The Book of Jeremiah
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Julie Zuckerman writes about The Book Of Jeremiah from Press 53.
I recently started a new day job at a software company. I’ve never worked for the government or for any company that requires a security clearance, and I doubt that during the interview process, my new employer analyzed my Google search history. If they had checked, however, I feel covered. I did mention in my interview that my debut fiction, The Book of Jeremiah (Press 53), came out a few months ago; I can always blame any weird or troubling searches on the fiction writing.
The Book of Jeremiah is a novel-in-stories that weaves back and forth over eight decades, from the Depression to the modern age. It tells the story of awkward but endearing Jeremiah Gerstler — the son of Jewish immigrants, brilliant political science professor, husband, father. As one reviewer put it recently, the book
seeks to elevate the lives of everyday people. Jeremiah is not the sort that one would expect to be at the center of a literary work, and that’s part of the book’s charm. In fact, it got me thinking about how I’d envision the book of my own life. Some of us may have lives like plot-driven novels, but I suspect that most of us are a collection of stories.
Throughout the stories, Jeremiah and his family members grapple with the events of their times. He serves in the U.S. Army in World War II; his wife attends the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963; his favorite student is killed in Vietnam shortly after graduating. For the seven (out of 13) stories that take place either before I was born or prior to having any memory of my own, I turned to research via Google. As the daughter of a former American history teacher, I loved this aspect of the writing, and I encountered many events about which I’d previously known nothing. This is my idea of fun!
Some of these narrative plots or character backstories were inspired by family history. Jeremiah serves in the U.S. Signal Corps, as my own grandfather did. My research took me to long explanations of what soldiers in the Signal Corps would have been doing just after D-Day in the European theater, what kinds of equipment they would have been using, and whether Parisians would have had access to regular coffee by July 1945 or if they’d still be drinking a chicory substitute.
For one story, I dove into research about Operation Linebacker II, dubbed the Christmas bombings of December 1972, Nixon and Kissinger’s attempt to hasten the end of the Vietnam War. I read academic articles, transcripts of press conferences and reports of protests. In the story, Jeremiah attends a press briefing. What kinds of questions would the reporters have asked on the third day of the bombing campaign? With the transcripts, it wasn’t hard to imagine.
On a lighter note, for a different story, I found myself researching the box scores of Game Four of the World Series in 1932. To get a picture in my head of the people Jeremiah and his brother might have encountered as they walked to the corner drugstore to listen to the game, I Googled “Depression-era Bridgeport” and examined the images.
By far, though, the most bizarre thing I came across in my research was a cover story in Life Magazine. In one of my stories, as it unfolds, we learn that one of the characters has tried hallucinogenic mushrooms on several occasions. The character is a generally stable person, a young mother, and as I was working on the story, a few people in my writing group didn’t buy it. Now that the book has come out, some readers have expressed similar surprise. But I contend that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the story takes place, it could have happened.
At the time, Timothy Leary and other researchers were experimenting with LSD and psilocybin mushrooms (neither of which were illegal in the United States at the time) on Harvard students. Prisoners at the Concord State Prison were given psilocybin to see if it would reduce the rate of recidivism. In June 1957, Life Magazine ran a cover story called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” Here’s the introduction to the article:
The author of this article, a vice president of J.P. Morgan & Co. Incorporated, together with his wife, Valentina P. Wasson, M.D., a New York pediatrician, has spent the last four summers in remote mountains of Mexico. The Wassons have been on the trail of strange and hitherto unstudied mushrooms with vision-giving powers.
They have been pursuing the cultural role of wild mushrooms for 30 years. Their travels and inquiries throughout the world have led them to some surprising discoveries in this field in which they are pioneers. They are now publishing their findings in Mushrooms Russia and History, a large, richly illustrated two-volume book, which is limited to 500 copies and is now on sale at $125…
If a well-known banker and his wife could write about their experiences, it was conceivable to me that under the right conditions, my character could have tried them. She wouldn’t have known to attach the same stigma to hallucinogens that some people do today. Now, of course, research and attitudes are swinging back towards destigmatizing some drug use.
Fun things to know, right? And hopefully no cause for future employers to question my character. That’s why the page on my website that lists the research sources, alongside recipes and family photos, is called, appropriately, Fun Stuff.