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?

SRNot 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?

SRNo. 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?

SRIn 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?

SRI 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?

SRThe 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?

SRNo, 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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.