Interview by Vincent Kakkos
Joe Reich is an author, painter and practicing ophthalmologist based here in Melbourne Australia. In 2009, he was shortlisted in the Women’s Weekly Short Story Competition even though he had never written a story before. He has since gone on to publish five books with another due in the next year or so. Last week, Joe and I caught up via Zoom to dive deeper into his book Ein Stein and his experience in the writing industry.
Vincent Kakkos: I’ll throw you in the deep end a bit with this first question, it’s a two-parter so get ready. Personally, or professionally, what is your favourite thing you’ve ever created and why?
Joe Reich: There’s a creative side to most of us, I hope. I’ve also been an eye specialist for most of my life, which is quite a disciplined field and not very creative. I would say though that probably my most exciting or proudest moment was when I was invited by my daughter to enter the Women’s Weekly Short Story Competition with only 24 hours’ notice. Typically, these entries are crafted and edited over the span of a year. So, a few months later I was sitting with a patient, and they said to me, ‘are you the Joe Reich that’s [sic] a finalist in the Women’s Weekly Short Story Competition?’ which was definitely an interesting moment. So, yes, I’d say that’s my pinnacle of creative moments because that’s what lead me into writing, and before that I’d never even written a story.
VK: That’s so awesome! Going back to what you just said about your occupation as an eye specialist, does that mean creative writing is something you’ve only started doing in recent years then?
JR: Well, I actually started at university studying writing and doing comedy skits. I was in what we used to call the ‘Med Medleys’ in those days. The medical school would have a ball at the end of the year, and that ball was preceded by a stand-up show. They were often light-hearted jokes surrounding medical themes, but pretty soon after I started doing comic debates. And I partook in a few comic debates over the years for various charities prior to starting my life as a writer.
VK: Oh wow! Just out of personal curiosity, exactly how hard is it to get medical professionals to laugh?
JR: Oh, not very difficult at all *chuckles* particularly if you go into their own field.
VK: Do you ever find any overlap between your two fields of work? The discipline you mentioned with being an eye specialist, does that ever bleed into your writing?
JR: Oh yeah, there is an awful lot of discipline in writing, much more than I expected. My first novel, which I thought I knocked off in just six weeks, ended up taking another year and a half to edit.
VK: As the writer’s saying goes, ‘It only takes a week to crap out the turd you’re gonna polish’.
JR: Oh, it’s absolutely true. My newest book has actually had a similar sort of gestation. I mostly got it written in about three to four months, and the last year has mostly been spent just cutting it down. I believe it started around 120,000 words and now it’s at about 80,000 and dropping.
VK: Oh wow. So, with that in mind, did you have any knowledge you’d like to share about the writing industry that you think other emerging writers such as myself should know?
JR: I think it’s important that people write what they know. I think the further you deviate from that it can easily appear false to the reader.
And that also leads into the issue of writing historic fiction. When researching for Ein Stein, I actually looked at quotes spoken by those real people and based my dialogue around that so as to not put too many false words in their mouths. Following on that, I’m personally a 2nd generation Holocaust survivor, with both of my parents coming from concentration camps at the end of the war. With them having lost their families in the war, we carry that burden with us and, in writing this book Ein Stein, I deliberately skirted around that experience because I didn’t want to fictionalise an experience I didn’t have and belittle that in any way.
VK: Just touching on the two generations aspect you just mentioned. I’ve always been a fan of non-linear storytelling and was wondering what made you gravitate towards using that? And also, what order did you write it in?
JR: Well, as you know there’re two different sorts of writers, the ‘plotters’ and the ‘pantsers’. The ‘plotters’ typically have the great big whiteboard with Post-it notes all over, and have written their final paragraph before even starting the book. That’s not me *chuckles*. I actually wrote the start of the book without knowing where I was heading and, once I introduced myself to Mr. Stein, I naturally drifted with his story. There were two plot lines of his I did already know I wanted to include, however, the first being the story of the Leica camera factory and Ernest Leitz II—and the second plot line being the inner workings of Los Alamos and the atomic secrets held.
VK: So, you said the initial draft of this only took 6 weeks? Had you known all this information prior to writing?
JR: I’d dipped into some biographies that people have written, some of which aren’t even published. Once I fleshed out the story, all the small details really came from our old friend Wikipedia.
VK: Ah yes, every student’s bible.
JR: It honestly really is amazing what you can find on Google. I was able to have all this research next to me while writing, and the photographs in particular were extremely helpful. For example, the photo of the ‘Trinity’ atomic bomb test…It was far easier to describe what was happening when you’ve got the photograph there.
VK: I have always found it easier to imagine around pre-existing material, whether it be a photo or a sentence. It’s fascinating how they can act as a springboard of sorts.
JR: Absolutely. A lot of my characters, I had photos of people from the time they were based on. And, although you don’t want to recreate an image in writing, it certainly is helpful to have those extra little details.
VK: Now we’re just about done, but I did want to ask this one final question. This book Ein Stein has a lot going on. There’s mystery, romance and even political discussions involved. I just wanted to know from the author himself, what is the underlying message you were trying to get across with Ein Stein?
JR: The importance of history. We all need to know where our roots come from and it’s important not to forget them, I think.