A Hello to Arms
Joel Rosenberg has authored ten fantasy novels about dragons, wizards, and princesses, three novels about Norse gods and North Dakota, two medieval detective novels, two books about Jewish space mercenaries, one mainstream murder mystery, a smattering of short stories and miscellany, and one guide to carrying a handgun in the state of Minnesota. While all of Rosenberg's books have enjoyed success, it's this last which has most expanded his profile outside the cadre of dedicated science-fiction readers.
"My take is that the predictions of 90,000 gun permits issued over the next year are wildly low," Rosenberg says. "One of the things that all the demagoguery on the anti-gun side has done is generated a lot of interest among folks who weren't interested before." The interest is such, in fact, that since the passage of the Minnesota Personal Protection Act, widely known as the conceal and carry law, Rosenberg has temporarily put his fantasy writing aside to pursue a lucrative sideline training prospective handgun carriers. "I'm doing three and four classes a week, and I could easily be teaching every day. Right now I'm trying to cut down to full time."
By appearance, Rosenberg would seem an unlikely candidate for a well-regulated militia. A vaguely pear-shaped man of 49, he has brushy eyebrows and a voluminous beard that attracts and retains crumbs of the halibut he's having for lunch at a Minneapolis café. He is wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt with a dribble of coffee down the front, open far enough to reveal a thatch of chest hair. Rosenberg is a heavy smoker, and he periodically plucks a cigarette from the shirt's breast pocket, smokes half of it, then plucks another and lights it with the burning stub of the first. In conversation, Rosenberg is quick-witted and loquacious, a man of strong and varied opinions who nevertheless manages to come across as charmingly irreverent rather than obnoxious. At lunch, for instance, he draws only curious glances from other diners for his (rather loud) characterization of the French as "cheese-eating surrender-monkeys."
Nor is there anything in his background that would predict Rosenberg's transformation into what he facetiously terms "a skiffy gun nut." Born in Winnipeg, Rosenberg moved as a boy to the small town of Northwood, North Dakota, where his father was a doctor. "I was the only kid in North Dakota who wasn't around guns," he says. "I come from a liberal Jewish family. In a liberal Jewish family, guns are really, really good if guys with thick Israeli accents have them. But the idea of guys who are not in Israeli uniforms having them is really frightening and horrible."
From North Dakota, Rosenberg made his way to the University of Connecticut, where he met his wife, and where, while working as what he calls a "subsistence gambler," he began writing The Sleeping Dragon, the first in his popular "Guardians of the Flame" fantasy series. "I was sitting around talking with a buddy," he explains of the book's genesis. "He said, 'Wouldn't it be so much fun if this "Dungeons and Dragons"-type world were real?' I said, 'Are you crazy? There'd be people with knives trying to kill you. Your teeth would rot out of your head. There wouldn't be any toilet paper!' Then I thought: 'Wait a minute. I've got an idea for a book.' I wrote almost the whole first chapter that night."
Indeed, Rosenberg's major innovation to the genre may be that, despite the fairies and whatnot, the fantasy world of "Guardians of the Flame" is not a place you would much want to visit. (In his penchant for dystopianism, Rosenberg reflects the influence of Robert Heinlein, author of the bleakly militaristic Starship Troopers.) Aside from evil wizards and a dearth of dental care, the protagonists of Rosenberg's fantasy novels--college students, transported to a medieval milieu via cosmic mischief--must contend with a world rife with slavery. Rosenberg's reluctant picaresque heroes do enjoy the advantage of knowing how to make gunpowder, however, which quickly allows them to disrupt the iniquitous social order. One of the author's favorite quips is, "All men are created equal because Samuel Colt made them that way."
"Slavery is the big social issue in this world," Rosenberg explains. "You can't be immersed in Heinlein for a number of years and not have strong feelings about that. Plus, you've got to remember, I'm Jewish. Every year we sit down to the seder, to remember we were slaves. That's a big deal. My people can hold a grudge longer than anybody. We're still pissed off at the Amalekites, and we killed the last of them off 4,000 years ago.
"The big change in Jewish history," Rosenberg continues, "more important than the Holocaust, was the formation of the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and all that preceded it. That's been a real big deal. I think all that is more important than the Holocaust in the long run, although obviously the Holocaust had something to do with it."
Indeed, in his 1988 foray into traditional science-fiction, Not for Glory, Rosenberg extrapolated from the IDF and its like to posit a world in which the survivors of Israel have been exiled to a distant planet called Metzada and forced to sell their services as mercenaries in order to survive. (Not surprisingly, Rosenberg also has strong views on the politics of the Middle East, which he has collected in a web log, www.islamthereligionofpeace.blogspot.com.)
Yet Rosenberg's own zeal for self-protection was spurred by two rather more personal incidents. A few years ago, intruders broke into his home while he and his wife slept. Rosenberg was able to scare them off with the .22 pistol he kept handy. Then he began getting e-mail death threats. "They would say, 'You're a dead Jew,' with 'dead' almost invariably misspelled, or 'Stay away from the white women,' with 'white' spelled 'w-i-t-e.'"
Rosenberg once suspected that the threats might have something to do with his Metzada novels--"I do write about Jews in space with big guns." But to this day, he doesn't know anything about his stalker, except that he or she is violently anti-Semitic, and unlikely to win any spelling bees.
Rosenberg let me tag along on one of his training seminars, held in the basement of a Bloomington VFW post decorated with advertisements for ammunition. The class consists of perhaps 20 people, most of whom appear, like Rosenberg, to be men in the ripeness of middle age. Though punctuated by anecdotes from the author's long, mostly antagonistic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department--who, Rosenberg says, have previously attempted to deny him a gun permit--the seminar's primary focus is on acquainting handgun owners with the state's new gun law.
"Dirty Harry is one of my favorite movies," Rosenberg tells the class. "I kiddingly refer to Dirty Harry as my hero. But a permit does not change me into James Bond. Did anyone here mistake me for James Bond?" Then, to clear up any lingering confusion, Rosenberg retrieves two loaded revolvers from his underpants.
Rosenberg's seminar mostly follows his book, Everything You Need to Know About (Legally) Carrying a Handgun in Minnesota. Among the topics covered: Where to strap your nine when going out on the town (a fanny-pack is one popular option); how to navigate a trip to the urinal while wearing a holster (don't leave your gun on the edge of the sink); what to do if attacked (run); and the legal ramifications of shooting someone (very sticky, apparently, and thoroughly discouraged). Rosenberg's advice on this last point seems eminently sensible--even if (to take a hypothetical) you think that the Minnesota Personal Protection Act is insane, and that its Republican supporters are a horde of jackbooted theocrats.
Still, one might look for insight into Rosenberg's mindset in his recently published mystery novel, Home Front. Here, a cranky, middle-aged small-town copy editor named Ernest "Sparky" Hemingway has his tranquil life ruptured by an invasion of "gangbangers" from big, scary Minneapolis. His first impulse, naturally, is to arm himself: "Old habits die hard. I dropped the magazine and worked the slide--the chamber was empty--and then slammed the magazine home, racked the slide again, and flicked the safety with my thumb without more than half thinking about it." (The Freudian implications of the scene aren't lost on Rosenberg).
Yet, while Rosenberg's Hemingway makes more productive use of his gun than did his suicidal namesake, he also manages to resolve his gangbanger problem without firing a shot. This, Rosenberg explains, was intentional: "I wanted to play with the old dramatic notion you always see on television--that if you put a gun in a story, someone has to get shot."
Which is, it seems, precisely the message Rosenberg is attempting to impart to the amateur Sparky Hemingways in his seminar. Striking a Dirty Harry pose with his snubby revolver, Rosenberg warns, "People who have notions that they're going to be Rambo should probably just stick to watching the movies. I like those movies, too. But that's not how the world works."
The students nod solemnly, and, satisfied that his point has been made, Rosenberg tucks his weapon back into his pants.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.