Surprising, shocking, profane and hilarious, Jon Papernick's There is no Other explores the lives of Jews on the edge of despair, desperate to connect to each other, their kids, and their God. One of the most startlingly brilliant story collections I’ve read in years. (I also have to thank Jon for not only enduring the mail losing two of the books he sent me, but for being gracious enough to come to BEA and hand-deliver his book to me.) Thanks so much, Jon, and thanks for answering my questions.
A lot of your stories in this collection deal with ritual vs. faith. Do you think you need the rituals—the outside appearances-- in order to believe, or do you feel that these rituals are a very important component of faith itself?
I actually do not think that these rituals are all that important in order to believe. In fact, I follow very few Jewish rituals myself. Certainly the rituals provide some sort of structure, and help create community, but, for better or worse, I've never been one to follow any sort of structured guidelines in any aspect of my life. However, I think a part of me is a serious believer, and I sort out my questions relating to faith at my writing desk. Writing itself is a supreme act of faith, and I think the closest I come to prayer is when I sit down to create my stories.
Your characters yearn for love, for sex, for children and for God, but if and when they get them, it never turns out the way they expect. Women turn out to be whores, God isn’t listening, children disappoint or turn against you. But every once in a while, in the stories, a miracle of sorts occurs. Why do you think connection to anything—an idea or a person—is so difficult?
First of all, I just want to say that it's not just the women who turn out to be whores in my stories. I think we spend our entire lives trying to connect to something to make us whole, to satisfy our psychological and physical needs, be it a husband or wife or some idea of God. If it were so easy to connect to these things, I imagine life would lose much of its urgency and passion, and that is what makes life endlessly mysterious.
I read a very moving, thoughtful and funny piece in The Good Man Project about your quest to become a perfect Jew after the birth of your son. So, I have to ask, did you become more perfect?
Perhaps I've succeeded, but perhaps not. My oldest son is four years old now, and I struggle every day to be a good father both to him and to his younger brother, but, with exhaustion and stress and pressure to write a good book on top of everything, I really don't know if I'm doing as good a job as I possibly can. As far as being a better Jew, the only truly tangible test that I have had to face recently is related to the death of my mother. I'm an only child, and I did what an only child with a single mother, has to do, and I took care of business and gave her a proper and honorable Jewish burial, and for that I feel that I'm finally and irrevocably, a man. But, I don't know if I am mourning in the proper manner. Our relationship was complicated, as all parent/child relationships are, but I am not saying Kaddish every day. In fact, I've only said Kaddish for her once, but think about it every day, and I hope that the community at large does not judge me for that. On the other hand, I think I honor her life by being a good father and helping her grandchildren become better people.
A lot of your stories are about relentless change. Brooklyn gentrifies, religions change, and your characters have a hard time keeping up. They sometimes do shockingly stupid things, but your sympathy for them is palpable. Can you elaborate on this?
I think we all do shockingly stupid things on a daily basis, and I think change can be terrifying to many. The characters in my stories are often not up to the challenges that arise from the changes in their life situations. But yes, I do sympathize with them as I find that I sympathize best with others when I am forced to wear their skin for a while. When I write about a character sympathy is absolutely crucial, or else the characters would simply be there to be abused, and nobody wants to read about that. The main character in the story "My Darling Sweetheart Baby," was originally written out of frustration with the people living on my block who sat on the stoop drinking at all hours of the night when I needed to get up for work. The story was intended as some sort of catharsis for me, to hurt these people in a way that I knew I could not hurt them in real life. But as I got into the story I found that I loved each of the two primary characters as they showed themselves to me as human and flawed and needy and ultimately alone. Sometimes I wish that I could feel the same sort of empathy for others in my life, but the act of writing is in many ways far more intimate than an average conversation with a flesh and blood person.
What’s obsessing you now in your writing?
In each my first three books, I think I can safely say that I have been obsessed with faith and its effects on people's fragile psychologies. I'm also drawn to extremism, namely religious extremism. Though hopefully, I have answered enough of my questions for now to move on to another obsession. I have a novel manuscript about a young would-be con man who sells the Brooklyn Bridge to an Iraq war widow and becomes a media villain, and I would say that story is also about extremism and faith, only this faith has less to do with religion and more to do with finding one's place in the American dream. I actually think that my new novel should speak to a broader audience than my previous novel that dealt with Jewish terrorists in Brooklyn, but as of now I'm still seeking representation for it.
Can you talk about the difference for you in writing short stories vs. writing the novel? Which is more satisfying to you? What’s your writing process like?
I love writing short stories, and I find it immensely satisfying, like solving a complex puzzle. When I write a short story I usually have a question that I need to answer. My characters show me the way. I usually end up in a surprising and deeply satisfying place. Often times, my short stories actually come from the title alone. In fact over half the stories in There Is No Other began with simply a title. What I like about short stories is that I can contain all of my ideas in my head at once whereas writing a novel I need to plan and research and persist. If writing short stories like a sprint, writing a novel is like running 100 marathons. I find writing a novel to be immensely difficult, and though my first novel turned out much better than I ever could've imagined, I feel like the blood and sweat that I put into it never really paid off the way that I hoped it would. But, I would hate to pigeonhole myself as just a short story writer or a novelist. Perhaps I'll write a children's picture book next, or a memoir. I love to write, and that feeling of hitting your stride and immersing yourself deeply in a work is the best feeling in the world.
There’s a great quote from you: “You’ve got to play being a writer before you are a writer. You’ve got to convince yourself that you are one before you have the chutzpah to do it.” So, what convinced you?
In some strange way, I think I always thought I was a writer going all the way back to second grade. I did identify myself as a writer all the way back then, even though I had very little talent, even for my age. I was never a prodigy in my class, or even singled out as a good writer by any of my teachers all the way up through high school. My 11th grade creative writing teacher actually told me that I was a "not a very strong writer." So, I guess some sort of inner confidence kept pushing me onward. I certainly don't believe in destiny, because there's just too much hard work involved. I really don't know what else I could do in this world. I certainly don't have the talent to play shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays. I wrote a couple of bad novels before I was ever published, and I was young and arrogant enough to believe I was really writing something quite important. In some ways that youthful naïveté allowed me to get a couple apprentice manuscripts under my belt before I realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. By that time I knew I could never write anything as bad as I had already written, so I had clearly established a floor for myself with those works.
There are few things more terrifying than staring down at a blank page or a blank screen. Writing is a supreme act of creation, and one really has to convince oneself that one is capable of creating an entire world in order to do it. You really need to psych yourself up and make yourself believe that you can accomplish anything. I think in many ways I need to convince myself that I'm up to the task every time I sit down to write. I guess looking at my books on my shelves, and getting positive feedback from my readers helped convince me for a short time that I am indeed a writer. But I need a booster shot of confidence quite often, so I'm certainly open to any compliments anyone might have about my writing.