The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated this collection of linked short stories?
Julie Zuckerman (JZ): The Book of Jeremiah started with one story – “MixMaster” – which ended up being the final story in the collection. I wrote it in response to a writing prompt: write a story about someone who is definitely not you, who does something you’re somewhat interested in (i.e., a career, a hobby, etc.). I wrote about an 82-year-old man who takes up baking as a way to get closer to his wife. Definitely not me, but I do know a thing or two about baking. As soon as I finished writing the story, I was taken with Jeremiah’s character, and I knew I wanted to write an entire book about him. I’d recently read Olive Kitteridge and my goal was to write an entire collection in which each story reveals more about Jeremiah’s character, much in the same way that Elizabeth Strout accomplishes with Olive. I wanted each story to stand on its own, but also together to be more than the sum of its parts.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
JZ: My greatest challenge was ensuring that the stakes were high enough for every character, in every story. There’s no life-or-death drama in any of the stories – the characters don’t directly face war, murder or rape, accidents or natural disaster – and it was sometimes a struggle to make the characters’ dilemma feel like an existential crisis to them. Eight of the 13 stories are told from Jeremiah’s point of view, but the other five are told from the points of view of various family members: his mother, brother, wife, son, daughter. This is a loving family, but there are dozens of occasions on which Jeremiah exasperates them, or vice versa; they’re often wringing their hands, unsure of what to do with him or how to handle certain situations. I had to make those conflicts feel almost life-or-death to them.
TWM: Your greatest satisfaction?
JZ: The first story in the collection, “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” is told from Jeremiah’s mother’s point of view. Rikki is a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, trying to cope with her American children and in particular, a mischievous, somewhat rebellious Jeremiah. I wrote the first draft of the story in 2011. I thought it was finished, many times over. I workshopped it with my local group, my online group, I submitted it to all my favorite literary journals, getting some decent feedback but nevertheless rejections. I must have done 10 different major revisions of the story. Finally, in early 2015, something clicked into place about the ending, and I completely rewrote the last third of the story. My takeaway from this is that sometimes you just need to sit with a story for a long time. Overall, that story was submitted to over 100 different journals before it found a home, but I believed in my characters and it was very gratifying when I finally got it right. This story, by the way, is the one that convinced Press 53 Editor and Publisher Kevin Morgan Watson to keep reading and ultimately select The Book of Jeremiah for publication.
TWM: How did you decide on the arrangement of the individual stories?
JZ: The book jumps backwards and forwards in time. I played around with the structure a lot. According to my spreadsheet, I had six different potential orders! The initial idea was to structure the book in reverse chronological order, but that didn’t work for a variety of reasons. I made notecards with themes, characters, and so on. In 2015, I attended a writer’s conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts; my workshop leader, Ellen Lesser, helped me strategize about the structure by thinking of the book in thirds. Ultimately, I had to balance each third with stories that take place with the younger, the middle-aged, and the older Jeremiah, as well as with the five stories told from the points of view of other characters.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, I’d read an excellent essay by David Jauss, “Stacking Stones,” (which appears in his craft book Alone with All That Can Happen). He talks about the need for common threads to string one story after the next. A phrase or an interesting word might appear at the end of one story, and then be repeated (or inversed) at the beginning of the next. Or it might be a theme or a character, or some other common thread. For example, I have one story told from Jeremiah’s son’s point of view, and we understand they don’t have an easy relationship. In the story that follows, Molly, Jeremiah’s wife, is pregnant with their son; Jeremiah is starting a new position as an academic but he’s feeling a bit unsure of his choice, wondering if he’ll ever belong at this fictional university. Immediately afterwards, there’s a story 40 years in the future, where we see Jeremiah as a semi-retired professor at that same university. Once I began thinking of the book in thirds, it wasn’t hard to find the threads between the individual stories.
TWM: Did you write this during your MFA program? In what ways did workshop and your advisers help?
JZ: I don’t have an MFA. I started creative writing about 11 years ago, when I was already well into my career, with a full-time job and three small children (plus one more that arrived a year later). I found a local writing workshop in Jerusalem, and later moved to a more advanced fiction class with Evan Fallenberg (translator, author of three novels, and a teacher in several MFA programs). Evan’s guidance and support were crucial to my development as a writer; he encouraged me to keep pushing, keep revising, keep submitting. Later, I formed a local writing group with some of the people in that class. We met every other week, about a 45-minute drive from my house, but I attended religiously. I’ve also taken several online classes, through One Story, Grub Street, Kathy Fish, Catapult and others. I’ve made great writing friends from all over the world, and in addition to my local writing workshop, I’ve been part of an online group. Their feedback has been instrumental in polishing my stories and making sure they feel believable.
TWM: Can you talk about any research you conducted for this novel of stories? Academic life? Political scene? What made you place Jeremiah in these worlds? Was any of this based on your own family’s story?
JZ: As the stories take place between the Depression and the modern era, particularly for the stories that occur earlier than the 1980s, I conducted a good deal of research. In one story, “Signals,” Jeremiah is a US solider in World War II; he is part of the Signal Corps, and the other character in that story is a combat nurse. I read accounts of what Signal Corps soldiers did in France and Belgium after D-Day and accounts of what combat nurses would have experienced during the Battle of the Bulge, and so on. For “Tough Day for LBJ,” a story that takes place during Freedom Summer, I delved into the archives of The New York Times, government documents, and academic journals. I read the eulogies given for the slain civil rights workers and interviewed my uncle who – unbeknownst to me when I wrote the first draft of that story – had volunteered in Mississippi that summer and was there the day the bodies were found.
I’ve always loved history, particularly modern American history (my mother was a high school history teacher), and I wanted to ground Jeremiah in what was happening around him. He himself is a political science professor, and at one point works in Washington for several administrations. Although the book as primarily focused on Jeremiah and his family, I couldn’t not write about these events and their effects on the Gerstler family. My own degrees are in this field as well (a BA in political science and an MA in international relations), and I loved going down the research “rabbit hole.” I’m sure I spent tens of hours reading press briefings about incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 (which led to an escalation of US troops in Southeast Asia). I consider the research one of the most fun parts of writing. In fact, I made a page on my website called Fun Stuff, with links to the research, inspiration from family, and even a few recipes.
I took many tidbits from family lore or history and wove them into my characters or plots. Like Jeremiah, my maternal grandfather was a soldier in the Signal Corps in World War II. One of my cousins and great-uncles served as gun-runners for the Haganah in the late 1940s, so this inspired me to research the American Jews who helped with this aspect of the founding of the State of Israel. The research led me to a fascinating figure who inspired one of the characters in my story “Clandestiny.” There are also dozens of examples of things that happen in Jeremiah’s family that I took straight from my own family. In the first story, Jeremiah’s father Abe owns a liquor store and stays very late each day. Although the Gerstlers are traditional Jews, the family waits for Abe to close his store and thus only begin their Passover seders at 11 pm. That’s taken directly from my paternal grandfather and the way my family held seders when I was a kid.
TWM: Who inspires you?
JZ: Writers, for one. I am full of admiration for writers who have done their research and weave it seamlessly into the writing so that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. I want to be completely invested in the characters, including those whose lives and circumstances are vastly different than my own. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink come to mind, both of which I recently finished. Philip Roth’s books always have me thinking, and Amos Oz crafted beautiful sentences. The world lost two great Jewish writers in the last year or two, but it’s a gift that we can continue to read their words.
I’m also inspired by activists and doers. In the United States, I’m inspired by the people leading the fight for tighter gun control and against family separations at the border. In Israel, Women Wage Peace is a coalition of women from every political stripe that strives to get politicians to the negotiating table.
TWM: What’s next for you?
JZ: I have the first draft of a novel that is set right in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s tough going, though; I put it aside back in January when the promotional efforts for The Book of Jeremiah got underway. I’d like to get through at least another full revision and then decide what I want to do with it. In the meantime, I’ve written a few essays and flash fiction pieces because I hate not writing. My new mantra, which I have taped up in front of my desk: “If you don’t write today, it’s your own damn fault!”
For more about Julie Zuckerman and The Book of Jeremiah, please visit her website.