“My novel has its origins the 1990s, when my family had just emigrated from the former Soviet Union. As the family member with the best English, I filled out my grandmother’s application for Holocaust restitution,” says Boris Fishman, whose debut novel, A Replacement Life, is the story of a failed journalist who forges Holocaust-restitution claims for Brooklyn-dwelling Russian Jews.

Fishman, whose background overlaps with his novel’s plot in many ways, calls the book a mix of real life and imagination—real life provided the story’s jumping off point, but his imagination soon took over. “Real-life facts are like the mother who leads you across the road at five,” he says. “But soon enough you’re an adult, walking on your own.”

Fishman took his first stab at the story of an aspiring writer forging claim forms in 2005 when he wrote a short story that became the blueprint to A Replacement Life. In 2009, at the start of his second year in NYU’s M.F.A. program, Fishman refashioned his story into the outline of a novel. Fishman credits his experience in the M.F.A program at NYU for giving him the discipline he needed to continue refining the book, even during years when his bank account was “screaming.”

Terry Karten, at HarperCollins, preempted A Replacement Life after she received it on submission from Fishman’s agent, Henry Dunow of Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner. Fishman says the novel went through a dozen drafts total—nine before he signed with Dunow and three more before Karten saw it. “I devoured the manuscript,” says Karten. “I had to have it. I never doubted for a moment that I wanted to publish this book—that’s why I preempted it, something I rarely do.”

Fishman reports that he was an “activist” author in the months leading up to his June 3 publication and jokes that he must have annoyed his publicists. “After four years nursing this child I wanted to do everything I could for it,” he says. “Now I get what my parents meant when they said wait until you’re a parent.” Whatever he did, or they did, must have worked—Barnes and Noble just selected A Replacement Life as one of their 2014 Discover Great New Writers picks.