All About THE PATH OF NAMES: Behind the Book, Q&A, & Giveaway!

Because I have the last name "Klein" and I live in New York City, a lot of people I meet here assume I'm Jewish -- an assumption that I'm fine with, even as I called myself the "imprint shiksa" for my first few years at Arthur A. Levine Books. So while it's entirely possible that Ari Goelman's agent sent me the manuscript for The Path of Names because she thought I might have a religious connection to the material, I fell in love with it for my own reasons:
  • Some of the realest kid characters I've ever read in a novel, with dialogue that exactly captures the way kids can switch from snarkiness to sensitivity in a turn.
  • With that, a terrific sense of humor and jokes that made me laugh out loud more than once.
  • A 12-year-old heroine -- Dahlia Sherman -- who loves performance magic and math more than popularity and fashion, and who holds herself a little apart from her peers in part because of that lack of shared interests, and in part because she fears their rejection. (This was probably my real point of identification with the book, I do confess it.)
  • A totally original combination of elements:  A contemporary Jewish summer camp story set in Pennsylvania and starring Dahlia, crossed with a story about a yeshiva student named David in the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1930s, both shot through with fantasy and mystery.
  • A terrific title. 
  • A kind of magic I had never seen before in a fantasy novel -- and when you've read as many fantasy novels as I have, that's saying something. 
The challenge such books face in the publishing industry is that they'll often be regarded as "only for Jewish readers" -- just as books about girls are only for girls, or books about gay kids as only for gay kids, or books about Latinos are only for Latinos. If you aren't yourself Jewish, then you should read it and help us explode those stereotypes; and if you are Jewish -- and especially if you went to a Jewish camp as Ari Goelman did -- then you'll find even more to recognize and enjoy in the book. It is certainly the only book I've edited ever to be written up in The Times of Israel, as "A Jewish Harriet Potter." And it's also received a starred review from Booklist.

I'm delighted to welcome Ari Goelman to my blog for a Q&A.

What novels were the biggest influence on you when you were a young reader (ages 8-18)? As a middle-grade reader I loved the Susan Cooper ‘The Dark is Rising’ series, especially the novel The Dark Os Rising. I also loved the book The Silver Crown, and (as I got older) pretty much any high fantasy I could get my hands on, starting with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and ending with ... whatever the latest high fantasy was. As a slightly older teen reader I discovered Steven Brust and Roger Zelazny – especially loving Brust’s To Reign In Hell and Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Which, now that I think about it, were both pretty centrally concerned with magic and religion, albeit in a totally different way than The Path of Names.

There are so many interesting ideas packed into this book -- summer camp, Kabbala, magic (real-world and fantasy), mazes, Lower East Side history. . . . Where did it start for you? How did these other elements develop in it? I think it started with a summer camp story, and evolved from there. Once I decided to set the story in a Jewish summer camp, I thought, “Hmm. Jewish summer camp – Jewish magic. That seems to make sense.”

Then, once I started thinking about Jewish magic, that naturally led to Kabbala and the rest. I’ve always been interested in the somewhat forgotten elements of Jewish folklore. I was raised as a conservative Jew where the party line was, ‘We don’t believe in magic. Or the afterlife. Or demons. Or witches...’ I was a young adult before I started to come across references to all the Jewish superstitions that saturated the Jewish world for centuries before the Enlightenment.

Described in that way, it might make me seem a little smarter than I am. Here is the way it actually worked: I’d be in synagogue for a cousin’s bar mitzvah or such, and there’d be a mention of an anecdote in the Talmud about a rabbi hurling lightning at another rabbi. The lesson would supposedly be something about tolerance or arrogance. But I would sit there thinking, ‘A rabbi hurling lightning? That is so cool! I would love to read a fantasy story about that.’

As far as the parts set in the Lower East Side, my grandfather grew up in the 1930s Lower East Side, and I always loved the stories that he and my great uncles would tell about their boyhoods in the tenements. When I was older I discovered that he had visited the spot in rural Pennsylvania which ultimately became my summer camp some fifty years before I was a camper there. I loved the thought of somehow combining those two milieus.

The fantasy magic in the book is based in what I understand to be a very esoteric Jewish religious practice – the Kabbala – but the book isn’t religious at all. Dahlia and the other kids spend very little time contemplating God. You also have a provocative epigraph where you quote Bernie Cloud:  “Religion is just magic, but with more words.” How do your own relationships with religion and magic emerge in The Path of Names? I think I very much share the ambivalence towards Judaism (and organized religion in general) that is evidenced in The Path of Names. It was fun to write a story where all the Jewish magic works. The world would be so much simpler if you could verify religious belief systems with some sort of physical manifestation ... say, calling down lightning on your enemies. Religion aside, I find magic and the supernatural creeps into most everything I write. I’m not totally sure why this is. Like I mentioned before, I’ve always been an avid reader of fantasy literature. Maybe it comes from my general interest in ideas of power and resistance, especially when they’re operating in ways that are secret, or at least hard to see. I have this sense (which I think is pretty broadly shared in contemporary society) that power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few in ways that are hard for the rest of us to see, let alone to resist. Also -- let’s face it -- magic is fun. It would be fun to be a thirteen-year-old with the power to change things, even if the odds seemed stacked against you.  

What is your favorite part of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, etc.) and why? Oh geez. That’s a hard one. On the one hand, writing the first draft is definitely the most difficult part for me. You’re staring at the blank page, and you have so far to go before it’s done, and it probably won’t be any good anyway, and shouldn’t you work on a new blog post, or maybe go start on dinner or something? Contrast that to revising, where you have a manuscript and you’re reading it and making it better. On some level, I’m scared of the blank page in a way that I’m not scared of revising. Now here’s the complicated part – difficult as it is for me, the mingled feeling of fear and distaste ... and excitement when I write that first draft is the reason I write. That feeling of creating something new is the best part. If I go a few days without writing something new, I start worrying that I’m never going to write anything again. I don’t like that feeling. 

A couple of reviews have praised the book for having the main character, Dahlia, be a smart girl who loves math. Did you envision the protagonist of the book as a girl from the beginning, or was that a deliberate choice later in the process? What challenges did you face, if any, in writing across gender, and how did you overcome them? I always saw the protagonist as a girl. When I wrote the short story that eventually grew into The Path of Names, I had this very clear memory of a girl at my summer camp complaining about how another girl wasn’t friends with her any more. I ended up making Dahlia far more independent than that girl, but there was never any question that the main character would be female. The challenges that I faced had to do with uniquely female things – for instance, how much would a thirteen-year-old girl notice the curviness or the lack of curviness of her peers? Being married to a former thirteen-year-old girl who is happy to answer these kinds of questions was invaluable in overcoming this obstacle.

You have a five-year-old and a set of very young twins at home. Plus you teach. How do you work in any writing time? Do you have a set schedule or process? The short answer is: it’s hard. Not just to work in writing time, but to make the most of the writing time I have, given the exhaustion of being a working parent with three small children. More often than not, one or more of our beautiful little people is sick or getting a tooth or just generally dissatisfied with their sleeping arrangements and would like to express their displeasure repeatedly at 1:00 a.m. 1:30 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and so on. I’ve discovered that I can do a pretty good job at some tasks when I’m tired, but writing a novel is not one of them. There’s too much to hold in your head, and too much concentration required. Having said all that, I do try to write to a set schedule, as I think the alternative is a ‘no writing’ schedule. I am still making progress in my ongoing writing projects, just not nearly as fast as I would like. 

What are you reading now?  I just finished reading Steven King’s The Wind at the Keyhole which I thought was great, especially the two stories-within-a-story. I have just started Seer of Shadows by Avi, but I’m still too early into it to have formed an opinion. I’m also reading Harry Potter to my five-year-old (who would probably like me to point out that she’s almost six), and I’m enjoying it through her eyes all over again. 

Please visit Ari's website.


GIVEAWAY! Though The Path of Names is in stores now (hint hint hint & hint), you can win one of my three remaining copies of an ARC of the book by leaving a comment below with any of the following:  one thing that you've never seen in a fantasy before and you'd like to; your own provocative epigraph (or epitaph, if you prefer); or the identity that people mistake you for based on your name, if applicable.