I bumped into Michael Lederer, an American novelist living in Berlin, other day while watching an interview show on a German government satellite TV network, and his televised chat with British-born host Robin Merrill left me wanting to know more. So I picked up my iPhone and tapped out an email request for an interview and a few days later we were talking.
Lederer’s father, the late Ivo Lederer, was a refugee in the only group of European Jews given special passage by ship to the United States by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and he later went on to became a Russian and Eastern European scholar in America. He also gave the world a rather special literary gift — his son the world-travelling writer Michael Lederer.
Lederder has lived in Berlin for over ten years and is currently preparing to publish a new new novel titled “Don Quixote Saving America.” he told me by email. More on the new novel below, but first I wanted to find out how he ended up doing the interview on German satellite TV broadcast worldwide.
“The TV program from program that you watched via satellite TV in Taiwan was taped in August 2014 in Berlin and first aired in early October,” he told me. “It is currently available online, at both the Deutsche Welle site and on YouTube. I believe the producers knew about me through the U.S. Embassy Literature Series here in Berlin, and I got an email from them requesting the interview. I’m glad you saw it and wrote to me.”
When I asked what had brought him from his earlier life in America to the novelist’s life now as an expat in Berlin, Lederer, 58, that he got the wanderlust bug after growing up in America and graduating from college in New York.
“I lived in London as a theater student in the early 1980s,” he said. “Later, I lived in a fishing village in the south of Spain in the mid-1980s. I have also lived in Vienna, the south of Spain, the north of Spain, London, Berlin, Warsaw and Dubrovnik. I am still an American, I just sleep and eat in other places.”
In Berlin, Lederer lives with his second wife, a Polish-born woman, and works on his writing every day.
His first novel, “Cadaques,” was about the lives of an artsy group of sexed up and drugged out expats living in Spain, and it’s available now as a ebook, he told Teleread. His new novel, “Don Quixote Saving America,” is being readied for publication now and will be available soon, he said.
Lederer deserves a much wider readership than he has been able to find so far, since living overseas and being published by Berlin-based publishers makes it hard for Americans to get to know the writings of one of their native sons. Who knows, with luck and some publishing world connections, Lederer might be able to find a good home with American publishers. Certainly, the man is an American treasure, with an international ear, even if he makes his home far away from North America now.
“Here in Berlin, I am a member of the Kunstlerhof group,” he told me. “We are painters, writers, sculptors and musicians sharing an old factory space in Berlin. They say that misery loves company, so does joy. At this point in my life I am very happy man and writing novels one after the other.”
I asked Lederer what his new novel is all about. (It will be released in both print and ebook formats.)
“Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say that the question of solar energy plays a big role in the story,” he told me, knowing of my own interest in climate change and global warming issues. “Because if we hope to leave this place intact for our great grandchildren, and someday their great grandchildren, we need to act beyond mere thoughts of the next electoral cycle or accounting quarter. Our better instincts can maneuver ahead while our lesser instincts are inclined toward crash and burn. It’s our choice which path to take, and that choice has to be made very soon.”
“Don Quixote Saving America” is about an older man who lives on a broken-down houseboat in California and who reads Cervantes’ famous novel “Don Quixote” and then decides that just like the knight in that book he will venture forth to “banish evil from the land.”
“In his case, that involves driving across America in an old car he rechristens Rocinante,” Lederer said. “He picks up a young hitchhiker he insists on calling Sancho, and together those two set out to “get America back on her feet.” The older man has a romantic view of America taken from old black and white TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s — shows like ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver’.”
“Of course it was never as simple as that, but try telling that to the fellow in my book,” Lederer added. ” Miguel de Cervantes was 58 when he wrote the first part of his Don Quixote. I am that same age now.”
Lederer’s novels explore ideas and issues that have dogged him all his life.
“I am not interested in loss,” he told me. “I am interested in recovery. Someone once said, ‘Turn your wounds into wisdom.’ On the macro level, when I was a boy growinng up in America we had nuclear war exercises in the classroom. Today the stakes are higher yet: global warming, nuclear proliferation, loss of privacy. Humans have always had a destructive strain, but we have never before had such power to destroy so much so fast and so effectively.”
But always an eternal optimist, Lederer ended our brief chat on a positive note.
“I believe our urge to build is greater than our urge to destroy,” he said. “On a micro level, at the age of nine I saw what I thought was my happy family torn asunder by alcoholism and divorce. Nothing felt safe after that, and I dealt with that insecurity in ways that led to further losses. But from all that I have discovered the art of recovery. Loss marks the end of one thing and the potential beginning of another. Some people stay down while others get back up. That’s what interests me.”
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan.