Eerie canals

Most writers observe the dictum, ‘Write what you know.” But novelist Joseph Kanon doesn’t know about that.

“If all you know is something boring, what’s the point?” he says. “I’m much more interested in somebody else.”

That includes the fictional characters — American, Italian and Jewish — found in his new novel “Alibi,” a love story/murder mystery set in postwar Venice.

To kick off a national tour promoting the book, Kanon will come to the Bay Area, his former home turf.

“Alibi” tells the story of an American soldier who falls in love with an Italian Jewish woman whose family suffered in the Holocaust. Murder and intrigue ensue. Kanon’s Venice is not the sunny destination of summer visitors. It’s the foggy Venice of winter after the tourists have gone home.

Venice during the war was a relative island of calm. No battles were fought there, no bombs fell. But that doesn’t mean the city and its Jewish inhabitants were spared the horrors of fascism.

“The Jewish ghetto was not unscathed,” says Kanon. “There were 2,000 Jews in Venice in 1943. Italian police took most to a detention center. But neighbors threw food through the windows and made an enormous fuss. The old and sick were released, but the SS said that was not the idea and they re-arrested them.” Today Venice’s Jewish community numbers about 600.

Kanon’s story takes place during the months after the war, but he’s the first to concede the reverberations of the Holocaust are still felt today.

“It’s not only Jews that should be concerned about the Holocaust,” he says. “What’s interesting about this period, is that it’s a hinge time for our culture. World War II is the single worst thing that ever happened. Over 60 million people were killed. There is nothing remotely comparable.”

Though non-Jewish, Kanon is married to a Jewish woman. They and their sons maintain a secular household, but they do celebrate the Jewish holidays.

Most other days he can be found in the New York Public Library, doing research and writing his novels in pen on legal pads. He admits he is hopelessly low-tech.

“Writing in longhand slows me down,” he says. “The computer is too fast. You need to not rush it.”

That was the m.o. with Kanon’s previous novels “Los Alamos” and “The Good German,” both of which dealt with the war and its aftermath. Although he’s been in publishing for years, it’s only the last 10 that he’s been on the author’s side of the equation. Previously, Kanon had a long career as a fiction editor at various New York publishing houses.

Before that, in the early 1970s, he spent a year in San Francisco working for the Saturday Review. “I had a two-bedroom on top of Russian Hill for $240 a month,” he recalls. “I loved and still love San Francisco.”

Working with authors, Kanon learned a lot about what readers want from their fiction. “It’s not grand thoughts,” he says, “but a real story.”

Not that he avoids grand thoughts. Kanon imbues his books with the richness of history and deep questions that never get answered. For “Alibi,” those include moral questions about war and peace.

“We talk about seminal moments,” he says. “When the atom bomb goes off, when the Holocaust occurs, the world is never the same again. These events bring up all sorts of questions about enlightenment. This is not a book in which you need to know who ‘dunnit.’ You will know, but the question is, was it right? When is murder legitimate?”

Kanon also learned that doing book tours can be fun, even though many of his fellow novelists do not share that view. “I had a nice moment,” he says, “when an author I once published said to me, ‘You’re going to hate [book tours]. I said to him, ‘You’re telling me flying around the country and meeting people who are nice to you is punishment?”

Joseph Kanon will appear 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 18, at Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. Information: (831) 462-4415. He will also appear 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at Book Passage, 51 Tarnal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Information: (415) 927-0960.

“Alibi” by Joseph Kanon (416 pages, Henry Holt and Co., $26).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.