island and she gave us free lessons at her salle as compensation. Her home is on the water on Long Island and when you came over for your lesson you could also bout with other students there on her pier which drifted out into the canal and was simply beyond cool. I even took a certificate course in how to teach fencing, with her. I can still remember the look on students faces at the dorm at when my friend and I fenced in the hall. They would open their doors and shut them quickly before our clashing blades would hit one of them. Mostly we tried to be careful and fortunately never hurt anyone. We also practiced some choreographed fights just for fun on the great lawn – a precursor for what I would eventually do. It’s funny because although I haven’t had time for much stage combat work since my son was born I still go out to Central Park once in a while during lunch and go over some choreography with friends just for the fun of it.
4. You have been writing since you were a teen and your essays and poetry have appeared in several print and online publications. Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
ANSWER: As a teenager and into my late twenties I wrote fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories that were influenced by the writers I read and the movies I saw. I loved Star Wars and The Planet of the Apes and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. I was especially obsessed with the undead. Ever since I saw Jason and the Argonauts and Harry Harryhausen’s stop-motion sword and shield skeletons I saw the world through a lens of sword and bone. When I got into my twenties I started writing more realistic fiction. I spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Honduras and those were the first stories about real life that I wrote. My brother was murdered in NYC when I was twenty-seven so themes of loss, which have always been present in my work, occurred more and more in what I wrote about. My life experiences and the people I’ve met, are my inspiration. I’ve worked at many different jobs in my non-writing career (movie theatres, restaurants, retail, body shop, grocery store, publishing customer service, Peace Corps, teacher, HIV/AIDS public health worker, drug treatment worker, rugby coach, public health trainer, yoga instructor) and that has allowed me a breadth of experience in life to pull from, along with the ability to meet a tremendous number and variety of people who have been willing to share their life stories with me.
5. You wrote for Playboy.com?! Tell us about that!
ANSWER: I have a few friends who are editors who have come to me with assignments over the years. My friend and writing group partner, Mike Malone, a journalist, fiction writer, and editor – worked at Playboy.com a number of years ago and needed a book review for a piece he was doing on summer reading. The title of the piece was, Books that don’t Suck, Lolita, by Nabakov. I read it and reviewed it in the context of a summer read. It was short but sweet and gave me a visit to the Playboy.com office on Fifth Avenue. It also forced me to read Lolita. It’s funny but people notice it when they look at my resume even though the piece was so small.
6. You are a sought-after national speaker on diversity issues, drug treatment and HIV/AIDS, among other topics. Why are those issues so important to you?
ANSWER: I still can’t believe that I do this kind of work. I was always very shy as a teen and known for being quiet. So getting up in front of an audience of one to five hundred people over and over again, I’d better have a good reason, other than the thrill of public speaking, for doing it. I always told myself I’d work at a job that meant something to me and that had some importance in the world. A year in retail management at a department store sent me running from the for-profit world. My work in the peace corp led me in the direction of public health work and when I came home from my time in Honduras I fell into HIV/AIDS work early on in the epidemic as part of a drug treatment program. Having worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, with LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) youth prevention programs, through bomb threats, seeing friends and colleagues harmed by discrimination, and die from illness, these issues have become part of who I am. Working with drug courts nationally on improving eligibility, retention, and treatment for African Americans and Latinos seemed like a natural extension from this.. This means speaking up for those who can’t and pointing out inequalities to both those who can’t see them and those who refuse to. Never an easy thing when the person who won’t see them is a judge.
7. The book is based in, and completely about, New York. What’s your favorite thing about the city in which you live?
ANSWER: That it’s so big and changing and gritty, and smelly, and beautiful – all almost at the same time. Every few blocks is a new neighborhood and a new world. I’ve lived in three different parts of NYC – Chelsea (Manhattan), Park Slope (Brooklyn), and Jackson Heights (Queens) in addition to working throughout all five boroughs in different jobs and I still know nothing about the city I live in. It is so incredibly culturally diverse. It will take a lifetime to study and is filled with just the greatest pieces of history. It is an epic city and I love that about it. My family’s history revolves around NYC also -from Ellis Island to the Bronx and a migration to Brooklyn and finally Long Island – and with me and my wife and son back to NYC again. That’s why my favorite place to take visitors is the Empire State Building – because of its 360-degree view of it all. In Open Wounds Cid sees The Empire State Building from the top of the 7 elevated train platform.
8. Open Wounds takes readers back to World War II. If you could live in any other time period, which would you choose, and why?
ANSWER: Because of my affinity for the sword and swordplay I always thought I would have done well during Shakespeare’s time – the late 1500s and early 1600s – when the rapier and dagger reigned and the renaissance was in full bloom. Who wouldn’t want to live in the time of the three musketeers? First you could learn how to fence with a rapier or sword and dagger, and you didn’t have to take too many baths or showers because everybody used perfume to cover their smell or just stank a lot, you could eat food with your fingers, people rode horses for travel if they were lucky, and the world was lit up by art, poetry, verse, and scientific discovery.
9. You have performed improvisational comedy, taught stage fencing, and you are a practitioner and teacher of yoga. Is there anything you can’t do? Seriously.
ANSWER: I’m a terrible speller and without spell-check I’m lost. In college I rewrote a short story for a class sixteen times – the first four because my spelling was so horrible the other twelve because I was still learning how to tell a story and my teacher (we’re still friends) kept me at it until I’d learned what it meant to go from point a to point b. Also, I can’t figure out how the cable television remote control works. I forget to turn off the oven and to rinse out the recyclables (my wife added the last two in). And, although I did improv with the group KLAATU in NYC for over four years, I was never especially good as my reviews demonstrate – I just enjoyed it tremendously.