Q and A with Jonathan Tropper


Issue of July 2, 2010/ 20 Tammuz, 5770

Jonathan Tropper is the best-selling author of "This is Where I Leave You" (Dutton), which might be the funniest depiction of a shiva in the history of American literature. He is currently adapting the book for Warner Brothers. Tropper is the author of four other novels and lives with his family in Westchester.

Michael Orbach: What was the inspiration behind the book?

Jonathan Tropper: When I set out to write, I actually wasn't writing about shiva. I wanted to write about a man who was stripped of all the things that make him a man - his wife, his job, his home - and how he has to figure out what it is that defines him as a man. I wrote a chapter about hundred or so pages in where he goes home for his father's 70th birthday party and we meet his mother and all his siblings. For whatever reason, that's when the book finally came alive for me. So I decided to change the book and make it about the family. Then, I had to come up with a way to keep this character at his parents' home for an extended stay, because what would keep this whole group of angry adult siblings together for more than a few hours?  So I came up with the idea of a shiva, almost as a plot device.

MO: Do you see yourself as a Jewish writer?

JT: No, not at all. It's funny, this is my fifth novel; the first four have nothing Jewish in them. Starting out, I was somewhat naively worried about being pigeonholed as a Jewish writer. But at some point you have to write about what you know and what works and you can't think about that anymore... You have to write about your range of experience, and as a New York Jew there's just too much rich material to ignore.

MO: What do you think shiva accomplishes?

JT: Well, I've never sat shiva, so this is just an observation, but to me, shiva seems to serve as a kind of buffer, a ritualized way of absorbing the shock of loss before you have to go and start living again. In some ways, the real grieving and mourning begins after the shiva. During the shiva, you're in this bubble. Once the crowd is gone and you go back to life then the hole will really be evident.

MO: How does having been raised in a Modern Orthodox home affect your fiction?

JT: I always say that being a part of any insular community is like living in a small town. It gives us a much greater insight in how people perceive others - that kind of claustrophobic feeling of any Jewish community - the inter-connectedness of everyone. I wrote my first novel, "The Book of Joe," about a small town. I didn't grow up in a small town, but I felt I had the experience by growing up in a Modern-Orthodox community.

MO: How does being Jewish affect your fiction?

JT: Having grown up going to Jewish day schools, those of us who emerge intact emerge with a better work ethic. I can put in a longer day. I know so many writers who start at 10:00 and are done at 2:00. I think those of us who went to Jewish day schools think that's [silly]. Our day started in the morning and went till the evening. That probably helped the work ethic. Beyond that, I don't really know.

MO: In general, what's your day like?

JT: I try to treat it like an office job. I'm at my desk by 8:30. I'll work on a novel till 1:00 or 2:00, take a break then spend the afternoon writing a screenplay. I like to have dinner with my kids. The greatest perk of doing this for a living is being able to be around for your family. If I was going to do this and work till 11:00 every night, I might as well be an investment banker. I feel very fortunate being able to be the dad at school plays and Little League games.