Sacha Lamb is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in young adult fiction and graduated in Library and Information Science and History from Simmons University. Sacha lives in New England with a miniature dachshund mix named Anzu Bean. When The Angels Left The Old Country is their debut novel.
I had the opportunity to interview Sacha, which you can read below.
First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?
In my day job I’m a librarian. I graduated with degrees in library science and history in 2020, and I work for a scientific organization. When I’m not working I take walks and practice tricks with my dachshund mix.
I was a Lambda literary fellow in YA in 2018 and my first published pieces were short queer stories online—Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live from Book Smugglers (2017), “Epistolary” with Foreshadow YA in 2019.
What can you tell us about your latest book, When the Angels Left the Old Country? What was the inspiration for this story?
When the Angels Left The Old Country is my debut novel, an Ellis Island era fairytale about an angel and demon who study Talmud in a little village in Poland, until a girl from the village goes missing on the way to America and they have to go after her to find out what happened. It turns out that America is a complicated place full of magic and murders, and the streets are not paved with gold.
When I started writing Angels, I’d just finished a draft of a YA contemporary that was focused on grief and loneliness, so, not a very cheerful project. I wanted to do something fun to decompress, and my comfort zones are fairytales and the history of immigration (my master’s thesis in history focused on Jewish immigrants to the USA in the 1920s). I really pulled together a lot of inspirations, basically everything I enjoy the most: historical queerness, immigration, supernatural creatures, bickering.
As a queer and Jewish person, what does it mean to you writing a book like this?
The best thing about having this book out in the world is seeing people respond like “this is me, this is my culture, my life.” Especially to have people from traditional Jewish contexts respond like that to a queer story is very powerful. I hope that the book can help broaden for people the idea of what’s possible with a very deeply Jewish context and Jewish life, and help people see that history is complicated and many-layered.
Queer people may not be well-recorded in history, but we do have enough sources to know that we’ve always been around. I like to think of queer history as a sort of mycelial network, where you have the mushrooms popping up above ground and those are the stories that managed to get written down, that’s what we see, but there’s a whole vast underground network of stories we don’t see. You have to extrapolate from what you do see to the thriving ecosystem underneath. And I hope this book helps people imagine that ecosystem in our past.
As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically speculative and historical fiction?
It was really something I grew up with. My parents are big audiobook listeners and when my siblings and I were small we listened to a lot of books just around the house or on road trips, including Lord of the Rings and the Earthsea series. My siblings and I were also obsessed with Redwall and I was the fastest reader so I’d sometimes read them out loud and do voices. My sister and I would do a lot of collaborative roleplay storytelling. I just stuck with it.
For me, speculative and historical are serving similar purposes—you’re exploring possibilities. Either “what would the world look like, if”, or “how might people have felt, when”. I read a ton of history for fun and I’m always fascinated by the things we just don’t know, and can’t know, about what people were thinking at any given time. How people whose thoughts weren’t written down experienced events. The historical and the fantastical are both full of mysteries.
How would you describe your writing process?
I tend to gather a lot of inspirations from reading, and eventually, they come together to create a story. Often I’ll have a scene in mind, or a character dynamic, that becomes the seed of the plot. My stories are really focused on characters so it’s usually some idea of how two characters relate to each other that sparks inspiration. For instance, my first published story, “Avi Cantor”, began with the idea “psychic kid accidentally predicts a classmate’s death”, which is a situation that implies already some conflict and a certain relationship between two characters. For Angels, it was “angel and demon Talmud study partners.” How are two supernatural creatures with opposing roles in the cosmos, but an intimate personal relationship, going to handle cooperating together on a single quest? And that question powers most of the plot.
Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in, in terms of personal identity? If not or if so, how do you think this personally affected you as a writer?
My earliest exposures to queerness in fiction were through fanfic on Livejournal. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that there really started to be a push for diversity in traditionally published YA, and there was an explosion of queer YA just as I was getting back into fiction (my undergrad degree was pretty intense and I didn’t have time to read for fun). I think fanfiction can teach you a lot about open possibility, but it’s important to see fully-formed original stories that reflect yourself as well. I’m glad that I don’t feel like a total outlier on the shelves and I hope we can keep expanding the industry so that everyone has equitable access to stories that speak to them.
As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?
I mentioned that I take a lot of inspiration from history. Obviously from folklore as well. My shelves are full of folktale collections (Jewish and otherwise) and academic history books. I’m also really fond of children’s book illustration and I’m a big fan of some of the classics—Ivan Bilibin’s Slavic fairytale art, Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Tove Jansson. A contemporary illustrator whose work I really like is Shaun Tan.
I read pretty widely within YA, although I’m most drawn to fantasy and horror. Horror is fun because even if a horror story is bad, you can learn a lot from the failures. Maintaining suspense requires a really good grasp of structure and pacing and sometimes I just enjoy picking apart a story that doesn’t work and figuring out what I’d do differently. The most effectively suspenseful YA I’ve read recently was Ace of Spades, by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. Even if you guess what’s happening there’s nothing you can do to extract the characters from the narrative, so you’re just internally screaming the entire time.
What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?
There’s a feeling when you really get a handle on your plot that’s like when you’re getting to the end of a jigsaw puzzle and each piece you fit makes the next one fit faster. I love that feeling. Rewriting to add foreshadowing and strengthen the themes, that’s really fun. The hardest thing is to write action scenes. And for this book, the most frustrating part was making sure the Hebrew and Yiddish were consistently transliterated! For that, I have to shout out the copy editor, Anamika, who had to flag all my inconsistencies. I’m sure I’m going to do it again but there was a moment where I briefly regretted using so many Yiddish words.
Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
I love sheep. If you meet some sheep you can send me photos of them, I will always want to see them!
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
There are a couple of sneaky classic Yiddish literature jokes in the book that I hope someone notices. If someone were to ask “when you said they got a ride in a bookseller’s cart, was that Mendele Mokher Sforim?” The answer would be yes.
There’s also a line near the end where I describe Little Ash and Uriel as “the good angel and the wicked angel” and to turn things around and ask my readers a question: which of them is which?
What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?
Think about what elements of a story speak to you and play around with mixing and matching them. And don’t worry too much about what the meanest person on Twitter is going to think of your story. No one likes the meanest person on Twitter.
Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?
I have another queer Jewish fantasy in progress, but no details on that yet because I don’t want to jinx anything!
Finally, what LGBTQ+ and/or Jewish books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?
We’re in a great moment for Jewish fantasy right now. I’d recommend Rebecca Podos and Aden Polydoros for queer Jewish fantasies, and Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back for Jewish fantasy that’s not queer. A backlist title that I think not enough people read is Chris Moriarty’s Inquisitor’s Apprentice, which is a middle-grade Jewish fantasy. And I also want to shout out my Lambda cohort. Jd Scott has a short story collection, Moonflower, Nightshade, All the Hours of the Day, Lin Thompson has a middle-grade out called The Best Liars in Riverview and another book upcoming, Jas Hammonds has a YA contemporary We Deserve Monuments, and Jen St Jude’s apocalyptic love story If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is out in May!