MAGIC WORDS in the South Philly Review
Gerald Kolpan shares ‘Magic Words’
After a long career in Philly media, a Queen Village resident picked up his pen and released his second novel.
By Jess Fuerst
“The best part of writing a novel is getting it done — finishing it. That’s it,” Gerald Kolpan, a 35-year Queen Village resident, said.
The author finished penning his second novel, “Magic Words,” earlier this year and it was released in May. The historical fiction work based on a Jewish immigrant-turned-interpreter and his relationship with a magician was the result of a moment of inspiration while watching television.
“There was a PBS television special on, ‘The Jews of America.’ And it was maybe a 10-second spot. They showed a picture of a young man with curly hair and a moustache and said this is Julius Meyer, a Jewish immigrant who ended up becoming a translator and interpreter for famous Indian chiefs like Sitting Bull,” Kolpan, 61, said. “So I said, ‘What! That’s my next novel. It’s got to be about this guy.”
Kolpan began his research in earnest and eventually learned of a contemporary of Meyer’s named Alexander Herrmann, who was a popular magician. Through his research, Kolpan learned the two men had mothers with the same surname, so he used his artistic license and made them cousins.
“I just love history. I find history fascinating. I don’t think you can call yourself an educated person in any of the other fields unless you know history fairly well,” he said.
Kolpan, who had an extensive career in illustration, radio and on-air journalism, came to writing in 2004 when he began his first novel, “Etta.” The book was based on Etta Place, a Wild Bunch member who managed to dodge the law more successfully than its other members, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“I got the idea for Etta in 1997, but I was too petrified to write it. Who am I to write a book? I generally don’t read fiction. I read a lot of history and biography,” he said. “Etta was the only member of the Wild Bunch that was never caught, so no one knows any of the stuff about her.
“This stuff is so fictionalized [in popular culture] that the characters are great.”
The author admits he is drawn to film and television for his own sources of escape, with a particular penchant for Westerns, which coincide with his own works’ settings.
“I grew up in the 1950s when 14 of the top-20 shows were Westerns. I was the youngest of three brothers and they would take me to the movies on Saturday. I’d ask what we were seeing and they’d say, ‘We’re going to see a cowboy picture.’ And we’d go, every Saturday,” he said.
Aware of his affinity for period works, Kolpan said he writes when inspiration hits, wherever the story needs to be set. And even then, it’s not exactly by choice.
“I’ve been an artist all my life,” he said. “I went to art school, I’d draw pictures, play music. So when you get a good idea, it tends to gnaw at you and if you don’t use it, it drives you nuts.”
Born in New York City and raised by a TV repairman father and an executive assistant mother — both first-generation Americans — in New Rochelle, N.Y., Kolpan began drawing as soon as he could.
“I drew pictures from the time I was 2. Basically, it’s what I got. I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t very good in school, so drawing was where I got all my strokes,” he said.
He moved to Philly to attend the University of the Arts — then called The Philadelphia College of Art — and studied illustration. When he received his bachelor’s in ’74, he began working in the area right away.
“I started drawing pictures for publications as soon as I possibly could. I did that for 10 years,” Kolpan said.
While living in Philly, Kolpan maintained late hours and would often call into the late-night radio show “No Subscription Necessary,” which gave him a shot at getting behind the mic.
“I’d call in and crack [the disc jockey] up. He thought I was really funny,” Kolpan said. “I started to do commentary spots for the news stuff for WXPN.”
This led to commentary roles on multiple radio networks. Kolpan, however, had other plans.
“I really wanted to be on camera. I had been in a lot of school plays. I was never shy,” he said. “I asked if I could do feature reporting, and I had no experience at all. This is the story of my life, by the way. I just keep doing things I have no right to do and no experience in because I have more nerve than brains.”
His nerve parlayed itself into 20 years on the air for Fox 29, which ended in 2008, which was about the same time “Etta” hit bookshelves.
“By the time I became regionally famous that stuff didn’t mean that much to me. It was nice to be stopped and have people tell me, ‘I like your work,’” the eight-time Emmy Award winner said. “It’s all because people had faith and believed in what I did. I was lucky. You have to be lucky.”
As fortune would have it, the four years he spent crafting “Etta” paid off and led him to feel more competent when Julius Meyer entered his life and asked for “Magic Words.” This discovery process has been the most interesting aspect of the craft for the new writer.
“There is a character in ‘Magic Words’ that plays a pivotal role and without him there’s no plot. But he wasn’t in the outline and I had no idea he was going to be in the book,” Kolpan said of the writing process. “You know when I met him? When Julius met him. That was spooky.”
The avid movie and television fan harbors hopes that someone will develop his works into a miniseries, but also finds joy in the rewards he has already been reaping.
“I would like people to enjoy the books. I like when people send me a message or an e-mail, stop me in a bookstore and say, ‘It moved me.’ That’s a lot of fun,” Kolpan said. “Or even if people say, ‘Well, I like this but I didn’t like that.’ That means they cared enough to tell you.”
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