Q: What prompted you to write The Book of Jonah? Where did the initial idea come from?
A: Before I began, I had the idea of writing a book of ten short stories, all of which would be reimaginings of biblical tales. To me, the Bible, outside its function as a theological document, represents a vast collection of compelling human stories—stories of family, sacrifice, betrayal, exile, love, faith and hope. Human drama is at the heart of the Bible; there is a reason people have been reading it for thousands of years, after all. The first story I began developing for this project was based on the book of Jonah, and the more I worked on it, the more material I found to explore. Eventually, what I’d initially envisioned as a short story became the novel The Book of Jonah.
Q: The Book of Jonah is a modern retelling of the biblical book of Jonah. Why did you choose this particular book in the Old Testament?
A: I’ve been fascinated by the book of Jonah ever since I first encountered it, probably as a third grader in Hebrew school. The text is rich with irony, reversals, unexpected humor, and vivid imagery—including, of course, one of the most memorable images in the entire Bible: Jonah in the belly of a giant fish. Even those with little familiarity with the Bible generally know that aspect of Jonah’s story, which I think points to how resonant that idea—literally, metaphorically—is for people.
What ultimately drew me to the book of Jonah as a work to explore in my own writing, though, was its remarkable treatment of the relationship between Jonah and God. This is a book, in a religious text, in which the presumed prophet does everything he can to escape God’s commands, and, when he is finally forced to acquiesce, does nothing but complain about the outcome. In other words, the relationship between Jonah and God is depicted as a complicated and in many ways a troubled one. I see something remarkably honest in that portrayal, and it’s a characterization of humanity’s connection to the divine that I think many people today, myself included, can identify with.
Q: What is your interpretation of Jonah’s story, and how do you relay that in your own novel?
A: In the Bible, the book of Jonah begins with God, out of nowhere, telling Jonah to travel to the other end of the ancient world and deliver a prophecy. That abruptness is striking to me: Here’s Jonah going about his business on an ordinary day, and the next thing he knows, God is giving orders. And that’s essentially the conceit I tried to put at the heart of the early parts of the novel. The protagonist, Jonah Jacobstein, is a young, ambitious lawyer, juggling career and relationship pressures. Then, out of nowhere, he is confronted with what he perceives to be a divine vision. And like the biblical Jonah, he does what I think most reasonable people would do: He tries to forget what he saw, ignore it, escape it, go on with his life. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work any better for him than it does for the biblical character, and his life quickly unravels.
Jonah ends up in Amsterdam, and his time there is my metaphorical re-creation of the biblical Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish. Jonah’s life has been entirely consumed by the visions and their aftermath; in trying to escape them, he’s found himself more ensnared. But it is only at this point, at his moment of greatest desperation, that Jonah, like his biblical antecedent, finds it in himself to consent to what he understands to be his mission. He journeys to Las Vegas to find Judith, the novel’s other protagonist, a woman he’s met only briefly. Broadly speaking, then, the arc of the novel is the arc I identify in the biblical tale: Jonah resisting but eventually coming to terms with his visions and trying to follow through on their meaning. But the biblical book of Jonah is a work that defies straightforward resolution: The text literally contains more questions than answers. Even the final words of the text are an unanswered question. I tried to be true to this lingering sense of mystery in the final chapters of the novel.
Q: After Jonah’s life is completely uprooted he has an epiphany: That faith has actually been a constant in his life, albeit a secular and less formal version – the faith that “everything will be okay.” It is at this moment that he realizes he’s lost everything, including his faith that “everything will be all right.” At the end of the novel Jonah seems have a different view about faith. Can you explain his journey?
A: Ultimately Jonah’s journey is about making peace with the unknown, with mystery. In contemporary society, we don’t have much patience for the unknown. Between big data-driven algorithms and the promise of neuroscience, we like to think we’re on the verge of total understanding of and control over our lives. Unfortunately, that’s a fairy tale. And one dynamic running through the novel is the inevitable conflict between a modern mind-set grounded in logic and reason, and the experience of the inexplicable. For Jonah, this experience takes the form of his mysterious, apocalyptic visions; for Judith, it is cataclysmic loss in the death of her parents. And I believe that all of us, in one form or another, are confronted by events that contradict our understanding of the world around us. At the beginning of the book, Jonah sees his life as something that is solely his to define and dictate; a large part of his distress as things start to fall apart around him is over the loss of that control. By the end of the book, though, he accepts that there are some aspects of existence that can’t be controlled, some questions that cannot be answered.
Q: When we meet Jonah, you describe him as a put-together and good looking young man, not really connected to his Jewish roots. You describe Judith, the novel’s other protagonist, as having a more characteristically Jewish look. As the novel progresses, they actually reverse their appearances. Judith dyes her hair blonde and has her nose cosmetically altered, and Jonah grows out his hair and beard and never fixes his broken nose. Why did you want them to reverse their physical appearances, and why is this significant?
A: That's a great observation, and I do think there is a reversal that occurs between Jonah and Judith. In Las Vegas, Judith is the one who is ensconced in a career with a set of rules and values unto itself, just as Jonah was in New York. To be honest, though, I wasn’t (consciously) thinking about that reversal in physical terms. To me, the physical changes that occur in the characters reflect their experiences of the world: Jonah increasingly beleaguered, Judith progressively transformed.
Q :Do you have a particular hope for Jonah and Judith after the book ends?
A: I can honestly say I’ve never thought about it. My journey with these characters was the journey of writing the book, and when I was done with the book, we parted ways. I also avoided providing specific notions of what they would do next because in a book about accepting life’s fundamental uncertainties, it wouldn’t seem appropriate to spell out exactly what became of them. Some things are better left to the imagination of the reader.
Q: What was your childhood like? How did this influence the writing of the book?
A: I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town that proudly proclaims its proximity to five colleges, so my upbringing was similar to Judith’s in its focus on academics, though I was not (quite) as obsessive about school as she is. Also, both of my parents are psychologists, and while they generally spared me any dinner-table analysis, I know their perspective shaped the way I write, specifically my attention to the way characters think. All the details in the book about what the characters understand about themselves or fail to understand about themselves, how they see the world and their place in it—all of that overlaps pretty clearly with the purview of psychology. Finally, while, as I mentioned above, there are plenty of devout people in my extended family, my parents themselves always showed an academic’s skepticism with regard to matters of faith and religion. This further contributed to an open, exploratory attitude on my part with regard to matters of faith.
Q: As a Jewish man, how important was religion (and even faith) to you while writing this book? How did Judaism inspire the story?
A: Again, I was first introduced to the book of Jonah in the context of my faith—as part of that scourge of Jewish American childhood, Hebrew school. Further, Judaism emphasizes the value of the active interpretation of texts: You’re meant to study, question, debate, argue over the meaning of what you read in synagogue. That tradition of active textual engagement was certainly part of my inspiration for writing the novel, which you could even say is a sort of extended gloss on the biblical book of Jonah.
In addition, like many Jews of my generation, I’m a product of a mixed marriage. Growing up, I can remember in a single weekend visiting aunts who were Catholic nuns in their convent and then celebrating Hanukkah with my grandparents on Long Island. I think the effect of this broad, kaleidoscopic exposure to religion was that questions of belief and ritual and God and the rest of it were always active and open in my mind. My novel is in many ways a further exploration of those questions.
Q: You are a world traveler and have lived for extended periods of time in Russia, England, Switzerland and China. How did place influence your decision to set parts of the book in various cities around the globe?
A: For starters, the biblical story takes Jonah all over the world, and part of the decision to set the book in different places across the globe was my desire to be true to that aspect of the source material: I wanted the novel, like the biblical text, to have an expansive feel.
Beyond that, I believe that some places—in life and in fiction—have certain implicit tensions to them. In New York, you can see jarring contrasts in class on any subway car. In Amsterdam, as in many places in Europe, you have the juxtaposition of an utterly placid present with a truly apocalyptic recent history. Typically, we ignore these tensions. But as the novel goes on, Jonah finds it harder and harder to ignore uncomfortable truths—about himself, about people, and about places. I tried to set the novel in cities that become richer, more complicated the more closely you look at them.
Q: Is there anything else you would like the reader to know?
A: Just that, while I’ve talked a lot about religion in these answers, I don’t see The Book of Jonah as a religious novel. I tried to ground the events of the book, however extraordinary, in the personalities and reactions of its characters. First and foremost, The Book of Jonah is the story of people grappling with experiences that directly counter what they expected from their lives.
Further, Jonah and Judith don’t know each other at the start of the book, and they only come to know each other after their lives have fallen apart. And it’s through their relationship that they are able to make something like peace with what they’ve experienced. I want to emphasize this point because I feel it’s an important one for the novel overall: I hoped to portray in The Book of Jonah my belief that our greatest resource in trying to find the answers to life’s mysteries and calamities and uncertainties is the people around us.