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Five Questions for Jonathan Papernick

Jonathan Papernick is the author of two short story collections, The Ascent of Eli Israel and There Is No Other and three novels, the most recent of which, I Am My Beloveds, debuted in April.

Ilan Mochari: The book is narrated from a close third-person perspective that stays with the protagonist, Ben Seidel, throughout the story. Why did you choose to tell the story this way, as opposed to a first-person narrator in Ben’s voice?

Jonathan Papernick: I think a close third-person perspective is the most flexible way to tell a story and that you can have the character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as well as having a necessary buffer zone of distance to provide greater context. I often find first-person stories are a little bit more voice driven as well and I never considered telling the story in the first person. First person is also very awkward when it comes to describing what the primary character looks like. I didn’t want to have Ben looking in the mirror saying he was 6 foot tall with dark hair etc. etc. That’s not to say that I never tell a story in first person. I have a novella coming out in my next short story collection next year told in first person from the perspective of a woman who survives the Holocaust and gets tied up with a gangster in a small city outside of Boston. And for her, first person is the right choice.

IM: You’ve mentioned in interviews and promotional materials that much of the story stemmed from your own experiences in open relationships and meeting new people after a long period of monogamy. And yet, I know through our friendship that there are numerous ways in which the novel is decidedly not autobiographical. You’re older than your main characters; you’re a parent, while Ben and his wife Shira cannot have children; and you;re a diehard Blue Jays fan, whereas Seidel’s childhood hero is Derek Jeter. In what ways was it important to separate Ben’s story from yours—and in what ways did you want to remain close to the autobiographical taproot?

JP: Let me tell you a secret, just between the two of us: all of my characters are me in one way or another. It’s true that I’m older (!) than my protagonist, that I’m a parent and that I am a diehard Blue Jays fan. But that isn’t to say that I’m not exploring my own feelings through this character. In many ways I am exploring my own issues with an anxious attachment style through Ben Seidel and I never considered doing this through a character who had the same biography as me. As a fiction writer it is our job to imagine other people and to imagine them so richly that they come to life and I hope that’s what I’ve done with Ben. Frankly, my own story doesn’t have a compelling narrative, and wouldn’t touch on everything that I wanted to explore in this novel.  I had lots of interesting experiences while being open, but it doesn’t make for the kind of story I’d like to tell—they might make good anecdotes, but I did take the essence of all of my experiences and infuse them into this novel and these characters. And as a fiction writer I have the freedom to do whatever I want and use whatever I want from my life to texture out these characters and that is what I have done. Essentially I wanted to give the experience of being in an open relationship with all of its joys and fears and ups and downs and I believe I did that with this novel.

IM: About halfway through the book (semi-spoiler alert), the narrator notes: “It dawned on Ben that nobody ever really knows anybody, and that intimacy was a transactional thing, a currency exchanged for comfort to fill ourselves with the feeling that we really are not all alone in the world, that fusing person-to-person as one is in fact possible.” Though the statement reflects Ben’s mood at a certain moment in the story, I’m curious what your own feelings are about the statement—and did they change in the course of your exploring this story through Ben, Shira, and the other characters?

JP: I think that statement really says a lot about why we read books. I often tell my students that we can never know anybody fully or as intimately as we think, be they a spouse or parent or child, there are always private corners that we will never have access to. That’s just part of the human condition. However, when we read fiction, we are able to enter the head of a character or multiple characters and know them intimately in a way in which we cannot know people in our lives. So, that intimacy, that sense of walking in the shoes of someone else is why we have such a human, connective experience when we sit down to read a book.

IM: Later in the book, Shira’s father, a cantor, observes: “It’s a child’s job to make a parent crazy, and a parent’s job is to love that child regardless.” As a parent yourself, this is something you know all too well. But what was it like writing parent characters whose children are full-fledged adults? How much were you leaning on your own experiences as a parent, and how much on memories of your relationship with your late mother?

JP: It was natural to me writing parent characters with adult children and I didn’t really necessarily draw from my own children or even my relationship with my mother who passed away 12 years ago. These characters kind of come to life the more I write them and they start to whisper their secrets in my ear so they almost take on a life of their own. I will say that the Cantor is loosely based on my ex father-in-law who is a rabbi, lover of wine, and an expert in all things. I thought it was a lot of fun channeling my ex father-in-law in this character in a sort of loving, but slightly mocking way. When I sit down to write I don’t really sit down as a 51-year-old writer, but somebody who is all of the ages that I have been and all of the ages that I have yet to be. It’s almost like sitting down to write puts you in a sort of meditative state where your subconscious comes to life and surprises you with what you didn’t even know you already knew.

IM: Ben and Shira are Jewish; the title I Am My Beloveds is adapted from Song of Songs. And those are just two of the ways that IAMB touches on themes of contemporary Judaism vis-a-vis traditional norms of family, identity, ritual. That said, of your five books, this one is, pound for pound, the most secular—or certainly in the running for that superlative. What was it like to craft a story in which Judaism still played a significant part—but a different one than in previous books? And does it reflect a change in your own relationship to the faith?

 JP: I do not believe that this book, which is more secular, at all reflects a change in my relationship with the faith or with Judaism. I have always used my fiction writing as a lens through which to explore my relationship with Judaism. I think I’m a very Jewish person, culturally, psychologically, morally etc., but I don’t go to synagogue very often and I don’t keep kosher and participate in selected rituals, all of which are important to me in their own way. Being Jewish is very important to me, but I don’t think one has to quote the Torah chapter and verse to be a good Jew. I think some of the heavy emphasis on Judaism in my previous stories served as a bit of a stumbling block for a lot of readers. I know a number of readers were hesitant to read my work because they felt that they didn’t know enough about Judaism to really engage with the book. I think that was partially an issue with my last book, The Book of Stone, which was extremely high-level stuff regarding Jewish history, Zionism and faith. So I wanted to write a book this time that still reflected my connection with Judaism, but something that was accessible to a wider array of readers. I didn’t want people to think that this is a Jewish book and not look at it because they didn’t feel they knew enough about being Jewish. I wanted to write a book that had Jewish characters acting in Jewish ways but with a lower barrier of entry in order for the reader to engage with the material. I think I succeeded there.



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