Inquisition novel is result of Mitchell James Kaplan's dream of being an author

| Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

It's only partially true that working in Hollywood qualified Mitchell James Kaplan to write a novel about the Spanish Inquisition.

Kaplan is sitting in a coffee shop in Mt. Lebanon, talking about his experiences on movie sets. Once, he was almost fired for having the temerity to ask for health insurance. Various projects he worked on are in a permanent state of limbo, and some of the films that got made bear no mention of his contributions in the credits.

"My complaint about Hollywood is that very few people have any creative power," he says. "I could name some films I worked on, but I can't claim credit for them because you do them at other people's bidding. Nor am I particularly proud to be associated with some of them."

Earlier this year, Kaplan, 52, published "By Fire, By Water," a historical novel that finally bears his name. Set in Spain during the late 15th century against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition and attempts by Christopher Columbus to lobby Queen Isabella for funds to find a new trade route to the West Indies, it's the culmination of four decades of adventure, frustration and an unstinting belief in his talents.

"(Mitchell) never wavered from the dream of becoming a successful writer," says Carol Eisner, a Squirrel Hill native who works in Los Angeles as a publicist in the entertainment industry. "I think that he was under enormous pressure to become successful because he comes from a successful family. .... I think it is enormously difficult to be who you are and accomplish your dream, and he's done that with his book."

Kaplan's father was a cardiologist, his mother a professor of literature. His own inclination was always towards the world of words. At the age of 12, he was sent to Europe to live with a friend and the friend's parents "when necessary."

"It was a voyage of pain and discovery," Kaplan says, able now to laugh at this unlikely experience.

He returned to California to attend a prep school in Santa Barbara before matriculating to Yale, where he met William Styron, the author of "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner." Kaplan still has a copy of a letter Styron sent him in 1981 about a manuscript he submitted for a class.

Styron wrote: "I think it shows a superior talent indeed -- your feeling for language, the sense of the hard surfaces of experience, the use of music as a theme: all of these are extremely well rendered. You should have no doubt you have the makings of a real writer."

It would be almost 30 years before that promise was realized. After graduating from Yale, Kaplan returned to Europe to work as a translator in Paris. He returned to California -- with the woman he would eventually marry -- for a family wedding. Not having the money to go back to France, Kaplan found work on the lowest rung of the film industry, working as a production assistant on the movie "The Couch Trip," which starred Walter Matthau and Dan Ackroyd. Kaplan quickly progressed to placement manager and then assistant to director Michael Ritchie on that single movie set.

"I learned all about the movie industry on that one project," he says.

Kaplan worked with Ritchie (who passed away in 2001) on other projects, notably on the script for "Cool Runnings."

That movie, Kaplan says, "was taken away from us. ... I've never seen it. I heard it was good."

There were other experiences, notably on the movie "Fletch Lives" -- he's listed on the Independent Movie Data Base ( as Chip Kaplan -- and he helped actor Kirk Douglas write a few books. He wrote the script for an animated film for Disney, and sold another script to Ivan Reitman, the director and producer of "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes." Those projects never were made, but provided a source of revenue to support Kaplan's family.

He lived in Big Bear Lake, and commuted in a plane he owned to Los Angeles. But it wasn't enough to satisfy Kaplan's artistic inclinations, which surfaced again when he was forced to take a year off work to attend to some family-related issues.

"That's when I said to my wife I never wanted to be working for the man in Hollywood," Kaplan says. "I always wanted to be a novelist."

The plane was sold and the Kaplans decided that Mt. Lebanon provided the right mix of affordability, good schools and comfort. He moved here with his wife, Annie, and two children about four years ago, and Kaplan devoted himself to his life's work. The result is a grand novel that shows not only Kaplan's knack for storytelling, but also his eye for details and willingness to do extensive research.

"Mitchell sent me 'By Fire, By Water' on a Saturday. I read all day and all night, and by Sunday, I had bought the book," says publisher Judith Gurewich of Other Press. "It's not often that you get such a rich education on the Spanish Inquisition when you are steeped in a page turner."

The main character in "By Fire, By Water," is Luis de Santangel, a historical figure who was a chancellor to the court in Spain and a friend of King Ferdinand. De Santangel also was a converso, a term used to describe Jews or their descendents, who were forced to convert to Christianity. Despite his status and friendship with the king, de Santangel came under the scrutiny of Tomas de Torquemada, the Dominican friar who was the grand inquisitor in the quest to drive Jews out of Spain.

"This man was doing business with Columbus long before the voyage of discovery," says Kaplan of de Santangel, "and he ends up twisting the arm of the queen (Isabella) and it's historically true. ... There was a story there, it was just a matter of getting the pieces in the proper order and giving it a dramatic structure."

"By Fire, By Water" is more than just a historical novel. The book details the alliance between Jews and Muslims in 15th century Spain, and Kaplan, who is Jewish, finds hope in this precedent.

"Relationships between people evolved and changed," he says. "The bible and the Quran, and the Old Testament and the New Testament, these are books in which people find inspiration, but they're also subject to interpretation and evolution in the way that we use them. I am personally optimistic that Islam and Judaism will again find common ground."

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