Jonathan Papernick was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He lived in Israel during the mid 1990s, working as a journalist. His first collection of short stories The Ascent of Eli Israel was published  in 2002. His first novel entitled, Who by Fire, Who by Blood was published in 2007. In 2010 Papernick came up with his alter-ego persona Papernick the Book Peddler based on the great Yiddish writer, Mendele the Book Peddler, and sold his book in farmers' markets with an updated fluorescent pushcart. Papernick is currently Writer-in Residence at Emerson College. He lives outside Boston with his wife and sons.

Short Story Collections

There is No Other
(Exile Editions, 2010)

reviewed by Tania Hershman

The Ascent of Eli Israel (2002)

Interview with Jonathan Papernick

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Jonathan Papernick:  I wrote the stories over a number of years as I was working on a novel. Some of the stories were written rather quickly, such as the two short flash fiction pieces that were added to the collection just before the book went off to press. A couple of the stories took years, with long breaks in between. I actually started the story A Kiss for Mrs. Fisch, in 2000 when I was in graduate school and couldn't figure out a way to fit if thematically into my first collection. I had sort of given up on it before I revisited the story five or six years later. The Last Five-Year Plan, also had a long incubation period. I wrote the first three or four pages back in 2003, and finished it three or four years later.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

JP: I don't think I had a collection in mind until I had a certain number of stories in the can. After I had three or four, I started to realize that there was definitely an overarching theme taking shape and that issues of that elusive "other," whether spiritual or physical in life was present in all of my stories. In many ways, writing a collection of short stories is a lot like putting together an album, and a number of stories or songs end up on the cutting room floor.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

JP: I did choose what stories to include, and in which order. Initially I wanted the title story There Is No Other to be the first story in the collection since I thought it was the strongest and spoke to the themes that appear throughout the rest of the collection. However, after I wrote Skin for Skin, just before the book was about to be sent off to the printer, I felt that I had written a story that a majority of readers could appreciate and absorb quickly which would move them within three pages into what I thought was the strongest story in the collection. I hoped that once a reader had read those two stories, they would be hooked and would complete the collection. I also tried to arrange the stories somewhat chronologically with stories of youth appearing early on and stories of old age and loneliness and redemption coming at the end of the collection. A couple of the stories were removed at the suggestion of my editor, and though I think they were good stories, I don't know if they would have made the collection necessarily better, so I agreed to take them out. Perhaps I'll do a collection of "b-sides" one day.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

JP: If by "story" you mean short story, I like to think about a human experience compressed and crafted down to a manageable size. A story should change a reader in some subtle way, or else there is no point in having written it.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

JP: I don't really have a reader in mind besides myself. I try and write the kinds of stories that I would like to read, so ultimately I write to please myself, and I my biggest fan. I grew up watching reruns of the Twilight Zone and so many of those stories made the reader hang on until the very last moment, and I hope that my stories force the reader to hang on until the very last word.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

JP: I keep hearing that people don't really like to read short stories, and I certainly don't believe that. I think I'd like to ask my readers if they believe that they're up to the task of changing the perception that short stories are a thing of the past and speak passionately on behalf of short fiction the way that many speak of novels. The short story offers much of the humanness that is found in novels, however compressed into a manageable size that fits so well into our busy lives. Short stories are not the ugly stepsister of the novel. Can you do your part to change that perception?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

JP: I recently had a graduate student from Germany friend me on Facebook who is doing her doctoral thesis on American Jewish writers and their perceptions of Israel and she is writing about my work along with that of my mentor Melvin Bukiet and my all-time literary hero Philip Roth among others, and it was exhilarating to know that nine years after my first book was published somebody half a world away is drawing meaning for my words and stories. Of course, in this age of information overload, it is easy to look over your shoulder at a colleague who is selling a lot of books and wonder what they are doing better. That said, I believe I'm writing lasting fiction that can be read now or ten years from now and still be appreciated so I'm in it for the long-haul, and hope that people continue to discover my work and read it and tell their friends to read as well. It is exciting to know that people are buying my books when they have so many other choices as to how to spend their money. I recently walked into a local bookstore, and wondered how can a writer make his book stand out amongst 100,000 other books. I guess that's part of the reason that I started selling my books myself via pushcart at farmers markets. It's much easier for a collection of short stories to compete with arugula or goat cheese than it is to compete with bestsellers and Nobel Prize winners, and some days, I have sold more than a dozen books in just a couple of hours.

TSR: What are you working on now?

JP: I am supposed to be working on a novel entitled The Sunday Synagogue Softball League, however I haven't done much over the past couple of months ever since my agent read it and said that he loved it. I have about 20,000 words, and really like what I'm working on, but I'm having issues with the plot, and unlike short stories is a lot harder to plunge forward into the darkness and figure things out, so I would like to get a better sense as to where I'm going before I really get back to work.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

JP: I've been busy teaching, so I'm a little bit behind with my reading. I'm just finishing 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories and I'm really liking the majority of the stories. I particularly liked a short story entitled Rubiaux Rising, by Steve De Jarnatt. Interestingly, I shared it with my students at Emerson College, and many of them did not like the story at all, which I think is really interesting, how little consensus there really is about what is good and what is not. I also recently read Break It Down by Lydia Davis and I'm still trying to figure out what she is all about. For years I had resisted reading her after seeing some of her stories in magazines and feeling that they were inscrutable. I certainly respect her craft and many of the stories are still on my mind now. She certainly deserves rereading, and will probably share work with my students as well and see how they take to her.I don't want to seem like I'm pandering, but I also read the White Road by you [Tania Hershman, Short Review editor] and really enjoyed the weirdness of many of your stories.
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>