A modern couple tests the complicated boundaries of their relationship in Jonathan Papernick's astounding new novel, I am My Beloveds. Jonathan is not only a longtime pal, he's also the author of the brilliant novel The Book of Stone, and the short story collections, The Ascent of Eli Israel, and There is No Other. He's the Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston, and the founder of Paper & Ink Editorial. "Papernick's fiction takes no prisoners," Says Hadassah magazine. "And the New York Times praises his "muscular certainty." You'll love his work, too.
When did you know you were a writer?
For as long as I remember I have always wanted to be a writer. I grew up right across the street from a shopping mall and the bookstore there was a magical place for me and I would go there when I had nothing to do and browse through the books. I think the first story I recall that made me want to be a writer was when my second grade teacher Mrs. Spooner read us The Hobbit. I think from that point at like six or seven years old I definitely knew I wanted to be a writer and for years I wanted to write that kind of high fantasy stuff and did a lot of Lord of the Rings kind of fan-fiction with trace pictures from the cartoon movie that came out a million years ago. I just didn't think I had the talent through much of my high school years and even had a high school creative writing teacher tell me she thought I wasn't a very strong writer, but I've always wanted to be a writer and now my fifth book is coming out with my sixth on the way later in the year.
What’s your motivation for infusing Judaism into your work?
I write about Judaism in my work because I write about what I am interested in, and writing about Judaism explains things to me that I couldn't possibly understand through any other process. I grew up kind of ignoring my Jewish heritage even though I did have a bar mitzvah, but after I went to Israel in my early 20s I realized I was part of a really powerful and beautiful tradition. I still don't enjoy going to synagogue and I don't keep kosher, but I engage with Jewish ideas through my fiction that help explain to me how I relate to Judaism. I see the world through a very Jewish lens, so it would be dishonest for me to write through the eyes of a Catholic priest or a Buddhist monk. This is my tradition and this is how I understand it, through my fiction writing.
Do you believe in method-writing, or experiencing what your characters do?
There is a sort of fallacious idea that we are supposed to write what we know, but I believe that it makes more sense to write about what you want to know. I usually come up with a situation, and a character who desires something and figure out what they do to try and get that. So, everything I write comes through my experience even if I'm writing about an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, or a suicide bomber or somebody in a polyamorous relationship. There are bits and pieces of me in all of my characters, but I don’t need to experience what has happened firsthand to write about it. I just imagine my way into each character through an almost meditative state. When I sit down to write, it's like a smarter part of myself steps out of the darkness of my subconscious and whispers the answers in my ear. Of course experience is always valuable; I could not have written my first book, set in Jerusalem if I hadn't lived in Jerusalem. I could not have written my first novel which was set in Brooklyn if I didn't live in Brooklyn, but all of the characters are fictional for the most part and are made up of bits and pieces of me or potential me’s.
Which of your characters would you want to have dinner with most?
I feel like I have already had dinner with all of my characters because when I am writing they live in my head so strongly it is as if they are present. I've written about more than my fair share of psychopaths, crazies and weirdos, so I would certainly have to pass on dining with any of them irl. I think all of the characters in my new novel I Am My Beloveds are most similar to me since none of them are killers or psychopaths and just ordinary confused people trying to figure out love. Now if you were to ask me which dead person I would like to have dinner with, I would throw a massive dinner party with Anthony Bourdain at the head of the table, and Bruce Lee, and probably Jesus because I really want to know what he has to say about all of the things that have been done in his name; Amy Winehouse would be awesome, Hedy Lamar, though I don't know much about her, but she sounds pretty awesome, Winston Churchill, David Ben Gurion, Albert Camus and Lenny Bruce. My living date would be Lana Del Rey. I'd make sure there would be plenty of alcohol and I would livestream the whole thing.
What type of the scene do you find most challenging to write?
I don't believe there is a particular kind of scene that I find most difficult. I am equally comfortable writing ultraviolence as I am writing an intimate sex scene. I'm very comfortable with dialogue as well as lengthy description. Heart to hearts and crazy rants are all the same to me. I think it really comes down to how creative I am feeling at the time. Lately it has become more and more difficult for me to get into that writing headspace where I'm able to channel these characters. So when I can't get there I can't really seem to do anything right, but when I do get there, anything goes.
Do you approach each novel project in the same manner? Is there a formula to your methods?
I think I approach each writing project in the same manner. Fear, panic, and doubt. There are some moments of great confidence and that is when I'm able to convince myself it's okay to write, but I do find it challenging to sit down and write, so when I'm on a roll, I try and keep it going as long as I can possibly do so. Some projects take more research. My first collection of stories relied on lots of things I experienced in Jerusalem, but I also did some supplementary research. In fact I had so much material left over in my mind that my novel the Book of Stone just built upon that material to write about a terrorist plot with Jewish extremists in Brooklyn. I Am My Beloveds took some research, but a lot of it came from my own heart, but certainly listening to Dan Savage's Savage Lovecast was a constant voice in the back of my head.