Monday, May 20, 2019

TBR: The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH tells the story of awkward but endearing 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.

Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

The story that appears last in the book — “MixMaster” — when Jeremiah is 82, is actually the first one I wrote. He’s crusty but loveable, exasperating and charming. I was immediately taken with Jeremiah’s character, and as soon as I finished this story, I knew wanted to write an entire book unraveling is life. Ironically, his daughter, Hannah, who is closest in age and generation to me, was the hardest to write, perhaps because of that closeness.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I thought I was done writing all the stories after about three years. I’d submit and submit and submit, occasionally getting published, occasionally getting nice feedback (a handwritten note on my rejection from The Atlantic! A “we found much to admire in your story” rejection from The New Yorker!!), but I ultimately realized that some of the stories needed more work. In some cases, I threw out the original story completely, keeping only the year and the setting from the original. From the first story until the last major revision took about five years. I didn’t try to get an agent; I went directly to small/independent presses. Thus began a new cycle of rejections, though many were complimentary. And then, in April 2018, I received an email from Press 53 that began, “Congratulations….” I had to read the email four or five times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.

I’m now writing these words two days after my local book launch. What a thrill and honor it was to celebrate with my close friends and family. I’m still floating.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Always keep honing your craft. Around the time I thought I was done with the writing, I met a writer and teacher whose first book was just coming out. I asked her what else I should be doing, and she gave me that advice. It didn’t matter that I don’t have an MFA and that I live abroad, I could seek out online classes, she said. Not only has my writing improved as a result of taking classes through One Story, Gotham, Catapult, Grub Street, and Kathy Fish, but I’ve met wonderful writer friends from all over the world.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Since I was writing backwards in time, it was some of the actions of the characters when they were younger that surprised me. When you first encounter Molly, Jeremiah’s wife, she’s 72, the rock of her family, a stable and supportive mother and wife. But as the book goes on, we see some new sides of her. In the first few stories I wrote, I hadn’t imagined Molly’s younger, wilder self.

How do you approach revision?

I’m in a few writing groups, and this feedback is invaluable in the revision process. On occasion I don’t agree with the comments, so I’ve had to learn to ignore it. But most of the time, my writing group friends are very good at distilling the weakest points in the story. Often these are things that I knew, deep down, are not quite right yet. Whenever there’s a confluence of their feedback and my gut feeling, I know I’ve got work to do.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

The book is full of food references, as Molly, Jeremiah’s wife, is quite adept in the kitchen, both with cooking and baking. I have a recipe section on my website:

Here’s one for k’neidelach (matzah balls), featured in the first story. My family eats k’neidelach with chicken soup all year round, not only on Passover.

1 c. matzah meal
3 eggs
1 tsp chopped parsley
1/4 c. cold water
1/2 c. vegetable oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients, chill for a couple of hours, mold into balls and drop into boiling water/soup. Cover pot and cook on low for 30-45 minutes.




READ AN EXCERPT, “The Book of Jeremiah”:


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