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).
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?
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.