(Editor’s note: The following author profile was written by Roberta Alexander, an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former fan of Nancy Drew, Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached via her Web site.)
Kenneth Wishnia knows about hard work.
The New York professor and novelist spent nearly seven years researching and writing The Fifth Servant (HarperCollins), a mystery set in late-16th-century Prague.
He’d already published five novels (under the byline K.J.A Wishnia), but they had a contemporary setting and featured a female Ecuadorian detective, Filomena Buscarsela.
The Fifth Servant presented a whole new universe. And new challenges. Brought up in a secular household, Wishnia plunged into Jewish history, amassing 1,200 pages of single-spaced notes, three handwritten notebooks, and a 42-inch pile of drafts. The novel, he says, required three years of research and three and a half of writing.
But even as he studied, he had to keep his goal in mind.
“I wanted depth and complexity, but I knew I had to compete in a commercial medium,” he says. “That meant having a body found by page 20 and an ultimatum [threatening Prague’s ghetto community] by page 30.”
A professor of literature and writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, Wishnia is well versed in the academic and writing processes. But this book (originally released in 2010, but recently reissued in paperback) made new demands of him. “It was more work than I ever put into anything,” he says. “It was like getting another doctorate. The Fifth Servant is my honorary doctorate.” Among his source material: the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, Jewish history, and Czech history.
His path toward writing The Fifth Servant started when Wishnia, nominally Jewish but from what he calls “a thoroughly assimilated family,” married a Catholic woman. He decided he wanted to learn about her beliefs and in the process discovered, by reading the New Testament, that he already knew much of it, which he attributes to “living in the U.S., where the dominant culture is overwhelmingly Christian.”
From there he began his studies of Jewish culture, wanting to know what lay beyond the bagels and Woody Allen films of his childhood.
In his latest novel, Wishnia chose to blend fact and fiction, which gives the story many layers of complexity. By focusing on the late 16th century, he was able to incorporate the real-life Rabbi Judah Loew, a well-known scholar and mystic, as well as golems, those amorphous figures of folklore that figured in much of Loew’s writing.
“I found this amazingly democratic society,” Wishnia says of his research. “It was so different from the autocratic churches I knew about. … The Catholic Church is not a democracy.”
In the end, his journey was as invigorating as his destination. “This is the Jewish education I never had,” explains Wishnia. The research also gave him “a previously nonexistent respect” for for rabbinic traditions.
(Left) Author Wishnia at Prague’s Jewish Cemetery.
And make no mistake: life in the Prague ghetto was hard, and danger was never far off. Jews in Central Europe lived on sufferance from whatever ruler was in power. Some of them were tolerant, others were politically astute and a few were bloodthirsty.
In The Fifth Servant, the plot turns on a “blood libel” charge after the corpse of a Christian girl is found in a ghetto shop. (Blood libel is the false, anti-Semitic claim that the blood of children is being sought for use in religious rituals.)
Despite its serious subject matter, the book contains plenty of humor.
“There’s the classic smart-ass Jewish humor, which I imbibed with my mother’s milk,” Wishnia says. “In my contemporary series, the humor is more out there. My character has attitude. But in this, the psychological weight of the blood libel is so heavy, I’ve got to inject a joke here and there.”
Early on, Wishnia thought maybe his manuscript didn’t have enough humor. “But when I read the Spanish version,” he recalls, “I laughed out loud. I astonished myself.”
This was the first time Wishnia modeled a character on his grown autistic son, who is very strong but minimally verbal. The character Yosele is what might be called a village simpleton--powerful, but unable to communicate well. “Yosele’s mannerisms are my son’s. There is more of me in this than people would think,” Wishnia says.
Looking ahead, Wishnia thinks he might want to delve into even older history, setting his next novel in the sixth century BCE. No doubt it will be an education for him as well as his many fans.
READ MORE: “How I Came to Write This Book--Kenneth Wishnia, The Fifth Servant” (Pattinase).