How is The Truth About Leaving (Amberjack, $15.99), about an American girl and an Israeli boy new to their senior class, different—for you—from your previous writing for young readers, The Distance from A to Z and the other novels?
Funny enough, The Truth About Leaving was the first novel I wrote. I finished a very rough draft in November 2011 and it’s taken almost eight years for it to find a home and make it into print. That said, this book has been rewritten dozens of times, so I feel like it’s both my first book and my second, fourth, eighth, twelfth, etc. etc. It has changed radically in that time, but it’s still the first story I needed to write badly enough that I actually did it.
Do you consider The Truth About Leaving your first novel with explicitly Jewish material?
Definitely. My other novels have Jewish characters and scenes with Jewish content, but this one is the only one infused with Jewish/Israel content. However, I think if you asked my main character, Dov, he’d say that Israel has a big role in the story, not Judaism. And I’m quite sure Lucy would agree.
In the beginning, Lucy and Dov are paired in an English class where each is assigned to bring in a poem that responds to the poem the other brought in. (Brilliant pedagogy!) They share poems by William Butler Yeats, Yehuda Amichai, Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, among others. Are you a poet too, besides being a novelist? Do you have thoughts about bridging commercial and literary genres?
Hmmm. Interesting question! I love poetry—many of the poems were ones I’d grown up reading in an old hardcover poetry collection that I inherited/stole from my dad, while a few were some from my childhood. And as for being a poet, I have a whole file of bad poetry I wrote in college, but that’s about it. Though here’s a secret: the poem that Lucy writes for Dov is a poem I wrote back then…
There are many literary precedents for unlikely romances— Shakespeare, Jane Austen come to mind. Can you say more about the particular unlikeliness of the love story of Lucy and Dov? And do you have an opinion about happy endings?
Unlikely romances are the best kinds of romances! If it was easy for two people to fall in love and be together, nobody would learn anything about themselves. I love the tension that is created when two people who seem so different are able to make enough room inside to accept and love the other. And personally, I’m all about happy endings. There’s too much unhappiness and failure in the real world, I like the idea of being able to offer a vision of something that seems unlikely but actually works. One important element though: it was really important to me that Lucy and Dov needed to change and grow in order to be together. I don’t believe in solutions that come from one person understanding the other and changing.
Can you tell us more about the protagonists’ moms—who are notably not easy people?
Oh the moms! I get so many strong reactions to the poor moms. (Unlike the grandmas, Amy and Megan, who seem to have their own fan club.) I feel strongly that if I had changed the moms into dads, nobody would have blinked an eye. But when a mom tries to be selfish? The whole world freaks out. Now, Lucy’s mom in particular clearly doesn’t see the cost of her decisions, but I would argue that without watching what her mom did and went through, Lucy couldn’t have made her decision about her future. To me, Lucy’s mom isn’t bad or good, she’s a person who is making choices for herself, despite the consequences. When I was writing the book, Lucy’s mom was the character I identified with most as I hid from my children and family to get more words in. I was very aware that I was missing out on so many things, but I really felt like writing this book in particular was something I couldn’t give up either.
The love interest in this midwestern private high school is a visiting Israeli student. How did you choose “which” Israel to present, which harsh realities to share?
Of all the choices I had to make in this book, this was the easiest. I wanted this to be as realistic a portrait of an 18-year-old Israeli boy as a no-longer-18-year-old North American woman could write. I wanted Dov to be Israeli like my nieces and nephews who live there, and Lucy to see Israel through the news as I did at 18. I wanted the reader to see the clash between those two Israels take place in their encounters. Dov’s view of Israel isn’t devoid of wars and terrorism, but it also isn’t defined by them. And that’s the Israel I wanted Lucy to experience. There are many children’s books and young-adult novels that deal with the conflict and war. I wanted to write a different kind of story about Israel.
Tell us about the title, The Truth About Leaving. What does it mean?
Ah! So, funny story: this book has actually always been called The Truth About Leaving, but I didn’t know why it worked, I just knew it did. And then one day, a few weeks a er the book came out, I realized that the book really does seek to answer the question of what does it mean to leave or stay. It was like subconsciously, I knew it was the right title but I needed my brain to catch up with my subconscious to figure it out. Being any more specific would be vaguely spoilery.