After a peripatetic youth that included stints in Paris and Jamaica, Mark Helprin (born today in 1947) was inspired to write his first short story while at the graves of William and Henry James. Learning that a nearby funeral was for a young man killed in Vietnam he was also inspired to join the military. Opposed to the Vietnam War but determined as a Jew to support the nascent state of Israel, he instead joined the Israeli military.
That experience formed the nucleus of his first novel, Refiner’s Fire (1977). A globe-hopping spectacle that mixed breath-taking action with transcendent prose, it contains one of modern fiction’s great opening lines: “It was one of those perfectly blue, wild days in Haifa when the winds from Central Asia and the eastern deserts come roaring into the city like a flight of old propeller planes.”