Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

If you’re a loy­al fol­low­er of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil (and you obvi­ous­ly are), then you’re def­i­nite­ly already aware of Boris Fish­man, one of our 2015 Sami Rohr Prize final­ists. The author of the debut nov­el A Replace­ment Life, Boris wrote about fam­i­ly his­to­ry and vic­tim­hood for JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series, and the paper­back edi­tion of his book was fea­tured as a Book Cov­er of the Week” in Jan­u­ary. He also wrote an arti­cle for the JBC to com­mem­o­rate what would have been Bernard Mala­mud’s 100th birth­day last year: Bernard Mala­mud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age. And to top it off, Boris was a final­ist for a 2014 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in fic­tion and will also appear at the final pro­gram in JBC’s lit­er­ary series Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Con­ver­sa­tion. Suf­fice it to say, we’re fans of both Boris and his work! But in case you’re not famil­iar with him, we have a short Q&A below to help you get to know one of our five final­ists a lit­tle better. 

If you’re just tun­ing in, be sure to vis­it our pro­files of Ayelet Tsabari, Ken­neth Bon­ert, and Yele­na Akhtiorskaya as well, and check back lat­er in the week to learn more about our fifth, and final, 2015 SRP final­ist, Mol­ly Antopol.

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fiction?

A para­dox: To write a good, true sto­ry, you have to fall deep­er and deep­er into it, into the char­ac­ters, the set­ting, the sto­ry­line. But to write a good, true sto­ry, you also have to remain out­side of it, to see its dra­mat­ic require­ments with clar­i­ty and detach­ment, even cold­ness and imper­son­al­i­ty. You have to con­nect, but not enmesh. It’s like love.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Some peo­ple change spous­es. I change lit­er­ary idols. In my teens, it was Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, the patron saint of the lovelorn and lit­er­ary. My debut nov­el A Replace­ment Life came into life under the spir­i­tu­al men­tor­ship of Bernard Mala­mud. I am on to Gra­ham Greene now. This makes sense to me — much as every gen­er­a­tion needs a new trans­la­tion of for­eign clas­sics, dif­fer­ent sta­tions in a writ­ing career would seem to call for dif­fer­ent guides. 

Who is your intend­ed audience?

Every­one. Is there an author who would answer differently?

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’ve just fin­ished revis­ing my sec­ond nov­el Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which Harper­Collins will pub­lish in ear­ly 2016. It’s about an immi­grant cou­ple in New Jer­sey that adopts a boy from Mon­tana who turns out to be feral.

What are you read­ing now?

I had a lull between hard­cov­er and paper­back pub­lic­i­ty in Jan­u­ary, and final­ly made up for lost read­ing time. I tore through about six books by Gra­ham Greene; are there fin­er nov­els than The Heart of the Mat­ter and The Come­di­ans? Now, I am read­ing Alexan­dra Styron’s mem­oir of the great William Sty­ron, who was a lot less great as a father than he was as a writer; James Agee’s A Death in the Fam­i­ly; sev­er­al books about the Tohono O’odham Indi­ans (I am teach­ing a work­shop at their trib­al col­lege out­side of Tuc­son in April); and Janet Malcolm’s Psy­cho­analy­sis: The Impos­si­ble Pro­fes­sion.

Top 5 favorite books

  • The Assis­tant by Bernard Mala­mud
  • Dis­grace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Leg­ends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
  • The Heart of the Mat­ter and The Come­di­ans by Gra­ham Greene
  • Pat­ri­mo­ny by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was run­ning to catch the crosstown one day… I’m kid­ding. It’s not very pos­si­ble to answer this ques­tion con­cise­ly. It decid­ed me. I had tried my best to avoid it.

What is the moun­tain­top for you? How do you define success?

To make a liv­ing from writ­ing fic­tion and cre­ative non­fic­tion, and relat­ed endeav­ors (teach­ing, speak­ing, etc.). To com­bine it robust­ly with fam­i­ly life. Most impor­tant­ly, to encounter nov­el­ty, chal­lenge, and sur­prise with reg­u­lar­i­ty in my work and per­son­al life. To always have things to learn — even as it’s often so painful to go through the learning.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

There should be more. Because you are doing a high­ly unso­cial­ized and also high­ly unpre­dictable thing. While the rest of the world goes off to work, you sit down in a chair wear­ing God knows what and start try­ing to make it rain. This would seem to call for super­sti­tion as urgent­ly as a liv­ing room full of Sovi­et Jews. But I don’t real­ly have any. (Super­sti­tions, that is. I got plen­ty of Sovi­et Jews.) I wake up, make cof­fee, and sit down to read for two hours — to get hopped up on what words can do via what some­one else has done with them. Ide­al­ly, I’m throw­ing down the book before hav­ing reached my dai­ly quo­ta because I am too impa­tient to work my own hand at the same. I write for 3 – 4 hours, longer if I am revis­ing. All this has to hap­pen before any­thing else, with min­i­mal inter­rup­tion. Every­thing the day brings after­ward is easy. 

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

That Russ­ian Jews are much more than mere­ly fun­ny. That Jews aren’t saints, and this hard­ly makes them less admirable — only more human. That good, page-turn­ing sto­ries can (I hope) co-exist with big ideas and high artistry. That labored-over writ­ing is bet­ter and more impor­tant than writ­ing that isn’t. That books say some­thing no oth­er medi­um can. 

Boris Fish­man immi­grat­ed from the USSR at age nine. He stud­ied Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture at Prince­ton, was on staff at The New York­er, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na report, and has received a Ful­bright to Turkey. He’s writ­ten for The New York­er, The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, Tablet, The For­ward, The Jerusalem Report, and many oth­ers. A Replace­ment Life (Harp­er) is his debut nov­el. He lives in New York.

Relat­ed Content:

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.