The ProsenPeople

Interview: Stuart Rojstaczer

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Juli Berwald

Stuart Rojstaczer spoke with Juli Berwald about his rollicking new novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva. (Yes, rollicking and mathematician really do belong together in that sentence.)

Juli Berwald: What was it about mathematicians that fascinated you enough to create this world of mathematicians?

Stuart Rojstaczer: The idea for this novel came to me when we had a mathematician over for dinner, an Eastern European mathematician. He kept staring at my three-year-old daughter. I had no idea what that was all about.

After dinner he asked, "So, vat mathematics are you teaching your girl?"

I answered, "She knows how to count."

"Count?" he spit. "That girl is a prodigy! You should be teaching her algebra! Right now! She should know calculus by the time she is six!"

From that dinner, which lingered in my head for many years, I started thinking about what would it be like to be a female mathematical genius. And in particular, what would it be like to be an Eastern European female mathematical genius. From those questions, I developed my character, Rachela, a female mathematical genius, born about 1930 in a region of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, who survives World War II. She comes to the United States and does incredibly well. But she finds that, even for her—the best mind of her generation—there is a glass ceiling.

JMB: And then, you killed off Rachela in the first chapter. How could you?

SR: She needed to go. The plot revolves around a rumor that she has solved the famous Navier-Stokes problem and she's going to take the solution to her grave. If I kept her alive longer, that major plot element would get diluted. Also, she's such a colorful character that if I had kept her alive, she would not have given the other characters room to breath. She's a scene-stealer, and you can't have a scene-stealer present throughout the whole book.

But I still wanted Rachela to live in people's minds because she is the sun around which all the other characters orbit. I needed her presence, and that's why her memoirs are interspersed throughout the rest of the book. So, she's dead but not dead.

JMB: You seem to have intimate knowledge of mathematicians and mathematicians’ lives. Have you ever lived with mathematicians?

SR: Not at all. A common comment I get from friends who have read the book is, "Oh, I didn't know your parents were both mathematicians." They weren’t. My parents lived through World War II, which changed their lives dramatically. My father maybe had a fourth grade education; my mother maybe seventh grade. There were no math books in my house. There weren't books of any kind in my house.

However, I was a geophysicist and hydrologist for decades. I worked for the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey, and at Duke University. I have taken a fair number of math classes and advanced math classes. I have sat in on mathematical physics lectures and taken classes with math graduate students.

Through that exposure, I got to know the world of math.

JMB: Rachela’s story is intertwined with her Judaism. Do you see math and Judaism as interconnected?

SR: No. Certainly there are many mathematicians who are Jewish, a disproportionate number. But that’s not why Rachela is religious.

I grew up with an Orthodox background. The only way I could write fiction was by writing about people who are tied to Jewish experience in a strong way. It’s what brings out the emotional range and depth that I need to write well. So when I started this book, I knew that the central character had to be devout. Rachela and her family are deeply religious people because I needed them to be.

I also needed seven days to tell my story. Most people don't sit shiva for seven days anymore. I needed someone religious enough that people would actually sit shiva for them for seven days.

JMB: The Russian characters in the book often criticize the U.S. for its anti-intellectualism. How come?

SR: In most immigrant literature that's published in the United States, the immigrant feels somehow inferior to the vastness of this country, to the sophistication of its people. I've always found this to be curious because the immigrants that I've known—not just Eastern European or Russian but also Chinese and Indian—feel superior to Americans. They feel like this is a wonderful country, partly because of the freedom, but also because the competition is so inept. They feel American-born people are lazy, not very smart, not very ambitious. This is a constant thread that I've heard in immigrant discussions—not just Eastern European—and I wanted to make sure it was present for accuracy, emotional and otherwise.

JMB: I love the use of multiple languages in the book. Do you flip around among languages in your daily life the way your characters do?

SR: I was raised in a neighborhood of war survivors. People either spoke completely in Yiddish or they would speak English throwing in foreign language phrases when they did not know an English equivalent. If in Russian, or in Hebrew, or in Polish something resonated more, they would just throw it in. I was trying to mimic what Diaspora variants of English sound like.

Nowadays, I speak some Yiddish phrases with my wife, or sometimes Polish. I've been with her so long, that she understands. But, I really only speak Yiddish with my cat.

JMB: What’s next?

SR: The Mathematician’s Shiva is the first in a trilogy of books that I want to write about war survivors. The second, which I'm working on now, doesn’t have any math at all. It is, for lack of a better description, water-related. The third is actually soccer-related. All the characters in the three books are different.

JMB: So, no one gets a cameo?

SR: No, Rachela won’t rise from the dead. But maybe there’s a small part for her brother, Shlomo. He's worth a scene in probably every novel I write.

Juli Berwald, Ph.D., is a science writer based in Austin, TX. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic Magazine,, Redbook, as well as well as The Austin Jewish Outlook and Drashpit. She is currently writing a book about jellyfish and what it means to grow a spine.

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The Author Talks To His Mom About The Mathematician’s Shiva

Thursday, September 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week Stuart Rojstaczer wrote about why he considers himself a Jewish writer. Today he talks with his mother about his recently published debut novel, The Mathematician's Shiva. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series

Scene: The kitchen of Mrs. Rachel Rojstaczer. She has a thick manuscript in a three-ring binder open on the kitchen table. She’s drinking tea out of a glass and reading when her son, Stuart, walks in with a toolbox.

Stuart: Hi Mom. I just came by to fix the kitchen sink. It won’t take much time.

You reading my novel?

Rachel: Reading it? I finished it. Now I’m thinking about it (fingering through the pages a bit).

Stuart: And?

Rachel: Sit down.

(Stuart sits down at the kitchen table across from his mother waiting to hear the news. He’s given his mother the manuscript so that she can kvell, not so that he can hear criticism; but he knows that criticism comes with the territory.)

Rachel: This novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva. I have a problem with this book. With the main character in fact. A big problem.

Stuart: And what is it?

Rachel: The character, Rachela Karnokovitch. It’s me. It’s a copy of me. A carbon copy. And you’ve killed her off. Dead from cancer. Do I look dead to you?

Stuart: It’s not you, Mom. The character is 100 percent made up. Honest.

Rachel: Oh really. It isn’t me. Tun nicht zan a ligner, Shtulelah. Ich bin don mameh, nicht a lalka un a kop. (Don’t think you can lie to me, Stuart. I’m your mother, not a bimbo.)

Stuart: Red English mameh. (Speak English, mother.)

Rachel: Red English? The cameraman can put in subtitles after, davkah. Mr. Cameraman, you know how to do subtitles?

Cameraman (not visible): Of course, Mrs. Rojstaczer. We can do whatever you want.

Rachel (to Stuart): See. I knew it. Now, vie ben ich giveyn. Oh yeah, the character is not me? What’s her name?

Stuart: Roochela.

Rachela. Right. Same as me. Where she was born?

Stuart: Vladimir Volynsk, Poland.

Rachel. Right. Sixty kilometers from where I was born. Your father’s town. And where was this Roochela during the war?

Stuart: In Vorkuta, near the Barents Sea.

Rachel: Right. In a Russian work camp, like me. Not in Kolyma, like me, but further north. Why did you put me there anyway?

Stuart: I needed it to be near the ocean.

Rachel: OK, so you make me born in your father’s hometown. You tell everyone my exact age. You put me in Vorkuta during the war. You make me into a genius mathematician who studies in Moscow, defects, teaches in the United States, solves Dilbert’s Problems…

Stuart: It’s Hilbert’s Sixth Problem Mom, not Dilbert’s Problems.

Rachel: Like anyone will know the difference and don’t interrupt me. I solve this hundred-year-old problem, Dilbert, Hilbert…

Stuart: That’s the rumor, mameh, that you solved it. Hold on, I didn’t mean to say you. It’s not you. She’s made up. The character is made up.

Rachel: I said don’t interrupt me. Not your mother. It’s rude. I am rumored to have solved a hundred-year-old problem, but I won’t reveal it to anyone. And then you kill me off? Your own mother, you give cancer and you kill off in a novel? It’s a mishagos what you’ve done! Who is going to buy such a book? Who is going to publish it?

Stuart: It’s already been sold, mameh. I was going to tell you today. Surprise you after I was done with the kitchen sink. Penguin Books bought it.

Rachel: Penguin Books bought it? When was this?

Stuart: Last week. I was waiting to get the letter to show it to you. I got it yesterday.

Rachel: Interesting. What’s this about the money in the letter?

Stuart: They pay you an advance before they publish the book.

Rachel: You don’t have to give it back no matter what?

Stuart: No, I don’t have to give it back. I’m going to use it to remodel the bathroom.

Rachel: That’s a good idea. You should have done it years ago. The pipes rattle. Is there going to be a movie?

Stuart: A movie of the book?

Rachel: Yeah, I’m thinking about it. You write a novel. A good novel. I’m proud of you even if you did kill me off. They need to make a movie version. War And Peace. Gone With the Wind. There’s always a movie.

Stuart: Maybe. I don’t know.

Rachel: Not maybe. Definitely. There’s going to be a movie version. You sign the contract yet?

Stuart: Not yet. You know how lawyers are. It takes weeks.

Rachel: Good, because I’m thinking. Who’s going to play me in the movie version? I want a say. Who could play me? Hmm. I know just the actress. Meryl Streep. You put it in the contract. If they make a movie, Rachela must be played by Meryl Streep. The lady can act. And classy, too. Now she could do me justice.

Stuart Rojstaczer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was educated in public and Orthodox Jewish schools. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has been a Karma Foundation Annual Short Story Finalist and a National Science Foundation Young Investigator. He has written for The New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has appeared in both Science and Nature. He lives with his wife in northern California.

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Why I’m a Jewish Writer

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

Stuart Rojstaczer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was educated in public and Orthodox Jewish schools. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has been a Karma Foundation Annual Short Story Finalist and a National Science Foundation Young Investigator. His debut novel, The Mathematician's Shiva, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for the Visiting Scribe series.

One day last year I was speaking to my cat in the front yard. A neighbor walking by stopped because he was surprised I wasn’t speaking English. “What language are you speaking to your cat?” he asked.

“Yiddish,” I said.

“Your cat knows Yiddish?”

“About as well as she knows any other language.”

My neighbor had set me up unwittingly. He isn’t Jewish. He didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish. How was he supposed to know I was going to turn his innocent question into a joke? But my father, if he were still around and had been on my porch at the time, would have seen what was coming a mile away. My wife, who grew up around Yiddish speakers, would have seen it too had she been there.

When I was a kid, there was something that Jewish men of my dad’s age who had been born in America would sometimes say, “Dress British. Think Yiddish.” Neither my father nor I dressed British when I was growing up. But being born in Poland, my father definitely thought Yiddish. So did my mother, who was also born in Poland. Being around those two, how could I not think Yiddish as well?

We spoke Yiddish in our Milwaukee home. I learned English when I was little by watching shows like Leave It To Beaver. I think Yiddish to this day. My Yiddish is, because I haven’t used it regularly in decades, rusty. And to keep it from disappearing, I speak it to my cat. Don’t think I’m not waiting for the next unsuspecting neighbor to innocently ask what language I’m speaking to her. Jokes, bad and good, are an intrinsic part of Yiddish culture. So is repetition of jokes, both bad and good.

In America, Yiddish has been distorted into some cutesy thing that’s all about jokes, colorful curses, and sentiment. But in my childhood home, it wasn’t a cute language. It was the language of commerce, heated arguments, and sophisticated thought. It was also a language for discussing religion and although I never thought of my family as particularly religious, we kept a kosher home and had a Sabbath meal every week. I’d also be ushered off to read the Old Testament and Rashi with black hats, and attend evening prayers with those black hats, bobbing my head as I prayed, three or four days a week.

Write about what you know, they say. Nowadays, I don’t go to synagogue more than about ten times a year, but given my background, what are the odds that I’m going to write about Anglicans? Or Catholics? Or atheists? Or secular humanists? About the same odds as my cat actually understanding Yiddish.

Write about what’s in your heart, they say, too. My heart, mein hartz, is Jewish. My first language was Yiddish. I look at my face in the mirror in the morning and I know that I don’t look anything like Sylvester Stallone or Alec Baldwin. Who have people confused me with on the street more times that I can remember? Albert Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein. (Yes, Mr. Brooks’ father was a Jewish comedian.). I know who I am, I’m happy to be who I am, and I know what I am: a Jewish writer.

Stuart Rojstaczer has written for The New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has appeared in both Science and Nature. He lives with his wife in northern California. Read more about him here.

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