Senior Writer-in-Residence Jon Papernick
By David Ertischek ’01
Jon Papernick has been a senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College since 2007. He teaches Fiction Writing, which he knows a thing or two about, having published numerous books, including The Ascent of Eli Israel and The Book of Stone.
He’s also a finalist for Massmouth’s 10th Anniversary Big Mouth Off Story Slam Championship on Thursday, May 9, in Somerville. Emerson Today talked to him about what makes a good story.
Q: What is a story slam and why did you get into it?
Papernick: A story slam is where you get up and tell a five-minute true story — not made up, not fictional, and something that happened to you. I wanted to get a different way to find an audience. When you write a book, everyone has to pick it up. [At a story slam] you can go talk to 150 people at a time. It’s very democratic, and it’s a skill I want to hone and align with my writing.
Q: What makes you a good storyteller?
Papernick: That is a good question. I think it’s a matter of having two things: being able to serve details, and tease them out of the static of other details, and have enough personal insight into yourself to put them into a framework; and [over time] have the story stand out with the benefit of time to look back at yourself.
Q: What story or stories did you tell to advance in this competition?
Papernick: The story is about the first time my fiancée and I had an overnight together. It didn’t go well.
Q: How did you decide to tell that story?
Papernick: I actually was at a story slam in the winter at Club Passim in Cambridge, and I had no plan on telling that story. [At storytelling competitions] you have 10 storytellers and you pull out names from a bucket [to perform]. My fiancée was there that night, and normally there is a theme, and it was “About Last Night,” and she said: ‘Why don’t you tell the story about when we stayed over?’ [when] she ended up in the emergency room. I got up and I hadn’t even practiced. I was the runner up and then was the runner up again, and now I’m competing again with nine other storytellers. I have to tell the story again at the championship. It’ll be my third time telling the story.
Q: Growing up, did people tell you that you were a good storyteller?
Papernick: Growing up people said I said should be a standup comedian. But my skin is too thin for that. I always wanted to be a writer since second grade. I always had an aptitude with stories.
Q: Who’s your favorite storyteller of all time?
Papernick: There are so many good storytellers out there. I listen to the Risk! podcast, which is edgier stories. The fact that I can’t come up with a name speaks to how democratic it is, as there are lots of ordinary people telling their stories, and that’s great.
Q: You grew up in Canada, lived in Israel, and now live in Boston. How has living in those places impacted your writing and storytelling?
Papernick: Living in Israel gave me my subject matter for my first three books, [which was influenced] lots by the Israseli-Palestinian conflict. Boston is where I made my work as a professional. Toronto — I had a really nice upbringing, running around with my friends, and being able to explore. It was just really nice.
Q: You have a fictional story “The King of the King of Falafel” – are you a big fan of falafel?
Papernick: Not anymore because I’m celiac, because I can’t eat most of the ingredients. But at the time — yeah. I wrote it over 20 years ago; it still stands up. I can eat falafel balls at Whole Foods, usually falafel has wheat and they’re fried.
Q: Where is your favorite place to eat falafel?
Papernick: In Israel there are countless falafel street stands. They usually offer 30 or 40 toppings, I liked having falafel with French fries back then. I like the falafel you can get at the Damascus Gate. It was three or four shekels. It was a real street falafel. I’m sure the grease is completely filthy, but it didn’t matter, now it would matter. I’ll tell you — you can’t get real good hummus here.
Q: What are you working on now?
Papernick: Working on a relationship novel about struggles with conception of a young couple and how they test out polyamory and struggles with that. I hope to have it done by the end of the summer.
Q: Is it autobiographical?
Papernick: Not really. [The primary woman in the relationship] can’t have a child. She’s unable. Then … the girlfriend agrees to be a surrogate and she’s carrying the baby. And then the [primary woman] gets pregnant. So, there’s going to be two.
Q: Anything else?
Papernick: I have no expectation of winning [the Big Mouth Off Story Slam Championship].
Massmouth’s 10th Anniversary Big Mouth Off Story Slam Championship Finale is on Thursday, May 9th at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. The Big Mouth Off begins at 8 pm. Tickets can be purchased through the Somerville Theatre website.