Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jon Papernick talks about innovative book selling, bold writing, and fame

Jon Papernick is a total original. I met him at one of my readings and he handed me his book, There is No Other,  and asked if I would blurb it. That night I started to read and I was completely knocked out. Words like genius floated in my head. ( i said: "Surprising, shocking, profane and hilarious.") I got back in touch with him immediately and we've become, I'm happy to say, friends. I have a vested interest in his work--which I think is unlike anything I've ever read before. Plus, he's a swell, funny guy. And The Ascent of Eli Israel, which garnered raves from the NYT and more, is just brilliant.  The cool Papernick The Book Peddler t-shirt (thanks, Jon! I wear it proudly, even over my pajamas, as you can see!) is part of his innovative marketing, where he indeed peddles his book from a pushcart.

Thanks so much Jon for coming on my blog--and many thanks for the way cool t-shirt!

You've been compared (and rightly so) to Nathan Englander and Bernard Malamud. The Ascent of Eli Israel is being reissued after ten years, with raves from everyone from the NYT to the Washington Post Book World. Indeed, the book is weird and wired, breathtaking and bold, as it limns modern day Israel and the lives of Jews and Muslims. So I want to ask, how do you see these stories differently now than you did a decade ago? What's changed?

I do see the stories very differently than I did a decade ago since I seem to have hardened into something really permanent. When the book was first published I could remember writing every line and how I came to it, whereas now I almost feel that these stories were written by somebody else, something far, far wiser than me. I really wrote those stories to try and sort out my feelings about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict after living there and working as a journalist for year. None of the stories provide any answers, even after all this time, but I think they provide plenty of questions, and I think that is what good literature should be all about. Interestingly, I wrote most of the stories in 1998 in 1999 when it was sacrilege to even discuss the possibility that the Oslo Peace Accords would fail. It's easy to forget that for a few dizzying years, peace between Israel and the Palestinians and her neighbors seemed to be a fait accompli. I was writing about a collapse that had not yet happened.

People in your extraordinary stories are always pushing the boundaries: A man brings a barely dressed young woman into a religious neighborhood, a man desperate to protect himself kills a young boy. But despite the stunning shocks here, there's an incredible compassion and hope in your stories. How do you think people tap and/or find that compassion?

I think people find compassion when they are given the opportunity to know someone intimately. People are naturally less inclined to look with empathy upon strangers, people alien to their experience. That is why think good literature is so important, as it has a great humanizing effect, allowing the reader to walk in the shoes of somebody in a drastically different situation than herself. I write not to prove what I know, but to know what I don't know, and I found that characters based on the types of people that I might not have empathized with became more and more sympathetic for me the more I knew them. Ultimately, I came to love all of my characters, and I think a writer needs to respect his characters deeply in order for a reader to care about their fates.

Can you talk about your writing process? And what are you working on now?

My writing process lately has been extremely sporadic as I'm teaching full-time at Emerson college and have two very small, cute and demanding children. But, the semester is just coming to an end and I have two months to get as much writing done as possible before my summer job begins. I would like to get 100 pages done by July 1 if possible, but of late, I've become quite entranced by Twitter (feel free to follow me at @JonPapernick). As far as process, I usually write by hand, unreadable hand, even to my own trained eyes, and then I dictate what I've done through Dragon NaturallySpeaking. So, really old school and really new school. I am working on a novel entitled The Sunday Synagogue Softball League, which centers around the players on a softball team whose Synagogue has gone bankrupt after losing their money to Bernie Madoff. I don't want to say too much, but hopefully I'll be able to send you a copy before too long.

Tell us about the ingenious creation of Papernick the Book Peddler. How did this come about? How have people been responding? Were you surprised by all the media attention or did this seem like an idea whose time has come? 

The idea of Papernick the Book Peddler came about almost as a joke, the way that most of my best ideas arise. But, I think this idea speaks to writers who pull out their hair every time they see their ratings, something I have been guilty of, and instead puts control back in the writer's hands. I was tired of not being noticed, and I wanted to take my books directly to the people, find my own readership without any intermediary or middleman. I've gotten great reviews in the past, but it doesn't always translate into sales, and I want to define my own success by taking some control over getting my books into people's hands. Overall, people have been responding very positively, and I've certainly sold more books than I would've sold otherwise. We'll see how it goes this summer, but I plan on continuing this as long as I'm having fun [and as long as the weather is good]. I wasn't surprised by the media attention because I think this is a really interesting story since it is a very counterintuitive way to sell books consider living in the age of the Kindle and other e-book formats. However, people who love books will always appreciate holding a book in their hand and meeting the author face-to-face. I would love to have the New York Times pick up this story. This seems like the kind of story that I would read in the Sunday Times. So, my fingers are crossed for now.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I'm not sure if you asked me this question on the record or off the record, but you said you were astounded that I was not famous, and that makes me smile. I can't speak to the vicissitudes of the publishing world, but I do believe if you do good work and if you hang around long enough, people will find the books that they need to read. As far as being famous, I'm not too concerned about that, but I would like to reach a level of name recognition in which new opportunities may arise that I haven't up to now have access to.

1 comment:

@seemasugandh said...

You always bring such great books and author's to our attention Caroline! Thank you so much! XX