By: Julie Zuckerman The Book of Jeremiah, a Novel in Stories, follows eight decades of the life of Jeremiah Gerstler. I really enjoyed the concept of this book. Zuckerman lays out each milestone of Jeremiah’s life as though it were a short story, jumping from past to present and back again. The book feels like […]
An Interview with Julie Zuckerman
Julie Zuckerman is the author of The Book of Jeremiah, released in 2019. Her short stories and non-fiction work have also appeared in several publications.
Q: Can you sum up The Book of Jeremiah in 20 words or less?
Jumping backwards and forwards in time, the book explores the pivotal experiences in the life of awkward but endearing Jeremiah Gerstler.
Q: What inspired you to write The Book of Jeremiah?
I was in a writing class and my teacher gave us an optional prompt (he wasn’t a big believer in prompts): “Write a story about someone who is definitely not you, who does something – a hobby or a profession – you don’t know much about, but you’d like to learn more.” I wrote about an 82-year old Jewish man who takes up baking, one of his wife’s hobbies, to satisfy his sweet tooth. Definitely not me (though I am Jewish, and I do have a sweet tooth). After completing that first story, “MixMaster,” I decided I had to know more about my character, Jeremiah. I wanted to understand how he became the person he was at 82, cantankerous and crusty on the outside but also endearing.
I’d recently read Olive Kitteridge and I loved how each story revealed another layer or two of Olive, even those in which she is only mentioned in a line or two. So Olive Kitteridge was very much in my mind as I set out to unravel Jeremiah’s life. I wanted each story to stand on its own, but also together to be more the sum of their parts.
Q: What research did you do when writing this story?
Throughout the stories, Jeremiah and his family members grapple with the events of their times. He serves in the U.S. Army in World War II; his wife attends the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963; his favorite student is killed in Vietnam shortly after graduating. For the seven (out of 13) stories that take place either before I was born or prior to having any memory of my own, I did a tremendous amount of research, reading up on many of the large and small details in my stories. As the daughter of a former American history teacher, I loved this aspect of the writing, and I encountered many events about which I’d previously known nothing. This is my idea of fun!
For example, my research took me to long explanations of what soldiers in the Signal Corps would have been doing just after D-Day in the European theater, what kinds of equipment they would have been using, and whether Parisians would have had access to regular coffee by July 1945 or if they’d still be drinking a chicory substitute. In another story, I dove into research about Operation Linebacker II, dubbed the Christmas bombings of December 1972, Nixon and Kissinger’s attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam War. I read academic articles, transcripts of press conferences and reports of protests. In the story, Jeremiah attends a press briefing. What kinds of questions would the reporters have asked on the third day of the bombing campaign? With the transcripts, it wasn’t hard to imagine. For a different story, I found myself researching the box scores of Game Four of the World Series in 1932. Just last week, a reader told me he went and looked up the box scores and the date of that game to see if I’d just made it up or if I’d gotten the details correct!
Q: What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Figuring out the structure was difficult. I had at least six different orders that I considered, and at times I made flash cards with themes, characters, dates, etc. trying to find the right balance. What finally cracked it for me was getting the advice to think of the book in thirds. Ultimately, I had to balance each third with stories that take place with the younger, the middle-aged, and the older Jeremiah, as well as with the five stories told from the points of view of other characters (his mother, his brother, his daughter, his son and his wife).
Q: Who was your favorite character to develop?
Jeremiah, hands down! To quote a recent reviewer, the book “seeks to elevate the lives of everyday people. Jeremiah is not the sort that one would expect to be at the center of a literary work, and that’s part of the book’s charm.” Jeremiah can be quirky, unpredictable, infuriating, and lovable – sometimes all at once. Of the 13 stories in the book, five are told from different family members’ points of view, but my favorites are the ones from Jeremiah’s POV.
Q: You’ve also written a number of short stories and flash fiction. Do you have a favorite you could tell me about?
I’ve just had a flash fiction piece published in CRAFT called Bender’s Sister Speaks. It is a slipstream/absurdist story that envisions an alternate reality for one of my favorite characters from the ‘80s, John Bender, the bad boy character in The Breakfast Club. As someone who was obsessed with the movie, and still knows many of the lines by heart, that was a very fun one for me to write. On a more serious note, I’m also quite fond of the first and only essay I’ve ever had published, entitled Subsoil of Memory, about a visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
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Q: What inspires you to write?
I love trying to put the creative side of my brain to work, lying in bed dreaming up characters and figuring out their stories. I do especially well with prompts, as they give me permission to unlock my imagination. I try to spend some time every day outdoors – biking, running, or gardening, so many of my stories try to incorporate things like nature, birds, wildflowers, plants, etc.
Q: What message do you want readers to take away from The Book of Jeremiah?
What’s been most gratifying for me as a writer is to hear from readers who say they can see themselves or their family members in my characters. In one word: relatable. There’s often so much strife and tension within families. What I’ve tried to do with Jeremiah is to show that perhaps we should try to be more forgiving, even with – or especially with – difficult family members. Though Jeremiah and his family may behave badly at times, there’s an undercurrent of acceptance and forgiveness between them. In short, love wins.
Q: What is on your current reading list?
Right now I’m reading three books: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
On my nightstand: My Wild Garden by Meir Shalev, Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker, The Library Book by Susan Orlean, The Submission by Amy Waldman, Pain by Zeruya Shalev
Ordered but haven’t arrived yet: Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes, All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad, A Small Thing to Want by Shuly Cawood, Crosscurrents and Other Stories by Gerry Wilson, The House of Ancients by Clifford Garstang, The Color of Love by Marra Gad, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Looks like I’m going to be busy!
Q: What is your next writing project?
I’m in the middle of two new stories – one is a new Jeremiah story! – and another one that takes place here in Israel. I also have a complete draft of a novel about a mixed Jewish-Arab women’s biking group. I took a break from the novel revisions before The Book of Jeremiah came out, but that was a year and a half ago already. I really need to get back to it!
Q: Can you provide your web address for the audience?
Julie can also be found on Instagram.
Q: Any closing remarks?
Thank you for having me! Reminder to anyone reading this: reviews are super important, especially for small press books! Whenever you’ve read a book you’ve enjoyed, please write a few sentences to review the book! It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate – the algorithms care about quantity of reviews, not quality – so a few lines can go a long way.
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Read My Review of The Book of Jeremiah
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