with Bar­bara M. Bibel

A. J. Sidransky’s nov­els For­giv­ing Máximo Roth­man and For­giv­ing Mariela Cama­cho com­bine his­to­ry and mys­tery to pro­vide read­ers with excite­ment and a look at impor­tant issues. His main char­ac­ters, New York City Police detec­tives Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gon­za­lvez, rep­re­sent two of the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in Manhattan’s Wash­ing­ton Heights; despite their dif­fer­ent back­grounds, they are close friends, solv­ing dif­fi­cult cas­es, sup­port­ing each oth­er, and deal­ing with com­plex fam­i­ly issues. 

Bar­bara Bibel: Both of your For­giv­ing nov­els deal with immi­grants and refugees in dif­fer­ent eras. One deals with refugees dur­ing World War II, the oth­er deals with Sovi­et Jews; both deal with the Domini­can com­mu­ni­ty. How do these expe­ri­ences differ?

A. J. Sidran­sky: I want­ed to write about immi­gra­tion. When I moved to Wash­ing­ton Heights, I encoun­tered three immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties: Ger­man Ortho­dox Jews who moved there in the 1930s, Domini­cans, and Russ­ian Jews from the for­mer Sovi­et Union placed there by the Hebrew Immi­grant Aid Soci­ety (HIAS). Lat­er Gen­er­a­tion X‑ers start­ed to move in. None of these groups inter­act­ed. Each com­mu­ni­ty was try­ing to recre­ate its for­mer life, a bit of home in a far­away land. They all want the same thing: a bet­ter life. They arrive with high expec­ta­tions, but the new place is nev­er what they expect. When they go back for a vis­it, it is nev­er the same.

BB: Where did you get the idea for this series?

AJS: Máximo’s sto­ry is actu­al­ly based on my uncle’s life. He and his wife escaped the Nazis, end­ed up in an Ital­ian camp, and went to Sosúa, Domini­can Repub­lic. He lost the rest of his fam­i­ly. The sto­ry of the Jew­ish refugees in the Domini­can Repub­lic is not well known and my books give read­ers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about it.

The sto­ry of Mariela Cama­cho is based on more cur­rent events. There is no sta­bil­i­ty in the Domini­can Repub­lic: cor­rup­tion is ram­pant and there are no jobs. Since 1961, Trujillo’s suc­ces­sors have ruled, pock­et­ing any for­eign aid that comes in, so the only oppor­tu­ni­ty for earn­ing mon­ey is drug traf­fick­ing to the Unit­ed States, Spain, and Italy, through the Domini­can com­mu­ni­ties abroad.

BB: Fam­i­lies are impor­tant in your books: Pete’s wife, Glyn­nis, has to con­tend with his infi­deli­ty; Tolya and Pete both have father issues; Máximo and his son, Shlo­mo, have a dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship because Shlo­mo has become obser­vant. How do you deal with such com­plex relationships?

AJS: Fam­i­lies are the source of sta­bil­i­ty as well as the source of con­flict. My char­ac­ters illus­trate both of these. Both Tolya and Pete are immi­grants. This is a basis for bond­ing. Add to this the fact that they are part­ners in the police depart­ment and they become broth­ers. Both of them also have father issues: Tolya’s father was ruth­less and abu­sive; Pete’s was absent — is uncle Poli­to served as a sur­ro­gate father, but he is a crim­i­nal, which makes the rela­tion­ship very com­plex. Both men are very devot­ed to their wives and chil­dren, despite Pete’s prob­lem with fideli­ty. I plan to write a third book, For­giv­ing Steven Red­man—who becomes Shlo­mo Roth­man — to address that story.

BB: Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is a very strong ele­ment in your books. Is it an impor­tant issue for you?

AJ: Yes. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty today is too divi­sive. Inter­mar­riage is a fact of life today. We need to stop wor­ry­ing about how Jew­ish a per­son is and start wel­com­ing peo­ple if we are to sur­vive; we need to be more inclu­sive and accepting.

BB: Have you spent time in the Domini­can Republic?

AJS: Yes, I go every year, to Sosúa. The coun­try is very poor and there is lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty there because the gov­ern­ment is cor­rupt, but the peo­ple are warm and welcoming.

BB: How do you research your sto­ries? Do you work from an out­line, or do you let your char­ac­ters drive?

AJS: I always have a gen­er­al idea for my sto­ries, but I let the char­ac­ters dic­tate the plot. I did not know who the mur­der­er was until I was two-thirds of the way into the sto­ry of Máximo Roth­man. And I do exten­sive research; I used my uncle’s sto­ries and read three books on Sosúa for the For­giv­ing books. The project dic­tates the research, but I do not take too much lib­er­ty with history.

BB: Your nov­els are crossovers. They are mar­ket­ed as mys­ter­ies, but they are also his­tor­i­cal nov­els. You use flash­backs very effec­tive­ly to tell your sto­ries. Do you feel a need to label them?

AJS: Not at all! I find it is much hard­er to get my books pub­lished because they are crossovers. Pub­lish­ers like to fit them into a spe­cif­ic niche; I pre­fer that they not be for­mu­la­ic. I hope that this will change, and that the pub­lish­ing world will become more open to non-tra­di­tion­al formats.

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.