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.