Debut Gives Modern Jonah a Whale of a Problem – 2014
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Joshua Max Feldman,
Two successful people with their futures pretty much planned find out that life doesn’t always go the way they expect. Powerhouse Manhattan lawyer Jonah starts seeing bizarre visions just as he gets the make-or-break case of his young career. Over-achieving top student Judith starts her graduate classes at Princeton when tragedy strikes. Neither knows how to cope as their lives spin out of control. .
|“. . . the Book of Jonah presents a remarkably human perspective on questions regarding what it means to have faith.” |
AUTHORLINK: In what way is your Book of Jonah like the original? Why did you choose this book?
FELDMAN: Ever since I first encountered the Biblical Book of Jonah—which was probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I’ve found it fascinating. And the more often I returned to it as an adult, the more fascinating it became.
I think the root of this fascination is that the Book of Jonah presents a remarkably human perspective on questions regarding what it means to have faith and what it means to do the right thing. The Biblical Jonah is reluctant, stubborn, and at times even openly critical of God’s plans. The text doesn’t make it clear whether he is ever satisfied with what he accomplishes in his role as prophet. In other words, Jonah’s behavior in the story has all the messiness and ambiguity that real human behavior does. In my novel, I tried to retain that core of fidelity to human behavior and human thinking as the characters grapple with events they never expected from their lives.
AUTHORLINK: Your book has an interesting layout, with chapters and sub-chapters. Did you use the Biblical Jonah’s ventures as an outline? And how did it affect your writing process?
FELDMAN: I didn’t want to create a moment-by-moment recreation of the Biblical story. Rather, I wanted to reimagine that story in a context that would be familiar to readers: the Jonah in my novel is a young, ambitious lawyer, living in contemporary New York City, juggling relationship and career problems, like many of us do. When he starts to have strange, inexplicable visions, his life begins to fall apart around him.
I use the chapter titles, which are quotations from the Biblical Book of Jonah, to mark harmonies between my novel and the original, as well as to evoke a Biblical mood in a modern setting. It’s my belief that religious questions aren’t separate from everyday life. Rather, everyday life inevitably forces us to think about what lies beyond the limits of rational, concrete thinking. This can happen when we fall in love, when we experience overwhelming grief, when we have children, when we are confronted with disaster or with joy.
AUTHORLINK: I noticed that Jonah is in Amsterdam (below sea level maybe) during the belly-of-the-whale segment. How were your locations important to their parts of the story?
FELDMAN: Amsterdam is a very aquatic city, visually: Not only is it on the sea, there are canals running through the heart of it. This fits nicely with the archetypal image of Jonah in the belly of the giant fish. In my novel, when Jonah is in Amsterdam, he has not been literally swallowed by a giant fish, but he feels swallowed up by circumstance—trapped by events beyond his control. I often tried to use the settings to create resonances with the Biblical story. In addition, I also set the story in places I simply thought it would be fun to write, and read, about: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Paris, and more.
AUTHORLINK: Part II is written as a journal. Why did you write this different from the rest of the book?
FELDMAN: Judith, the character whose journal we read in that section, is not expressive verbally. She’s not chatty, to put it another way. On top of that, at that point in the story, she is very much alone: torn apart from her family and from the academic world in which she had existed. The journal allows us to see what is happening inside her head. She has no one to talk to but herself; the journal lets the reader listen in on those conversations.
|“Writing plays is in some ways good preparation for writing novels. .”|
AUTHORLINK: This is your first published novel, but you’ve been a successful playwright. What is different – or the same – in writing the two?
FELDMAN: Writing plays is in some ways good preparation for writing novels. Obviously, writing plays trains you in creating dialogue and in defining character through dialogue. Probably the biggest difference in the two forms, though, is that while a playwright can rely on a set designer and costume designer to fill out the visual details of a scene, a novelist has to do all that work herself or himself. Visual description—of nature, of the contents of a room—was something I had to learn more or less from the ground up when I began writing fiction.
AUTHORLINK: Have you written other novels you haven’t sold?
FELDMAN: Every writer has some projects in the desk drawer, and I’m no exception. My firm conviction is that you learn to write by making mistakes, learning to avoid those mistakes, making new mistakes, and then avoiding those. I believe, then, that having stories or plays or books that never entirely pan out is part of the process. It’s a good thing, in other words.
|“I didn’t write the book because I have answers to grand metaphysical questions.”|
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will gain from reading your novel?
FELDMAN: I didn’t write the book because I have answers to grand metaphysical questions. The fact is I don’t. But I think those questions are important, and I tried above all to acknowledge the complexity of questions related to having faith, and doing good, and being true to ourselves. Those are questions all of us wrestle with—whether we have visions, like Jonah does, or not, and whether we’re religious or not. I hope the book will get readers to think about those questions, and hopefully come up with answers that satisfy them—or at least ones that inspire further searching.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
FELDMAN: I am working on new projects, but I’m not ready to get specific. I feel that once you start talking about a book, certain aspects of it become fixed. The clay starts to dry, as it were. So I try to delay describing what I’m working on until it is fairly well defined. I can say that my next project will likely not be based on a Biblical tale—but you never know!
|About Joshua Max Feldman:|
Feldman grew up in Amherst, MA, near five prestigious colleges, the son of two psychologists in an extended family that included the devoutly religious and the academically skeptical. He graduated from Columbia University and has lived at locations around the globe.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
This post was written by Diane Slocum