It’s the first day of Chanukah and I thought I would kick off the week-long celebration, here at SFF Chat, with my interview with Jane Yolen, which I am particularly excited about.
Though technically the interview is not actually mine because for such a prestigious author I thought I better bring in the big guns, and so I turned to my mother, Nadine Bonner.
Not only is my mother a professional journalist, and so I knew she would do a great job, but she is also the one who first introduced me to Jane Yolen’s books, many years ago, and so it seemed appropriate.
And so, without any further ado, here is JaneYolen….
NB: Hi Jane. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me.
Since this week we are focusing on Jewish speculative fiction authors I'd like to begin by asking you how your "Jewishness" has affected your writing. Do you feel that your background gives you a different perspective? Or perhaps you don't believe this at your " all, if so, why?
JY: My Jewishness growing up consisted of family bar mitzvas, some seders, and aunts and uncles who spoke Yiddish as code for keeping the children from understanding them. we didn't belong to a temple, I didn;t go to Sunday school or Hebrew school. But as almost all the kids in my class were Jewish (I went to PS 93 in New York City), I certainly KNEW I was Jewish.
When we move to Westport, Ct. and I was one of three Jewish kids in my junior high school class, I decided I wanted to learn more about Judaism. My parents joined a temple in Norwalk (more Jews than in the Waspish Westport which had no synagogue) so I could be confirmed. There were no bat mitzvahs then, or at least not there. I ended up head of the confirmation class and was the first girl to read out of the Torah. Was president of our youth group. Went to Smith College and minored in religion.
My growing up therefore gave me both insider and outsider perspectives on religion, class, cultures, history. It also gave me a hunger for stories about my people. All excellent backgrounding for a writer.
NB: Last March, Michael Weingrad wrote a scholarly article questioning the lack of Jewish fantasy writing. He asked why Jews don't write fantasy and why there is no Jewish Narnia. How would you respond to this?
JY: It was a stupid article, very wrongheaded. Much discussed online. I was president of the Science Fiction (and Fantasy) writers of America. Trust me--Jews DO write fantasy. He wanted to know why Jews didn't write fantasy like non-Jews do.
We write out own.
Have you READ Maus? Or Maurice Sendak's books. Or almost anything by Isaac Singer? Or as one commenter in the disussions I participated in said, " entire medium of comic book fantasy was created, drawn, and written largely by Jewish creative professionals, since the 1930’s. The entire fantasy movie industry, from Spiderman, to Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and the Hulk was a creation of Jewish men and women, each of which added elements of their upbringing and values. Kal-el, or Superman, was an amalgam of new immigrant fantasies and Kabbalah, and the Hulk is a Golem."
Neil Gaiman created the award-winning Sandman, which drew heavily upon Midrash and the Jewish creation story." Lisa Goldstein's The Red Magician. My book The Devil's Arithmetic is Holocaust fantasy. Am in the middle of a Golem novel. No, none of us has written the Narnia books for Jews, which was Weingrad's main complaint as far as I could tell (or remember, I read the piece when it came out) but why should we?
My friend, Professor Farah Mendelsohn, has a lot to say about this. She is an expert in both fantasy/science fiction and children's books in those genres and has written extensively about them. She went ballistic over that article.
NB: It amazes me the way you are able to write for so many different ages and sound authentic. How do you capture the right tone for teens and then find a different tone for pre-school children?
JY: I find my own child center and write the books I wanted to read as a child.
NB: What has been your most challenging project and why?
JY: Probably (looking back) The Devil's Arithmetic and Briar Rose, both Holocaust novels, both with fantasy elements. The research into the Holocaust and being immersed in the culture of death and suffering for so long took a heavy toll.
NB: Do you have a process for starting a new book when you finish one? Do you give yourself a break? Do you usually have something already in mind?
JY: I always have about a dozen projects in various stages on my to do list at any time, so never a break, but never bored, either.
NB: Do you have a particular method that works for you? Writing in the morning? Using an outline? Sketching out all the characters before you start writing?
JY: I write when it is light, not in the dark. Harder in the winter, then. I spend summers on Scotland where there are ALMOST white nights. My fingers fly across the keys then.
No outlines I prefer to set characters in motion and run after them shouting, "Wait for me!!!" I listen to their voices and may give gentle advice if asked for it. But mostly I am trying to keep up.
NB: After years of writing books for children and young adults you recently came out with your first graphic novel, Foiled. I’m curious as to why you decided to write a graphic novel and how was the experience different from writing a regular book.
JY: This past couple of years I have taken a long-planned new road on my trip through children’s books, traveling into graphic novels. You all know me as a picture book writer, a poet, novelist for midgrades and young adults., and an occasional nonfiction writer for children. Some of you may even know my adult stories, poetry, fiction, nonfiction.
The truth is, I had long wanted to write a graphic novel, being a comic book fan from way back. I especially love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting. I even got to write introductions for the graphic novels from three of those. I’ll let you guess which one I didn’t introduce.
For the past fifteen or so years, I have actively pitched ideas to the editors I knew. But not one of them thought the graphic novel was something I—or they—could produce successfully. These rejections had nothing to do with whether or not the editors knew anything about graphic novels. Or read them. Or thought them interesting. Or provocative. Or even possible moneymakers. Most of the editors said something like, “Why would you want to do any such thing?” as if writing a graphic novel was—somehow—beneath me and possibly demeaning to my reputation as a writer. Soiling my lit’ry fingers, doncha know. These are the same editors, mind you, who are now turning down my manuscripts, saying “You are too literate for our list.” I kid you not.
NB: Can you tell me about some of the projects that you are currently working on?
JY: I have just finished (and it's all copyedited) a short novel based on Snow White called Snow in Summer that is set in Apalachia in the 1930s and 40s and will be out next Fall. Am writing a Sleeping Beauty novel, The Thirteenth Fey which should be finished by late spring. (I hope.) Have several new How Do Dinosaurs books being illustrated right now. And lots else.
NB: What inspired you to begin writing fantasy, and who are some of your current favorite fantasy writers?
JY: I was an early fairy tale and fantasy reader. Some of my (old) favorites were the Colour Fairy Books by Andrew Lang, The Thirteen Clocks and The White Deer by James Thurber, Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White as well as his Arthurian novels, and Tolkien of course. As far as new fantasy writers, crazy about Robin McKinley, Shannon Hale, Diana Wynne Jones, Alice Hoffman, Bruce Coville, Phillip Pullman, Patricia Wrede, Patricia McKillip, Neil Gaiman, Holly Black.. .not in any particular order.
NB: And to tie the interview into Chanukah, do you have a favorite Chanukah memory that you can share?
JY: When my daughter and her two daughters lived in South Carolina, they would call me each Chanukah night, light their candles and hold the phone over the menorah so I could sing the blessing. Now they live next door to me, and Maddison (now fifteen) comes over and we light the candles together and sing the blessing together.
Thanks again Jane for taking the time to answer all of my questions.
And thank you to everyone who joined us here for this interview.
Since part of the fun of Chanukah is giving presents I have a gift to offer to one lucky commenter. Jane's publicists have offered to give away one of her newest books, though I can't yet specify which one it is. We are working on getting Foiled, the graphic novel, but whichever book it ends up being, I know it will be a wonderful prize.
To enter the giveaway just leave your name and email address in the comment box below.