We recently caught up with Ruchama King Feuerman, whose story “A Beggar’s Place” was our 2011 second-place winner. Since then, her novel, In the Courtyard Of the Kabbalist—in which a forty-year-old haberdasher travels to Israel, becomes a rabbi’s assistant, and meets a Muslim man who alters his life’s course—has been published as an ebook by NYRB Lit, an imprint of the New York Review of Books, and was released in paperback in March, 2014. It was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award in 2013.
How long were you working on In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist? What were its origins?
I started it 10 years ago. I’m very attracted to place, and I had spent time in Israel. I lived there ten years and I had met a number of kabbalists, and I just felt it was a world that I had to create.
How did the book become an ebook, and then a paperback?
It received a lot of nice responses, but it was such a niche book that people were scared to take it on. We get the New York Review of Books, and my husband had seen that they were starting a new imprint. My agent sent it to them, but I didn’t think in a million years that they’d take my book. They’d published prize-winning authors in their own countries—it was mostly translations. To be honest, I didn’t think I had the literary cachet as much as the other authors, but to my surprise they took it on. At that point it had made enough rounds that I didn’t think another publisher was going to take it. It had been rejected by everybody, so I was very happy that it was an ebook.
This is NYRB Lit’s breakout novel—none of the other novels had made it to the paperback stage. The idea behind this imprint is to publish sort of unusual writers that aren’t necessarily going to be something that a commercial publisher is that interested in, something that’s going to broaden understanding of various cultures and worlds. This fit the bill.
What are you working on now?
I’m very interested in interactions between Muslims and Jewish people. Right now I’m trying to research a story set in Albania. Albania’s the one country in Europe where there were more Jews after World War II than before, because so many Muslims there rescued Jews and hid them. I’m really interested in relationships between intensely Jewish people and intensely non-Jewish people—people who are very much of their tribe and religion, so I think that’s a bit of a theme that’s been emerging.
I’ve been playing with another novel. I also have two children’s books coming out in a year, as well. One of them is sort of a modern Moroccan folk tale—my mother’s from morocco—and the other one is a story about a homeschooled girl. And I’m working on some short stories.
Jason K. Friedman–the first-place winner of the 2010 contest for the story “Blue“–is the author of Fire Year, a collection of stories about “the trials religious, cultural and sexual minorities experience in Georgia and the Deep South.” The collection won the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.
How and when did you begin writing?
I think I began writing in my sophomore year of college. I think there was this weird experience that triggered me wanting to write a story—I was doing some volunteer work in New Haven, teaching kids to read. I remember walking through an inner-city neighborhood a block away from campus, and these kids were throwing rocks with snowballs. It wasn’t really that scary, but for some reason this prompted me to write a story. I wrote a very bad story, but I just felt like I needed to express this experience in a short story. Then I wrote another one, which was a better story that won some prizes at Yale and got published in the literary magazine. I was kind of hooked after that. I just stumbled upon a form that let me express certain things.
How long were you working on Fire Year?
Some of the stories are pretty old. Maybe one goes back as far as about eight years ago, but half the stories are very recent, meaning within the year or two before the book got published. You don’t really work on a book—you write stories.
How would you describe the stories in it? What unifies them?
I don’t really describe the book, but the publisher came up with a good description for the back cover: kind of outsider tales. I think that’s pretty good. What’s been interesting to me is how there’s gay stuff and some Jewish stuff and southern stuff. To me they don’t seem like different categories really, but in terms of a book’s marketing and reception and how reviewers talk about the book, it does become very thematic.
Do you see there being anything particularly Jewish about your work? Are there any particular Jewish themes that interest you in your writing?
I think the Jewish theme would be a conflict religion and secular life—maybe a pull toward religion that might cause problems in the secular world. I think I’m different than a lot of writers I know in the sense that I grew up very religious, and I’m not religious any longer, but I still understand the religious impulse. It still means something to me. I don’t feel I’m dismissive of religious types the way a lot of people I know are. I think my stories are about how that impulse conflicts with the more secular impulses, or impulses of the body versus impulse of the spirit from a Jewish angle.
What are you working on now?
I have more stories. I’d say I’m working on a novel too. It’s about Jews, real estate and Savannah. This felt like it needed to be a novel because it talks about history and it’s trying to tackle a little bit of a broader segment of this town and different types of people. It has at least a couple different points of view. So it felt like it needed to be a novel.