Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, concerns a promising young writer named Slava Gelman who’s cajoled into falsifying Holocaust restitution letters for his grandfather—and his Russian friends—in the pocket of South Brooklyn that Slava has worked hard to escape.
You share biographical details with Slava—you were born in Minsk, spent your childhood in Italy, and moved to Brooklyn as an adolescent.
When you write fiction, you’ll start a sentence using something in your experience as a departure point, but before the sentence has finished—if it’s a good sentence—it will have taken you to a new place involving things that may have never happened in real life. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. She was in the ghetto in Minsk, which is also the case [for the grandmother] in the novel. I came to the States when I was nine, in 1988. Once she came here, she was eligible to apply for restitution [from the German government]. Because I learned English fastest out of everyone in the family, naturally the paperwork was given to me. What I was really struck by was that, really, there was no request for documentation. For me, it ceased to be a matter of history and became a matter of narrative storytelling. If you could tell a credible story, you were in. In my grandmother’s case, it was easy because she went through these things. But it set off this light bulb.
Slava wants to be a writer but can’t focus on his grandfather’s stories about Soviet times. You write that he feels as if he’s “letting gold slip away in a fast-moving river.”
I don’t want to generalize between the ways Russians and Americans tell stories, but Slava’s grandfather, who is like so many people I know, tells stories in a nonlinear, nonlogical fashion. When somebody like Slava’s grandfather speaks, he’ll jump from one subject to another without transition. Very often, an Americanized brain—and Slava’s brain is Americanized at this point—has been too affected by logic, reason, linearity, not to get frustrated. To me, there are two faces of fictional talent. The ideal fiction writer can inhabit both something very rigorous, but also something almost dreamlike. Let’s just say that it’s through his grandfather that Slava learns to inhabit the latter skill.[
Tell us about the role the female characters play in the book—they are crucial to Slava’s story.
I’m more interested in the women than the men—that’s why my second novel is told from a woman’s perspective. It was important for me to make them all nuanced. One, Arianna, is Americanized, even though her roots go back to Eastern Europe; the other, Vera, clearly has not so much one foot but maybe a foot and a half planted in the Russian community. I really enjoy creating characters who are largely positive, but who sometimes do things that make you not like them for a moment, because that’s what real people are like. There are no there are no saints and few villains, and the fun stuff is in the middle.