We went in for a Navy yard overhaul. I was on a ship very like the "Caine," a World War II destroyer. We went to Terminal Island, and one night two of us officers went out frankly to drink a little bit. On Terminal Island the bars closed at midnight and we were just getting started. One of the girls was a file clerk in some naval office. She said, "I know where there's a birthday party." We just crashed the party, because wearing uniforms and being officers it was open sesame — we'd just go right in. It [turned out to be] my wife's birthday party. That's called luck or fate or providence or God. That was what changed the whole course of my life.
Betty Sarah Wouk died last year after more than 65 years of marriage and decades as your agent and an insightful editor of your work. Has your writing changed without her hand in it?
No way I can tell. I lead a diminished life in general without her. I can hear her sometimes saying about a page of mine, "That isn't working." That picture [of her] is on my desk; she's right there talking to me.
Your brother, Victor, was a Caltech PhD who pioneered electric and hybrid vehicles.
Caltech called us the Brothers Wouk. [For] the publication of "A Hole in Texas" [Herman's novel about the supercollider that never got built here], there was a celebration for both of us. Now there's an annual Wouk lecture at Caltech in his honor.
Can you tell me what your next book is about?
"The Lawgiver'' is about a new Moses movie. There have already been two "Ten Commandments" films, both by Cecil B. DeMille. What did you think of them?
[In 1923] I was 8 years old and my mother took me downtown to see it. There was no curtain — just the Ten Commandments, two tablets, and they opened up and the movie began. That was a very strong beginning to a silent movie. I thought that was an awesome movie, the exciting way it was presented. Margo in "The Lawgiver" has mixed feelings about the second one, and so do I. [But] it's an overpowering spectacle; who am I to argue? They play it every year, like "A Christmas Carol."
How different was this book, assembling notes and memos and emails rather than writing prose?
It was very, very difficult, and I wasn't sure it'd come off. It's kind of late in the game to start fooling around with new formats, but when the adrenaline got going, I said, all right, go ahead, have fun. But try to get the story told, which I did as well as I could. I think it does come off.
I wouldn't dare use my own voice to say anything about Moses, but with all these other [characters'] voices and communications and the picture that arises of this noble eternal figure who was just a man — that was worth trying for.
People are learning history through novels and movies rather than actual history books.
It's a bad thing but it's better than nothing. Many historical novels are worthless, but a novel like "War and Peace" is the way you find out about the Napoleonic wars [if] there's no other way for you to get it.
firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview is edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.