IS THE NOVEL'S PROTAGONIST BASED ON YOUR OLDER BROTHER YANKEL, WHO CAME TO BOSTON IN 1991, MORE THAN 60 YEARS AFTER YOU? My older brother Yankel fought at Stalingrad, came to the United States after the implosion of the Soviet Union, and like the novel's Alex Shapiro, had no love for Stalinist Communism, and he worked hard to make a living, but there the resemblance ends. Yankel was not an intellectual and would not be quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marcus Aurelius.
DESPITE HIS YEARS IN THE US, SHAPIRO LOOKS AT THIS COUNTRY AS IF FROM ACROSS A GULF. WHY IS HE SO REPELLED BY THE NARCISSISM HE SEES ALL AROUND HIM? As the main character Alex sees it, the major problem with narcissism is not that you're wasting a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror, but that your self-absorption empties you of any empathy that you may possess as a human being. In one scene, Alex and another character come up with a fairly long list of "false gods," many of them arising from a culture that seems obsessed with gastronomy, fashion, loveless sex, entertainment, and general self-adulation. When you're carrying all that inside you, you have no room for any concern for the needs of others. Unfortunately, too often, we fail to distinguish between self-esteem and self-absorption, and our individualism leads to narcissism.
YOU SAY, "AS ALEX SEES IT." NOT YOU? Well, Alex and I agree on many things, but not all, and the intensity of our feelings may differ, because, obviously, we are living different lives. But since we are both octogenarians — like Alex, I prefer not to talk numbers, since it invites profiling — we share the same vantage point. But, as you know, there are five [points of view] in The Fitting — and obviously they all cannot possibly be speaking for me.
YOU'RE NOW ONE OF THE OLDEST ACTIVE PROFESSORS AT UMASS-LOWELL. WHY DO YOU ENJOY THE BIBLE CLASS SO MUCH? I still teach "The Bible as Literature," but it can't really be taught just as literature. It's religion, ethics, history, philosophy, culture. What I try to do in my classes is get young people from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from fundamentalist to atheist, to join, harmoniously, in appreciation of what may very well be the most influential book in human history, certainly in Western history.
YOU STARTED WORKING ON THE FITTING IN THE 1950S. DID YOU EVER THINK IT WOULD SEE PRINT JUST MONTHS BEFORE THE END OF THE MAYAN LONG-COUNT CALENDAR IN 2012? Way back, it was a short story, then an aborted novel. Many years later it was a play. It was a finalist in three competitions, but I was unable to get a production. Finally, after I semi-retired, I decided to make use of my free time to get the damn thing done! And so I spent almost a year, radically revising the entire work, pouring much of my heart and mind into it, until I was satisfied that I had written a novel that said what I wanted to say.
ANY ADVICE TO POTENTIAL UP-AND-COMING WRITERS WITH UNFINISHED OR ABANDONED MANUSCRIPTS? Advice to young writers: don't wait so long to up and come! Advice to old writers: so long as you're still around, you still have time to up and come!
Alex Zaitchik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.