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Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH, her debut novel-in-stories, was the runner-up in the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and is due in May 2019. A native of Connecticut, she resides in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children.

Blurbs

The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in Stories is the moving, endearing story of Jeremiah Gerstler--son, father, husband, academic, Jew--who tries over the course of his life to be the best person he can, and who will inspire his readers to do the same. Jumping backwards and forwards in time to hone in on various periods in Gerstler's life, this novel-in-stories offers a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of some of life's most painful and private moments.

– Ilana Kurshan, author of If All the Seas Were Ink, winner of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Jeremiah Gerstler delighted, enraged, and moved me, sometimes all at once. In The Book of Jeremiah, Julie Zuckerman has created nothing less than a life. These stories shimmer with tenderness and truth.

– Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear

The Book of Jeremiah is Julie Zuckerman's debut collection of stories and it is a winner. Zuckerman is a talented writer who artfully creates just the right balance and flow in her narrative. She develops her characters so that they come alive and her descriptions make the reader feel like he or she is right there with Jeremiah and his family across the years. I look forward to reading her next book.

– The Jerusalem Post

The Book of Jeremiah is a novel of stories full of rich imagery.

– The New York Jewish Week

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The Book of Jeremiah

An Interview with Julie Zuckerman, author of The Book of Jeremiah

05/15/19

In 2011, shortly after I settled in Raanana, Israel, I reached out to American-immigrant-writer, Evan Fallenberg, about writing groups. Evan connected me to Julie Zuckerman, who invited me to join hers. The handful of writers met in my town, a 45-minute drive for Julie. Despite other commitments—four children, a full-time job, mountain biking and running time—she showed up. But never alone. Every meeting, she brought Jeremiah: as a no-goodnik preteen, as a cantankerous retiree, as a contented professor. When anyone questioned Jeremiah, whether his character, behavior, action, intention, or decision, Julie never wavered. She knew him through and through. When anyone asked about the book’s structure, she answered clearly. Julie’s dedication to, curiosity about, and bafflement with Jeremiah shines through each page.

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Jennifer Lang: How long have you been writing about Jeremiah? Did you know from the get-go that you were trying to write about Jeremiah’s entire life or did you craft your first story as a standalone?

Julie Zuckerman: I wrote the first story in 2010. At the time, I was taking a fiction class with Evan Fallenberg, and he gave a prompt to write about someone who is “definitely not you” but who does something in which you’re interested. I wrote about an African-American woman who has her own business as a landscape architect; I like gardening, but don’t know much about it. I enjoyed writing that one so much, I used the same prompt for my next story. This time, it was a bit closer to home: an older Jewish man who takes up baking, which I do know something about. As soon as I wrote “MixMaster,” ultimately the final story in the collection, I knew I wanted to go back and unravel Jeremiah’s life.

JL: Who is Jeremiah? Is he based on anyone in your life? Who inspired his character?

JZ: Jeremiah’s voice was inspired by my father-in-law. My father-in-law is a lovable man, a true mensch, but at times he has a gruff exterior, and I was trying to figure him out. His parents had fled Germany in 1933 for France, where he was born in 1937. Thanks to wealthy friends in New York, the family was able to flee Europe in 1941. Three months after arriving, his father died of a heart attack, leaving his mother with four young boys. I often wondered how this early loss has affected his personality. I figured Jeremiah had experienced a similar trauma.

JL: How did you decide on the chronology?

JZ: I played with the order many, many times; I had at least six different possibilities. When I attended a writers’ conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2015, my instructor, Ellen Lesser, helped me strategize, telling me to think of the collection in thirds—younger, older, midlife. I had to balance the stories told from Jeremiah’s POV and from the POVs of others. I made flashcards and rearranged things and wanted to make sure there was a thread that carried through from story to story.

There’s an excellent essay “Stacking Stones” in David Jauss’s book Alone With All That Could Happen, in which he discusses the various ways one can structure a collection. “…we need to find a way to order [stories] so that they ‘expand and elaborate’ each other, and ultimately, become one unified work… Essentially, a successful short story collection is an elaborate system of parallels, contrasts, repetitions and variations that creates unity out of diversity.” Long before I read two of David’s story collections (also published by Press 53) and before he wrote a blurb for my book, I aligned with his advice.

JL: Is the book modeled after anything you’ve read?

JZ: Absolutely. I had recently read Olive Kittredge and loved how every story revealed new layers of Olive’s personality, even those in which she plays a minor role. My hope is that readers will find similar delight in getting to know Jeremiah.

JL: Did any part of this book involve research? If so, what?

JZ: For the stories that take place before the 1980s, I did a tremendous amount of research. There’s a story set in post-war Paris, another one during the tail end of the Vietnam War, another one during Freedom Summer. I read the archives of The New York Times, transcripts of press conferences, academic journal articles, eulogies of historical figures, accounts of what combat nurses and Signal Corps soldiers did during the war, and so on. I Googled things like “Depression-era Bridgeport” to picture what Jeremiah’s hometown (and my own) looked like in the 1930s.

Some of my research was on a lighter note, too: Jeremiah’s older brother Lenny is one of these kids who is obsessed with baseball, just as my own son was at the time. Ask me anything you want to know about Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, and I can probably answer.

JL: How long did it take you before you knew you were done telling his story?

JZ: I thought I was done in 2013/14 but ended up rewriting one of the stories completely. The only thing that remains the same from that earlier version is the year and location. I Googled to see happened in America in the summer of ‘64. Immediately, I found news items about three missing Civil Rights workers – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – whose bodies were later discovered in a Mississippi dam. We’d just had a horrific summer here in Israel, in 2014, which began with the abduction and murder of three teenage boys, Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel. I was struck by the parallels of the missing persons posters and knew I had my subject matter.

At some point in early 2015, I rewrote the last third of a different story. Between writing the first story and finishing the last significant revision, it took about five years to write the entire collection.

JL: What was it like writing about a character of the opposite sex?

JZ: I didn’t find it that difficult, to be honest. That’s one of the things I love about fiction writing, getting into the mindset of someone else and striving to find the connective tissue that bind us together, without regard to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and so on. That being said, there’s one sex scene told from Jeremiah’s perspective which I was pretty nervous about. What a relief when the male instructor of a class I took through Catapult told me I’d aced the scene!

JL: What was the hardest chapter to write? Why?

JZ: Ironically, the hardest story to write was “The Dutiful Daughter,” which takes place in Israel. It’s told from the perspective of Hannah, Jeremiah and Molly’s daughter, on her first trip to the country, as an adult. The details about the setting in Israel were relatively easy, but it was a challenge to find the right balance between Hannah’s story and Jeremiah’s.

JL: How did you decide when to write a chapter in present/past tense?

JZ: I didn’t think about tense much when I first started writing the stories. Most were written in past tense, but during the revision process it felt more natural for certain stories to be told in present tense. I know some people look down on stories told present tense, but I went with my gut.

JL: Point of view shifts too. How did you decide who was best narrator for each chapter?

JZ: It evolved organically, just as with the varying tense shifts. From the outset, I knew I wanted to explore Jeremiah’s life from different perspectives. There are chapters told from the POVs of his mother, brother, wife, daughter and son, and originally there were more of those. But I found that my favorite stories were the ones told from Jeremiah’s POV; for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I enjoyed being in Jeremiah’s head more than the others.

JL: What was one of the most surprising things you learned—about yourself, your characters, the craft—in writing this book?

JZ: I remember hearing craft advice about continuing to nurture your characters because if you don’t, they’ll wither and die. The first story in the collection, “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” was one of my favorites, but it faced a lot of rejections. I didn’t want to give up on the story, so I kept revising and revising, ad nauseam. Finally, after four years of working on the story, the right ending clicked into place. Writing is an exercise in patience; often, you need to sit with a story for some time. It was a wonderful, gratifying surprise when I cracked that one open.

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