I am delighted to welcome Sarah Darer Littman, author of the award-winning middle grade novel, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC. When I met Sarah at the Jewish Children’s Literature Conference in Los Angeles, I was already a huge fan. (Note: CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC appears in a previous post on my list of favorites.) Sarah is warm, funny, and fabulous – everything a children’s author should be! In addition to writing children’s books, Sarah is a political columnist and active member of the organization “Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom.” She is mom to two kids and one dog. I’m tickled pink that Sarah took the time to stop by for a visit!
Your book, Confessions of a Closet Catholic, deals with the struggle of faith. Why were you drawn to write about this topic?
I wrote “Confessions” as an answer to my teenage self. I grew up with the unspoken message of “Be Jewish – but not too Jewish.” I found that very confusing – and still do, for that matter. I give the example of how my dad gave me Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks’ book, “Will our Grandchildren Be Jewish?” when my son was born, but years later when I put mezuzahs on all my doorways made a comment about how I was “going overboard.” (We’ve come to terms on that, you’ll be happy to hear!) I think for my parent’s generation there was a post-war “Don’t stick your head above the parapet” anxiety and that meant not being “too Jewish”.
As a Jewish author, were you inspired to write about a Jewish issue?
Although I wouldn’t dispute that “Confessions” is a Jewish book, I think it is more generally a book about faith – and that has been borne out by the fact besides winning the 2006 Sydney Taylor Award for Older Readers by the Association of Jewish Libraries, it was also listed as one of “10 Books Suitable for Christmas Gift Giving” by the Catholic News Service and has just been nominated for the 2008 Rodda Award (given out by the Church and Synagogue Library Association) by a Methodist librarian. I derive tremendous comfort from having faith – as Jussy says, “I don’t know if any of my prayers will do any good, but I feel better for having said them. Maybe that’s what praying is all about. Maybe it’s not just asking G-d to forgive us for bad things or asking Him for good things. Maybe it’s just the act of praying and feeling that there’s someone up there listening that makes us feel better and less helpless.”
Will we see Justine, the main character, in any future books?
I’m not sure at this point. There have certainly been requests!
Why did you start writing children’s books?
I joke that I’m still so traumatized by my middle school experience that writing for this age group is cheap therapy.
Seriously, I finally came to writing at 40, after stints as a waitress, financial analyst and dairy farmer’s wife. Now I get to use my “kid brain” writing books and my “grown-up” brain writing about politics. Thus far I’ve been receiving MUCH nicer letters from readers of my book than from readers of my political columns!
What are you working on now?
My second novel (an as yet untitled YA coming out in Spring 2009) was bought by Scholastic and while I’m waiting for the revision letter on that, I’m working on a middle grade. It’s in the early stages so I don’t want say too much!
What is the best thing about being a children’s writer?
Getting e-mails and letters from kids who have been touched by my book, who say, “Wow, I could relate to Justine because I feel just like that sometimes!” It’s at times like that when I feel like “it ain’t been in vain for nothing”.
I also LOVE going out and speaking to kids in schools. After sitting alone in my basement lair in front of a computer all day, then getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment (“No Respect”) from my own kids, I get a real charge from being with a group of kids who are all excited to meet a real live author!
What is the hardest part about being a writer?
Is there a word count limit to my answer? 🙂
The self-doubt. The feeling of “OMG, my (first, second, third) book(s) was/were total flukes and I’ll never be able to repeat the process again.”
Oh and the waiting.
The WAITING! Waiting to hear from your agent (waiting to GET an agent if you haven’t been published yet) waiting to hear from your editor, waiting for the contract, waiting for the advance, waiting for the book to come out, waiting for reviews, waiting for people to show up at your book signing so you don’t feel like a complete and utter loser like you did in middle school…it reminds me of that Tom Petty song: “The Waiting is the Hardest Part”.
What do you like to read?
My reading tastes are very eclectic. I read a lot of middle grade and YA, because a) I have kids in middle and high school b) it’s my field and c) there are so many excellent books out there in the land of children’s literature these days.
But I also read plenty of “grown up” books too, both fiction and non-fiction. Because of my political writing (I’m a columnist for the Greenwich Time/Stamford Advocate newspapers here in Connecticut) I read a LOT magazines, newspapers and blogs
What is your favorite question you have been asked by a reader?
I was doing a terrific event in Detroit – they’d decided to start mother/daughter book clubs at most of the Jewish organizations in Detroit as part of Am Echad, Am Sefer (One people, one book) and they chose Confessions as the first book. They flew me out there and had a terrific event, which in honor of Jussy included lots of chocolate, yay!! During the Q & A, a girl asked me: “If you could write your book over, is there anything that you’d change?”
I thought that was a terrific question – because as a writer there’s a temptation to revise ad infinitum but there comes a point where you just have to let it go and get the book out there. I think that’s where my “grown-up” work as a newspaper columnist has aided me – because when I write the columns I’m a) on a deadline and b) limited to 720 words, so it’s helped me learn to self-edit and then push the send button.
My answer to her question: I would remove all the adverbs. In his marvelous book about the craft, On Writing, Stephen King says: “The adverb is not your friend.” Unfortunately I read his book after the final copy edit on “Confessions”, because when I read the book aloud to my kids after publication, I could really hear how the adverbs were redundant and slowed things down. I wanted to slap myself for using so many!
What is your favorite holiday?
Secular holiday: Thanksgiving – by a mile. I love it because it’s a truly national holiday. I also think that we’re all so used to complaining about everything, it’s good to focus on being thankful.
Jewish holiday: I’ve got kind of a love/hate relationship with this holiday but I’d have to say Passover. I hate eating matzo because it does horrible things to my digestive system, and it’s a huge amount of work changing dishes and koshering everything, but I love the seder. My sister and I always used to end up in fits of hysterical laughter when we read the psalm about how “The Mountains skipped like lambs and the hills like rams.”
Do you have hobbies besides writing?
I took up tennis again a few years ago after not playing for about a decade while I was married, and now I’m obsessed. I play twice a week – it’s my sanity break. As a writer I spend so much time in my head; for me it’s essential to get out of my head and into my body on a regular basis. Otherwise I’ll suddenly realize that my shoulders are at ear level from stress and sitting hunched over a computer for too long!
I also love reading (duh!), gardening, travel, going to the beach and heading into New York City for some live music and dancing – as long as the latter isn’t in front of my kids, because even though I’m a good dancer, they’re at the age where the slightest shimmy of my hips causes them to expire from embarrassment!
Also, I’m not sure if politics counts as a hobby, but I’m very active in the progressive blogosphere here in CT, under the name “Saramerica.”
Sarah, it’s been a pleasure getting to know you. Thanks for sharing your insights!
If you would like to know more about Sarah, check out her web site at www.sarahdarerlittman.com