Zibby Owens: We are live on Facebook. It took me ten whole minutes to figure out what I was doing wrong, but I finally figured it out. Thank you for your patience. Now I can finally say hello. Hi, Max. How are you?

Max Gross: Hi, Zibby. I’m well.

Zibby: Max was smart to get to our conversation early. Then I messed everything up. Now, of course, I can’t really even see him that well. Are you still there, Max?

Max: You can’t see me?

Zibby: Yes. Okay, there you are. You just froze a little bit. You’re back.

Max: Can you hear me or see me?

Zibby: Yes. You froze for just a second. So we’re here today to talk about The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross, which is you. That’s the cover, but I have the advance version. This is in conjunction with the JCC’s Florida Jewish Book Fest which you will be attending. You’ll be a panelist for their fiction forum. That’s really exciting. This is a kickoff to that. I’m excited to be with you. Let’s talk about your book. Welcome.

Max: Thank you so much. I really hope I don’t have any more frozen moments. I’m sorry about that unstable connection.

Zibby: Who knows? It could be mine.

Max: Here is the actual book. This is the actual book. You have the — there’s the actual book.

Zibby: That’s excellent. Very exciting. Please tell listeners what it’s about.

Max: The Lost Shtetl, it’s about a Jewish village . It’s so isolated that it is completely overlooked by the Nazis during World War II. It’s completely overlooked by the Soviet Cold War. It is basically rediscovered in the here and now. I’ve been describing it as a Yiddish Brigadoon, just reappearing after many years of anonymity. Or you could think of it as an Amazonian tribe of Jews in the middle of the Polish forest. That’s basically the plot. It gets all sorts of clash of civilization when they are reintroduced into the modern world.

Zibby: How did you come up with this idea?

Max: Actually, I’m a big history buff. I was reading a book about World War II. In this book, I just had this very weird thought. I was like, there were so many shtetls in Eastern Europe prior to World War II. How is that they all fell to this horrible war? Why weren’t there any that sort of slipped through, some middle-of-nowhere village? Why did they all succumb to this? This thought occurred to me. Maybe one did. It was an interesting idea, but it took a long time. How would it realistically happen assemble that whole little ?

Zibby: Max, it keeps freezing a little bit.

Max: Oh, no.

Zibby: Just a little, so if I’m not answering. I heard how you were a big history buff and you had to wonder what if. What if something had survived? How could one not have made it? and your research. Did you do any traveling to the actual places and have a site that you imagined it to have been?

Max: I sort of created the province. It was a fictional province. Like in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, I have my own little fake province in Poland. I did visit Poland. I used to be a writer for the New York Post. I was on the beat, which is a great beat if you can get it. I convinced my editor, David Kaufman, to send me to Poland for just a travel story. I was pretty deep into the book when I went. I got to . I did visit Auschwitz. I did see a little bit of the countryside. It was definitely a very interesting experience.

Zibby: I’ve been to Auschwitz. It’s really just haunting to even step foot there and think of everything that happened and all the rest. I think your creativity is so great to reimagine what would happen. I love that novelists in general are always like, what if, what if, what if? Then all of a sudden, we have these amazing stories. Now I can just get lost in your story of your wondering what if, what if, especially for this horrific period of time. What if more had lived? It begs the question, what if everybody had survived? What would the world be like? My mind goes there.

Max: Absolutely. It still is sort of crazy to think that it was such an everybody’s life back then. You don’t see too many events like that that do that. Actually, a friend of mine who just heard about the book told me about these Russians who had still been living under the auspices of communism years later. He just sent me this story. I haven’t looked at it yet. I was like, this is a case of unbeknownst to me of life imitating art imitating life imitating art and all that stuff.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How long did it take for you to write this book? What was your process like? Did you outline it first? What was it like?

Max: It’s funny. When I first thought of the idea, I thought that it was going to take place in the forties. I thought it was going to be something that, okay, they got missed, almost like they’d come out of the bomb shelter. What the hell happened while we were gone? I thought more, why would they have just, in 1946 or 1947, why then would they have all of a sudden woken up? Why in the fifties? I was like, you know what, it should take place now. It was just the lightbulb that went off in my head. It could really grapple with all of the contemporary problems that people face and that are very much on my mind and very much on, I hope, a lot of my readers’ minds, stuff like that. I really started going with the book when I started thinking about the characters. The main character, Pesha and Yankel, when they started forming in my eyes, I was just like, let’s follow the whole story. What would happen? The town gets rediscovered. The idea of them being missed by the Holocaust, that’s almost the starting point.

The real bones of the story should be, what’s happening now when they are suddenly introduced to all of this history that just plops down in front of them? I had an outline, but I definitely strayed from it a lot over the course of writing it. I wrote the first draft a while ago. I finished the first draft in something like late 2014. Selling a book is a long process. There was a couple of years of that. Also, there was a period where I was reworking it and rewriting it. I also had a son who’s now five. There were just a lot of interruptions in the finishing of the book. The process was, I thought of the idea in 2008, 2009. Really started working on it in 2010, ’11. Finished a draft in 2014 and then sat for two years. In 2017, I was like, all right, I have to finish this. Worked on the revised version. I had a very lovely lady named Michelle Brower who’s an agent read a version of it, gave me her notes. Her notes were very, very smart. I basically worked around those. In 2017, I started pitching it to other — long story. Michelle switched agencies, all these other things. I found David Vigliano, Nick Gianni, and Tom Flannery, my agents now. Nick is no longer with the agency. We wound up selling it. That’s the whole saga, more than you probably wanted to know.

Zibby: No, I find that process so interesting. I really do. How great that you stuck with it and didn’t let it just stay as a file in your computer or whatever, to bring it out. I’m sure every experience like having — I have a five-year-old son too. I have four kids, but he’s my baby. Having kids changes, also, your perspective and adds, I feel, some depth to your writing. You just have a new perspective as if you did anything, if you had a new job or if you adopted a puppy or something. I’m sure that all these experiences can only help, in other words. For anybody feeling bad that they have a thing on their desktop, it might get better with time. Who knows?

Max: Absolutely, for sure. If you have four kids, you know what it’s like. My god, you can you have some crisis that has to be addressed right away with your child. I think it was Janet Malcom who called it an infinitely postpone-able act, writing. I’m glad that I finally got back to it.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Yes, my kids’ urgent thing today is putting things on the wish list for Hanukkah. Mind you, it’s obviously still October. Why this is urgent now — we don’t even know when Hanukkah is. I had to look it up today. Yes, the urgency of kids’ needs always trumps a beautiful paragraph that needs to be crafted carefully and all the rest. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Max: Pretty much. Since I was a kid, I was always writing stories. My parents were both writers. My father was a mystery writer. His most famous book does not have his name on it. His most famous book is The Verdict which became a movie with Paul Newman, the early 1980s. He wrote true crime. He wrote mysteries. He was a columnist for New York Newsday for sixteen years, wrote for People magazine. My mother was a writer and editor as well. She was one of the editors for T magazine, the Times style magazine. There were books everywhere in my house growing up. If you wanted to keep up, you really had to do your reading. You had to do your homework. You had to know what you were talking about. My parents were just not going to tolerate cruddy conversation. That was just not going to be. I grew up a bit of a bookworm.

Zibby: Did you grow up in New York? Where did you grow up?

Max: I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, which was sort of Brooklyn, but it’s kind of Manhattan.

Zibby: It’s not Manhattan.

Max: Look, I feel like I have great street cred saying that I’m from Brooklyn.

Zibby: You do. It’s super cool. You have major street cred in the literary universe. You are born and bred in the heart of the New Yorker. I give you credit for that.

Max: I grew up in Brooklyn Heights. Went to Saint Ann’s School. I don’t know if you —

Zibby: — Yeah, of course.

Max: Even though it’s called Saint Ann’s School and it was a very, very hippy-dippy place, I was surrounded by Jewish people. Everybody from the headmaster on down was Jewish. It was always sort of a fascination for my parents as well as me, was Jewish history, the Holocaust, but also Jewish literature. I remember as a kid going to this friend of my parents house for weekend — they lived in Cape Cod or something like that; I was about twelve years old at the time — and finding Gimpel the Fool on this person’s shelf in the little room that was my room for the weekend. I took it off. It definitely was this love-at-first-sight moment. It was a moment where I was like, oh, my gosh. To a certain extent, The Lost Shtetl is my tribute to Isaac Bashevis Singer. There were books everywhere. We were very interested in Jewish topics and Jewish books. We were interested in all sort of books too. I think The Lost Shtetl is also my tribute to Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books. Macondo, the town there, was very much a model for Kreskol in a lot of ways.

Zibby: Your parents must be very proud of you. They must be kvelling and excited.

Max: I don’t think that they will have figured out how to get on Facebook. Maybe they’ll watch it afterwards.

Zibby: I’m sure this is one of many appearances you will be doing, so I’m sure they’ll catch something along the way. When you were saying, I grew up and there were books everywhere, how could I not be a writer? I’m just crossing my fingers that one of my four kids might actually want to write someday. I’m imagining Zoom 2030 when one of them says, I grew up with a lot of books around. I’ll be like, yes! I did something good.

Max: I think it’s the best way. Just put them in the room with the books. They’ll get it. They’ll take it up by osmosis or something.

Zibby: Exactly. I’m hoping that happens. It doesn’t seem to be working, but whatever. I won’t give up. So what happened between Saint Ann’s and the New York Post and the book? What else in your day-job life? What happened writing-wise aside from those things? Or was that it? Was it college to the…?

Max: No, actually, after college, I went to Israel for a year. I went to a very not-Jewish college. I went to Dartmouth College, which is a wonderful school. Actually, I was talking about this to a reporter, Emily , last week. I definitely think that there are traces of being left alone in the wilderness that sort of gave me some inspiration for this book. When I graduated, I applied for graduate school. As I said, I always wanted to be a writer. Applied for graduate school. I got into an MFA program in Columbia for film, actually. I was going to do screenwriting. I think I was sort of sick of academia. I had been in school my whole life. I was a little exhausted with that whole structure. I thought, more interesting with the next year. I don’t know what it’ll be. Then I decided, you know what — there was this program in Israel, and I don’t think it exists anymore, called the Arad Arts Project. Basically, you sit and you work on your art, whether it’s painting or music or writing. It’s out in Arad which is near Beersheba in the desert in Israel. I went for a year. It was supposed to be seven months. Then I wound up spending an extra five months there.

It was a very formative experience just because I was on my own in a completely different country talking to people who had completely different experiences from me and very, very sharp perspectives. When you’re in Israel, you can speak to Arabs. You can speak to Jews. They live together. They live under the same tent. It’s so starkly different. That was a great experience despite the fact that — I was there during the intifada. a lot of pain, but it was nevertheless something that I feel very much formed me. Then when I came back, I worked at The Forward newspaper for about three or four years. It used to be The Yiddish Forward. Then about twenty years ago or so, maybe a little bit longer than that, they had an English version of it that they formed. That was a great experience. I was actually talking about this recently as well. When you work at one of these local newspapers, first off, there are so many people who call you because you’re the only person that they can call to tell their stories. I had the lowest job on the totem pole in the sense that I was answering the phone. I was getting all the phone calls from every disgruntled person who just wanted to tell me about their evil landlord or about the implants that their dentist was putting into their teeth, real stories. Somebody did call me to tell me that.

I used to actually get calls from the widow of Chaim Grade who was a Yiddish poet who was one of the real luminaries in the world of Yiddish literature. She called me to yell at me every time The Forward mentioned Isaac Bashevis Singer who she regarded as the worst writer who ever lived and who had done such shame onto the Jewish people. It was really right out of a Cynthia Ozick story, this whole experience. It was a great experience. I was talking to people who had a lot to say and who had great stories. That was also . Then I went to the New York Post which was a great gig. I was working at the home section, the real estate section. I was also just writing a lot food stories. Then because the travel desk was right next to the real estate desk, whenever the travel editor would go on trips, he would ask us to write his headlines and his captions. To thank us, he would send us places. He’d be like, “We have this trip to Italy coming up that we need written about. Do you want to go, Max?” Terrific, that’s wonderful. Then when he left — this was an editor named David Landsel — the powers that be at the Post were just like, “We have to figure out who we’re going to hire to be the new travel editor. Until we figure that out, you guys take care of it.” We were like, okay, fine, we know what we’re doing. After a couple months, they were like, “You guys are doing fine. We don’t need another travel editor.” It became travel and real estate and food, which was a great job.

Zibby: Do you have a day job now, or are you mostly committed to being a novelist, or what?

Max: I’m definitely committed to being a novelist. The thing that I learned when my son was born, that I could only really get away with doing it if I am committed to waking up before six AM every day to actually get a few pages out there. I’m actually the editor of a commercial real estate magazine called the Commercial Observer, which is, in its way, also an extremely interesting gig just in the sense of the real estate community is almost this shtetl of billionaires to a certain extent. The people who own New York, there are so many crazy people in that list. I’ve met most of them. They’ve all got these incredibly strange, bizarre stories that go with them. I don’t know what my next book will be, but I think that’ll be influencing it.

Zibby: Wow, the shtetl of billionaires. That’s a cool title too.

Max: The shtetl of billionaires, I’m going to trademark that right now.

Zibby: I have my little team getting the trademark while you’re here. No, I’m kidding. I don’t even really have a team. I have a tiny team. Anyway, so what are you working on next? Do you have another novel in the works?

Max: I don’t know if I’m allowed to really talk about it because I think Harper owns me, body and soul, for the next sixty days or something like that. I’m not sure that I’m allowed to speak of that. One of the things that the long process has allowed me to do has been to just get onto the next thing. I have been working this whole time on new things. I definitely don’t want to wait so long before the next thing comes out. There are a couple of different things that could be the next thing. I’m working on all of them at the moment.

Zibby: I feel like this is just the beginning for you of your lifetime of talent in this area. It’s very exciting to see someone’s debut and where it’s going to go from here. It’s just very cool. Now I love knowing that this green cover is all about Dartmouth. Who knew?

Max: You’re not an alumnus, are you Zibby?

Zibby: No. I went to Yale. Although, I did spend a week at Dartmouth doing a tennis camp when I was in high school, so I feel like I can say I went to Dartmouth, right? No.

Max: I feel like I can say I went to Yale because before I went to Dartmouth, .

Zibby: Great. So actually, we did all our schooling together as it turns out.

Max: Schooled together.

Zibby: I had tons of friends who went to Dartmouth, my former sister-in-law. I’ve spent a lot of time there. Then my ex. Anyway, whatever, I won’t go into it. Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time up at Dartmouth. I know that feeling of being in the woods. I could imagine being lost there in a community all unto yourself. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Max: One of the things that I will say was I made a resolution in late 2016. I am going to finish this. I don’t know what is going to happen to it, but this is going to be as good a piece of work as I can do. I am going to not stop every day until this thing is finished. I would wake up at five AM when my . I feel like there’s . I am going to take something to completion. I’m not going to just have a good idea. I’m not just going to throw some things on the page. I am really going to think about it as a complete thing. I am going to work at it every day. It took a lot of time, but it paid off. My advice would be, get up early. People work better at night, but I personally work better in the morning.

Zibby: Me too. Yes, those morning hours before the kids wake up are sacred.

Max: Me time.

Zibby: Congratulations again on your book. I hope you have a great time at the JCC Book Fest, the Jewish Book Fest. It’s so great you’re going to be there. For all your upcoming stuff, I’ll be rooting for you. Good luck.

Max: Thank you, Zibby. I hope it was just that one thing that I was frozen. I apologize.

Zibby: It’s not your fault. It’s technology. This happens all the time. There was in and out. This will be a podcast on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” as well eventually, not too long, but not today. I will take out all the bits and pieces that were not perfect. We will make it sound like we had no trouble at all when it’s on the podcast.

Max: I love it.

Zibby: So there’s that.

Max: There’s that. Great. Zibby, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Sorry again for the beginning introduction of stress.

Max: No worries.

Zibby: Buh-bye.