Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Comedy Trumps Tragedy: A conversation with Stuart Rojstaczer, author of The Mathematician's Shiva

"I’m overeducated and like to tell jokes."  That's how Stuart Rojstaczer begins the About Me page at his website.  That combination of brains and laughter provide the savory broth for his debut novel The Mathematician's Shiva, which hits bookstores at the beginning of September.  Described as "a comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated," The Mathematician's Shiva is about a ragtag group of academics who descend on Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch's house shortly after his mother Rachela ("the greatest female mathematician in history") passes away.  Rumor has it the notoriously eccentric Polish émigré has solved one of the most difficult problems in all of mathematics, and has spitefully taken the solution to her grave.  The mathematicians crash her shiva, determined to find that solution, even if it means tearing up the floorboards or desperately scrutinizing the mutterings of her African Grey parrot.  The following Q & A was generously provided for my use by Stuart's publisher, Penguin Books.  Enjoy--and, please, if you have the answers to one of life's riddles, please don't take it to your grave.  Your family thanks you.

Q:  Is this your first novel?  Could you talk about what inspired you to write this book?

Actually, this is my third novel.  I wrote my first when I was 20.  It was a comic picaresque a la Thomas Pynchon and it was so terrible that I knew I had to get out of the novel writing business and get a PhD. in science.  Then in my forties I wrote novel number two at the behest of my daughter, a comedy about a university led by a lunatic president.  It too was terrible, so terrible that I felt very happy that I’d gone into science all those years ago.  I tried again in my fifties.  I remembered an incident from when my daughter was three.  A well-known Eastern European émigré mathematician was at our house.  All dinner long he kept staring at my daughter.  Then after dinner, he berated me for not teaching my three-year-old algebra because he was convinced, somehow, that she was a math genius.  I thought about that incident many years later.  “What would it be like to be an Eastern European math genius?” I asked myself.  The result was The Mathematician’s Shiva.  It’s leaps and bounds better than my first two novels.  The third time was the charm.

Q:  You’re a PhD geophysicist, and Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch, the narrator of your novel, is an atmospheric scientist.  How did you come to fiction writing from a background in hard science?

I’ve always been a careful and serious reader of fiction, mostly Eastern European fiction and American fiction with strong European influences.  Off and on, I’ve written fiction for decades.  I wasn’t a talented writer, though.  Then in my fifties, I somehow developed what I thought was a unique voice.  I can’t explain how that happened.  It just did.

Q:  Your novel is about academics and academic life, subjects that are very popular in contemporary fiction.  Why do you think that these stories are so appealing, and why did you choose to write about academics yourself?

Academia is a closed setting, a small well-defined community.  In writing a novel, you need to focus on a group of people and the unit of an academic department or discipline is to my mind an ideal natural way to provide that focus.  I spent fifteen years as a professor.  I understand the academic mindset well.  Write about what you know, they say.

Q:  How much did you draw from your own experiences in writing this novel?

The novel has some autobiographical elements, certainly.  The opening is highly autobiographical, for example.  There is a scene where Rachela and her family go to a Russian cultural event and she tries, despite the inevitable tumult that will ensue, to get the Russian performers to defect.  This is something my mother did at least once a year.  But overall about eighty percent of the novel and the characters created come wholly from my imagination.

Q:  Though the novel revolves around the death of Rachela Karnokovitch—the narrator’s mother—and describes the difficulties of life in Eastern Europe under Stalinism, it’s also very funny.  How do you balance comedy and tragedy in your writing, and why do you feel that that’s important?

I think this approach to writing and life—dealing with tragedy through farce and acidic humor—is embedded in Eastern European culture and is especially embedded in Eastern European Jewish culture.  It was part of my day-to-day growing up.  My parents lived through so much horror in their early years that it would have been impossible and intolerable for them to confront it head on.  Comedy is how my family deals with tragedy almost always.  It softens the blow.  It’s usually an acceptable way to state displeasure and heartbreak over oppression.  I think this approach is probably fairly common with cultures that have been subject to cruelty and worse for centuries.

Q:  Rachela was a brilliant mathematician working in a difficult, male-dominated field.  Was her character inspired by anyone in your own life or from history?

I’ve had academic female friends who have told me in painful detail of their difficulties with male colleagues and male leadership in academia.  The playing field is not close to being level.  Sexual harassment is common.  Most feel that they cannot complain because it will be detrimental to their professional standing and note that those who do complain are vilified.  Then there is the problem that their work is slighted simply because they are female.  Those stories influenced my writing, certainly.  There was also the example of my mother, who in her later years ran construction crews and built a subdivision from scratch.  She, too, was in a male-dominated field (even more so than my female academic colleagues), but she had the advantage of having a huge personality and she had lived through WWII.  Nothing could intimidate her.  She could scare people, male and female, with her intensity.  I thought about what it would take to succeed in mathematics in the 1950s as a woman.  That person would have to be even more intimidating than my mother could be in the face of adversity and would have to be leagues smarter than any male in her field.  She’d have to be tall and disarmingly good-looking.  That’s how Rachela Karnokovitch was born.

Q:  History and memory play very important roles in your novel.  How did these forces affect you as you wrote the book?

I come from a family that had to flee their home because of war.  They didn’t come to America because they wanted to be here.  They came because they had no home left.  When your life and past are torn from you like that—when you don’t have even photographs to remind you of a life you view with fondness—you cherish your memories and live them again through narrative.  That’s what my father did, certainly.  He would tell stories about Europe and the war at our dining room table in broken English.  People would come to our house and listen.   My mother would serve cake and tea.  That would be something fairly typical for an evening’s entertainment in my home.  I can talk about great writers who have influenced me, but those stories of the past that my father used to tell Americans in our home—which were a mix of the real and completely fabricated—are the most significant influence on my writing.

Q:  What writers do you admire, and why?  How have they influenced your own writing?

Chekhov is at the top of the list because he had far more understanding about the intricacies of the human mind, heart and soul than anyone I’ve read and he could be articulate and plain spoken at the same time.  That’s what I aim for.  Then there is the mordantly comical approach of Gogol.  Recently I reread him after a forty-year hiatus and I was amazed by how close my writing was to his.  I cannot write without using comic elements.  Dickens always kept the plot front and center and wasn’t afraid to use emotions to drive a story; sometimes I need to be reminded of that to keep my own work from being too cold and erudite.  Mendele and Malamud looked at traditional Jewish life with both tenderness and acidic humor and both are never far from my mind when I write.

Q:  What do you love most about this book, and what do you hope that your readers will love about it?

It’s a book about how people can, through passion, hard work, and talent, overcome obstacles and still be aware of the irony that luck—both bad and good—plays a central role in their lives.  I hope readers will laugh out loud, cry now and then, and fall in love with the central characters, who are full of vitality and still maintain a positive, if somewhat gimlet-eyed, outlook despite the many tragedies they have endured.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A novel about a community of Holocaust survivors in the 1960s and 1970s, which has to deal with the American equivalent of a pogrom: a planned freeway that will tear their neighbourhood apart.  Right now, like The Mathematician’s Shiva, it’s a comedy.

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