An Interview with AJ Sidransky

AJ Sidransky is joining my blog today to tell us about his newest novel, The Interpreter. We’re also getting insight into the third installment in his Forgiving series, Forgiving Stephen Redmond, set for release early next year.

Q: Can you sum up the The Interpreter book series in 20 words or less?

The Interpreter is a tale of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances, and how they rise to meet those circumstances.

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

The title character, Kurt Berlin, was married to my mother’s cousin.  When I heard the story of his escape with his parents from Nazi occupied Europe, I recognized the uniqueness of their story.  Kurt felt otherwise. He agreed to tell me his story as long as I didn’t write his biography or memoir, as he didn’t feel his story was particularly exceptional.  He did say I could use parts of it in a novel though, if I chose to. I, on the other hand, felt many aspects of their story were so exceptional it needed to be told.  So, I told it.  To honor him, I used his name for the protagonist. 

What attracted me to the story most was the determination his parents showed to save him and themselves, particularly his mother, who was left alone in Vienna in 1939, after the war began.  She was tasked with carrying their liquidated wealth over the border surreptitiously.  That, I think, was unique for women at that time.  That’s not to say other women didn’t play active roles in their own and their family’s escape, but rather to say what she did was unusual and exceptional.

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Q: Can you tell me a little about the research that went into this book?

Researching this book was both a unique and terrifying experience.  The initial research involved interviewing Kurt and others about their experiences of escape and in particular about the Kindertransport program.  The research on the OSS and on specifics relating to the rise of the Nazis and their decade plus street war against German socialists and communists on the other hand was different than other research I have done.

Normally, I do my research before I write, but in this case, since Kurt was 88 and not well, I wanted to get a first draft finished before he died.  That required me to research and write at the same time.  I hired a college intern to help.  I would give him a list of topics and he would send me articles.  I also did some of the research directly.  I would read this material in the morning and write in the afternoon.  This was during the run-up to the 2016 election.  In the evening, I would put on the news and discover that candidate Trump had done or said something that directly mirrored what I had read about the Nazis and their rise earlier that day.  I saw what was happening, and it terrified me.  It terrifies me still.  Democracy dies with a whimper, drowned out by the shouting of those who falsely claim to defend it.

Q: Which character was the most challenging to develop?

That’s a difficult question.  I can say for certain that the character I’m most proud of is Berta Berlin.  Prior to writing The Interpreter, and I have to be honest here, the main criticism I received of my writing was that I didn’t write strong female characters.  Readers, especially those who have read my previous work, have said that Berta is a very complete and compelling character.  I feel that I’ve made a big stride with Berta.  I’ve written a strong woman.

The other challenge was Kurt.  He had to go from innocent seventeen-year-old schoolboy to hardened twenty-three-year-old soldier.  His character arc had to include both accelerated maturity and inner conflict overwhelming for a man his age.  I wanted the reader to feel his psychological conflict as he did.  His psychological state, like many of his generation with similar experiences, demonstrated post-traumatic stress syndrome long before that condition was identified.

Readers and reviewers have commented that they felt his inner terror and conflict intimately while reading the book.  I take that as a sign that I accomplished what I set out to do.

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Q: What would you like readers to take away from this story?

Many things.  The first is the remarkable story itself. 

The second is that Holocaust stories are more relevant today than they have ever been.  As the survivors die off, and younger people don’t have first-hand contact with the event, we become more and more susceptible to repeating history’s mistakes.  Every story deserves to be told and preserved. 

Thirdly, I’d like readers, and in particular American readers, to become aware of the choice our government and military made by enabling the immigration of Nazi war criminals and collaborators to the United States as allies in the war against communism.  What was considered political expediency at that time was really a moral failing of huge proportions.  We had an obligation to bring these people to justice for their crimes, not to overlook those crimes for the sake of winning the coming Cold War.

Q: What kind of feedback are you receiving about The Interpreter?

The feedback for The Interpreter has been excellent from both readers and reviewers.  It was shortlisted by Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Historical Fiction 2020.  Reviewers have said ‘it’s not your typical Holocaust story,’ and have described as fast paced and an important read.  Martin Fletcher, former NBC News foreign correspondent and author called it, “an emotional thriller on an important subject…an exciting and illuminating read.”

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Q: You’re also the author of the Forgiving series, which is described as, “a mystery, wrapped in history, wrapped in a love story”. Can you tell me a little more about this series?

The Forgiving series began with the publication of my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, in 2013.  Based on the experiences of my uncle, Max Greenfield, it is also related to the Holocaust.  My uncle and aunt were refugees from the Nazis.  They escaped and fled to the Dominican Republic where they settled at Sosua, a refugee settlement on the north coast of the Island along with approximately 850 other European Jews.  Sosua was established as a result of the Evian Conference of July 1938.  Forgiving Maximo Rothman is the first novel written about the Jewish refugee experience in Sosua. It was shortlisted by the National Jewish Book Awards for Best Debut Fiction 2013.  It’s also a murder mystery, which is a genre I love writing.

I originally wrote Forgiving Maximo Rothman as a stand-alone novel, but many readers asked me if I was going to tie up the many loose ends I left, in another book.  Forgiving Mariela Camacho, and Forgiving Stephen Redmond, tie up those loose ends.  All three books are set both in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan and in the Dominican Republic, and unlike The Interpreter, are murder mysteries, hence, a mystery, wrapped in a history, wrapped in a love story.  Forgiving Maximo Rothman and Forgiving Mariela Camacho (which won the David Award in 2016) will be re-released in a few weeks by my current publisher, Black Opal Books.  Forgiving Stephen Redmond will be released in January 2021.

Q: The third book in the series, Forgiving Stephen Redmond, is scheduled for release in early 2021. What would you like to share with readers about the next book in the series?

Forgiving Stephen Redmond examines a number of themes.  The most significant is the effect of Holocaust trauma on the children and families of survivors.  It also examines the treatment and experience of immigrants to the United States from the Spanish speaking Caribbean in the 1960’s, and some hard truths about Rafael Trujillo, the former dictator of the Dominican Republic.  The book will also feature a lead-in short story for Forgiving Mariela Camacho at its end that fills in some holes not fully fleshed out in the first edition.  So, readers might want to read Forgiving Stephen Redmond before they read Forgiving Mariela Camacho this time around.

Forgiving Stephen Redmond is the final book in the Forgiving series.  It completes the story of Sosua as told in my novels.  The police detectives from the series though, Anatoly Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez, appear regularly in short stories – accessible from my site on the short stories page, www.ajsidransky.com/books/short-stories/ – and will appear on a new short story anthology in 2021, titled, Jewish Noir II.  I may bring them back in a new series set entirely in the Dominican Republic or in a collection of short stories.

Q: What inspires you to write

Writing has been in my blood since I was a kid.  I wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager.  My parents convinced me it wasn’t a good choice of profession for a Jewish boy, and that I would have a hard time earning a living and supporting a family.  My thought was, Philip Roth, Herman Wouk?  I listened to them anyway.  I spent twenty-five years in the commercial mortgage business.  I didn’t begin writing fiction professionally until I was 50. 

I love to write, and I love the reaction I get from readers.  When a reader tells me, I moved them or I changed their view of the world, it touches me and makes my efforts all the more worthwhile.  For me, as is the case with most writers, writing is like breathing.  I have to, I have no choice.

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Q: What’s your next writing project?

I’m working on a few things right now.  Next up is a novella and a collection of short stories about life in the Dominican Republic today.  The novella is titled The King of Arroyo Hondo.  The book is tentatively titled, Becoming Bachata.  Arroyo Honda is a neighborhood in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo   No dead bodies, no Jewish refugees.  It was a good change of pace for me and I hope my readers will feel the same way about the change in subject matter. I spend a month or so there every winter.  My best friend is Dominican and has a house in Arroyo Hondo.  I stay with him deep in the barrio.  It’s how I unplug.  That collection is with my publisher and will be released in late 2021 or in 2022.

I’m currently writing the next installment in the “Justice” series.  The title is The Intern.  It follows the continuing adventures of the character Kurt Berlin, though not based on the real Kurt Berlin’s life.  I intend to do five books in this series, ending in 1973.  This new book plays out against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It’s a thriller and a murder mystery.  It also examines the reaction of the American Jewish community to the Rosenberg case.  I’ve been fascinated by the case since I was a teenager.

I’m also working on a project with a friend who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of two in 1962 with her parents.  It’s a family-saga that will examine the lives of Cuban-Jewish refugees and their unique experience, as well as life under Castro in the decades following the revolution.

When I’m done with that, I intend to write a novel about Baseball.  I’m a life-long Yankees fan and I’ve got a great idea for a story.  The title will be Fielder’s Choice, which is a baseball term for fielding a hit, but it’s also the name of the main character.  That’s all I’ll say about that at this time.

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Q: What’s on your current reading list?

It’s long.  I just finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, which blew me away.  I intend to read his new book very shortly.  I’m re-reading Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, which I read and loved as a teenager, just to get a change of pace.  I also just bought a book by an author friend of mine which was recently made into a movie on Amazon Prime.  It’s called Damascus Cover.  I want to see what they did on the adaptation as I’m trying to sell my work for movies or series as well.

Q: Where can readers connect with you (website, social media, etc)?

Readers can find me at www.ajsidransky.com.  Please join our mailing list.  I am also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  My author page on Facebook is A. J. Sidransky, my personal page is Alan Sidransky.  Please like my author page.  I’m also on Twitter and Instagram but honestly, don’t post much on either.  And if you read any of my books, please go to Amazon.com and post a review.  Reviews go a long way in getting Amazon to promote an author’s work.  If you have a book group or readers group, or an organization that hosts book talks and events I’m delighted to do them, but right now everything is virtual on zoom.  I hope that will change in the future as I really prefer the in-person contact.  I can be reached at aj@ajsidransky.com.

Q: Any closing remarks?

Thanks, so much for affording me the opportunity for this interview.  In this difficult time, authors need as many outlets as possible to get their work out there.  My goal is to reach as many readers with my work as I can, and to offer them a story that will make them think about how we can make ourselves, our communities, and our world a better place.  And give them a good read at the same time.

This page contains affiliate links. This means for any purchase made, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

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