The ProsenPeople

Digging Deep into the Soul in the Heart of Iowa

Monday, April 29, 2013 | Permalink

We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Stuart Nadler discusses how he came to write his short story collection The Book of Life.

I wrote all but one of the stories in The Book of Life while I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I hadn’t gone to Iowa thinking I would leave with a collection. In truth, I hadn’t even realized I was working on a collection until most of these stories were finished, and I recognized, looking over everything, that there was so much common ground in the work, places where the stories touched and diverged, characters who shared the same anxieties and concerns. As a reader, what I love most about short story collections is that, invariably, they represent in some way an author’s preoccupations and obsessions. And this, surely, was true about me and the stories in this book.

A good deal of The Book of Life is about family—fathers and sons, brothers, husbands and wives—and about the sins people commit against the people they love most. Invariably, I’ve come into the lives of these characters at their very worst mo­ments. In one story, a father reacts poorly to his son’s sudden interest in Judaism, while trying to exist in an open marriage. In another, a father takes his son to meet his own estranged father, a man he’s pretended has been dead for decades. I was on a treadmill at the gym when the idea for this story came to me. It’s the only time this has ever happened: the whole story, in its entirety. In "Catherine and Henry" a woman, unsure of her boyfriend’s faithfulness, tests him with a prostitute. This was the story I was working on when I came to the Workshop. I’d end up rewriting it for six years before it was published.

I was already fixated on the central ideas in this book by the time I arrived in Iowa: sin and redemption and the way these transgres­sions intersect with religion, or a lack of religion. I have never been particularly observant, but that first autumn, when the High Holidays arrived, I found myself taking bread down to the Iowa River to celebrate tashlich. In Hebrew, tashlich means “casting off.” It’s a simple exercise, in which you take pieces of bread and throw them into a river, an act that is supposed to symbolize casting off a year’s sins. The idea comes from the prophet Micah, who says that God “will cast all our sins/Into the depths of the sea.” I had never done this before, or even heard of the practice before I did it, and, to be entirely truthful, I haven’t done it since. The title of my book comes from the part of the High Holiday liturgy that has always been my favorite: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The idea of a book of life has always fascinated me, as has the generous notion that its pages are opened fresh every year, and that one’s private sins can be forgiven communally.

This—On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed—was the initial title for the first story in my book. In it, a man has an affair with his best friend's grown daughter. I wrote the first draft of this story over the course of a frigid week in February. In many ways, the story was a breakthrough. Here was what I had been looking for. How people react when they’re tempted. How people suffer at their missed opportunities at love. How they seek out their faith, even if, as it is true for almost all of my characters, they don’t know or remember how to connect with that faith. The rest of the stories came quickly after that, and when I left Iowa that spring I had a bigger, baggier version of what this book would become. In the end, putting the book together was a process of assembly, and what remained after all the cutting and discarding and revision was the core of that initial preoc­cupation of mine—these characters who are cheaters and adulterers and liars and bad parents, bad brothers, bad friends, all of them trying to negotiate theirs sins and their guilt.

Stuart Nadler is a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he was also the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Wise Men, and the story collection The Book of Life.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Stuart Nadler

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this month, JBC announced the five fiction finalists for this year's $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The authors are as diverse as the books themselves, so, here at the ProsenPeople, we thought we'd give you the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the 2013 Rohr contenders. We asked each author a few questions about writing, their Rohr finalist book, favorite books, and, of course, what's up next for them. Today we hear from Stuart Nadler, author of the short story collection The Book of Life. Stuart actually just published his debut novel, Wise Men, so if you haven't had time to read it, go on out and grab yourself a copy. 

No stranger to the Jewish Book Council, in 2011, Stuart blogged for our Visiting Scribe series, was interviewed for our Emerging Voices column, and participated in a #JLit Twitter Book Club.  If that wasn't enough, JBC reviewer Phil Sandick stated that:

With [The Book of Life], Nadler firmly establishes himself within the tradition of short story writers such as John Cheever and Richard Ford, and announces himself as a promising voice in contemporary fiction.

Below, Stuart discusses the books of his youth, writing without internet, and his love for the short story:

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

Everything about writing is a challenge. Writing fiction is that rare task in which practice and repetition and some perceived confidence only seem to make it harder to do well.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’ve always wanted to write. When I was young––maybe seven or eight––I got as a gift a set of classic novels simplified for children. These were the first books I ever really loved. Most of them were adventure stories: Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine. Ever since then I’ve wanted to write.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m not sure if I have an intended audience in mind when I work. The best and most surprising thing about writing a book is that it goes out into the world, and you never know who might pick it up and read it and find a connection in the work.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just published a new novel called Wise Men. Apart from that, I’m in the middle of two projects. Both of them are novels––or at least, right now they are.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just started Richard Ford’s Canada, and so far it’s terrific.

Top 5 Favorite Books

This is impossible to do, but here are five books I love:

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

I’ve always wanted to write, as long as I can remember.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

If there is a mountaintop, I would hope, simply, that it means that I’ve had the opportunity to keep working and writing.

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

I’ve shed just about all the superstitions and limits and quotas and page-limits that I used to toy with and try. I prefer to write early, and often. I write on a computer without any internet access, and although it never used to be this way, increasingly I write in silence, without music on in the background. And I always leave myself a hint for the next day’s work.

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

Although I’m writing another novel now, I’d love it if people read The Book of Life and sought out more short fiction because of it. I love the short story. It’s a beautiful art form and one that I think is under appreciated. That’s what I would love.

Stuart Nadler is a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he was also the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Wise Men, and the story collection The Book of Life

Book Cover of the Week: Vaclav and Lena (Paperback)

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Haley Tanner being named a 2012 "5 under 35" honoree by the National Book Foundation, this week's "Book Cover of the Week" is the paperback edition of her novel Vaclav and Lena, published this past February by Random House. Read Haley's posts for the Visiting Scribe here and also check out fellow 2012 "5 under 35 honoree" and Visiting Scribe Stuart Nadler's posts here.

December Twitter Book Club: The Book of Life

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Sharon Bruce

While trying to save his marriage, a father struggles to reconnect with his newly devout son. A pure-hearted artist finds his devotion cruelly tested, while his true love tries to repent for the biggest mistake of her life... 

Forced together on a trip from Manhattan to Rhode Island, a father and son attempt to reconnect over lobster, cigarettes, and a buried secret. And in the collection’s daring first story, an arrogant businessman begins a forbidden affair during the High Holidays...

The Book of Life is an unforgettable collection of stories about faith, family, grief, love, temptation, and redemption. Written in clear, crystalline prose, these stories signal the arrival of an exciting and bold new writer. We are excited to announce Stuart Nadler as December's featured Twitter Book Club author!

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Stuart Nadler to discuss The Book of Life on Tuesday, December 13th from 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm EST, and keep an eye out on Twitter for our next giveaway– a signed copy of the novel!

The How-To, In Case You’re New:

What is a Twitter Book Club?
A twitter book club provides the opportunity for twitter users to engage in real time conversation about a particular, predetermined book. JBC’s book club aims to provide readers with an opportunity to discuss Jewish interest titles with other interested readers electronically.

To participate…

If you aren’t already a Twitter user, please join twitter here. (Confused about Twitter all together? Visit the twitter twitorial. Follow the Jewish Book Council (@jewishbook). During the designated time and date of the book club follow the conversation by searching for #JBCBooks. If you would like to actively participate, please include #JBCBooks at the end of any comments or questions you wish to contribute.

(Note: New twitter users may have to wait up to a week before their tweets get saved in hashtag searches. Open a twitter account at least a week and a half before this discussion in order to join us!)

We hope you’ll join and enjoy the conversation! If you have something to say or a question to ask, feel free to jump in, and don’t forget to include #JBCBooks at the end of any tweet so that other participants can engage with you.

Praying Outdoors

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stuart Nadler blogged for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series about casting off one’s sins and the stories that didn’t make it.

They were small, felt, ringed in blue. We wore them to meals, to all of them, and of course, to services on Fridays and Saturdays. You were given two at the start. If you lost them, they were a few dollars to replace. Of course, they were yarmulkes, even though we never called them that, choosing, instead, to call them beanies. To have called them yarmulkes, I suppose, would have been to place them in a more strict religious context, that, as boys, we may have shirked from. Or found uncool. It’s hard to remember now. This was my summer camp near Cape Cod, a tiny, wooded outpost flanked by a fresh water lake, a dozen creaky, wooden bunks.

Even as a young kid, I recognized the chapel as something beautiful. To get there you had to walk along the water. There was a fence that separated the field from the lake. We’d go in what was supposed to be our best clothing. But we were young, and we were boys, and inevitably, we were filthy. I remember having to go down a slope, although this might be inaccurate. It’s been fifteen years since I was there last, and the photographs I’ve found on the web don’t do justice to my memories. There were three sections of benches arranged in a half-circle. Plain wooden benches like the sort you’d see at a softball field. And there was a bimah, a makeshift pulpit. Behind this was the water. There were high trees surrounding us, white pine, black gum, red spruce. The chapel, I realize now, was nothing but a landscaped clearing. There was another summer camp along the lake, a YMCA camp. And there were a few houses dotting the shore. One of them had an airplane docked out front, its landing gear retrofitted for the water, and occasionally, during services, if you were lucky, you’d see the pilot take off, or land, and then, a few moments later, you’d see the water lap up against the shore – small, insistent waves.

Most of us were secular, if not entirely unobservant in our usual lives, and these services amounted to the totality of our religious experiences. One summer, a boy had his bar mitzvah there, all of his friends pitching in together to make it happen. I remember this particular service more than the others. These were small gestures: the beanies, the prayers we sung before our meals, the imposed solemnity of our weekly walk to the chapel. I remember worrying that my yarmulke would blow off in the middle of a service, some lake-born gust of wind taking it and spilling it somewhere. This was a fear one doesn’t suffer in synagogue.

Lately I’ve been thinking about that chapel, about how lovely it was to sit out there in the woods, with the birds out overhead, and that airplane dropping slowly onto the water. There was no better place to pray quietly, to find peace, to feel gratitude at the easy beauty we had around us. I find myself wishing I could back there now, even though, I’m fairly sure I’ve long lost those felt beanies. Although I suppose, for a few dollars, I could get another.

Stuart Nadler has been blogging here all week. He is the author of The Book of Life and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information about booking Stuart, please contact

The Stories that Don’t Make It

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Stuart Nadler blogged for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe about casting off one’s sins

At a certain point in the process, I had to do the cutting. Not the small cutting, the excising of some misplaced lines, the usual reshuffling that revision turns into at the end, everything somehow feeling more surgical than therapeutic. But I had to really cut. To kill some stories. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsentimental of ways – stories that I’d suffered over for months at a time, pulled from the manuscript, put into the drawer. There were fourteen stories. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are seven stories, all handsomely put together and bound and out there for anyone to read. But what about the others, the stories that didn’t make it?

Short story collections are, at their best, a crystallized instance of a writer’s preoccupations. In most cases the medium doesn’t allow for the concentrated energy a novel does, or for the lingering, careful introspection. At their best, a certain incidental beauty emerges, a glancing touch of something lovely, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a wonderful town with a small Jewish Community, but where, after a few months, I found the simple task of buying candles for a menorah nearly impossible. The experience stuck with me. I’d been working on a book about a piano player. I shelved it. Slowly, the stories began to touch one another, their common threads signaling, at first, a deepening fascination about religious identity. My characters, as they emerged, were secular Jews whose notion of their identity was brittle and uninformed. Why did I want those candles so badly, when I barely celebrated any other holidays? At the end of one of these stories, a character whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jewish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quickly, things changed. Other threads emerged: struggling families, adulterous lovers, estranged brothers. My preoccupations were shifting.

There is a distance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actually writes about. Outlines become useless, taunting things. A collection of stories becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entirely away of. Slowly, this began to happen to me. The woman who eventually became my editor helped me realize that the characters I’d been writing weren’t all religious, but they were all Jews. If nothing else, this was the thread.

Photo by Nina Subin

John Cheever’s advice on putting together a story collection was to put the best story up front, the next best story last, and then arrange everything else in the middle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for publication, an occassion that to me felt like my own, private Hanukkah miracle: my book of stories would go out into the world! But there was a whole separate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a story about a brother whose twin is dying. A story about a family whose adopted son is a painting prodigy. There is a story about a boxer who falls in love with his opponent. I’m this book’s only reader now. It’s a funny thing to see: my slight obsessions rising up and falling away. My plans for a perfectly round collection loosening. This book doesn’t have a handsome cover, or a title, or really, to be honest, any future. But it exists, if for no other reason, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cutting and cutting and cutting.

Stuart Nadler is the author of The Book of Life. Check back tomorrow for his final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Casting Off

Monday, September 26, 2011 | Permalink

Stuart Nadler's first book, The Book of Life, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.

Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.

But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.

Stuart Nadler will be blogging here all week and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network.

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