Article published on February 10, 2017.
The most important things are the hardest to say.
Ten-year-old Jonah lives in a world of his own. He likes colours and feathers and the feel of fresh air on his skin. He dislikes sudden loud noises and any change to his daily routine. Jonah has never spoken, yet somehow he communicates better than all of the adults in his life.
Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. When he and his wife Emma fake a separation – a strategic decision to further Jonah’s case in an upcoming tribunal – Ben and Jonah move in with Georg, Ben’s elderly father. In a small house in North London, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.
As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths. Jonah, blissful in his innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.
Funny and heart-breaking in equal measure, Shtum is a story about families, forgiveness and finding a light in the darkest days. Based on personal experience
Our reviewers were blown away by Shtum when it was first published in hardback – we ran a They Say, We Say feature on their feedback in nb magazine and the love for Jem Lester’s debut was universal. We also published their reviews to nudge which you can explore here.
There was no question that we’d want to offer the paperback of Shtum to our readers as a nudge Recommended Read – and we are thrilled the publisher agreed! If you’re an nb reader you’ll already know that the Recommended Reads we feature in every issue are the ones we think are worth paying particular attention to. nudge Recommended Reads are the online only equivalent and we work with publishers to offer a limited number of copies free (UK only; p&p applies) to our readers, available to order from the nudge shop while stocks last. But hurry – this one won’t be around for long.
And who better than the same trusty reviewers to come up with questions for Jem about his very special debut?
Jonah is unable to speak and Georg will not tell Ben his past history. Emma doesn’t communicate. Is this why you chose the title?
I keep all my notebooks and still have the pages of doodles and word games that feature all my attempts at a title for the book. I grew up around Yiddish speakers or, more accurately, Yinglish speakers. The word ‘Shtum’ and ‘Shtummers’ were used consistently to describe individuals who said nothing, had no conversation or kept things to themselves. Something drove me to write ‘Shtum’ down during my doodling and it immediately jumped off the page. When I consulted an English/Yiddish dictionary, the first definition of ‘Shtum’ was ‘voiceless.’ Everyone loved it, but suggested that a publisher would probably want to change it. But it survived. It has survived in the Hebrew version (despite not being a common word in Israel!), Holland and the USA (where amazingly it also isn’t a common word!). The Croatian version translates to ‘In Silence.’ What the Turkish, French, Polish and Portuguese versions will be called, I don’t know.
The bond between Georg and Jonah is very strong and Ben seems surprised and almost jealous. Is Georg showing Ben a different way of loving Jonah?
I don’t think it was ever in Georg’s head. I think he find’s an affinity with Jonah that surprises even him. Georg is a man who has lived his whole life with secrets and Jonah is the most discreet, honest person ever. I think Georg is drawn to vulnerability; his brother Jonatan and then Maurice have both been beneficiaries. I believe he thinks Ben has had all the advantages and chances and has still not succeeded. Jonah helps reveal Georg’s part in this.
I liked the black humour of the infuriating official letters and reports punctuating the narrative.The tone was so convincing, I would guess you have had plenty of experience of these communications?
Three, massive, box files full of communications, reports and extraneous bullshit. Very few people have to confront an image of their child on paper (school reports are very impersonal these days) that is so demonstrably inaccurate. One quickly comes to recognise the use of euphemism and official speak and the nefarious purpose of the language. If you didn’t laugh you’d cry – there was plenty of both.
The reason Emma gives for leaving Ben and Jonah is not the whole truth. We only find out about her addiction near the end of the novel. I wonder if this is a strong enough motive for their marriage to end?
Emma’s addiction, like Ben’s drinking, is a symptom of a greater malaise that has all but dissolved the basis of their marriage. Her disappearance is really just the denouement of a situation that has been developing over a decade. A situation where their trust in each other has been converted to resentment. It talks of the stress of raising a child like Jonah, and speaks of the personal isolation that formally devoted couples suffer under such circumstances. By the opening of Shtum, there is simply too much space between them. It’s like pulling two magnets apart slowly until you can no longer feel the attraction.
I know the main character is based on your experience with autism, but the other characters seemed so well rounded it made me wonder how much of them you identify with too and if so, how?
So much of building characters is identifying the emotions that you want them to feel and express. I think it’s a huge task as a writer to express certain feelings if you haven’t experienced them one’s self. I’m not talking about specific situations or experiences, that would be impossible for a fiction writer, but if one can voice emotions, it allows the characters to become fully rounded and the dialogue authentic. On that basis, I can identify with all my characters emotions, whether old, young, male or female.
When Ben spoke in ‘Jonah’s voice’ at the tribunal I felt that was such a triumph of writing. How hard was it to write?
Ben speaking in Jonah’s voice was the only section of Shtum that I sat down to write and stayed sitting until it was finished. More than that, I have no recollection of using ‘backspace’ or ‘delete’ during its writing. I tend to create dialogue in my head before writing it down, but this wasn’t the case here. It bizarrely arrived fully-formed and not one letter has been subsequently changed. The actually writing of it was therefore ridiculously simple, the emotional build-up to writing it was something completely different. In that sense, putting words in Jonah’s head – and by extension my own son’s – was painful and felt a bit intrusive.
I loved the book – incredibly moving but with extremely funny moments. What would you like to think readers experienced whilst reading Shtum and is there anything you would particularly want to stay with them after the last page is finished?
Hmm. I think I would like readers to experience and understand that inspiration can come from the most overlooked sources and that we shouldn’t just listen with our ears, because most things are said with the volume down. After the last page is finished? Well, certainly the author’s name! Seriously, though, the funny moments. Always take those with you.
As a successful first novel writer, using what you know, what plans do you have for the next and subsequent books?
It’s interesting, the success of Shtum has not changed my character, I’m still mostly miserable, fearful and a terrible procrastinator. Thinking that somehow I’d transform into a powerhouse of confidence and irrepressible energy has proved too high an expectation. Shtum has been a great success and I now have two more books to write for Orion over the next couple of years. Using what I know now, I am certainly concentrating on writing to my strengths, maintaining my own voice and taking advice. I once heard an interview with Billy Joel where he bemoaned the fact that he wanted to be a Rock’n’Roller, while all his fans wanted him to sing more ballads. Book two, The Mother of Invention, is due for publication in the Spring of 2018. It will be nothing like Shtum, but I hope it will be recognisably a Jem Lester novel.
This could easily have been a bleak and depressing tale about a family cracking under pressure, a severely disabled child, a terminally ill elderly relative and a marriage on the brink of divorce. However I found it anything but depressing and in fact parts were really funny.
Was it important for you to balance the dark with humour to make the subject more accessible, or is this your general outlook on life?
I come from a family genetically programmed to find the darkest situations hilarious. I find moral outrage hilarious. I’ve been at the steps up to the gallows so many times in my life, I’d be swinging if it wasn’t for the humour. Now, my own son’s lack of inhibition and complete cheek endlessly amuses me, I can’t help it. There is nothing sad about it, nothing depressing. I wanted all of this to come across in Shtum. I am depressive by nature, but it has never stopped me laughing. Death is a serious business, but huge, overly dramatic expressions of grief crack me up. The funniest moments I can recall have all come at ostensibly the darkest times.
With thanks to Vee Freir, Lynn Latham, Daphne Poupart, Kathy Jesson and Fiona Atley for the questions and Jem Lester for the answers.
About the author
Jem Lester was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 – and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too. He taught English and Media studies at secondary schools for nine years.
Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner and her two children.
On his inspiration for the book he says: “I think, initially, the idea for Shtum came from the realisation that my own non-verbal, autistic son was more forthright in expressing his wants and needs than I was. Of course, I wanted to dismantle the stereotype of the ‘gifted’ autistic child but at the same time I thought it imperative that the joy and humour of these wonderful, innocent children was recognised and celebrated.”
Follow Jem on Twitter @JemLester
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Shtum by Jem Lester, published on 26 January, 2017 by Orion in paperback