With a healthy dose of Jewish tradition, a little Yiddish, and deep, very real characters, author Julie Zuckerman treats us to The Book of Jeremiah (Press 53), a story of a complex life well lived, spanning from the 1930s through the first decade of the 2000s. Through 13 linked stories that go back and forth in time and focus on Jeremiah Gerstler and other prominent members of his family, we get a feel for history, the life of a Jew, and not-so-unusual family relationships.
From Bridgeport, CT, to France to Queens, NY, to Washington, DC, to the Berkshires to Israel, these stories take us on a journey both physical and emotional, with flawed characters influenced by upbringing, and volatile times of war and change in history. We experience along with Jeremiah all that life brings — tragedy and sorrow mixed with hope, love and optimism.
As a feisty child, Jeremiah often gets in trouble. As a young adult, he fails to achieve his career goal and has to alter his plans for the future. He loses a loved one in World War ll and goes on to marry a girl he met in France, Molly, and starts a family that includes a son, Stuart, and a daughter, Hannah. From a Yankee game in 1932 to a Nixon protest to a trip to Israel, Jeremiah and his family navigate their complex relationships, the Jewish holidays, and more. Zuckerman does a wonderful job giving us a window into the beautiful joys and private sorrows of Jeremiah.
So much to love, whether you have been moved by a trip to the Holy Land, you have suffered a great loss, or your family uses Yiddish expressions, you will feel connected to Jeremiah and be delighted with all the special touches Zuckerman puts into her work.
Q & A WITH THE AUTHOR
Q: Why did you choose to write The Book of Jeremiah non-chronologically? And how long did it take you to write?
A: The first story I wrote in the collection is “MixMaster,” which is the last story chronologically (and in the book). Jeremiah is 82 in “MixMaster,” and when I finished writing that story, I was enamored with his character. I knew I wanted to write a complete book about Jeremiah, unraveling his life to find out how he became the man he is at 82.
My original idea was to go in straight reverse chronological order, but that didn’t work for a variety of reasons. I wasn’t sure of the order until I’d finished writing all 13 stories, but I knew I didn’t want it to be a straight chronology. I played around with the structure — my spreadsheet tells me I had six different possible orders — but eventually, I settled on an order by thinking of the book in three acts. Within each act, I had to balance stories about young Jeremiah and older Jeremiah, as well as those told from other points of view.
One thing that helped me was an 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, in the story told from Jeremiah’s son’s point of view, 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 afterward, there’s a story 40 years in the future, where we see Jeremiah as a semi-retired professor at that same university.
From the first draft of the first story to the final major revision on the last, it took me about four and a half years to write.
Q: You cover a lot of ground time-wise (1930s–2009) and touch upon the current politics and culture throughout those years. Physically, your main character, Jeremiah, finds himself in New York, France, DC and Israel. What made you choose these locations, and what was your research process?
A: I’ve lived in three main places in my life: Connecticut, New York for college and graduate school, and Israel, along with a few summers in DC and many in Massachusetts. It was natural for me to set many of the stories in those places. The inspiration behind the story in France came from my grandfather, who, like Jeremiah, served in the Signal Corps and indeed visited Paris after it was liberated.
Research is one of my favorite aspects of writing! Though I knew a bit about my grandfather’s service in World War II, I read field guides to help me understand what soldiers in the Signal Corps would have been doing in France and Belgium after D-Day. For the story that takes place at the tail end of Vietnam, I read press briefings, editorials, and scholarly articles about the Christmastime bombing of Hanoi in 1972. I think it’s so important to do the research if you want a story to feel authentic. There’s another story that takes place on Rosh Hashanah in 1932, which coincided with Game Four of the World Series. Both of those details are critical to the story; a reader recently told me he looked it up, which made me very happy! And thanks to the box score I found on the Internet, even the details of the play-by-play for each inning are accurate.
Q: In your combination of moving stories, you have given Jeremiah a full life. Who was your inspiration?
A: Jeremiah is part amalgamation of people in my family, and part fiction. Certain parts of Jeremiah’s life were inspired by my grandfather, as I mentioned above, my father (who, like Jeremiah, once dressed up as a ritual slaughterer for Purim and carried a live chicken around his synagogue), my father-in-law (from whom I took parts of Jeremiah’s “voice” as well as the idea that Jeremiah might go on a volunteer trip to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), and perhaps even myself (I studied political science; Jeremiah is a political science professor). Other aspects of his life — his early desire to become a CIA agent, for example, or when he pulls a stunt at his parents’ Passover seder — are completely made up.
Q: For me, the chapter called “The Dutiful Daughter” is a love letter to Israel. When did you move there and why did you make the choice for Jeremiah to have a safe and successful trip to Ramallah, despite Molly’s worries?
A: I moved to Israel in 1995, right after I finished graduate school. I’d spent a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during college and felt very at home here. I was jealous of my friends who’d been here for the entire year, so I decided to come back as soon as I could. I grew up in a very active Conservative Jewish home — keeping kosher, spending my summers at Camp Ramah, being active in my synagogue youth group, celebrating every holiday — so it’s not a stretch that Israel felt like home.
In “The Dutiful Daughter,” I wanted the conflict to center around the internal family dynamics between Jeremiah, Molly and Hannah (their daughter), as opposed to an external threat. There are plenty of Israelis that interact daily with Palestinians, as well as mixed cities inside Israel with Jewish, Muslim and Christian populations. It was important for me not to sensationalize anything and to get the point across that there are plenty of arenas of coexistence here, despite the larger geopolitical issues.
Q: In the bible, Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet due to the difficulties he faced. What is the meaning of your title, The Book of Jeremiah?
A: I’ll admit that I chose the name Jeremiah as a fluke, but then as I read more about the original Jeremiah, there were certainly some similarities, and I tried to infuse a bit of Jeremiah the prophet into my book. Jeremiah the prophet worries that he is a laughingstock because his prophecies are mocked or ignored; similarly, Jeremiah Gerstler worries that he is a laughingstock whom his colleagues are trying to oust. “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” is another passage from the original (Jer 8:11), and Jeremiah Gerstler shouts the same thing at a Vietnam War protest.
Q: Jeremiah is a complex guy. He loves his family, yet his relationships with them are often strained; he doesn’t have the career he had hoped for; his behavior in public is not always appropriate. Why choose to write about him in linked stories rather than a typical novel?
A: To me, the book is not only about Jeremiah but also about his family. How they treat each other and react to minor and major crises. One thing that I hope comes through is that although Jeremiah can be difficult, there is an undercurrent of love running through the family that holds them together when things get tough. Jeremiah is the protagonist in eight of the 13 stories, but the other five are told from the points of view of his mother, brother, wife, son and daughter.
I’d also recently read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which I absolutely loved. Olive Kitteridge showed me that this structure — stories written as standalone pieces but then woven together into a novel-in-stories — can be extremely effective. Just as we get to know Olive, layer after layer, with each successive story, I wanted readers to get to know Jeremiah through some pivotal and non-pivotal moments in his life.
Q: Molly was an emotional character; she becomes unhinged when Stuart brings someone unannounced to her birthday dinner, she keeps secrets and suffers privately after her miscarriage, and she lies about her recipes. Jeremiah was a troublemaker as a child and somewhat neglected. He does not become a CIA agent as he wanted, he lies to Molly to get what he wants, he doesn’t always act appropriately in public, and he is deeply affected by his brother’s death. How did you go about creating these incredibly deep, flawed and real characters?
A: I wanted the characters to reflect real lives lived. I think of Molly as someone who is pretty stable (certainly in comparison to Jeremiah), but even very stable people sometimes make mistakes and “lose it.” Also, even in loving marriages, I’ve seen spouses withhold information from each other, little secrets and lies they think won’t hurt their partner. Disappointment, grief, loneliness — these are things that nearly every person faces, and the effects can linger for a lifetime and shape our personalities. Were Molly to look back at her life, I think she’d say she led a happy one despite certain disappointments and losses. Jeremiah is more of a pessimist, though, so I’m not sure he’d say the same thing.
Q: If The Book of Jeremiah were to become a movie, who would you like to see play the adult Jeremiah and Molly? Hannah and Stuart?
A: Mandy Patinkin is the obvious choice to play Jeremiah! As for Molly, I’m going to go with Debra Winger. We see Hannah at several ages, from her girlhood through the final story, when she’s in her 50s, so I’m thinking Julia Louis-Dreyfus. As for Stuart, he only features prominently in two stories, one when he’s about 18 and the other when he’s 27, so I’m going to go quite a bit younger for this choice. In the spirit of Hamilton and other Broadway plays in which white characters can be played by actors of any race, I’d love for Daveed Diggs to play Stuart. He’s got the right vibe.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on two short stories (one of which is a new Molly story). I also have a complete first draft of a novel that is “in the drawer.” I put it aside as things started heating up for the launch of The Book of Jeremiah, but it’s been a year and a half now, and I really ought to get back to it. I don’t know how I feel about it yet, but I’m committed to getting through a full second draft. As we say in Israel, “after the holidays.”
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: There are so many! But here are a few of my favorite reads of 2020, thus far: The Murmur of Bees by Sophia Segovia; A Small Thing to Want by Shuly Cawood; Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel; Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes; Crosscurrents and Other Stories by Gerry Wilson; and Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano.
The Book of Jeremiah is now available for purchase. Check out BookNationbyJen for photos of places and family members that inspired Zuckerman and other fun facts.
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