“Write what you know,” authors are told, which explains why so many use autobiographical detail in their books. This is particularly true of Paul A. Mendelson.
His new novel, The Forever Moment, centres around acclaimed Scottish author Charlie Dickens (yes, really), who is on a US book tour to promote his latest novel. Charlie had met a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Laura, a long-lost love he met during a secondary-school exchange programme at Lexington, Kentucky, and he is forced to wonder what really happened between them so many years ago.
Scottish-born Mendelson came up with the idea for the novel while watching the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which is set in the Kentucky city in the mid-1960s. (Season Two has just launched.) The protagonist, a chess prodigy, plays her first championship match at the Henry Clay High School.
“I said to my wife: ‘I went there.’ I went from Glasgow on an exchange tour to Lexington and stayed at the Veterans Administration Hospital and went to that school,” he tells me. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to make a story out of it, but it all seemed to go together. I think everybody writes from somewhere inside themselves.”
On Mendelson’s 1967 trip, aged 16, like Charlie he met a girl and corresponded with her for some time. The similarity to his character ends there – and, not wanting to reveal any spoilers, all that can be said is that Charlie reunites with Laura with interesting consequences.
He describes the adult Charlie as “locked in this betrayal of the past – or he’s used that as an excuse”, adding: “He has not been able to form lasting relationships. Maybe that’s his own inadequacies or maybe he hasn’t met the right person. But he’s putting the blame on the fact he’d been betrayed by somebody who he thought was going to be the great love of his life.
“And it took what happened later on, in the current day, to jolt him out of it because suddenly he realised that she hadn’t betrayed him, at least not in the way he thought. And Laura almost hadn’t realised how much she loved him until he came back and the whole thing started again.”
Mendelson is intrigued by the idea of being aged 40 and suddenly meeting someone again whom you’d known at 17 and discovering the differences.
“Charlie can’t get his head around who Laura is now; she’s mature and sophisticated. She’s a feisty woman – she’s been through divorce, she’s got two children who are mixed race, she’s a teacher; she’s not the person he knew.”
What does Mendelson want readers to take away from the novel, I ask. “That you can write a romantic novel that is funny – because most of them aren’t, and gripping and written by a man – which most of them aren’t.
“Some women said it was very nice to read a romantic novel from a man’s perspective, as they’re not normally. People have said that they laughed a lot. They don’t realise it’s quite hard to be funny.”
The novel is indeed entertaining – Mendelson has extremely witty turns of phrase. Charlie’s new-found Scottish friend Norman wears a kilt to meet his American hosts, and Charlie “might even consider wearing one himself, were they ever to uncover or create a Dershowitz or Dishowisky tartan”. The rest of the teenagers “all appear to entertain two overriding cultural ambitions for this trip. To have 100 per cent American burgers and 50 per cent American sex”.
Mendelson muses that if you write serious pieces, you get “praised to the skies”. But if you write family comedy that people find funny, like he does, it’s underrated. “People think ‘Oh, that’s easy’, but writing funny and writing clean – because I tend not to be particularly rude in my writing – that does take a bit of skill,” he admits.
And skill is what he has in spades. Mendelson, who was born and grew up in Scotland until he was 16 before moving to London with his family, studied law at Cambridge University. His first job was running a family law department in a small legal practice, but he left after six months, becoming an advertising copywriter, first for Ogilvy and Mather and then for other agencies.
The BAFTA-nominated screenwriter and author created several much-loved BBC comedies, including May to December, which aired between 1989 and 1994, about a solicitor who falls in love with a client half his age, and the 2006 Martin Clunes drama Losing It, about an advertising man who gets testicular cancer, based on his own experience.
So Haunt Me, a BBC series about a white Anglo-Saxon family who relocates to a run-down home that is haunted by Yetta (his own mother’s name), an interfering Jewish mother whose daughter ran off with a non-Jewish pop singer, aired for three series.
“That was a fun show,” recalls Mendelson. “The BBC’s head of comedy initially said, ‘You’ve done everything wrong; you’ve got ethnic humour, suspension of disbelief, children, dogs and special effects. I like the writing: go write something else.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I know what my brief is – basically no Jews and no dogs!’”
Mendelson started writing The Forever Moment, his seventh book, two years ago, on his 70th birthday, but it initially wouldn’t come. So, rather than forcing it, he wrote the script for it, because, he says, “script-writing comes very easily to me – in a sense it’s my original discipline.
“I like writing things that are, at their core, very serious, but because I’m a comedy writer, I come at it from a comedic perspective.” How lucky for us.
The Forever Moment by Paul A. Mendelson is published by The Book Guild, £8.99
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.