The importance of forgiveness is something that was drummed into me as a child and, to this day, I would prefer to stay up to 4am to fix an issue than to sleep on it unresolved. So, I couldn’t wait to explore the subject with A.J. Sidransky, the author whose first published book is the award-winning Forgiving Maximo Rothman.
The novel centres around an investigation into the death of Max Redmond (Rothman) who is found bludgeoned in his apartment in Washington Heights, New York. When detective Tolya Kurchenko comes across Max’s diaries, he hopes they will help him find the killer but, among the pages detailing the Jew’s experience of escaping Europe and settling in the Dominican Republic, is inspiration that helps him resolve some of his own issues and seek his own forgiveness.
Forgiving Maximo Rothman is a love story wrapped up in a murder mystery and explores the relationships between fathers and sons: who they are, who they have been and who they can be. Most readers of the novel have been women so far but I can see this being a book men, whether sons, fathers or both, would enjoy too. In particular, it’ll remind you that “life is too short to make enemies of those we love”.
Inspiration driven by real interactions
When I ask Sidransky what inspired him to write the novel, I’m rendered speechless by the breadth and depth of his research, much of which is based around his interactions with people over the years. He draws upon his many conversations with his uncle and aunt about their terrifying experiences in Europe during the war, their escape and settlement in the Dominican Republic. He goes on to tell me about the fascinating, archived refugee correspondence he’s read, the unconditional love he witnessed between a father and son in his Washington Heights neighbourhood, a friend who is a refugee from the Soviet Union and families in the Dominican Republic he’s spent time with.
By weaving together his intimate knowledge and experience, Sidransky has brought the story alive and made it incredibly moving. I felt the engine of the story really started once Max’s diaries were discovered. The book does take quite a lot of attention to follow though as the perspectives and timeframes shift back and forth for a reason that becomes clear towards the end.
Late beginnings but a lasting legacy
Told at a young age, as many of us are, that writing is simply a nice dream and that he should instead pursue a ‘proper career’, Sidransky has worked in real estate, as a chef and as an internet entrepreneur over several decades before turning back to writing when the recession hit and funding his passion by becoming a personal trainer. He attended courses with Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which he highly recommends, to help develop his craft and got on so well with fellow students that they formed a writers’ group that has supported him on his journey to publication. He wrote his second published novel first (which became Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon) and then, more confident in his ability, went on to write Forgiving Maximo Rothman, based on an interest that had been burning within him for some time.
Sidransky sent the novel direct to a small, independent publisher after his tutor suggested he approach publishers of fiction similar to his. To his delight, they told him they wanted to publish it. He feels he’s finally reached they place he has always wanted to be and, although there was much editing to be done to his novel, working with a publisher has made things much more straightforward. After publication, the novel has gone on to receive good reviews from a variety of readers. It also became the 2013 National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Outstanding Debut. And, with calls for more, he’s now started writing a sequel.
Sidransky feels that, now he has become a writer, he finally has something to give the world. He wants to keep telling stories about real people, in real places and real situations with which readers can identify, just as if they were relatives. He hopes this will bring them inspiration and enlightenment.
Characters can lend a hand
After drafting a brief outline, Sidransky writes very much free form. He works on a story most days and says his personal training career helps boost his energy, enables him to think more clearly and be more focused. Once he’s finished for the day, he leaves a note for himself as to the direction he thinks the story is going so he can pick up and continue the next day, with the basic plot building all the time in his head. He says writing is hard at first as he has to get to know the characters. For this reason, he begins with dialogue and, I have to admit, I find his characters’ voices very natural. Then, as he becomes better acquainted with the characters, he says they actually begin to help him by essentially telling him ‘I wouldn’t say that’ or ‘I wouldn’t do that’. To make sure he can hear what they have to say and that he has the space to stay focused, Sidransky tries to rise before his household all is quiet.
Moving readers to get them interested
Sidransky does a lot to get people interested in his work. He has the support of a publicity agent who helps him get reviews and, in addition to this he’s done a lot of work to help the book reach audiences who might be interested in the theme. For example, he entered a programme called ‘Authors on Tour’ through the Jewish Community Council, he speaks at Synagogues, universities, schools and community centres. When he tells me about all his talks, I realise why he is so great at articulating his research and story!
In terms of social media, Sidransky has always sought to move people emotionally through Facebook by, for example, posting some flash fiction around the theme or talking about people he’s had the privilege to meet, rather than simply pushing his book. He says this generates more interest in the theme and dramatically increases the number of people who engage with what he has to say and go on to visit his website. That’s a top tip for all writers who’d like more people to be interested in what they have to share.