Author Jon Papernick
I call Jon Papernick (JonPapernick.com) in Waltham, Massachusetts Sunday afternoon, July 2, 2006.
Jon: "Last time I was interviewed, I mentioned that Henry Miller was one of my influences and the person wrote 'Henry James.' Maybe you want to run it by me..."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Jon: "I did want to be a writer but I didn't think I'd be good enough. I took a creative writing class in eleventh grade, and my teacher (Mrs. Gerard) told me I was not a good writer. She died before my book came out.
"As someone who's been a teacher for the past six years, it's been my primary mode of income, I would never say that to anybody. What we write is always a work in progress."
Luke: "You'd never say that to anybody? Even if their work sucked?"
Jon: "Not as a teacher. I'd say they hadn't fulfilled the ambitions of the story.
"When I was 18, I wrote and self-published a novel (Turned Into Earth) that was an absolute piece of junk. I sensed a lot of resentment from my friends. In a sense, everybody wants to be a writer. They all want to publish a book. Here I am calling myself a writer... If they're not doing any writing themselves, in a sense they feel like they're wasting their lives.
"You've got to play being a writer before you are a writer. You've got to convince yourself that you are one before you have the chutzpah to do it."
I tell Jon that I've made my living from blogging for nine years but I've never made more than $50,000 in a year.
Jon: "Wow. I've never made close to that and I've never blogged."
Luke: "Whenever I come out with a book, half the people I mention this to respond, 'How are you going to market it?' I find that annoying."
Jon: "I didn't get that question. When my first book (The Ascent of Eli Israel and Other Stories) came out, I wish I'd gotten that question. I got a great review in The New York Times when the book first came out, and I assumed it'd just go from there. I didn't do any marketing. Nobody said anything. I wish people had. I would've gotten a website way back then, and made phone calls to independent bookstores, made postcards and bookmarks, had friends write reviews on Amazon... Whatever it takes.
"As far as marketing, the best thing is to just get your writing out there. I'm going to write a weekly column for Jewcy.com called 'The Perfect Jew.' That should get some attention. I have to go out and do things to make myself a better Jew."
Luke: "How were you raised Jewishly and where are you today?"
Jon: "I went to synagogue twice a year and hated it. The biggest and oldest Reform temple in Canada - Holy Blossom. It was really Reform. I was the third generation of my family to have gone there. It wasn't for me. My parents didn't practice. They sent me to Hebrew school in first grade and I failed.
"I grew up with any antipathy for Judaism. I had a bar mitzvah. I crammed for it for six months in the rabbi's basement.
"I did it in Hebrew but I didn't know what it meant.
"A lot of your education comes from home, so if you're not getting the support, you don't follow through with it. Through my early twenties, I had a real antipathy towards Judaism. It wasn't until I went to Israel at age 22 (in 1993) that I got a sense of pride about being Jewish. It was the turning point in my life.
"I don't practice at all, that's why I'm doing The Perfect Jew column. It springs out of a quote from Leon Wieseltier. He said that people from my generation don't know what they're rejecting. They're slackers. Eighty percent of my religious education comes from the writing of my stories.
"Writing is a spiritual act. It's a meditative prayer-like act, trying to drag creation out of the darkness of your subconscious. I'm interested intellectually but I don't enjoy going to synagogue. We go a couple of times a year. Part of the reason I don't enjoy it is that I don't know the songs. You go there and they start singing and I have a mental block and can't remember them. For The Perfect Jew, I'm going to try to learn some of these prayers.
"If you sit in a classroom and don't speak, it's boring, but if you're involved in the conversation, it's great.
"We just had a son seven weeks ago. He's my first kid. We want to bring him up with a strong sense of Jewish identity.
"My wife is the daughter of a Reform rabbi."
Jon spent his first 22 years in Canada (getting a B.A. in Creative Writing from York University) and a couple of years after returning from Israel in 1997 while he saved up for graduate school (converting his Canadian dollars at the rate of 62 U.S. cents per, he got an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College).
Luke: "Did you get your money's worth from Sarah Lawrence?"
Jon: "Yeah. It was great. I can't tell you what I learned except that I think I learned everything. It's osmosis. You're reading stories, writing stories, critiquing stories. You're living it 24 hours a day. Almost immediately upon arriving in graduate school, my writing went from good to very good."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
Jon: "We were into punk music. We rode skateboards. We drank a lot. We had a lot of fun. But we were nice. We didn't get into fights. We weren't bad kids. We enjoyed hanging out. I'd sit by the convenience store drinking a slurpee, getting drunk, watching TV."
Luke: "At what age did you become interested in girls?"
Luke: "At what age did you become a man?"
Luke: "Is there any non-sexual event you'd describe as the demarcation point of when you became a man?"
Jon: "Maybe it was seven weeks ago when I had my baby. There are many times that you think you've reached it but then you have another point... Maybe I won't reach it until I don't have a father."
Luke: "Tell me about you and God."
Jon: "Growing up, I was definitely a nonbeliever. Listening to punk music, I questioned everything. Nothing made any sense. I believe in God the Creator. A God who created the earth and then absented himself. I have a sense that God left an imprint on our DNA which acts as a representative of him or herself, meaning guilt. Guilt is a representation of God. It keeps us from doing things we should not do. There's a certain code we have to live by and that's God."
Luke: "What did you love and hate about the practice of journalism?"
Jon: "I liked doing it in Israel because it was an interesting subject. What I hated is that when I came back to Canada, I was only able to land a job on the financial desk doing gold price and pork futures, which was boring. I liked how dynamic journalism can be, but it can also be crushingly boring. Ultimately, it was disappointing. I thought journalism would be a way for me to make a living while I wrote my fiction but I realized that it exhausts you. It takes all your energy away from you that you could be using for writing. When you're a journalist, you work all year round, and long hours. When you're a teacher, you get Christmas off, March break, and summer. When I worked as a journalist [in Canada], I had six off days in a year and a half.
"I'm doing more personal journalism now. Things I care about. I'm less interested in going out to a fire house and asking, 'Why did city hall burn down?' I'm a little self-centered in my journalistic desires now, but I've earned that right.
"I use my fiction tools when I write my journalism now.
"I like to craft my stories. When you write for a wire service, you have to bang those stories out.
"But I did get to meet Yassir Arafat, which was bizarre."
Luke: "Other things you loved about it?"
Jon: "Not really, otherwise I'd still be doing it."
Luke: "What do you love about writing fiction?"
Jon: "I love the way it makes me feel when I am on the ball, in the zone, when I'm writing something that is working. That is the best feeling in the world. It's totally self-contained. You're not relying on anybody else for this happiness. You don't rely on your wife. You don't rely on your parents. You're all alone in the room and making this incredible act of creation.
"What I don't like is when I'm not writing. I have this terrible feeling that I should be writing. I don't write every day. I haven't written any fiction since my baby was born. There's this terrible feeling that life is passing you by."
Luke: "What kind of sexual wattage has your writing created in women?"
Jon: "Some when I was an undergraduate. When I was 21, I had two girlfriends at the same time. That didn't work out, but for about a year and a half, it seemed to excite people. And I wasn't even any good at the time. My wife will say that when she read my story, The Ascent of Eli Israel, that was when she realized she wanted to marry me. She thought it was the best story she'd ever read.
"Sometimes I think I can count all the people who've ever hit on me with two hands."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about teaching?"
Jon: "I love teaching. You do get to use your writing skills. It takes [away] the solitariness of being a writer. What I don't like is grading. That is why I don't teach composition. At Boston University, I had to grade 60 essays every two weeks."
Luke: "What's the situation with your novel, Who by Fire, Who by Blood?"
Jon: "This is a problem. It's novel that took me four years to finish. It makes my collection of short stories look like Disneyland, and those stories were disturbing. I can't get it published. My agent sent it around and he couldn't sell it. I fired him and sent it around to a bunch of publishers and couldn't sell it. Then I went back to my agent, revised the novel, threw out 65 pages, and he sent it out to various publishers who like it better, but I think they're afraid of it. It has the emotional sensibility of Richard Wright's Native Son and Camus' The Stranger.
"The other Jewish writers who came up at the same time as me are writing things that are friendlier. This is an unfriendly book."
Luke: "Is your book linear [and realistic]?"
Jon: "Yes. These days, publishers seem to want to have novels set in two to three different times or places. Mine is set in one place and goes from point A to point Z. It's a traditionally told story. Publishers today like to see narratives chopped up, which often makes up for writers not knowing how to tell a story. I liked Everything is Illuminated, but there's not a story there. It's a short story that's been expanded to 300 pages."
Luke: "How much research do you do for your fiction?"
Jon: "It depends. I never do research for three months and then write. I write and then research as necessary. As I need things, I read things."
Luke: "At what stage does your wife [of four years] read your work?"
Jon: "Sometimes every page, which drives her crazy. When I have a draft, she'll always read it. She's my built-in bulls--- detector. She's not a writer. She's not a major reader. But she's one of the smartest people I know and she'll keep me on track."
I got nauseated reading this collection of short stories. My stomach knotted up and I could barely swallow my dinner. Almost every story delivered at least one punch to the stomach. Almost every story made me fear that something horrible was going to happen (and I was usually right).
I call Jon Wednesday morning, July 12.
Luke: "I could barely eat my dinner last night. I was wondering why and then I realized it was because I had just finished your book."
Jon: "That's great. Can I get it in writing?
"There's a great quote from Franz Kafka that literature should serve as a pickax that shatters the frozen sea within. I aspire to that. I think I did my job in your case."
Luke: "My stomach wrenched up from the time the old man molested the boy in the first story."
Jon: "And that's one of the nicer stories."
Luke: "Why do you choose the material you choose?"
Jon: "If you were watching the news today, what's happening in Israel is insane. They have a war on two fronts. Israel is intense. Have you been to Jerusalem?"
Jon: "There are a lot of disturbed people in that city.
"The first story I wrote was An Unwelcomed Guest about the backgammon game. It puts the conflict into a nutshell and sets it in a kitchen.
"I just turned it into a one-act play.
"I try not to point fingers. I've got my own bias. In my fiction, I try to keep it [pure of ideology]. I've had people say I'm anti-Jewish, that I'm anti-Arab, that I'm pro-Jewish, pro-Arab. Married couples have had those feuds. I tried to paint the picture as clearly as I could and show the complexity of the situation. It's not open to a solution. There's no peace in the Middle East because people wait for the only possible solution -- the Messiah.
"I don't why the stories are so dark. I could've written humorous stories. The King of the King of Falafel is a light story."
Jon: "I must be a dark person. I close my eyes and I start writing and my subconscious starts to spew things out.
"I try for a blend of darkness and humor. I'm influenced by [William] Faulkner. There's visually dramatic scenes and the mix of race and religion. There's bitter acidic humor.
"You mentioned in your email that you are horrified that my novel is darker than this. That might explain why I've had some difficulty getting it published."
Luke: "I had an invite to see a film [Factotum] about Charles Bukowski this week and I said, 'No! I hate those type of films.' I've never read Bukowski."
Jon: "He's mildly amusing. I heard him speak on poetry. 'Writing a good poem is like taking a good s---. It's painful. It kills you. And then you feel great.'"
I dislike profanity but I hate the s-word (and toilet humor).
Luke: "Isn't a dark belief in life the logical result of no belief in God?"
Jon: "I'd say yes but I don't think that applies to me. While the stories are dark, there's truth to them."
Jon's a deist. "Somebody said, 'Suicidal people don't write novels because hopeless people don't create.'
"The act of writing and creating a world is taking the mantle of God on our shoulders. We all have the urge to create. It's the destroyers who really don't believe in God."
Luke: With what emotion did you write your stories?
Jon: "I came back home after I ran out of opportunities [in Israel]. I remember thinking, 'I have to find a way to get over Israel.' It'd gotten under my skin. I couldn't stay there because I didn't speak Hebrew well enough to get a job. I didn't want to drift around forever.
"I wrote the stories to get Israel out of my system, to work things out, to make sense of what I saw there. I did witness the aftermath of a suicide bombing. I did see charred bodies on the street. In my own mind, I did see a woman [without her upper torso]. I did see an untouched apple on the ground. It may or may not be true, but I do recall seeing that."
Luke: "This book gives reasons for why you don't live in Israel. Nobody would want to live here."
Jon: "That's weird because I do consider myself a Zionist. I do feel strongly about Israel. When I'm there, I feel like a better person. I feel like I'm a part of something vital.
"There are other sides of Israel. I could write a book about Tel Aviv, about hanging out at the cafes and going to the beach. [Ascent] is about my experience of working as a journalist in Jerusalem. It's not exactly an advertisement for living there."
Luke: "I can't imagine any sane person wanting to live in the world of this book."
Jon: "I guess you're right.
"Maybe there's a touch of madness in me?"
Luke: "As a journalist, you have to seek out these aberrant characters?"
Jon: "As a fiction writer, even more so. As a journalist, whoever is there to speak to you, you take.
"I am drawn to madness in my writing, to the clash of religions with a tinge of madness.
"I haven't been able to write fiction [since his baby was born eight weeks ago]. I've got my baby with me. I'm feeding him with my other hand now.
"A lot of Flannery O'Connor's characters are clearly mad."
Luke: "When you write about the religious, you're like a scientist poking at insects in a cage and saying, 'You are all very interesting' but you'd never become one."
Jon: "You're half-right. 'You are all very interesting and there but for the grace of God...' I spent five weeks at Aish HaTorah in 1993. I said I was leaving. The rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) pulled me into his office and said, 'I want you to stay for a year. Give me a year and you'll thank me for it.' I said no. 'I'm a writer. I need to go back to Canada where people speak in my language. I can't be around Hebrew all the time. My craft is suffering.'
"He said, 'We've got a guy at the yeshiva who studied under Bernard Malamud. You want to meet him.' I met him. He said, yeah, if I want to go home, I should.
"I do feel that if I had stayed for a year, who knows? There are aspects of that madness that got under my skin. I can imagine drinking that kool-aid and thinking more extreme thoughts. Every person has mad aspects. Those mad people are unlived parts of myself.
"It was the same yeshiva David Koresh went to."
Luke: "I didn't know David Koresh went to Aish HaTorah."
Jon: "They won't admit it, but it's true. There's a Koresh street in the old city. That's where he took his last name.
"I just like that I did it [Aish]. I came from such an atheistic place. As a teenager, I was so against all religion.
"I did get in a debate [with Aish founder] Noach Weinberg and I pissed him off. He gave a lecture on the five levels of knowledge. He said that Judaism was superior to Christianity because Judaism was based on knowledge. His father told him we were at Sinai, and his father, and his father, and would your father lie to you? Whereas Christianity is based on faith.
"The next day he came in and gave a lecture on the five reasons there is a soul. And all five reasons were based on faith. I called him out on that. He stormed out of the room and slammed the door.
"I like to question and questioning was not really acceptable in that milieu.
"There was a gay Irish Jew there who wanted to be a part of Aish but they were keeping him at arm's length.
"There was another guy who had a Christian girlfriend. They said, 'If you don't get rid of the girlfriend, you'll have to leave.'"
Luke: "I don't think you could've read this book if you had your baby by your side?"
Jon: "Probably true. Four of the seven stories have young people brutally abused.
"I do have a different take on the world with Zev next to me. I finally understand selflessness. I understood how one would give one's own life to save one's child. I imagine my writing will change dramatically."
Luke: "This book seems to be very much the product of a single man."
Jon: "Are you talking about the anger?"
Luke: "I don't picture a happily married man writing this book."
Jon: "I think you're right.
"The novel I'm writing now is a lot lighter -- it's about a guy who fell off the Brooklyn bridge. But I've had trouble getting to it over the past year. I've been afraid to look at it. Maybe I'm afraid of my own success.
"I just wrote an article for an online parenting magazine called 'I'm hot, my wife's not.' It was her idea. It was the idea that a father's stock seems to rise in the world and a mother's stock seems to drop. People will come up to my wife and say, 'Are your nipples hurting? Are you still pumping? You look tired. Did you have hemorrhoids?'
"I can walk around like the biggest schlep but with a baby strapped to my chest, women look at me in a different way."
We chat about MFAs.
Jon: "We're seeing a lot more middle-of-the-road competent writing. But is competent what we're looking for in our fiction writers? I'd rather see a little bit of madness than this controlled New Yorker type of short story that don't seem to have a resolution. I don't understand why people would sit down to write one of them. My impulse is the opposite -- lots of plot and drama. So many of these books are just veiled autobiographies, which I don't find interesting.
"I remember giving my book to someone's mother in Israel. She's like, 'I'm probably going to hate this. You're probably one of those ironic twenty-something writers.' First, I'm thirty something. Second, I'm not ironic."
We chat about Nathan Englander and his new novel.
Jon: "I do wish him success though every writer's success kills a little bit of me.
"He's a slow writer. It took him about six years to write those eight stories in his first collection.
"I met him at a memorial service in New York last month. He seems shy. You expect him to be larger than life.
"So did you like my stories?"
Luke: "I just found them very upsetting. It was like the movie Pulp Fiction with people getting sodomized and shot and overdosing but you can't tear your eyes away and everything comes full circle.
"It's not what I'd choose to read on Shabbos."
Jon: "I warn people it's not bedtime reading."