I bought a new novel called The J Word when I was at Jewish Book Week. I hadn’t heard of it and I only bought it because it had such a lovely cover. Well, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover because The J Word turned out to be the most fantastic novel I’ve read for many, many a year and I strongly recommend it.
It’s tricky to do full justice to it here without ruining the twists and turns of the plot. However, I can say that it focuses on the relationship between 80-year-old Jack who rejects his Jewishness and his 10-year-old grandson Danny who is curious about his heritage. When Jack is attacked by an antisemitic gang, everything changes and you can find out how by reading it.
My only criticism of The J Word is that it ends. When I got to the end I turned back to page one and read it again. It was just as good second time round. I am planning to run regular Q&A interviews with interesting people here on Oy Va Goy. I’m delighted to say that the first interesting person is author of The J Word, Andrew Sanger.
What were your literary influences when you wrote The J Word? I sensed a dash of Howard Jacobson in there…
I am not a very ‘literary’ person, don’t read all that much and have no particular fondness for modern fiction. I like delicate, skilful use of language, and writers who deal lovingly with ordinary people and ordinary places. Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy are among my favourite authors, and I have the greatest admiration for Robert Louis Stevenson, especially his travel writing. Absolutely no Howard Jacobson, not even a dash!
Is there such a thing as a ‘Jewish novel’? If so, what is it?
No, there isn’t. Certainly there are novels with Jewish characters, or about Jewish life, or that strike a chord with Jewish readers. But good fiction is always about the human condition.
The characters in The J Word are all fantastic. Naturally, Oy Va Goy was quite a fan of the hardcore duo: Yoav and Ehud. Which character do you personally feel closest to?
Oddly, while writing the book I felt that I myself was all of the characters! That probably doesn’t make any sense and is hard to explain. Of course, the key people in the story are Jack and Danny – the old man rejecting his Jewishness and the young boy keen to embrace it. I identify closely with both of them.
It makes perfect sense and I think many readers will feel the same. The J Word was your debut novel yet top novelists would kill to be able to tell such a serious story with such warmth and optimism. Is a sequel out of the question?
I do think that the best way to get a serious point across is simply to tell a gripping story, and I suppose I rather like the feelgood approach. But despite the ‘warmth and optimism’, I don’t pretend that insoluble problems can be solved or that the world will become a different place. I am deep into another novel now. There are Jewish characters and it too is set in Golders Green, but it is not a sequel to The J-Word.
I understand you have been placed on the Boycott Israel list as an author whose books must be boycotted. I’m furiously jealous. How did you manage that?
As a volunteer in Israel, I was sent to an army base outside Tel Aviv, where I packed emergency kits for IDF field medics and also boxed-up medical aid that Israel sends to other countries. I wrote about the experience for The Independent (of all things!) – after which I received a ton of hate mail and threats of violence and was placed on the Boycott Israel list! Doesn’t seem to have affected sales.
You can buy The J Word, by Andrew Sanger, here.