An Interview with Jonathan Papernick, Author of The Book of Stone

bookofstone_jacketJonathan Papernick’s debut novel, The Book of Stone, transports us to pre-9/11 Brooklyn to follow the course of Matthew Stone, a mentally unstable young man who loses a father and enters of a world of religious extremism. According to Dara Horn, “…The Book of Stone is about fathers and sons, how the past haunts the present, how trauma transcends generations, and how wrong we can be about those who made  us who we are.” A longtime Grub Street instructor and current Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College, Jon took time out from his book tour to speak with Dead Darlings about his recent release.

Dead Darlings: What drew you to this material, and what held your interest over the years it took to complete the project?

Jonathan Papernick: I lived in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s and worked as a reporter of sorts for a wire service. This was in the weeks and months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and extremism was in the air on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, as many on the fringes were trying to scuttle the peace process. In my spare time I traveled around the country and spoke to folks on both sides of the conflict and was really drawn to the extremists which to me were completely fascinating. I grew up a nice Jewish boy in the suburbs of Toronto, and such passion and dedication to a cause fascinated me. I was intrigued by Jewish messianism and those who chose to live on the other side of the Green Line in the West Bank.

My fascination with extremism has never abated since, and certainly extremism and terrorism have followed me throughout my life. I was teaching in Brooklyn on 9/11 at a private school about a mile away from the World Trade Center as the crow flies, and was in Boston the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. Terrorism is terrifying and it is not going anywhere because it works – the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed, America spent trillions of dollars on wars after 9/11, the entire culture of the United States has changed since 9/11, making this country into more of a security state, completely at odds with what was envisioned in the Constitution.

Father-son dynamics form the emotional core of The Book of Stone. Can you describe protagonist Matthew Stone’s situation at the beginning of the novel, and the choices he faces?

At the beginning of the novel, Matthew Stone finds himself an emotional wreck after the death of his estranged father judge Walter Stone. He finds himself on the rooftop of his friend’s apartment wearing his father’s judge’s robe for comfort as he considers whether or not to commit suicide. Matthew was never able to live up to his father’s expectations, and the Judge’s death only underscores how much of a failure Matthew has been in life. Matthew disappointed his father at every opportunity but in the days following his father’s death he believes he has the opportunity to redeem himself in his father’s eyes posthumously. The psychological burden is incredible, and Matthew is a self-abusing, mentally unstable young man with no direction in life who focuses in laser-like on his father’s library of books left behind to seek answers and direction. The Judge has underlined passages in his books, made marginal notes and commentaries, and Matthew believes he can divine what his father wants him to do in his absence.

The choices Matthew has to make are terrifying and of the highest stakes relating to the rehabilitation of his father’s ruined reputation, and Matthew a lost soul looking for answers is vulnerable and an easy target for those around him who want to use Matthew for their own cynical purposes.

Shortly after Judge Stone’s death, Matthew falls under the influence of Zalman Seligman, an old associate of his father’s. Who is Seligman, and what does he want from Matthew?

Seligman is a charismatic rabbi who splits his time between a militant West Bank settlement and Brooklyn. He is a former colleague of Walter Stone and he needs Matthew to help him uncover the passcode for a bank account that is crucial to Seligman’s movement. Matthew sees his connection with Seligman as an opportunity to complete his father’s work and to rehabilitate the Judge’s reputation.

Matthew’s attendance at a Rosh Hashanah service off Ocean Parkway about a third of the way through the novel seems to act as a pivot, sensitizing him to a hard-line position on Jewish-Palestinian affairs. Can you talk about what it took to bring that chapter together?

I’m not overtly a religious person as I do not enjoy attending synagogue nor do I keep the Jewish traditions of fasting or not working on the Sabbath. That said, I’m intellectually very intrigued with Jewish tradition and creating the scenes in the synagogue to me were deeply spiritual and much more engaging than simply sitting as a participant in a synagogue. So internally I believe I am very religious and concerned with issues of spirituality, just for whatever reason I’m unable to engage in my actual life.

When I sit down to write scenes like this, it’s almost as if the very old rabbi steps out of the past and whispers into my ear and everything makes sense to me and I feel I belong. I thought these scenes were really important to draw Matthew into this world as the High Holiday services are very powerful in theory, and writing these scenes I was able to engage in the service without the crushing boredom of a four hour service. Those were some of my favorite scenes to write in the book, and in some ways I feel like writing this book was my own personal rabbinic education.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter in working with a protagonist as mentally volatile as Matthew?

I believe it is always challenging to write any sort of character if it is done properly, if the character is given the opportunity to come alive as a multidimensional person. Early on, in early drafts of the novel, I really did have trouble getting a handle on Matthew. I knew he was really disturbed and troubled but it took me years and years of layering and layering to make him come alive on the page. After a while he started speaking to me and it became rather simple, as new sorts of behaviors emerged. With most characters there’s a certain tipping point in which the author has done enough work to make the character come alive, and start to show his or her tricks to the author. I believe this happened here as Matthew started to do things that were surprising even to me, but they made absolute sense so I trusted him.

In The Book of Stone, we feel the weight of Jewish history in the rich description of organizations such as The Irgun, an Israeli paramilitary group founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1930’s. How much original research did you do for this novel?

Well as I mentioned earlier I spoke to a number of radical type characters when I was living in Israel and they lit the initial spark, but I also read a book of Jabotinsky’s political philosophy, and I found them to be very interesting. In the time in which he was writing, 1930s I believe, his ideas were for the most part quite reasonable considering what was about to happen to the Jews of Europe. Jabotinsky is not some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth radical despite the fact that some Jews referred to him as Vladimir (his real name) Hitler. He was a novelist – I really loved his novel The Five which was set in Odessa in the early part of the century, and he was a translator and a true intellectual, the likes of which we rarely see today. If people had been less afraid and listened to Jabotinsky’s warnings at the time, I imagine the Holocaust could have been, if not avoided, at least minimized. What is interesting about Jabotinsky and the former prime ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, is that they perfectly describe the cliché: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I believe the same is being said on the Palestinian side about the people we consider terrorists.

I also read a couple books by Rabbi Meir Kahane who I imagine was following in Jabotinsky’s footsteps, but who indeed was a racist, radical madman. I read a book about the assassination of the UN’s Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem in the 1940s.

You’ve spoken before about setting this book pre-9/11, given that you started it then. Can you put your finger on what it’s like to be a writer now, versus then?

Personally I’m a better writer who has spent thousands upon thousands of hours honing my craft, so I find I’m somewhat more well-equipped to tackle a major project such as this. Politically, I don’t think things have changed at all for me as a writer. Though I was shocked to no end by 9/11, I don’t think it really changed my approach to the novel.

Building on the previous question, I’m interested in the theme of destiny that seems to pervade your book. Are Jewish-Arab relations destined to follow a course of ever-increasing polarization, or do you see a way out of this mess?

At the time of the Oslo Peace Accords it really did seem to me that peace was at hand. I bought into the idea that if the Israelis and the Palestinians were able to get a sense of the massive economic benefits they would reap from a peace accord the majority of the population would feel there was no reason to fight if everybody had a higher standard of living. Cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians seemed to make a lot of sense since they really are cousins and very similar in their behaviors and values.

I don’t believe in destiny, but certainly over the last fifteen years or so both sides have grown farther and farther apart and I do not see any way out of this mess for a long, long time. I think Thomas Friedman and others talked about the Oslo Accords as being a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and that window has closed. Unfortunately, the future looks like more isolation for the Israelis and increased radicalization in the Arab world.

I do believe there is a large degree of anti-Semitism at the heart of this conflict and anti-Israelism in general. Anti-Semitism is probably the world’s longest-standing cultural pathology as you can look at any of the last twenty centuries and see how Jews have always been persecuted and blamed and hounded from one country to another. As a result, a strong Israel is as important now as it ever was and peace for the sake of a piece of paper just isn’t worth anything. I don’t believe that most Israelis want to live in a militarized garrison state, but what other choice do they have in such a violent and explosive neighborhood?

What drew you to New York City as a setting for The Book of Stone? Was it important to situate the book there?

Firstly, I was living in New York at the time and it seemed natural to write about the place I was living in. As a matter of fact, the apartment in which Stone lives was basically modeled after the apartment in which I lived at the time – same neighborhood, same view from the rooftop – which was absolutely stunning, by the way.

However, after returning from Israel I did still feel the pressing need to write about extremism relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Brooklyn has always been somewhat of a hotbed for extremists if you look at Brooklyn natives Rabbi Kahane, Moshe Levinger and Baruch Goldstein. So, it felt natural for me to use Brooklyn as a setting for a deeper exploration of extremism in relation to the conflict and I used Brooklyn as a canvas in the same way that I used Jerusalem as a canvas in my first book.

Speaking of geography, your personal history spans multiple locations and cultures – Canada, the U.S., Israel. How do these varying points of view inform your writing?

Well I don’t want to say that living in various places makes me more worldly, because that sounds pretentious and pompous, but it does give me the opportunity to write with some level of authority about other places. I certainly couldn’t have written about New York or Jerusalem if I had not lived there, and spirit of place is really important for me in my writing. I have always felt like a little bit of an outsider, and living in cities and countries that are not native certainly helps to underscore that feeling of being on the outside looking in. That way I think I’m able to be an interested observer, somewhat like de Tocqueville, and bring a different perspective than a native would be able to bring.

Thinking about contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, whether in English or in translation, whose work would you take to a desert island?

If you’re just talking about one book, it would probably make a lot of sense to choose something really long. Maybe the Talmud? I’m sort of kidding, but I imagine one can spend forever looking at it. But contemporarily, if you can still consider Philip Roth contemporary, I would definitely choose him since I believe he is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century. If I’m looking for something by a writer closer to my own generation, I imagine I would take the works of Dara Horn. She is so smart and such a good storyteller and she is not cynical or clever or any of those irritating things so many young writers try and become. She is the real thing, and I imagine people will still be reading her a hundred years from now.

You have a well-known aversion to Ernest Hemingway’s iconic short story Hills Like White Elephants. What’s behind this antipathy?

It’s funny, I have read that story probably about fifty times and I always tell my class that this is really not a story at all, but rather a sketch of a story, a choose-your-own-adventure, since Hemingway purposefully refuses to reveal details that the characters themselves would be privy to. The dialogue may ring true, but it is dull and often repetitive and I cannot stand the cleverness of the idea of white elephants paralleling with an abortion — unwanted gifts and unwanted child. It’s almost as if Hemingway has refused to write the story and this is really more of an exercise in dialogue without the rest of the story written around it.

However, when I read it this past semester with my students for the fifty-first time, I actually did start to like a little bit and that is possibly because I’m so familiar with it by now that these flat characters felt like old friends that I had spent years and years layering details onto in my own mind. It is far from Hemingway’s best, and it is a shame that the story gets so much attention. I actually prefer his novels over his stories.

What’s next?

Well, I have a couple of partial manuscripts under way that I haven’t looked at in a long time and about thirty thousand words of short stories to make up my third collection. I’m so busy promoting the book right now, that I have not had time to write in quite a while and I need to decide whether I want to go back to one of those partial manuscripts or whether I want to start something new. Things are still up in the air, so I’ll let you know when I figure out what’s next on the agenda. I do look forward to getting back to writing. I find I am never happier than when I am writing and creating and it’s been far too long. Franz Kafka once said a non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity: ‘nuff said.

4 comments

  1. This was a fascinating interview. (And I thought that I already knew a lot about the book & Jon–I work for Fig Tree Books, which published THE BOOK OF STONE.) Thank you so much for this.

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