Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Q&A with Shirley Russak Wachtel




Shirley Russak Wachtel is the author of the new novel A Castle in Brooklyn. Her other books include the story collection Three for a Dollar. She teaches English literature at Middlesex College, and she lives in East Brunswick, New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write A Castle in Brooklyn, and how did you create your characters Jacob, Esther, and Zalman?


A: A Castle in Brooklyn, like all my writing, was inspired by my family. My parents were Holocaust survivors; in fact, my father, like Jacob, was the only survivor in his family. Jacob, Esther, and Zalman represent individuals like my parents, who experience hardship and yearn for a better life in America.


For Jacob, that means building the home he has always dreamed of, and along with it, rebuilding the family he has lost.


Esther, like my own mother and so many others of the period, learns to reinvent herself as experiences change her. She evolves from a young working woman to housewife, and ultimately someone who finds a sense of fulfillment in a teaching career (like myself) and at home.


Zalman is like many people I have known who delight in a close friendship, doing all they can to help others, but eventually discovering their own abilities and carving out a life for themselves.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic among the three?


A: What binds these three characters is their love for Jacob. Zalman loves Jacob not only because he saved his life, but also because he admires his passion, his drive as he pursues home and family, a life Zalman wants to be a part of.


Esther too loves Jacob’s drive, loves him in all the ways a wife can love her husband so that she is even willing to give up a business career to stay home. Later in the novel, she is not quite sure about how to deal with Zalman’s conflicted feelings, but only knows that the three must stay together at all costs.

Jacob comes to understand this too, even though it is too late to restore that dynamic. It is Jacob’s passion that draws the others to him, but also what drives his friend away.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: My intent in writing the novel was to show the life of a home, how the home begins, how it is changed as people come to live there, and ultimately, how it finds its purpose. I usually begin my writing knowing how a novel will end. I wanted the novel to come full circle, ultimately fulfilling Jacob’s dream, and I think I have accomplished that.


As for changes, there are certainly many. As I began writing, I realized that Jacob, his wife, and friend and their relationship became central to the story. While Riku and Francine’s life in the home is different from Jacob’s family, I hope readers will be able to see certain parallels and ironic moments in the tale.


While I do have a general idea of where the novel is headed, it is the characters who lead me into their stories. I was surprised to see Zalman as a farmer, and while I knew that a tragedy would change the course of the novel, I didn’t know exactly how that would occur until I wrote it.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I write about family, friendship, and dreams. These are ideas we can all relate to. Whether they are newly arrived immigrants, people who have lifelong friends, females trying to establish themselves in a career, or those who have experienced loss, it is my hope that readers will see themselves in A Castle in Brooklyn.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently revising a novel tentatively titled My Father’s Songs, which is also about family, but one with a very different dynamic from Jacob’s.  It is a contemporary tale of a girl who is abused but comforted by the “songs,” or poems, written by her father, which she keeps in a dresser drawer. Like Jacob, she is driven to succeed under difficult circumstances.


I am also in the middle of writing another novel, this one about a young woman who is a baker during the 1970s and is haunted by her parents’ experiences in the Holocaust.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am very excited to announce that a launch event for my book will be held at Middlesex College, where I am an English professor, on Jan. 26 at 5pm in Crabiel Hall 102 & 104 (the New Brunswick Rooms) in Edison, New Jersey. If any readers are in the area, I would love to meet them personally!


Also, I want to mention that the publication of this book is the culmination of my lifelong dream. If you work hard and long enough, then nothing, NOTHING is impossible.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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