Lamont Williams is a hospital janitor just out of jail, eager to get through probation at his job and find the daughter he hasn't seen for years. Adam Zignelik is a university professor reeling from being denied tenure and having his girlfriend dump him.
The two main characters in Elliot Perlman's vast novel "The Street Sweeper" are both jolted from their private miseries by meeting a dying Auschwitz survivor and patient at the hospital, whose stories about making it out of a Nazi death camp alive feed into tales about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Perlman, an Australian native and former lawyer, said the seed for the book came from watching the diverse mix of people who stood smoking outside of Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital and wondering what would happen if two totally unlikely companions were thrown together there.
Q: You're dealing with some big themes. How did you move from them to the characters?
A: "I want the book firmly set in the contemporary world, so that helped me not be overwhelmed by the themes. I've also tended to have the view that the story has to come first, so no matter how momentous are the events that are the basis for the story, I have an obligation to the reader here and now to try and get the story right. At the same time, particularly when dealing with matters as significant as the Holocaust and Civil Rights movement, I had an obligation to history, to try and get that right as well. But if you're too focused on all that you're not telling or all that you could be telling, you'll be paralyzed. So by trying to keep my eye firmly on the narrative that I had planned, I tried to avoid the trap of becoming paralyzed by the importance of the periods and the themes that I was dealing with.
"Sometimes I would do a character sketch, and sometimes I work out the plot first. Once I have the skeleton of the novel which would be the plot, then I feel that much more free to clothe and dress the characters as I go. After a little while, as you know that they're of a certain type, the rest takes care of itself."
Q: So many writers talk about mystical experiences with the characters taking over and speaking to them, what do you think?
A: "I'm usually dictated to by the plot, and the characters are, to a large extent, subservient to the plot. And once I know the plot, it's much easier for me to imagine the characters, because if the plot satisfies me I know the characters have to fit in. I know you have scope within the plot points for a character to be one way or another, but somehow it just does happen for me fairly easily."
Q: What were the hard parts and the easy parts of this book?
A: "There was no easy part. The book took me five and a half years to write, and I did more research for this book than I did for the previous three books put together. Not only did I talk to all sorts of people in New York, I went to Chicago because the book goes to mid-century Chicago as well ... Then I of course went to Europe and I ended up going to Auschwitz six times. I met a man who was a guide at the Auschwitz state museum and we ended up becoming personal friends. He showed me things and gave me a lot of tiny detail that you often wouldn't find in even the best scholarly books... All of this took a tremendous amount of time.
"Some of the stuff I was writing about was terribly distressing. Some of the Civil Rights stuff, some of the atrocities that were perpetrated on African-Americans, and then the Holocaust. That was terribly emotionally draining. All of this was hard. Then there was the tremendous amount of reading, and the writing -- which is always hard. Then the revisions, the rewriting. I think pretty much all of it was hard and almost none of it was easy."
Q: Why do you do it then?
A: "That's an excellent question. You don't only want to do things in your life that are easy, you want to give your life some kind of meaning. One doesn't write to make money, because there have to be easier ways to make a living, particularly if you're trying to write what gets called 'literary fiction.' There must be some sort of compulsion in you to communicate things to people."
Q: What are some of the benefits of writing fiction after being a lawyer, and what are some of the drawbacks?
A: "I was what we call a barrister, which is a trial lawyer, and you need to have such careful attention to detail and make sure that you've got the story absolutely straight. The major difference though is that when writing fiction, I'm expected to make everything up. When writing for my legal practice I'm expected to not make anything up. That's the major difference.
"I think that because of my cast of mind, which is one that likes to have the plot set out beforehand, being a lawyer probably helped."