Suspend Your Disbelief

An Interview with Julie Zuckerman

"Your characters might not be people you’d like to befriend, but you need a great deal of fondness for them and interest in their stories."

Interviews |

An Interview with Julie Zuckerman

"[My favorite] stories, by the way, were submitted to over 100 literary journals before they found homes. I really loved them, which I guess is why I kept plugging away at the revisions until they were accepted": Julie Zuckerman talks with Jolene McIlwain about persistence, family lore, and the thrill of publishing her first collection of linked stories.

I met Julie Zuckerman in 2015 at the Vermont College Fine Arts postgraduate conference. Before that in-person meeting, however, we’d participated in an online writing group, where I first met her main character, Jeremiah Gerstler, and fell headlong into his story. With each excerpt she shared with our group, or had published in literary journals, I was introduced to other significant members of Jeremiah’s family.

Also over this period of time, I learned more about my friend, Julie, her tenacity and drive, her complete dedication to this project. I was thrilled when I heard Press 53 wanted to publish her book. Now everyone would get the chance to fall into the world of Jeremiah, to see his life and family through many POVs, time periods, and cultural events; through adversity and successes, disagreements and love; and through humor and pain. Jeremiah, speaking about himself, says “the Book of Jeremiah is still a work-in-progress” and it’s great advice for all of us. We’re all ever-evolving, learning, failing, trying again.

Julie Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah begins: “Rikki’s son keeps the live chicken tucked under his arm, giving it a little zetz every time the wicked Haman’s name is chanted.” How could you not want to read more?


Jolene McIlwain: Congratulations, Julie!

Julie Zuckerman: Thank you, Jolene! Even though I’ve known for about a year that the book is coming out, I still pinch myself sometimes, because it is such a dream come true.

In your author’s note you write: “From ‘MixMaster,’ the final story in this book, I worked backwards (and, at times, forwards) to unravel Jeremiah’s life.” When did you know this was a book and not just a few stories about Jeremiah?

As soon as I finished writing the story “MixMaster,” I knew I wanted to write an entire collection about Jeremiah. At first, I thought I’d do the whole thing chronologically backwards, but that didn’t make sense for a few reasons. I’d recently read and loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, particularly the way she revealed Olive’s character, layer by layer, with each story. I analyzed the chapters–how many were written from Olive’s point of view (six out of thirteen), and so on. Like Olive Kitteridge, The Book of Jeremiah also has thirteen stories, but I found that my favorite stories were often the ones from Jeremiah’s point of view, so my ratio is a bit higher. I ended up throwing out at least two of my original stories, keeping only the year and location, completely changing the plot, the POV, the conflict, and so on.

How did you decide on the ordering of the chapters? Was there a different order you tried? Did anyone give you any specific advice?

David Jauss’s excellent essay “Stacking Stones” in Alone With All That Could Happen was very helpful for me to see different ways I could string the collection together. I had at least six different orders I played around with. Finally, when I attended the VCFA writers’ conference, my workshop leader, Ellen Lesser, helped me strategize to come up with the structure that was eventually published. She had me divide the book into thirds, and then in each third I needed to vary the earlier stories with the later ones, those from different points of view, and so on. I’m very pleased that I begin with “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm”–one of my favorites because there are a lot of family details in there–and then ended on “MixMaster.”

I wanted to make sure that there was a thread that carried through from one story to the next. For example, there’s one story told from the point of view of Jeremiah’s son, and it’s clear father and son haven’t always had a good relationship. The next story goes back nineteen years when his wife is pregnant with their son, and Jeremiah is meeting his new colleagues in the political science department for the first time. This is followed by a story in which Jeremiah struggles with feelings of resentment towards other members of his department.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What were your early influences?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since high school. But back then, as well as in college, I had my sights set on journalism. Early in my career, however, I switched gears to become a business plan writer and later branched out into marketing. I’d always considered myself a writer, but not a creative one.

About eleven years ago, an offhand remark by a friend caught my attention. She mentioned that another friend was taking a creative writing class. I don’t know why this epiphany hadn’t come to me earlier; authors–particularly fiction writers–had been my rock stars for as long as I could remember. But as soon as she said those words, I knew that writing fiction was exactly what I wanted to do.

Books and reading were always very important to me; in fact, my first career ambition, at age four or five, was to be a librarian. I read a lot of Nancy Drew as a kid; this was followed by a Kurt Vonnegut phase in high school. I was fortunate to attend a public high school with an amazing English department. One of my teachers refused to give us a grade before we’d revised our essays three, four–sometimes five–times. At the beginning of the year, I detested him and his red pen; by the end of the year, he was my favorite teacher, and I am grateful for those first important lessons in revision.

Do you have a writing schedule? How do you keep other issues from pulling you away from the desk?

It’s a struggle. My most creative time is first thing in the morning, but I am not a morning person. I have to discipline myself to go to sleep at a decent hour, and if I do, I’ll set my alarm for 5:15 or so. That gives me about an hour and a half before I start dealing with the kids, carpools, etc. I’m constantly trying to get them off to school as early as possible, and if I can grab an extra half hour in a café before I leave for work, I do, preferably a café where I won’t run into anyone I know. In the last few years, I’ve been commuting by train, so I can also do some writing on my commute. When I’m at a café or on the train, I cue up my “Writing Zone” playlist so I’m not distracted by the conversations going on around me. My playlist always starts with Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” because somehow that gets me into the “zone.” I suppose it’s no coincidence that many of my more recent stories feature wildflowers. Of course, I also prefer to get exercise out of the way in the morning, so sometimes–particularly the one day a week I get up and go mountain biking from 5:30 to 7:30–I don’t get much writing done.

Like everyone, I need to be better at getting rid of distractions like social media and the Internet in general. Sometimes, to find one little detail, I end up going down the research rabbit hole. If I’m in the shvoong–that’s a Hebrew word for which there isn’t a great translation, but something like “flow”–of the writing, I’ll try to make a note to go back and look up that research point later.

Speaking of research, how do you manage it, how much do you decide to include, in your stories? I thought of this often as I read stories that take place different time periods, like “A Tough Day for LBJ.”

I did a tremendous amount of research, particularly for the seven stories that take place between 1932 and 1972. I would have loved to include dozens of more historical facts and tidbits, and I probably did in the early drafts. But then I had to go back and cut to make sure I wasn’t boring the reader. The facts had to serve the interest of the narrative.

In “A Tough Day for LBJ,” Jeremiah and his wife Molly are on their way to a cocktail party; it’s the first time he’s meeting his new colleagues in the political science department at a fictional university in the Berkshires. The party takes place on August 4, 1964, a day on which two things happened that have made the history books: the bodies of three missing civil rights workers were found in a Mississippi dam, and attacks against American destroyers were reported in the Gulf of Tonkin, and both events play a role in the story. It was important to me to keep all the facts and the chronologies correct, and I pored over the archives of The New York Times, academic journals, transcripts of press conferences, eulogies for the murdered civil rights workers, and other commentaries.

Other stories required research of a less somber nature. For example, learning the play-by-play for the last game of the 1932 World Series for “Three Strikes.”

Some stories include your own family lore, right? Could you talk about which ones were prompted by actual events?  

Yes! I can start with the first image in the book, an 11-year-old Jeremiah carrying a live chicken in his synagogue; my great-grandfather was a kosher butcher, first in Poland and later in America. Purim is the Jewish holiday on which children wear costumes, some traditional from the Book of Esther, but in more recent times in all sorts of creative costumes. When my father was ten, my grandmother dressed him as a ritual (kosher) slaughterer for Purim, and he indeed carried around a live chicken inside his synagogue. As part of my father’s costume, he also carried a real butcher’s knife; I don’t think that would fly now. I should note that Jeremiah is a rather wild child, sometimes disrespectful, and my father is not at all like that.

When my father was ten, my grandmother dressed him as a ritual (kosher) slaughterer for Purim, and he indeed carried around a live chicken inside his synagogue.

In another story, “Signals,” Jeremiah is visiting Paris after VE-Day. My grandfather served in the Signal Corps in World War II and spent time in Paris in the summer of 1945 before he could go home. While the basis of the story is fictional, I took much of the color for the story from descriptions of what the Signal Corps soldiers did during the war, the type of equipment my grandfather used, and so on.

There are dozens of other family morsels and quirks that have made their way into various stories. There’s a line in the first story about Jeremiah’s great-grandfather being smuggled out of Russia, dressed as a woman so he could escape the Czar’s army–that was my great-grandfather. Another example comes from my own life when my then recently-toilet-trained son had an accident on my mother’s new couch. She wouldn’t let me wipe it down with a wet rag and soap until I reached someone at the Ethan Allen furniture hotline, which took two days, so things like that made it into the book. I had a great time planting the true stories all over the fictional ones.

I noted your insertions of Yiddish words and culture. These brought to mind my Italian Catholic upbringing and immigrant grandparents’ dialect.  Can you speak to how language, religion, and traditions orient your stories?

My paternal grandparents were typical Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; Yiddish was their first language, and though they spoke English to my father and uncles, their speech was peppered with Yiddishisms. This has been passed down to my generation and now to my children. I think this is true for many American Jews. Even those who aren’t religious at all continue to use Yiddish words and expressions, words like shul (synagogue), shtick (a gimmick, comic routine, style of performance), kneidelach (matzah balls), kugel (sweet or savory pudding of noodles or potatoes), and so on. Funny story: I had no idea that kugel was a Yiddish word until a (non-Jewish) friend in college said she had no idea what I was talking about; I simply thought it was an English word for a kind of food.

In the stories that take place earlier in Jeremiah’s life, when his immigrant parents are still alive, but also the later ones, it was natural for me to use Yiddish expressions and intonations. “A better costume for him, you couldn’t have picked,” quips Jeremiah’s Hebrew school teacher in the first story.

I didn’t have Jeremiah grapple with religion much; he and his wife are what I’d call cultural Jews. They identify with their traditions by eating Jewish foods and maintaining certain rituals, by supporting Jewish charities and by the occasional visit to Israel. They don’t observe the Sabbath and only attend shul on the high holidays or when they’re invited to a bar mitzvah. But they definitely feel very Jewish.

Do you have a favorite story?

That’s a tough one.

I had to ask!

I suppose I’d go with the opening story, “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” and “Gerstler’s Triumphant Return.” “A Strong Hand” recalls the lives of my grandparents–Passover seders at their house that started after 11 pm because my grandfather couldn’t close his store until late, the smells that emanated from my grandmother’s kitchen and so on. They’ve been gone fifteen and thirty-seven years, respectively, and though Jeremiah’s parents, Abe and Rikki, don’t resemble my grandparents in personality, it was fun to immerse myself in their world.

In “Gerstler’s Triumphant Return,” Jeremiah chaperones his daughter’s 10-grade history class on a field trip to Washington, DC, at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I loved digging into the news clips and the transcripts of the press briefings to get the details of what might have been said at those briefings. In one of the last scenes in that story, the students attend a press briefing at the State Department; some of the reporters’ questions in the story were taken directly from the actual transcripts.

Both stories, by the way, were submitted to over 100 literary journals before they found homes. I really loved them, which I guess is why I kept plugging away at the revisions until they were accepted.

What has this experience of getting your first book into print been like so far? What were some of the challenges?  

I’m not sleeping very much, that’s for sure! There are so many things to think about at every step of the way. I didn’t have a clear vision for the cover design so I’m very grateful to Claire Foxx of Press 53 for coming up with the terrific concept of silhouettes inside silhouettes. I’d been bandying around cover ideas with Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Press 53, but we hadn’t come up with an “abiding” image and I was getting nervous. Fortunately, Claire–who’d read and copyedited the manuscript over the summer as a Press 53 intern and then joined the staff in December–stepped in with the perfect idea.

These days I’ve been learning the ins and outs of promotion. I’m in a Debut Authors 2019 group on Facebook, which is both terrific because we’re all there learning together and cheering each other on, but also daunting. Goodreads giveaways? Cover reveals? I assumed “cover reveal” was when you share your cover on social media; I didn’t know one should be shooting for a cover reveal article in places like BookRiot until it was too late. But that’s okay. Sometimes you just have to say, I can’t do everything, I have to pick and choose where to spend my time and energy. As I think you know, I’m Sabbath observing, meaning (among other things), that I don’t use electronics or write or drive from sundown on Friday until Saturday evening. I’ve always appreciated that 25-hour break each week, and never more than now.

In terms of getting the collection into print, my writing mentor told me a few years ago that it would be difficult to get an agent for a story collection, but that I should check out small presses, many of which are happy to publish collections. I applied everywhere and anywhere I could find, sometimes through contests. More opportunities came up every year, and I got several encouraging rejections, but I wasn’t sure it was ever going to happen. When I received the email from Press 53 last April saying I was the only runner-up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and that they’d like to publish The Book of Jeremiah, I had to read the email four or five times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. It was a dream come true.

You’ve given me wonderful advice these past few years. Thank you! What advice would you give to other authors?

First, love thy characters. Your characters might not be people you’d like to befriend, but you need a great deal of fondness for them and interest in their stories.

By far, though, the best advice I’ve ever received was from a friend of a friend, who’d just had her first book accepted for publication. This was back in 2014. I’d been writing and submitting for several years at that point, and my stories had gotten picked up here and there, but I hadn’t succeeded in cracking any top-tier literary journals. “You’re doing everything right,” she said. “Just keep working at your craft.” That advice spurred me to seek out online classes, such as the ones offered by Kathy Fish, One Story, Catapult, Grub Street and more. Not only have the classes helped me become a better writer, but I’ve met great writing friends from all over the world.

I’m so glad I met you (and Jeremiah)!

Thank you, Jolene! The feeling is mutual. As one of the other women in our online critique group put it, we are all “proud aunties” of each other’s stories. Here in Israel, at celebrations for new babies, even friends and distant family greet each other with the words “Mazal tov!” the connotation being, in this context, “it takes a village.” Thus, with the “birth” of my book, I’ll end with my wish for you and the other aunties: Mazal tov!


Jolene McIlwain

Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears online at Cincinnati ReviewPrairie SchoonerLitro UKAtticus ReviewPrime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for two Pushcarts and named a contest finalist by Glimmer Train. She was also a semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and received recognition in both American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) Fiction contests. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww journal and is currently working on a linked short fiction collection and novel set in the hills of the Appalachian plateau of Western Pennsylvania.

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