Joshua Max Feldman’s new novel, “Start Without Me” (William Morrow) takes place over one Thanksgiving Day. His characters meet by chance in an airport restaurant, as one is escaping a family dinner and the other is reluctantly heading toward the home of her outspoken Jewish mother-in-law and black father-in-law. Everyone they encounter is marking the day in some way, even those standing in line in a mall, waiting for shopping deals. It’s a novel of searching for meaning, and for a way back — to one’s self, to home. Feldman, the author of “The Book of Jonah,” lives in Brooklyn with his wife and young daughter. He spent a year as a LABA arts fellow at the 14th Street Y, and is now working on a play about a perplexed rabbi, “The Devil and the Wandering Jew.”
What was the inspiration for “Start Without Me”?
I was spending a lot of time in hotels and lobbies – touring for my previous book, “The Book of Jonah,” and I started to think about the places that you pass through. They are sometimes dehumanizing – you’re not supposed to spend a lot of time there — but they’re also homey, reliable. It’s possible to find real comfort, even in airports; there’s a tension between feeling alienated and familiar.
So many people feel like strangers at home but feel they belong on the road. It’s why so many people feel lonely, especially around holidays. It’s hard to find a place where you feel at home. Not only a home by name, but something that feels like your own.
What is it about Thanksgiving that evokes such strong responses in people?
Thanksgiving is like a vacuum that opens, and all these people and relationships get pulled back together. The novel explores one Thanksgiving that, for the main characters, brings their problems to a head and makes them confront the truths in their lives they’re trying to avoid.
One theme that ties your two novels together is the search for meaning.
Yes, definitely, that’s really true: the search to escape yourself and connect with other people. For Adam and Marissa [from the new novel], they both feel like their lives aren’t natural to them, they find something inauthentic in their lives. A religious person might try to ladder up to something meaningful in a spiritual sense. For them, the search for meaning is the search for something that feels honest. Finding a way to go home in a way that’s true to themselves is not easy.
You present two very different Thanksgiving dinners.
There’s one dinner that Adam manages to crash — where the eating is ritualized, and the food is well thought out — and the other is a fast food meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s what I like about the holiday: there are so many ways to tailor it to your family and experience. As it’s probably clear, I like thinking and writing about food. From the way people eat and what they eat, you can tell a lot about people.
What about Roz, the pushy, outspoken, accomplished Jewish mother in the story?
There are many Rozes in the world, and I really love that character. Roz is very verbal — it’s fun to write characters who are great talkers. I also like that she has an agenda and is willing to do what it takes to enact it.
How do you feel about being considered a Jewish writer?
I’m proud that people think of me as a Jewish writer. I like to be in the same category as people I really admire. To me, the idea of being a Jewish writer is tied up in my idea of being Jewish: it’s outwardly focused, trying to change the world for the better in some way. Very modestly, I feel that literature can have some of the same function. It can shine a small degree of sunlight on the world.
How will you spend Thanksgiving?
I’m going to my parents’ house in Amherst, Mass., where we’ll be about 20 people. We eat a deep-fried turkey, made in the backyard. I love to cook but haven’t decided yet about what I’ll make. … What’s nice about my Thanksgiving is that it’s very consistent. The things we do one year — there’s a good chance we’ll do the following year.