"Jonathan Papernick has created a terrifying novel that illuminates the dark corners of those souls who will give their lives for a cause without regard for their own suffering or that of others...in this astounding exploration of morality and madness."
The Jewish Book Council.
"This intelligent and timely thriller is told through a Jewish prism, but Papernick’s persuasive insights into the nature of fanaticism and its destructive consequences could be applied to any ideology. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal (starred review)
"Devastating, gripping and beautiful. Open this book carefully. You will close it changed." Dara Horn
The first thing you need to know is that Jon Papernick is not only kind, smart and hilariously funny, he's also a real champion of writers--and people. He worked as a journalist in Israel after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He's the author of The Ascent of Eli Israel, There is no Other, and his latest, The Book of Stone is something short of magnificent (just take a gander at the reviews above.)
I'm honored to have him here--and I'm even more thrilled to be interviewing him june 28th at Little City Books in Hoboken, NJ. Please come!
There is always something haunting a writer that gives way to a novel. What was haunting you that gave way to The Book of Stone?
I think in some ways I am always haunted by something or many things. I think the most obvious answer for this question is that I was haunted by my experience living in Israel, in the sense that I wrote about Jewish extremists and violence in my first collection of short stories and still felt that I had not fully explored that issue. I wanted to dig deeper into the fanatic mentality and what it is that makes people into terrorists and The Book of Stone was a much broader canvas which allowed me to explore this fascination. I don’t know if it’s out of my system yet, but I certainly can move on to writing about other things.
Titles are notoriously difficult to get right, but yours seems perfection. Where did it come from and how hard was it to come by?
I’m a strong believer in the importance of titles, how a title should contain the entire DNA of a story or a novel and usually I do pretty well with my titles. The title for this novel was much more difficult to come up with and I spent many, many years working under a different title that I thought was the perfect title. In the end, I realized that it was too difficult for people to remember it reminded them incorrectly of a song that had nothing to do with novel. So as I got back to rewriting my novel I knew I needed a better title, something that was perfect. I did what are Ernest Hemingway supposedly did in his search for titles, and I took out a blank piece of paper and just free associated around the themes of the novel. I tried not to think too much and had about twenty or twenty-five names down in about five minutes. I crossed off the worst ones until I was left with two or three and then it became crystal clear that The Book of Stone was the right title. I like how it echoed the family name Stone, but also the Book of Life or The Book of Death from the Jewish high holidays, even the book of Job. Of course, the novel also involves piles and piles of books so that ties in as well. It still took me a while to fully appreciate that this was the natural title for the novel. I’m glad that you believe it’s perfect, because it was indeed a struggle with this title.
So much of the book is about the Jewish/Arab conflict — as well as the conflict between father and son. How does one inform the other?
The book is indeed about the larger Jewish/Arab conflict as well as a personal conflict between father and son and I guess they inform each in the sense that the Jewish / Arab conflict seems somehow insoluble after more than a hundred years of conflict. On the surface the relationship between Matthew and his father also seems insoluble until Matthew believes he is found a way to finally make peace with his father which clearly is as much a mirage as any peace in the Middle East has proven to be.
What surprised you in the writing? What discoveries did you make? And what kind of writer are you? Did you map this all out?
I think I was most surprised how deeply I came to know Matthew Stone, so intimately as if he really were a living and breathing human being. The same goes for some of the other characters in the book such as his father. The fact is these characters are not real and they are not based on anyone in particular or in general yet to me they became real.
I discovered that the more time you spend with these characters, the more they will reveal to you as they continue to grow and ultimately they start to write themselves based on the foundation I have given them.
I’m a very idiosyncratic writer in the sense that I can go months without writing, and then sit down and write four or five short stories in a few weeks. I often don’t know where I’m going and just have a basic itch that I need to scratch. When I began this novel way back in 2000, I really had no idea where I was going, though I vaguely knew that I wanted it to make my first book look like a trip to Disneyland by comparison. I spent several years writing in the dark with terrible prose, horrible plot ideas and ultimately I found only frustration. I had that urge to work on the novel, but I was so far from what I wanted to do with it that everything was awful and discouraging. Then, one day after banging my head into a wall for several years, the light began to shine in and things started to make sense. This novel is a testament to the power and importance of persistence.
I really feel that so much of your book has to do with the way we all struggle to live now and the way we try to understand the ones around us — those we “hate” and those we love. Can you please talk about this?
The older I get, the more I realize how little we know about the people around us, even our loved ones. And yes it can be easy to hate somebody who is a distant abstraction, somebody different from ourselves, but ultimately we are all broken people, and we all want a better life, though many of us are so broken that not only can we not get that better life, but we can only turn our powers to destruction against others. I really came to understand in a most concrete manner why reading, namely fiction, is important. When one is immersed deeply inside a novel, we know these characters so intimately that they indeed are real, the neurons that fire off in our brains recognizing these characters as if they are real. Ultimately I come to love all of my characters because I could see all the depths of heights of their humanity as multidimensional human beings, in a manner in which we rarely ever know a person in real life.
How did this novel change you as a writer?
I think any arrogance I would have ever had approaching a blank page has certainly been given a pretty hard slap across the face. Writing a novel is something one should not go into lightly, because it will grab you by the throat and take over your life for years, and you have to be ready for that commitment or else the voices in your head will overwhelm you. I’m definitely a better writer now than I was before. I think my prose is cleaner and comes to me more naturally. I know more certainly now than ever that every good story comes out of a psychologically complex character or set of characters. The most important thing about writing fiction is not the prose or even the narrative, but the believable and compelling psychology that will ultimately drive the story.
What is obsessing you now and why?
For years I definitely was obsessed with writing about Jewish themes, strictly Jewish themes, namely related to Israel and though I’m still interested in writing about those themes, I’m definitely over the obsession. My stories now are often smaller, and shorter, dealing with sex and intimacy and the damaged psychologies of human beings looking for the life raft of love. My stories can be considered cynical, but they are also deeply human and they don’t rely on the exoskeleton of the complexities of the Middle East conflict or the endless intricacies of Judaism. I guess as I get older I have come to realize that life never gets easier and that we as broken human beings always struggle to keep our lives together and that struggle is what compels me now in my fiction.
This is your first novel, after two highly acclaimed short story collections. How was writing a novel different than writing the collections? Did you have to get into a different mindset? Was there ever a moment when you felt, oh my God, I should go back to short stories?
Writing a novel is very different than writing short stories; I find novel writing difficult in the sense that I am extremely impatient and often times if I work really hard, I can have a complete draft of a story done within one day or at most within a week and I can already see the possibilities as to how to improve it. At a certain point, often a reasonable time after the original spark of an idea there’s a completed piece of work, a complete world which lives and breathes and exists as a result I feel like I have accomplished something. In a novel, you could spend weeks trying to figure out how to get your character to cross a room and it is often hard to see the big picture as you focus in on the minute details that make this world come alive. Writing a short story is like juggling two balls at once, completely manageable, while writing a novel is like trying to juggle seven or eight balls. I used to say writing a novel is like running a marathon, but that is clearly an understatement. Writing a novel is like running many marathons, and you never know how many more marathons you have ahead of you until the book stops speaking to you and is complete.
There were many times that I felt that I should just quit the whole thing and go back to short stories. I don’t find short stories easy, but I do feel that I know how to work my way around short stories. The novel is so much bigger and there were many times I would have quit if I hadn’t already put in so many hundreds and hundreds of hours. It’s like swimming across the ocean and realizing you’ve gone more than half way and it’s too late to turn back, so you plow forward anyway. I think that is one of the reasons why I saw this through to the end because I most definitely put in my required ten thousand hours on this novel. I don’t think I really had a different mindset except that I was more often scared that I wouldn’t find what I was looking for whereas with a short story I never felt the same level of pressure since I didn’t have as much at stake. If a short story didn’t work after a few pages, I could always crumple it up and start over again, but once I was several years into the novel, that was impossible. I either had to finish it or live with regret at not doing so for the rest of my life.