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"Trotsky in the Bronx"
Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2012
Selected by Francine Prose
What inspired you to write “Trotsky in the Bronx”? Is it based on true events?
I wrote the story as an exercise in a “craft of story”course taught by Lynn Schwartz of Writer’s Wordhouse. The seed for the story hangs in my house—the diploma in medicine, described in the story, awarded to my grandfather Marcus Junger by the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 1899. As described in the story, Trotsky was stranded in the Bronx with his family for a few months in early 1917. He might well have been treated by my grandfather,who at that time lived on Kelly Street. Trotsky sailed for Europe on a Norwegian steamship in May, but it is not clear how his trip was paid for.
“Trotsky in the Bronx” is set in 1917. In your opinion, how does that influence the way the story reads?
I tried to capture the political atmosphere of the period, when the expectation of imminent and radical change inspired hope and fear.
The story contains a lot of history, yet it is fiction. How do you decide the mix of fact and fiction? Do you feel bound by facts?
I felt bound by what is known of Trotsky’s time in the Bronx, but the story is about the characters, who are either wholly fictional or, like Jacob Schiff, highly fictionalized.
Do you have any personal connection to the time/place/characters of this story?
Dr. Adler and Dr. Junger share many biographical details, including birth to hoteliers in Krakow, an encounter with President Roosevelt, and authorship of an article in Physical Culture magazine. But I did not know Dr. Junger, who died before I was born, and Dr. Adler’s personality is entirely his own.
How did you come up with the character of Dr. Adler?
I wanted a character who understood but did not share the mentality of the Russian immigrants, and who, unlike them, lived very much in the present. Dr. Adler in many respects is a generation ahead of the Russian-born characters, but perhaps because of his Austrian background he retains a nineteenth-century gentility.
What does the Yiddish Writers Club symbolize?
The club is less a symbol than a plot device. It is a place where Jews who are not at home in America can find fellowship outside the synagogue.
Writers seem to write about writers quite frequently. Why do you think that is?
Writers think they are interesting people, individually and as a class. They are probably wrong on both counts.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
Recognizing what a story is about and then sticking to the point is hard for me. The words keep getting in the way of the story.
Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?
In writing nonfiction, I start with an outline. I started “Trotsky in the Bronx,” which was my first attempt at fiction, by writing freely in longhand.
Which writers influence you? Were there any writers who specifically influenced “Trotsky in the Bronx”?
I admire and enjoy reading writers who can control ornamented, exotic, or idiosyncratic language, writers like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, or Thomas Pynchon, but I would like to emulate writers whose style is direct—among contemporaries, writers like Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Francine Prose, Paul Theroux, Uwe Timm. When I started work on “Trotsky” I was reading E. L. Doctorow and I. B. Singer.
What are you currently reading?
The Ink Trunk by William Kennedy; Collected Stories by Ellen Gilchrist; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.