Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Q&A with Don Futterman




Don Futterman is the author of the new novel Adam Unrehearsed. He is the founding director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, and is also a co-host of The Promised Podcast. He lives in Israel.


Q: What inspired you to write Adam Unrehearsed, and how did you create your character Adam?


A: I wanted to write about how kids experience boyhood, and how they begin to (partly) grasp the adult universe.


I wanted to describe what it’s like to fall in love with theater, with performing, as Adam feels himself expanding, multiplying, discovering new powers acting on stage.


Initially, I wanted to share with my kids what it was like when I was in junior high school in Flushing in the early 1970s. And I wanted to revisit the heady, exhilarating and sometimes baffling politics that touched my life as an American Jewish kid in New York City, while I was getting ready for my bar mitzvah.


Adam is a public school boy and some of his closest friends are not Jewish – but those classic American Jewish institutions – synagogue, Hebrew School, Jewish summer camp – nourish him, not because he becomes especially religious or spiritual, but by providing a place for him to develop a social conscience and to feel connected to his specific community.


So I wanted to explore that tension Adam feels between the in-group and everybody else, and show organized Jewish life in a positive light, rather than as a source of ridicule.


I first had the idea for the novel when my sons were getting ready for their bar mitzvah. Today they’re 26 so it took a while.


Q: The writer Colum McCann said of the book, “Futterman’s novel brilliantly captures the shifting sands of boyhood friendships, sibling adulation, and the confusion that marks even the best intentions of mentors and students.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think Colum captured something essential about the novel – that at its heart, it’s about relationships. Adam feels betrayed and abandoned by his best friend, and at his best friend’s instigation, by almost their entire circle of boys.


Due to his newfound and unfamiliar social isolation, Adam finds himself open to friendships with kids on the social margins who he might have taken little notice of before, and even with a youth Adam initially perceive as a threat.


All of us find baffled by friendships that are either broken off without our understanding why, or that simply wither away.


Adam’s relationships with multiple mentor figures are also central to the novel. Adam has one older brother, Seth, who Adam always seeks to emulate and impress, and Adam looks up to his father. When their politics diverge, Adam has to decide which one to follow.


Perhaps because he’s so close to his older brother, Adam looks up to older role models like his drama teacher, Mr. Selenko, and his cantor. He’s one of those kids who most teachers like, some seeing in Adam a younger version of themselves.


While this elevates Adam’s status and grants him special attention, this can be confounding to be a boy, as the student’s and the teacher’s needs can get mixed up.  

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 knew Adam Unrehearsed would be bookended by the events taking place during the year leading up to Adam’s bar mitzvah, and that I wanted to show Adam’s first encounters with gangs on the streets and subways of New York City, but other than this, I had no idea.


Once I realized Adam was going to stage a play, the novel kind of took off. Theater was briefly a passion of my own at that age. I circled back to theater 15 years later when I trained and worked as a professional actor and a director.


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


A: Mostly, I hope readers fall in love with Adam Miller, that they feel his excitement, his discoveries, his anxieties, his fears, and his optimism, and that they get swept up in his unrehearsed adventures.


I wanted to delve into the joys and mysteries of new friendships and to address some of the darker aspects of childhood, like the ostracism Adam experiences.


When I’m not writing, I direct an organization which works to improve underperforming elementary schools serving low-income communities. We conduct an annual Young Writers Competition for 3rd-6th graders and receive about 5,000 entries.


Every year we get dozens – if not hundreds – of stories about girls being ostracized. It’s less common among boys, although it does happen and can be particularly cruel.


Adam has encounters with gangs, violence, and the police, and experiences ongoing fear, all for the first time. As a well-mannered, white, middle class Jewish boy, Adam expects adults and the authorities to protect him, and he has to scramble when this begins to break down.


He learns a bit also about how children and youth of color experience the world in ways that are similar and utterly different from the way he does.


And I hope I succeed in bringing back the incredible intensity of the early 1970s in New York. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m about to finish the seventh and eighth episodes of my podcast of autobiographical monologues, Futterman’s One-Man Show, which I write and perform.


This is a two-part episode entitled Three Baseball Games with Dad, which is both funny and moving. It starts when I was 11 and our father, a passionate Met fan, took my older brother and me, both diehard Yankee fans, to the Mayor’s Trophy Game when the Yankees played the Mets at Shea Stadium. We encountered a raucous drunk who had it in for me.


The Second Game was just after my father retired, looking to me for advice I was ill-prepared to give. The Third Game was when my dad was extremely ill near the end of his life. My two 7-year old twin boys and I took my dad to his very last Met game. It was a five-hour affair during a rainstorm, and we almost didn’t make it home.


I’ve also finished a play, a comedy entitled Waiting for Your Call, about a young man in his 20s and 30s looking for home. The entire play takes place on the phone so it could be staged but could also be a great piece of audio theater. I’m starting to work on a novel which takes place in Israel, where I’ve been living for the past 29 years.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The novel is set in 1970-71 for a couple of reasons. We had just landed on the moon. My sights were set on the future and distant climes, with a certainty that science could solve anything, including the environmental challenges we were learning about in in Ecology class.


The Mets had miraculously won the World Series and the Knicks were NBA champions.


The trio of assassinations that shocked most Americans – JFK, MLK, RFK – were behind us but the ground was still shaking.


Street and gang crime were up in New York and the City seemed to have given up on policing the subways. The Vietnam War was in full swing but so was the antiwar movement.


I lived through those years at Adam’s age, so I speak from experience and as an eyewitness. It was a transition time for Americans in general and American Jews in particular.


My generation of American Jews was probably the very first that felt completely and utterly at home in America. We found our parents’ anxieties – the fear of making waves, of latent anti-Semitic undercurrents in American society – to be exaggerated and pathetic.


The liberal Jewish world I grow up in was mostly against the war, and identified completely with the civil rights movement.


Not only were we proud of our tiny Israel, but as part of our newfound assertiveness, Jews had our own particularist cause – fighting to free three-million Soviet Jews, who were subject to systemic discrimination and anti-Semitism but legally prevented from leaving the Soviet Union.


I attempted to capture within this vibrant cacophony some of the fallout of the 1968 New York City teachers strike, which, tragically, pitted the Jewish-dominated Teachers Union against African American community activists, exposing fissures in the Black-Jewish alliance.


I hoped to show some of the complexity of the relationship between these two vulnerable communities – facing racism or anti-Semitism – and how conflicts were manipulated for short-term political ends. These issues have great urgency not only at the time Adam Unrehearsed took place, but today as well.


It was an exciting time to be a kid or an adult. I hope my readers enjoy it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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