Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sydney Taylor Blog Tour: Interview with Deborah Heiligman, author of Intentions

I am so pleased to welcome to The Fourth Musketeer author Deborah Heiligman, the winner of this year's Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen Readers for her riveting teen novel, Intentions.  She has kindly responded to my interview questions below.

Q:  Intentions tells the story of 15-year old Rachel, who in the beginning of the novel overhears her beloved rabbi committing adultery right in the sanctuary.  The novel develops into a powerful and poignant story of betrayal and disappointment, and a coming-of-age story of learning to accept responsibility for our actions.  It's your first YA novel.  What inspired you to come up with this particular story?  

A:  I wanted to capture that moment in a teen's life when she realizes that someone she adores and even idolizes is flawed. That happened to me in a pretty spectacular way in my community growing up (though not quite as spectacularly as in the book!) and it was a truly painful time. That moment informs who you become I think--because how you deal with it can shape the rest of your life. My editor Michelle described it as the moment when the black and white of childhood becomes the gray of adulthood. Even when we are adults we are walloped when someone we admire or love does something bad... to wit, I started writing this book during the Clinton/Lewinsky debacle. I liked Clinton a lot and I was upset by what he had done, and even more than that, I was sad that my young sons were confused and were asking so many questions. Yet because of that I knew I was on to something universal.   Also around that time a rabbi in New Jersey was tried and convicted of having his wife killed.  So it all came together in that way. It did, however, take me almost two decades to finish it in a way that I was satisfied with it and ready to throw it into the wide world.

Q:  Rachel has such an authentic-sounding teenage voice.  Does she have anything in common with your teen self?  How do you channel this teen voice in your writing?

Deborah Heiligman
A:  I think people who know me personally see some of me in Rachel, but she came to me pretty much fully formed as a character. There were certain things about her that felt too much like me, and so those I changed. In the end she became someone who I hope I would have been friends with at that age--but nice friends with! In terms channeling the teen voice, I find it very easy to access my teenage self, the emotions and desires, the gusts and squalls of those years. Perhaps I have not actually grown up....?! 

Q:  Rachel's personal disappointment with the rabbi changes her whole relationship with Judaism in this novel.  Can you tell us a little about your Jewish background and the role Judaism plays in your life?

A:  I grew up as what I affectionately call an Orthodox Reform Jew. My father was actually an immigrant from a shtetl in Lithuania, and grew up dirt-poor and Orthodox in Lehighton, PA. (They had to include Jews from the next town to have a minyan. I don't know how they kept kosher except that they had their own chickens.) He married my mom late in life (her second marriage) and she was kind of High Reform, though her first husband had been Conservative. SO. The agreement was that they would belong to the Reform synagogue, go every week,  and always have a really nice Friday night dinner. So that's how I grew up. I loved my temple and I had lots of friends of all kinds, but my heart friends were mostly Jewish. As a teenager I got involved in Jewish youth groups and in college I went to Hillel (mostly to do a lot of cooking for a lot of people--challah for a hundred!, which was fun). In college I decided to concentrate (major) in religious studies. That gave my parents, especially my mother, conniption fits. She said to me on the phone when I told her: "There are two things you are not allowed to do: be a rabbi, or marry a rabbi." Wise woman, she. So of course for a whole week I was going to be a rabbi. Instead I became a writer! (My best friend became a rabbi and she and her rabbi husband read the manuscript for me a couple of times.) Back to real life: My husband agreed to bring up our kids Jewish (he is Jewish, but not religious) and so we did. We belonged to a great synagogue in New Hope, PA, that is Reconstructionist and both my sons became bar mitzvahs there. Since we moved back to NYC we don't belong to a synagogue. I miss it sometimes, but mostly I feel very happy and at home here, and we have holidays here and with my family back in Pennsylvania where I grew up. 

Q:  As an author, you have produced an extremely diverse group of books, ranging from fun rhyming picture books for preschoolers such as Fun Dog, Sun Dog, to the award-winning biography Charles and Emma and an upcoming picture book biography of mathematician Paul Erdos.  What are some of your favorite parts of writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction?

A:  You know in fiction you get to MAKE STUFF UP. I love that. But I also really love writing nonfiction. I must tell you that I always make stuff up, and usually tell my husband about it. He is a dyed-in-the-wool nonfiction writer so he doesn't quite get why when we're on a dark country road, for example, I might worry aloud about alien abduction or people by the side of the road who need our help but turn out to be shapeshifters, that kind of thing. When Intentions was accepted for publication, he said something like, "Oh good now I can tell myself you're a novelist, not crazy." 

Q:  You have said repeatedly that your all-time favorite children's book is Charlotte's Web (a favorite of mine as well--it's the first book I can remember asking for and reading myself).  What are some of your favorite children's books with Jewish themes?  And can you tell us some of the books that are currently on your nightstand?

A:  Well at least I'm consistent. Wait, Charlotte wasn't Jewish?  OK--some of my favorite books with Jewish themes (there are so many great ones!): The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz (one of my all-time favorite adult books is The Way of Man by Martin Buber, which has that tale in it as well); The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen; The Diary of Anne Frank; Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb; Darkness over Denmark by Ellen Levine; Just Enough is Plenty by Barbara Diamond Goldin.  (I wrote all those by memory, by the way--I think that's how you know your favorite books, when they just come to you POP! It means you are holding them in your heart always.) 

Deborah, thanks so much for participating in the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour!  Please check out some of the other blog tour stops listed below.


Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Shelf-Employed 

Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Ann Koffsky’s Blog 

Doreen Rappaport, author of Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Bildungsroman


Linda Glaser, author of Hannah’s Way
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
At This Messy Life 

Adam Gustavson, illustrator of Hannah’s Way
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger ReadersCategory
At Here in HP 

Louise Borden, author of His Name was Raoul Wallenberg
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Randomly Reading 


Sheri Sinykin, author of Zayde Comes to Live
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Read, Write, Repeat 

Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Zayde Comes to Live
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Writing & Illustrating


Linda Leopold Strauss, author of The Elijah Door
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Pen and Pros 

Alexi Natchev, illustrator of The Elijah Door
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Madelyn Rosenberg’s Virtual Living Room 


Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah 


Deborah Heiligman said...

Thank you for interviewing me, Margo! And thanks to all the great folks at AJL and to the late great Sydney Taylor!

madelyn said...

I am really looking forward to reading this book. Great interview. Thanks!

Fire places Sydney said...

Thanks for sharing such an insightful interview.It is amazing that the character of the novel is close to the author.