The rom-com premise of Eight Nights of Flirting (Razorbill, $19.99) introduces us to two Nantucket teens—Shira and Tyler—who kind of hate each other. Or do they? Happy Hanukkah! author Hannah Reynolds talks to Lilith’s Fiction Editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about what happens when Shira and Tyler get snowed in together at a place called Golden Doors, enemies-to-lovers, and Hanukkah fiction.
YZM: How does your Jewish background inform your writing?
HR: For a long time, I didn’t see any Jewish characters in books outside of Holocaust fiction. I was hungry for representation, and so when I started writing, I created heroines like me – heroines with my hair, my nose, my family history, my holidays. I’d realized how much it meant to me, having novels where I could see myself, especially ones where Jews didn’t only exist as victims. Because of that, I focus on writing Jewish heroines who have their own agency and who are strong, bright lights in their worlds – and who are surrounded by plenty of similar women. Very few Hanukkah romances exist, and so I let my own family background flood into the story, in the hope that people who pick the book up will feel seen. Thematically, as well, I like to explore topics that are rooted in my identity: both that of belonging to a small community and of being an outsider to wider society; intergenerational connection and also trauma; striving to help others and fight against injustices. My characters often experience fish-out-of-water situations, while also having strong and meaningful family connections.
YZM: Shira is Jewish and Tyler is not; how does this tweak the “holiday romance” genre?
HR: I grew up interfaith, celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas, so I wanted to tell a story that reflected the world I’d grown up in. That meant rooting the tale in Jewish traditions – in candle lighting and latke making, in Hanukkah songs and family time – but also showcasing in some of the things I love about Christmas (namely, the trees; I’m a sucker for that evergreen scent).
It was important to me that Shira and Tyler were both very comfortable around each other’s traditions. It’s easy for them to be part of each other’s worlds – though they might not know everything, which is why Shira teaches Tyler to play dreidel and about the holiday’s history. I’m completely at ease with both sides of my family’s holiday celebrations, and I think both Christmas and Hanukkah can interact with each other in a positive, joyful way. There’s room for both to exist, and on their own terms.
Also, we live in a world where there’s many varied holidays, and to act as only one exists is bizarre – I’m always uncomfortable during Christmas movies where the entire town celebrates Christmas, and there’s no acknowledgement any other type of person might exist! I prefer stories that recognize the breadth of traditions, which I think is a more realistic and kinder way of looking at the world.
YZM: This novel is set in Nantucket, but you seem to be challenging the stereotypical image of the place.
HR: A lot of people think of Nantucket as a summer playground for the elite, and it’s certainly true that plenty of wealthy Americans vacation on the island. But Nantucket is far more than the summer people: 14,000 locals from a variety of backgrounds live on the fourteen-mile long island year-round (the population blooms to ~60k during the summer). Nantucket has always been connected to communities all over the world: As a whaling center in its heyday, the sailors had contact with the Azores and Hawaii, and people from those islands often moved to New England. In the 19th century, Nantucket had a thriving Black population; the African Meeting House can still be visited, and in 1822 Absalom Boston captained an all Black whaling crew. Today, new communities are forming, such as Nantucket’s growing Salvadoran population.
As for the Jewish population on the island – it’s unlikely any Jewish families lived on Nantucket quite as early as the 1840s, when I settle the Barbanels family there, but certainly Jewish merchants were connected to the island. I was inspired by stories of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera and Aaron Lopez, Sephardic Jews who made their way from Spain and Portugal to Newport, RI in the 1700s — and who had Nantucket connections due to their involvement in the whale oil industry. By the late 1800s, Jewish families were making their homes on the island and opening businesses; in 1907, Emile Genesky moved from New Bedford to Nantucket and opened what would become Murray’s Toggery Shop, which is still doing a brisk business today. In 1983, congregation Shirat HaYam formed, and it is also still part of the community. It’s important we don’t let stereotypical images of a people or place become the only image. There’s so much more life behind the flat, two-dimensional ideas people paint when they’re using broad strokes, and it’s important to acknowledge all the people who have made a community what it is.
YZM: Tyler is fine with a more casual relationship while Shira yearns for a close and deep relationship; are you passing judgment on the contemporary hook up culture?
HR: Certainly not! Instead, I wanted to explore the importance of knowing what you want out of a relationship, and learning to communicate that. Too often, people either don’t have a clear idea of what they’re looking for, or they’re scared of sharing their actual goals with their partner – which means everyone ends up unhappy with the situation. Shira and Tyler both know exactly what they want: Shira knows she isn’t comfortable hooking up outside of a relationship, while Tyler knows he isn’t currently looking for a relationship. They are incompatible, and they’re both honest about it. I think this kind of communication is healthy and important, and I wish there was more of it.
Of course, it brings about a very real tension when people are looking for different things, but they still want to, say, hook up and hang out. Part of the tension in Eight Nights of Flirting comes from Shira trying to decide what she does want – is she comfortable hooking up outside a relationship? Where do her priorities lie? How does she talk about this with Tyler? I think it’s so important to be able to truly understand what you, yourself, are comfortable with. That especially goes for teens, many of whom are having their first relationships – I want them to know they can stick up for their comfort levels, and that they don’t have to compromise what they’re okay with for anyone else.
YZM: Why does the “enemies-to-lovers” trope continue to be one of the most popular romance themes?
HR: Enemies-to-lovers forms an instant tension, and so it’s an easily compelling storyline. How can two people who hate each other ever fall in love? How can emotions change so drastically? It’s a satisfying, clear arc, with plenty of good conflict. I enjoy writing enemies-to-lovers because it gives you a reason to dive into a character’s psyche. Why do these characters hate each other – past experience, values, situational conflict? To change their minds about each other, they’re forced to interrogate their beliefs, and that means getting into the weeds of how a character thinks and what they want.
I also like exploring that fine line between love and hate. Shira despises Tyler because when they were younger, she had a massive crush on him – and when she confessed her love, he laughed. She was crushed even more when he went on to be a playboy who would hook up with everyone but her. Wounded pride cuts deeply, and it takes a lot to heal from it. Tyler, on the other hand, never hates Shira, but he does find it shocking when she switches from adoring him to detesting him. It leaves him wanting to get under her skin.
And of course, there’s the issue of trust in an enemies-to-lovers storyline. Trust is so important to a romantic relationship, and to build it believably, you have to write scenes where the reader really feels the lead characters unexpectedly connecting, which is such a satisfying feeling in a romance.
YZM: Unlike many YA novels, Eight Nights of Flirting features an extended family that is cohesive and close; what was your aim in creating such a harmonious group?
HR: I love big families. I love celebrating holidays in large groups, I love having a million people around, I love laughing and talking all night. I also think so much of my own personality comes from having such a supportive and loving family, and so I like to give the same to my characters. I wanted to create a home at Golden Doors that feels warm and cozy and safe, and is one that everyone – those with close families and not – can love and feel part of.