By Joe Tash
Don’t “agonize” over the start of a piece of writing, but instead just get it written, a best-selling author recently told three local high school students. Once the first draft is completed, the author said, the writer can polish the beginning. “All writing is about re-writing,” he said.
Writer and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore dispensed the advice before his talk at the monthly meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society on May 18 at the Grand Del Mar hotel. Montefiore was on hand to discuss his latest book, “Jerusalem,” a history of the Middle Eastern holy city, and the students were winners of an essay contest sponsored by the Literary Society.
Montefiore, 46, of London, used his time with the students to lay out a half-dozen writer’s rules. He advised students that if they come up with a brilliant idea, not to share it with anyone. “In literature, like in espionage, careless talk can cost lives.”
In 1991, Montefiore told the students, he traveled to the Caucasus, a region bordering Europe and Asia, which includes the Russian separatist enclave of Chechnya, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Iran and Turkey. At the time, Montefiore said, few other Western reporters worked in the area, and newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Times of London were eager to publish his stories, even though he was not an established journalist.
“That led to my whole career, that first trip,” said Montefiore, who has written several historical volumes and one novel, all about either Russia or the Middle East. “Find some wrinkle in the weird material of the world no one else knows about.”
The students, accompanied by their parents and teachers, sat on sofas and upholstered chairs around Montefiore in the hotel’s spacious lobby. Montefiore, a compact man with close-cropped light-brown hair and blue eyes, wore a white button-down shirt, a Navy sport jacket and dark slacks.
Theresa Bui, an 11th grader at Cathedral Catholic High School, won first place in the essay contest, and a $1,000 prize. Amber Gallant, a junior at San Dieguito Academy, and Cassandra Go, a senior at La Jolla Country Day School, tied for second place and each won $500. The contest and the Literary Society are sponsored by Northern Trust, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center and this newspaper.
In an interview with a reporter from this newspaper before he met the students, Montefiore said he was on a multi-city tour to promote his book that included stops in Las Vegas, Desert Springs, La Jolla, Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara, along with his talk at the Grand Del Mar.
“I love America and I love being here,” he said.
Montefiore, who is Jewish, said one reason he wanted to write the book had to do with his own family’s ties to Jerusalem. A great-great-uncle, Moses Montefiore, made many trips to the city, even bringing back dirt from Jerusalem to be used for his own burial plot in England.
He said he also wanted to create a “fresh history” of Jerusalem because of its central role in three of the world’s major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as well as its prominence in Middle East politics.
The 650-page book covers 5,000 years of history, “from King David to Obama and Osama,” said Montefiore. “It’s blood-thirsty, it’s dramatic and sometimes it’s funny.”
Along with being a historical account, said Montefiore, “You could read it like a mini-series of conquerors, empresses, adventuresses and prophets.”
“It became the holy city because of the Bible,” Montefiore said. “The Bible is the biography of Jerusalem. When the Bible became the universal book of Middle Eastern and Western civilization, Jerusalem came to life for everybody, wherever they were, from Massachusetts to Moscow.”
The connection between America and Jerusalem is particularly strong, said Montefiore, because, “The Founding Fathers were people who absolutely believed in the paramountcy of Jerusalem.”
On the night before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of wanting to visit Jerusalem, and the city was also visited by the American writers Mark Twain and Herman Melville, among others, Montefiore said.
Montefiore said he had an American audience in mind when he wrote his book, and the volume seems to have hit its mark -— recently, such political luminaries as former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave it rave reviews.
A visiting professor at Buckingham University in England, Montefiore often lectures on history and current political topics at schools, universities and conferences.
During his talk at the literary society luncheon, he described how Jerusalem’s population and prominence rose and fell over the years. “At times it’s been no more than a ruined monumental village with wonderful buildings,” he said.
He described a horrific siege of the town in AD 70 by Titus, son of the Roman emperor, in which thousands died, and the Roman soldiers crucified as many as 500 Jews each day.
Writing the book, he said, was a daunting task, because of Jerusalem’s long and complex history, and the scrutiny and criticism he knew the completed volume would face.
“I barely slept for three years,” he said.
“I realized if I pleased anybody too much, I’d have failed.”