Interviewed by Amelia Loulli
Read Jacob Margolies’ fiction piece, Arkin’s Last Bet
Amelia: Your story is set in Manhattan. I wonder if you can talk about your choice of setting, and how important place is to you in your writing?
Jacob: I was born and raised in Manhattan, and work in midtown. My mother lives in the apartment where I grew up. I just visited her today. So I certainly know Manhattan and how it has changed over the last 40 years.
The story’s settings are central to all of Arkin and the narrator’s interactions, and hopefully the reader can picture the city. I’d like to think there’s a cinematic quality to the story. The taxi cabs weaving in and out of traffic; a particular Japanese restaurant; the city’s illegal gambling dens; the Upper East Side tenement walk-up where Arkin makes his proposition; that Greenwich Village art house movie theater where Arkin and the narrator run into each other; the long narrow bar where the bartender takes bets—these are all real places, or fictional constructions based on actual locations, that I know intimately…in some cases a bit too intimately.
Do you think a writer needs to have been to a place in order to set a story in it?
It is possible to become familiar with a place through reading and research, and there are writers who have such a vivid imagination that they can create a sense of place masterfully and convincingly without ever having set foot in it. But my imagination isn’t that developed.
Certainly, there’s nothing that compares to having a deep and direct emotional connection to a particular place. You can read and research all you want, but that’s quite different than knowing a place in your bones—the streets, the smells, and most importantly the people—how they talk and think.
I love how the reader is left to decide for themselves the truth about Arkin and his “scam”. Was it a conscious choice when you began writing to have an ending that left some ambiguity?
Yes. The idea actually came to me before I started writing. I have known people who will place a wager on anything. The thought occurred to me that betting on life or death was something a compulsive gambler might do. On the other hand, desperate characters sometimes get involved in absurd capers.
Sammy Arkin seems to be the kind of character who may well live by some questionable morals, and do some “bad” things, yet is very likeable. How important is likeability to you when you write your characters?
I have good friends whom I wouldn’t call likeable, but they are compelling and have qualities that are attractive
A literary character needs to intrigue the reader, but I don’t think she / he she needs to be likeable.
And a morally compromised person can be far more fascinating than a virtuous soul. The antihero is a literary archetype for a reason. People are complicated.
Do you have any favorite ‘baddies’ in literature?
I’ve never been at all interested in vicious murderous sociopaths. For example, Pinkie in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock leaves me cold.
There has to be something seductive for a bad guy or gal to rate as a favorite.
I’ve always been partial to John Falstaff. He’s vain, cowardly, and a drunk. But be honest, would you rather spend an evening with the Prince Hal or Sir John? It’s no contest.
I had a soft spot for Ms. Wonderly aka Brigid O’Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon. Sure Brigid’s a killer, but she’s also irresistible…even to Sam Spade.
Other baddies who I’m drawn to include Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch; Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy; and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.
As a 12-year old, I was partial to The White Witch of Narnia, but I think that can be excused as a youthful indiscretion.
In the movies Jack Nicholson is an all time great baddie. For some reason his one-liner “I’m just your average horny little devil” in the film adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, comes to mind.