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.
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, Wired.com, 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.
- Reading List: Emerging Voices
- Read Stuart Rojstaczer’s Posts for the Visiting Scribe
- Reading List: American Immigrant Tales
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.