Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Author of Touching the Art

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and a memoir, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Her latest title, the novel Sketchtasy, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her next book, The Freezer Door, debuted in November 2020. Maggie Nelson says it’s “a book about not belonging that made me feel deeply less alone.”

I had the opportunity to interview Mattilda, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m the kind of writer who thinks that writing means living, and living means writing, the two are intertwined so that every experience becomes part of the creative process, or that’s the goal, anyway.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Touching the Art? What inspired this project?

Touching the Art centers around my relationship with my late grandmother, an abstract artist from Baltimore. As a child, she nurtured everything that made me different—my femininity, creativity, empathy, introspection, softness, thoughtfulness—but when my work became unapologetically queer, suddenly she called it vulgar. “Why are you wasting your talent,” she would say to me, over and over again. The book circles around this abandonment.

Based on the description for this book, it appears Touching the Art explores the concept of Jewish assimilation and identity. As a queer Jewish person, I would like to hear your thoughts on exploring that in the book as well as any thoughts you might have on the intersection between your own Jewish and queer identities?

My grandmother grew up in Baltimore at a time when the city was rigidly segregated. Jews in Baltimore both enforced this segregation, and were victims of it. So I’m trying to explore this duality, how the Jews of Baltimore, for example, overwhelmingly sided with the Confederate South in the Civil War. There were even Jewish merchants that were smuggling goods to the South when Baltimore was under Union occupation. Most of the businesses in the one neighborhood where Black people were allowed to own property were owned by Jews, and they enforced the same racist Jim Crow policies as other businesses. My grandmother grew up two blocks from the line that separated white from Black, and I try to think about what that would have been like in the 1920s and 1930s. Billie Holiday, who also grew up in Baltimore at that time, says in her memoir, “A whorehouse was about the only place where black and white folks could meet in any natural way,” and I think that tells you everything.

Understanding this history, which I did not know about when I was growing up in DC, really helped me to understand the family I grew up in, which was a very assimilated Jewish family where upward mobility and class striving were intertwined with Jewishness. And so was racism, misogyny, homophobia. As a child I was very proud of my Jewish heritage, but after my bar mitzvah I decided I didn’t believe in God, and I wanted no part of this type of Jewishness. Of course, there’s a long history of radical atheist Jews, queers and misfits and weirdos and iconoclasts, but this was hidden from me due to the violence of assimilation.

What drew you to writing, particularly memoir? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

Writing is what keeps me alive, it’s how I process the world and express myself and figure things out and connect with people too, I think more and more in this alienating world it’s about connection. I don’t write with genre in mind, I just write what I need to write, and then once it reaches a certain point I take a look at the whole thing and figure it all out.

How would you describe your general writing process?

I think I am always writing, but this could just be one sentence in a day. I write without any intention of plot or structure or form until eventually, usually once I have several hundred pages, sometimes after years, I realize what the writing is becoming and then eventually it becomes a book.

With Touching the Art, though, I started by touching my grandmother’s art and seeing what would come through. Then I moved to Baltimore to see what would come through there. And after that I went into research mode. So all of this is in the book.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging? 

I’m an obsessive editor, so I love the editing process, that you can keep working and working and working with the same text until it becomes something else, and until you get to the kind of precision that you’re looking for, but at the same time you can keep a raw sense of searching. But then of course sometimes the editing process can be the most frustrating part, especially when you’re trying to get it right.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I love going on walks, which sounds ridiculously cheesy, but it is what clears my head, especially leaning against trees, and I love dancing, but this has been very hard during the pandemic because I definitely don’t want to dance inside, and of course I get inspiration from reading, and from other writers, but you already know that. And sometimes there isn’t any inspiration, but I write anyway.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

No one has yet asked how all the different threads in the book came together, and so I would say it was through the writing itself. Like with some of these parts, I had no idea what I was doing while I was doing it, but then suddenly, at the end, something would come back into the book, and I would realize oh.

Aside from your work, what are other things you would want readers to know about you?

What else do you need to know? I mean it’s all there, really, in my work. That’s the type of writing I do.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Yes, I have a new novel called Terry Dactyl, which is out in the world on submission now… Wish me luck! And then after that I have a new hybrid nonfiction book called Social Distancing. I’m on my fifth draft of that one.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Just keep writing. Don’t worry about how much or how little. Don’t worry about whether you hate it, just get it down on the page. Even a sentence a day, that’s plenty. Once you have it there, you can make it into what you need.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Honestly there are so many that I don’t even know where to start. I would say that reading David Wojnarowicz’s work was the first time I felt my entire sense of the world reflected in print, especially Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, but that second one is probably out of print. Another book I will always treasure is Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown. A recent book that I loved is Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Oh and Miss Major Speaks by Toshio Meronek and Miss Major offers him a great informal history lesson.

Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of The Hidden Palace and The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker is the author of The Golem and the Jinni and The Hidden Palace. Her books have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller lists, and have won a National Jewish Book Award, the VCU Cabel Award, the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and a Mythopoeic Award. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I had the opportunity to interview Helene, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello, Geeks OUT readers! I’m Helene Wecker, a writer of historical fantasy novels (primarily). Currently, I live in the Bay Area, but I grew up outside Chicago and will always be a Midwesterner at heart. I went to college in Minnesota and then spent a decade bouncing around between the coasts: first Seattle, then New York, and now finally California, where I’ve settled with my husband, two kids, and a dog. Back in my 20s, I worked in marketing and public relations for about seven years before I finally admitted that I hated it and switched my energies to fiction writing. I’m now in my late 40s, which is a fabulous decade from the perspective of life experience, but also deeply annoying when it comes to aches, pains, and overall exhaustion.

What can you tell us about the fantasy series you are currently most recognized for, The Golem and the Jinni? What was the inspiration for this story?

I started writing The Golem & the Jinni while I was at graduate school in New York. I’d decided that for my MFA thesis I would write a series of short stories that combined tales from my own family history and from my husband’s family history. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and I’ve always been struck by the similarities in our backgrounds, specifically around issues of immigration to America, language, and culture. But the stories I was writing were very realist and sort of uninspired. When I complained to a friend about it, she pointed out that I adore stories that combine realism and fantasy, and she challenged me to do that with my own work. So I decided that instead of a Jewish girl and an Arab-American boy for my main characters, I’d turn them into the most emblematic folkloric figures I could think of from each culture: a (female) golem and a (male) jinni. That opened up the whole story, and the characters developed their own personalities and struggles, instead of merely being stand-ins for myself and my husband.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically historical fantasy?

I love the paradox of historical fantasy, of writing a story set inside known history that doesn’t contradict it at all but that, at the same time, is absolutely impossible. It makes the story feel like a secret that you’ve been let in on, and gives the narrative an intimacy that might otherwise get lost in the scope of the historical backdrop. It’s a challenge to write, which for me is part of the draw — but at the same time it’s really easy to bite off more than you can chew without realizing it.

For those curious about the process writing a historical fantasy book, how would you describe the process? What goes into the research and translating that into a book?

The research process has been gargantuan, and was especially so for the first book. I’d picked 1899 because I wanted this to feel like an “old world” immigration story, a folktale set in our real history — but I’d originally thought I was writing a short story, not a novel. Once it became clear that this was going to be an actual book, I had to stop and take stock of what I really knew about 1899 New York, which wasn’t much. So I went to the Columbia University library and just started reading everything I could find about the neighborhoods and the tenements, to establish a baseline of knowledge. From there I branched off into specifics like the history of Syrian and Jewish immigration to the U.S., and the stories and folklore they brought with them, and the different religious sects and backgrounds they came from.

For The Hidden Palace, I spent a lot of time researching Sophia’s travels in the Middle East. I read up on Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, and the history of Palmyra (which is worth a few novels in itself), and how World War I eventually drove Lebanon into starvation. New subjects kept popping up for me to research, like the Western Union telegraph system and its messenger boys, and turn-of-the-century Jewish orphanages (I based mine on a real New York orphanage, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum). I tried to use primary sources whenever I could — which was easier than it would’ve been a decade ago, considering how much has been digitized and made available on the Internet — and I tried to fact-check everything that wasn’t a primary source. I took the research process pretty seriously even though I’m writing fiction, because the details contribute to the overall lived-in feel of the books, and it’s important to me to get them right.

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?

This is a great question, and I’m honestly not sure of the answer. I don’t think I looked for myself in stories when I was young, because my own real-life childhood was deeply awkward and lonely at times. I read books, mainly scifi and fantasy, in order to escape that existence, not to find it again. That said, Paula Danziger’s teenage protagonists resonated with me strongly, as did Judy Blume’s. They captured the particular angst of being an adolescent girl and feeling like an alien, especially at school, and wrestling with the choice between fitting in and sticking out. Which, honestly, describes my own characters’ dilemmas too.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?

Neil Gaiman was a huge influence during a formative time in my life. I took my entire SANDMAN collection to college with me, and made my boyfriend (now husband) read it. (He, in turn, made me read all of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION.) The various X-Men books of the ‘80s and ‘90s were also a big creative influence, and I think that there’s a way to see my characters in the X-Men tradition: powerful, flawed, unsure of their place in the world. Post-college, Michael Chabon was my biggest influence; looking back on it, if there was one book that turned me into a writer, it was THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. These days, I read a lot of Ursula K. LeGuin, who was brilliant at engineering stories that hinge on moral and philosophical dilemmas.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?

My favorite elements are the research/planning before the first draft and the good, hard edit at the end. Everything in between is a long slog of frustration and woe. I’ve never written a complete, beginning-to-end first draft of a novel — short stories, yes, but not novels. I write a few chapters, decide I hate it, start over. It takes me a few stabs before I figure out how best to tell the story that I want to tell. It’s a very inefficient way to write, but for me it’s the only way that works.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

1) If I couldn’t be a writer, I’d want be either a librarian or a film editor. My absolute perfect job would be to live as a student for the rest of my life, just going around and learning things all day long. I have no idea what practical purpose that would serve, but if anyone’s hiring, I’m your gal.

2) My kids keep me incredibly busy, mentally as well as time-wise. We’re finally past the just-keep-them-alive years, and now we’re at the early adolescent stage where we have to pick our battles and maintain consistency about what we allow and what we don’t. My older kid just turned eleven, and she would be perfectly happy to spend her entire life reading books and watching videos in bed in her bathrobe. It’s a lifestyle I can only aspire to, really.

3) If you asked me, “Helene, in your opinion, which movie has the best script in cinema history, line for line?” I’d be forced to choose between either Charade or Kung Fu Panda. Honestly, Kung Fu Panda might win.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

This might seem like an unorthodox answer, but: If you’re looking for a life partner, it’s imperative that they 1) respect your wish to write and 2) give you the time and space you need. They don’t have to be your biggest fan; they don’t even have to read your writing. But they have to understand that sometimes you’ll be in the office with the door shut, and they’re not allowed to come in and bug you with something completely trivial, or suggest that you skip writing that day and go out for a movie instead. There will be times when the writing comes first. They have to be okay with that, period.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m currently hard at work on Book #3 in the Golem and Jinni series. It’s set in 1930, which is 15 years after the end of The Hidden Palace, at the beginning of the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition. I’ve brought back a few characters who we last saw in the first book, and created a few new ones. I’m in the early drafting stage, though I’ve done my requisite failed chapters and seem to have settled into the story a little more. The jump forward into 1930 brings the setting closer to what feels like a recognizably modern era, which opens up a lot of directions for the characters to take — but from the reader’s vantage point, WWII and the Holocaust are just around the corner, and that adds a dread that the narrative can’t address directly without being too heavy handed. So it’s going to take a light and careful touch to get it right.

Finally, what books/authors (Jewish, fantastic, or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I don’t read for fun nearly as much as I’d like to these days, but I just finished R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which deserves all the praise it’s gotten. And if you like your historical fantasy with a dose of Old Hollywood, Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen is a phenomenal read. So is Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which is one of those books that crawls into your brain and just lives there for a while.

Interview with Richard Ho and Lynn Scurfield, Creators of Two New Years

Richard Ho is Chinese, Jewish, and an author . . . in any order you wish! His previous books include The Lost Package, illustrated by Jessica Lanan, and Year of the Cat, illustrated by Jocelyn Li Langrand. He loves to craft stories about diverse cultures and the delightful ways they intertwine. He and his proudly multicultural family live in the melting pot of New Jersey.

Lynn Scurfield‘s work is defined by bright colors, fun textures, and strong emotions. In their spare time, Lynn enjoys knitting, watching tours of beautiful houses online, and going on hikes with Taro, her small (but barky) dog. Lynn resides in Toronto, Canada.

I had the opportunity to interview Richard and Lynn, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Richard Ho: Thank you so much for having us! I’m Richard, a Jewish-Chinese-American author of children’s books. I was born and raised in New York, and currently live in New Jersey. For my day job, I work as an editor for an educational website—and then I write in whatever free time I can wrangle! Two New Years is my fourth published picture book, and the first to explore my dual cultural identity.

Lynn Scurfield: Hello! My name is Lynn Scurfield and I’m a mixed media illustrator currently based in Toronto, Canada. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for about 7 years now and my clients include Google, Amazon, Macmillan, Chronicle Books, Puffin UK, Panda Express and the New York Times. When I’m not drawing I’m usually knitting or walking my very anxious, barky dog named Taro.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Two New Years? What was the inspiration for this project?

Richard Ho: My children are the inspiration for just about everything I do, but that’s especially true for this book! The idea for Two New Years came from the realization that our kids are growing up in a home in which two different cultures have been present from the start. Whereas I chose to convert to Judaism as an adult, my children were born Chinese and Jewish. When they look at the customs and traditions of both, they don’t focus on the differences—they see the similarities and how they intertwine. Some of the most compelling examples of this duality can be found in how both cultures celebrate the New Year, and that’s what I wanted to capture in this book!

Lynn Scurfield: Two New Years is a very heartwarming book about a Jewish-Chinese family who celebrates both Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year. It aims to highlight not only how those traditions are different but in the many ways they’re very much alike. 

There’s a couple of key inspirations for the art. The characters are loosely based on my own life. I’m an older sister and I have a younger brother so I had to include an older sister and younger brother in the family. 

As for the art –  my biggest inspiration was papercut art. I was really into making papercut art after working on my previous book, Friends are Friends, Forever (written by Dane Liu). It’s very common to hang up papercut art during Lunar New Year and I wanted to keep making that kind of work. While I was doing research for Two New Years I came across the fact that Jewish Marriage certificates (Ketubah) are not only marriage certificates but they’re pieces of art that have been traditionally made using papercut methods. It was the most wild, serendipitous research I came across and it ended up shaping the entire look of the book.

How did the two of you come together to work on this story?

Richard Ho: After Chronicle Books acquired the manuscript, editor Feather Flores sent me a shortlist of illustrators the publisher was considering. (Ultimately, the choice of illustrator is up to the publisher, but authors often get to chime in with their thoughts on the potential candidates.) Lynn’s breathtaking artwork stood out from the start—their style is so vibrant and colorful! And when I learned about Lynn’s Chinese and Jewish background, I knew this would be the perfect match. I’m so glad Lynn agreed! 

Lynn Scurfield: Feather Flores, our first editor for Two New Years, was the one who reached out to me seeing if I’d be interested in illustrating the manuscript. Typically the author and illustrator don’t talk to each until after the art has been finalized and the book is in the marketing phase so I didn’t meet Richard until much later in the process!

Can you give insight or advice into what goes into making a picture book?

Richard Ho: One thing most people don’t realize is that the author and illustrator (when they’re not the same person) generally don’t communicate directly during the illustration process. That doesn’t mean we don’t collaborate! The editor serves as a go-between, passing along any necessary feedback. And once the final illustrations are done, and it’s time to start promoting the book and planning for launch, the author and illustrator often get in touch and start doing that work together.

In general, my advice to any author is to not be so precious about “your vision” for the story, and recognize that the illustrator is an equal partner. The manuscript is merely a starting point—the illustrator brings their own creative vision that can take the story in surprising new directions, often elevating it beyond the author’s wildest dreams! That potential is what I find so exciting and invigorating about the collaborative process in picture books, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lynn Scurfield: My advice for illustrators is appreciate the research phase! Research for me is the most fun part of the process – I love spending hours reading articles, gathering images and/ or watching videos on my book topics. I learn so much from drawing these books. It’s also the part of the process where you can just go wild imagining what this book could be. What will it look like?! It can be anything! So really dive into the research, go down those rabbit holes and see what you learn from them.

Also keep a very good art/ time tracker so you hit all your deadlines! 

As creators who come from both Chinese and Jewish backgrounds, I imagine this story feels quite a bit personal. Could you tell to us about what it meant for you to work on Two New Years?

Lynn Scurfield: So my step-family is Jewish, I wasn’t born and raised with Judaism, but I feel extremely lucky to have been so warmly welcomed into my step-family. I’ve been very fortunate enough to be included in a lot of the holiday celebrations and they are the biggest supporters of my work. Really to draw this book is to give a big celebration and thank you to both sides.

Also, as an obligatory question, what are some of your favorite New Year (Chinese or Jewish) foods and traditions?

Richard Ho: On the Chinese side, I always associate Lunar New Year with tangerines. Tangerines are a symbol of prosperity because the Chinese words for tangerine and gold are phonetically similar. Many families have a custom to place tangerines around the house as decorations, in order to usher in success in the new year! On the Jewish side, one of my favorite Rosh Hashanah customs is dipping a piece of apple into honey on the first night of the holiday. The sweetness of this delicious combination of foods is a reflection of our sincere wish for a sweet year ahead!

Lynn Scurfield: For Rosh Hashanah the blowing of the Shofar is always a magical moment. Plus you really can’t go wrong with a nice warm bowl of matzo ball soup. As for Lunar New Year – it’s dumplings for me. Making dumplings, eating dumplings. It’s the best!

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Richard Ho: I love storytelling in all formats, so when I’m feeling stuck creatively, I often turn to the examples of strong writing in picture books, novels, television, film—anything that makes me say, “Wow, I wish I wrote that!”

Lynn Scurfield: My longest and greatest creative influences are Alphonse Mucha and Kay Nielson. They’re classic art nouveau, decorative artists and I still love how beautiful their commercial work is. 

Recently I’ve been finding more inspiration in music – specifically artists such as Four Tet, Baths and Masakatsu Takagi’s Marginalia songs. I think there’s something about getting a bit older and listening to more instrumental work haha. But in all seriousness the layering of sounds, the sampling and the emotional quality of music is something I try to emulate and transform into a single image. 

As a writer/illustrator, what are some of your favorite elements of the creative process? What would you say are some of the most frustrating/difficult?

Richard Ho: One of the most satisfying parts of the creative process is seeing the impact of the final product. When a reader tells me that one of my books made them laugh, or brought them to tears, or introduced them to ideas they had never considered before, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. On the flipside: writing is hard work! As much as I enjoy the creative process, it requires discipline, time, and effort to see an idea through to completion—all of which can be in short supply when juggling the demands of a day job and family life. That said, it’s a privilege to have all those wonderful things to juggle! The challenge is figuring out how to prioritize writing without sacrificing in other areas.

Lynn Scurfield: I think I have a tie for my favourite part of the creative process. One is the “eureka!” moment of finding the tone/ the look of a long-term project (such as a book), and the other is getting into a flow state. When I’m in that flow state I can create for hours and it’s so immersive that you don’t feel time pass. 

The most difficult part for me is creating work I’m passionate about on a deadline. In my perfect world I would spend a month on every image I’m commissioned for. I love to sit with my projects and think about them. But commercial work isn’t like that, you have to create on a deadline and it can be tricky to create work you really enjoy or work that pushes your craft while trying to hit a deadline.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Richard Ho: I love sports, and when I graduated from college, I had every intention of becoming a sports journalist! As preparation, I had written for the school newspaper and even did an internship in the media relations department of a local professional sports team. But I never ended up covering sports, instead landing jobs writing about comic books, movies, and advertising before getting into education. It was during my first job at an educational company that a colleague suggested I try my hand at writing children’s books. I’m certainly glad they did!

Lynn Scurfield: I love to knit and I’m currently learning how to crochet. I’m only making granny squares right now but my next goal is to crochet a nice summer shirt with buttons and everything. I also want to get into sewing but I’m more intimidated by that. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

Richard Ho: People might wonder if the family in the book is my family. The answer is that it’s loosely based on mine—an Orthodox Jewish family with a Chinese father, a Caucasian mother, and adorable mixed-race kids. But there are some differences, too. For one thing, we have a bunch of boys, not one boy and one girl!

Lynn Scurfield: Oh man. I’m not sure if I have one! I am not that creative.

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

Richard Ho: I have several picture books coming out in 2024, starting with If Lin Can from Charlesbridge Publishing in April. It’s a biography of Asian American basketball star Jeremy Lin, illustrated by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huỳnh Kim Liên. That will be followed by A Taste of Home from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan in August. Illustrated by Sibu T.P., it follows a group of kids who explore the food of several cultural neighborhoods in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I can’t wait to share more about these and more as we get closer to publication!

Lynn Scurfield: Yes! I’m currently working on a book for Bloomsbury called Quest for a Tangram Dragon written by Christine Liu-Perkins. It’s coming out next year and so far it’s pretty cute! 

I’m also collaborating with an extremely talented illustrator, Allegra Lockstadt, on making some art for Panda Express.

What advice might you have to give to any aspiring picture book creators out there?

Richard Ho: Read widely! There is so much innovation and inspiration to be found in your local library or independent bookstore. Reading as many books as you can is a great way to learn craft and discover which types of stories resonate with you the most.

Lynn Scurfield: Illustration careers can take a while to get off the ground. If things are slow don’t beat yourself up over it. If being a kidlit artist is something you desperately want, be stubborn and try a lot of things. Put you and your art out there, and keep experimenting. One day something will stick and it’ll be easier.

For the illustrators who have made a couple of books and don’t have an agent: try looking for a lit agent. It’s worth it.

Finally, what books/authors, including any Jewish/Chinese titles, would you recommend to the readers of GeeksOUT?

Richard Ho: Lynn would never recommend her own book, so I’ll go ahead and sing the praises of Friends are Friends, Forever, a lovely picture book written by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn! It’s about a girl from China who moves to the United States, leaving her best friend behind and starting a new life in a strange and unfamiliar country. As for Jewish titles, one recent favorite is Awe-some Days, a collection of poems about Jewish holidays throughout the year. Written by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte, it includes wonderful introductions to even the lesser-known holidays, and also beautifully showcases diversity within Judaism.

Lynn Scurfield: Oh jeez I am truly ashamed to admit how little I read. A couple of books that I think are really cool are:

  • Spork
    • Written by Kyo Maclear
    • Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Amazing Asian American and Pacific Islanders is a great intro into some really cool and inspiring AAPI people while Spork is a really cute book that talks about being mixed-race.

Interview with R. M. Romero

R. M. Romero is a Jewish Latina and author of fairy tales for children and adults. She lives in Miami Beach with her cat, Henry VIII, and spends her summers helping to maintain Jewish cemeteries in Poland. You can visit her online on Instagram @RMRomeroAuthor

I had the opportunity to interview R. M., which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m R.M. Romero, a fairy of fairy tales for children and adults who lives in Miami Beach with my orange cat, King Henry VIII.

What can you tell us about one of your latest books, The Ghosts of Rose Hill? What inspired the story?

The Ghosts of Rose Hill is the story of Ilana Lopez, a Cuban-Czech Jewish teen who is sent to stay with her aunt in Prague for the summer so she can focus on her studies instead of her passion for violin. There, she meets a ghost boy named Benjamin who has been dead for a hundred years, and a man with no shadow who offers to make all her dreams come true—for a price. The book came from my experiences working to maintain Jewish cemeteries in Poland and Ukraine during the summers.

It would seem that a lot of historical research has went into this book. How would describe the process and how it intertwined with you writing the actual novel?

I wouldn’t have been able to write the without having visited Prague and soaking up the feel of the city for myself. The first day I arrived, I went on a tour that was focused on the Nazi and Communist periods, and the guide pointed out Prague’s many half-hidden scars.Those scars stuck with me, and I found myself returning to the city again and again in my imagination long after I’d left. Most of the in-depth research was fact checking I did after I already had a draft of the book, to be honest!

The Ghosts of Rose Hill is said to be “a love letter to Latin American and Jewish diasporas.” What does it mean to you as an author writing this type of representation into your work?

As a Jewish Latina, I’m something of a unicorn. A lot of people hear about my background and say they’ve never heard of someone like me before! I didn’t intentionally set out to write a character whose heritage reflected my own initially. But the deeper I got into The Ghosts of Rose Hill, the more I realized it was a story about exiles, and that the idea of being in exile is such a key part of being both Cuban-American and Jewish.

What drew you to writing, particularly young adult fiction, speculative fiction, and novels in verse? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

Ages 12-15 were the most formative years of my life for me. What happened during that period and the interests and obsessions I developed during it have followed me into my adult life—and that includes poetry! When I started reading Dante and Sylvia Plath as a teen, I realized that poetry was more than the comedic rhymes I’d been exposed to in elementary school; it was raw and very real. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Francesca Lia Block, Stephen King, and Brian Jacques were the authors who made me want to tell my own stories.

How would you describe your writing process? What inspires you as a writer?

I’m what’s known as a “planster” or a discovery writer; I mostly fly by the seat of my pants while drafting, but I usually know the general direction of where the story is headed. If I plot too much of the book out beforehand, I lose interest in it because I feel too confined. As for what inspires me, traveling, music and visual art help spark most of my ideas.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging for you?

I love exploring my characters and their journeys, and playing with language. I can sometimes lose myself in that language and character introspection, however. I have to remind myself that during action scenes, no one is going to pause to reflect on what’s going on!

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is finishing one. Were there any techniques/ strategies/ advice that help you finish a first draft?

A first draft is, to quote the late Terry Pratchett, you telling yourself the story. It doesn’t have to be good; it doesn’t even need to make sense to anyone but you. Once you have the bones, you can restructure it. But you need something down on the page before you can do that! I remind myself of that when I’m pushing toward the end of a novel.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

How autobiographical is The Ghosts of Rose Hill? Answer: almost entirely.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I’m secretly five black cats in a trench coat. I’d live off of sushi if I could and have double jointed elbows. I’m happiest living out of a suitcase.

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers, particularly for those interested in writing novels in verse?

Trends and what’s popular change from day to day; what you’re passionate about doesn’t. So write what you love! I’ll always advise aspiring writers to read widely and outside of their comfort zones. Any format and genre, whether that’s YA, historical fiction, non-fiction or poetry, will teach you something that will make you more skilled at your craft.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

My next YA novel in verse, A Warning About Swans, comes out in July from Peachtree Teen! It’s a queer retelling of Swan Lake that takes place at King Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle in Bavaria about a swan maiden named Hilde whose magic cloak is stolen by a greedy baron and a non-binary artist named Franz who can paint the truth of souls. My next MG, Tale of the Flying Forest, is also in the works! It’s a Jewish Narnia story about a girl who travels to another world to rescue her missing twin brother and find the pieces of his broken heart.

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Recently, I’ve been into the poetry of Richard Siken, We Are All So Good At Smiling by Amber McBride, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack.