Journalist and author Josh Rolnick grew up in Highland Park and still draws inspiration from the town.
“I sometimes think that every story I’ve ever written starts in the exact same place: the rooms of my childhood…on Grant Avenue in Highland Park,” he wrote recently. Half the stories in Pulp and Paper, his first collection of short stories, are set in his home state. In February, the book won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned his MFA.
When not writing fiction, Rolnick is publisher of Sh’ma — A Journal of Jewish Ideas, published by the Sh’ma Institute, an independent nonprofit established by Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation.
He and his wife and three sons divide their time between Brooklyn and Akron, Ohio, where his wife’s family has a business. Rolnick got his BA at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and also has an MA in writing from The Johns Hopkins University.
Recently, he answered e-mailed questions put to him by NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: What does being the publisher of Sh’ma entail?
Rolnick: I am responsible for the business side of the publication, everything from managing our subscription base and marketing efforts to fund-raising and strategic planning. I work very closely with the editor, Susan Berrin, as well as the on-line editor, Bobby Saferstein.
NJJN: What brought you to Sh’ma? Can you tell us a bit about your Jewish background and current Jewish involvement?
Rolnick: I grew up in Highland Park and went to college in neighboring New Brunswick — and I really wanted to expand my horizons, travel, and learn more about my own cultural heritage. So I decided to move to Israel for a year. I enrolled as a visiting graduate scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studied Israeli history and politics, learned Hebrew in ulpan. I also served as an intern for the AP in Jerusalem, where I was asked to cover some incredible, tragic events — including the bus bombing in the Gaza Strip that took the life of Alisa Flatow. I covered Prime Minister Rabin. I was in the Arava Desert for the peace treaty signing between Israel and Jordan, and I wrote a column about that experience for The Tribune.
Like many young people who live in Israel, the experience changed me in fundamental ways and altered my direction. For a while when I returned, I continued to work at the AP in Trenton, but shortly thereafter, when I moved to Washington, DC, I found myself looking at an editor position at Moment magazine. By then, the Israel story — and indeed the broader Jewish story — had become a central part of who I am, and I was excited by the challenge of writing about it and covering it more deeply.
NJJN: What stands out for you from your years in Highland Park?
Rolnick: Oh, man, I could write volumes in answer to this question. My parents lived in the same house on Grant Avenue from the time I was two until two years ago. (I’m 41 now.) Whenever I think of home, that’s it. Highland Park is a small town, in the best sense of the word. I grew up fishing for eels at the creek at the end of Grant Avenue, in what was really my neighbor’s backyard. I have fond memories of playing Capture the Flag with friends sluicing through the narrow paths between the houses.
I’m sure many people think idyllically about their hometowns, but there was something about this place and the safety it provided me to explore and branch out — without being too sheltered. We lived close enough to New York City that we could go in on the weekends in high school; we made trips to Philly and the Jersey Shore. Highland Park always said to me: You can do what you want to do and be what you want to be. I’ll be here.
NJJN: Do you still find time for your fiction writing?
Rolnick: Right now I’m touring for Pulp and Paper and spending much of my time doing interviews like this one, promoting the book. This collection took me more than a decade to write — I figure I owe it to the book to work hard to get it out there. Once I’m through this initial stage, I’ll go back to writing regularly. The trick to writing, I think, is just to make it a part of your regular routine, and to do it every day — when you’re tired, when you’d rather not, when you have writer’s block. Plant yourself in a chair at the same time every day, and stay there — even if you only stare at the screen.