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Writing Through Retirement

Octogenarian Professor Publishes First Novel

Jonathan Silverman, Joseph Zaitchik, Jeannie Judge
Prof. Jonathan Silverman, left, and Prof. Jeannie Judge celebrated the release of Prof. Joseph Zaitchik’s first novel, “The Fitting,” with their colleague, center.

By Julia Gavin

After 46 years at UMass Lowell, Prof. Joseph Zaitchik has seen a lot on campus. But the recent book release for his mystery novel, “The Fitting,” was a first.

“I’m delighted to have the novel done after many years,” said Zaitchik, a first-time novelist in his 80s.

The novel, about a Russian immigrant tailor untangling and re-tangling a murder mystery near a college campus, pulls from many aspects of the professor’s life. The tailor is loosely based on his oldest brother, who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad and emigrated from Russia in the 1990s. But he also quotes literature as only an English professor can. The novel has grown since its inception, as has the writer.

Up and Coming Novelist Who Took His Time

Zaitchik started the novel before he came to the University, when he “would write anything for a buck.” He wrote news, pulp fiction and short stories while developing the novel’s basic plot as a short story, which didn’t sell. 

While the story sat, Zaitchik did anything but. He has taught numerous English courses at the University over the years and still teaches a class in the fall. Zaitchik has seen the University through different names and administrations with highs and lows. As the chairman of the student affairs committee in the ’60s and ’70s, he helped guide the campus through tumultuous times such as the Kent State shootings and clashes between students and administrations. But always, the school and Zaitchik kept moving forward. 
He wrote a theatrical version of the story, which was a finalist for many awards, but it was too expensive to produce. And so it sat again until Zaitchik retired six years ago. He picked up “The Fitting” in 2009 and radically revised the story. The new version, with only one-third of the original intact, was published by Florida Academic Press in late 2011.

Using five different perspectives and flashbacks to the ’60s and ’70s, the novel helps readers consider conflicting cultures and American values. The campus setting, inspired by UMass Lowell, will be familiar to local readers. 

Glowing reviews have come from leaders in modern fiction, including Faith Pullin, honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh, who calls the book “a psychological thriller which grips the reader on many levels.” Pullin says that Zaitchik “deals expertly with a whole range of ethnic and social interaction and demonstrates the wisdom and compassion of a writer who, in terms of insight and breadth of reference, clearly descends from the Transcendentalists themselves.”

Celebrating a First After Inspiring Many Beginnings

Zaitchik was joined by students, professors, friends and family in celebrating the release of “The Fitting” in the English Department’s renovated lounge. 

“Professor Zaitchik was my director for advanced composition. I always enjoyed him as a professor and now as a colleague,” says Brendan Desilets, ’68, who taught English in Bedford before returning to UMass Lowell as an adjunct professor. “He’s a real character.”

Zaitchik enjoyed seeing many people from his past and present and the memories they stirred up.

“Early on, it was a small school that I came in to, but it’s been growing and growing and getting better and better,” said Zaitchik of the University. “I’ve always enjoyed the students here.”

Zaitchik will return to teach “The Bible as Literature” in the fall after his customary travel time in the spring and looks forward to spending more time writing.

“Some people move to Florida and play golf when they retire,” says Zaitchik. “I’m lousy at golf, so I write.”