Thursday, March 16, 2023

Q&A with Bruce J. Berger




Bruce J. Berger is the author of the new novel To See God. It's the third in a series that also includes The Flight of the Veil and The Music Stalker. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write To See God, and what do you see as the relationship between this novel and your two previous books in this series?


A: I was inspired to write To See God because I wanted to find out what happens to the characters of The Flight of the Veil after that novel ends.


For me, writing is very much about discovering what I need to know as opposed to portraying what I already know. The characters of one novel whose lives go on beyond the ending of that novel are of continuing interest and concern to me.


What did it mean, for example, that Sister Theodora, toward the end of The Flight of the Veil, began to remember Talmudic stories taught to her by her father? What did it mean when the last thing she said in The Flight of the Veil was that she passionately desired “to see God”?


What might happen to the relationship of Nicky Covo, a widower, and Helen Blanco, a widow, when these two old friends meet again and become lovers in The Flight of the Veil?


Every character, if they’re conceived deeply enough, has a life with a continuing story in it, and these are the stories I wanted to discover when I began To See God.


The other novel in the trilogy is The Music Stalker. As with the other novels, it stands alone, i.e., can be read without having read either of the other two novels.


It’s the story of Nicky’s family – his wife Adel, who suffers from schizophrenia, and his two children, Max and Kayla, a piano prodigy. Kayla’s meteoric rise and fall constitute the main plot points, but the theme of the novel is family.


Family is one of many themes that link all three novels. How do loving family members relate to each other when they hold diametrically opposed religious beliefs? Can a loving relationship continue to exist between a man severely burdened by trauma-induced guilt and a woman who knows no such pain?


In To See God, in particular, I explore how a young boy might react when torn, not only between the contrary desires of his separated parents as to custody, but between the demands of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing and the mystical appeals of his Orthodox Christian great-aunt.


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


A: I never know how a novel will end until I get to the end and find out. Accordingly, I don’t think of making changes along the way, because there is no outline or plan to change from.


When I start a novel, I have only a vague idea of some of the things that will happen and an even vaguer idea of how they might happen.


So, in To See God, for example, I knew that Sister Theodora would travel to America to spend time there with her newly discovered family, and that’s about it.


Not the why, not the how, not what the result of such a trip, not how it would end, not what might happen along the way, not who would live and who would die. All these events take place – and I learn about them – as I type.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did most of my research on issues of Orthodox Christianity as part of the preparation for The Flight of the Veil, as so much of that novel is based upon Christian miracles and the beliefs and practices of a devout Orthodox Christian nun.


I continued that research as I wrote To See God and, for example, learned about some of the Christian literature that Sister Theodora would have read.


Additionally, I studied materials relating to whether Jesus has a specific skin color and could be imagined as Black.


Among my research efforts, one of the most important is sharing my drafts with an Orthodox Christian cousin, who is very willing to point out my mistakes, which are quickly corrected.


What surprised me? In attending Orthodox Christian prayer services as part of my research, I learned that much of the chanting there reminded me strongly of the chanting I hear when I participate in Jewish prayer services. Should I have been surprised? Probably not, but I was. I’d love for a way to make this point in my next novel.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “To see God” were Sister Theodora’s last words in The Flight of the Veil and, indeed, the novel ends exactly there. Coming up with the title To See God was not hard when that novel starts with the same utterance at the exact same moment.


The idea of seeing God has so many connotations for me. As a Jew, I believe that God is not to be seen and, indeed, that a human being could never survive such an encounter. When Moses comes near God on Mt. Sinai, God must shield Moses from God’s countenance, lest Moses die immediately.


So these Jewish beliefs clearly contrast with the beliefs of Christians that God can be and was seen in the form of Jesus, indeed, will be seen again when Jesus returns.


In To See God, Sister Theodora’s belief that she has received a Divine message that Jesus does live again in 1991 – in the form of Nicky’s grandson, an Orthodox Jew – and that she must go see Him constitutes the prime moving force of the story.


To me, the story’s title thus signifies how one diverse family comes to grips with these completely divergent views of what and who God is.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have started a fourth novel in this series, tentatively titled Forgiveness. I have very little idea of what’s supposed to happen, although I plan on moving the scene of most action back to the monastery in Greece and its surroundings.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The characters in these novels made their initial appearances in a series of short stories, many of which have been published in a variety of literary journals starting in about 2009. Nate and Adel and Other Stories – along with its brethren collections – have been available on Amazon for e-readers since 2011.


That I’ve been thinking and writing about these characters for more than a decade results in a couple of important consequences.


First, I know these characters almost as well as I know my real family members, and therefore it becomes a bit easier to imagine what they might do in any given circumstance that it otherwise would be.


Second, these characters are real people to me; I care deeply about them, and thus I hope that my writing about them will make them real to my readers as well.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment