For June 2010, The Whole Megillah asked Jacqueline Dembar Greene a few thought-provoking questions. She took time from her busy writing and speaking schedule to share her thoughts.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How would you describe yourself as a writer?
JDG: My ideas for books are often sparked by something that interests me, particularly events in history, or little known stories. Once I begin reading about a time period, I immerse myself in learning everything about a past time. I love doing the research and often find that small details spark my imagination.
I write each day, all day! Often, especially when I have a close deadline, I work nights and weekends, too. Once I begin a story, I am totally engaged in helping the plot unfold and seeing how the characters develop. I can’t write fast enough!
TWM: What brought you to writing on Jewish themes?
JDG: My first picture book, The Hanukkah Tooth, was about a little boy who thinks he has swallowed his first loose tooth at a family Hanukkah party. It came about because there were no modern stories about the holiday when my children were growing up. I knew I couldn’t possibly visit every school in every state to share this information, so I wrote a book!
Once I began writing about Hanukkah, I realized there was a treasure trove of Jewish history that few people knew much about. I also wanted to explore my family’s Sephardic background. That led me to writing picture books like The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, as well as historical novels like Out of Many Waters and One Foot Ashore.
TWM: What brings you the greatest satisfaction as a writer?
JDG: I love creating characters who live in another time period, especially one that readers often know little about. When I feel that I have made characters come alive, and that they will resonate with readers, I am elated.
My speaking events give me a perfect opportunity to get away from my desk for a while and talk with readers. Their reactions to my books, and their comments, can be especially rewarding. I have had adults tell me how my books sparked discussions with their children or grandchildren, and young people tell me how they laughed or cried when reading one of my books. What could give a writer more satisfaction than that?
TWM: What were your favorite books as a child?
JDG: As a young girl, I didn’t have many books of my own. As soon as I was old enough, I spent summers and school vacations walking to the library and devouring every book that looked appealing. I loved historical fiction, so it’s not surprising that I now love writing that same type of book. I remember that A Lantern in Her Hand had a profound effect on me, as did Johnny Tremain. I also loved Anne of Green Gables and was a huge Nancy Drew fan for quite a while.
TWM: Do you have a particular approach to research for your historical fiction?
JDG: I’m a very methodical writer, as far as how I begin a new book. I start at the library, sometimes using specialized libraries, such as the American Jewish Historical Society library. I take reams of notes, sometimes make little sketches in the margins, and put a big star next to details I think I will want to use in my story. I read all the books and articles I can find relating to my planned time period or event. For the Rebecca Rubin series, I read more than 100 books before I finished writing all six books. That’s a pretty high ratio! For One Foot Ashore, I read so many books about Rembrandt’s life in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam that I feel as if I know him personally!
Besides library research, I visit museums to look at paintings that depict a certain time period and sometimes can find museums that exhibit clothing from the time I am writing about. I also don’t need much of an excuse to travel to the places where my books take place. I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam visiting Rembrandt’s home and neighborhood and studying paintings of the time. I went to the Mayflower ship in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to get a feel for what ships were like in the 1600s. For the Rebecca series, I traveled to New York City and combed the Lower East Side to find streets where my character might have lived, walked through the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and visited museums, such as the Tenement Museum and the Coney Island Museum. I take lots of photos of places I might want to describe in my books, and keep a notebook handy to actually write out descriptions of what I see at the moment.
How do you vet your historical fiction manuscripts?
I am so meticulous in my note-taking that I’m usually quite confident of my research by the time I have completed a book. However, most editors also send the manuscripts out to experts in the field, such as university professors. American Girl has its own library and a staff of professional historians. The historian who worked on the Rebecca series was extremely knowledgeable and helpful in noticing any word or reference that might not be perfectly accurate for 1914. He led me to the Dictionary of American Slang so I could check out every phrase that might be part of the series, to make certain that it was used commonly by 1914. He also tracked down information that was difficult to locate, such as silent movie makeup, original song lyrics, and holiday decorations used in Rebecca’s time.
TWM: When did you first know you were a writer?
JDG: I was a news reporter for nine years before I turned to writing children’s books full time. I discovered that my favorite news stories were features where I could introduce readers to everyday people who had done something extraordinary. I always strove to make their personalities leap off the page so a reader felt as if he or she knew the subject of the story well.
One time, after writing a series of historical news articles for a town bicentennial celebration, I was enthralled with one folk character, Tom Cook, who lived in Massachusetts in the late 1700s. I tried turning the article into a short story for young readers. When I showed it to my former professor of Children’s Literature, Francelia Butler, she encouraged me to begin writing children’s books. On her advice, I jumped into the story and turned it into my first historical novel, The Leveller. After the exhilaration of writing that book, I knew I only wanted to keep writing more books!
TWM: How do you prepare for school visits? Is it any different than speaking at a JCC?
JDG: School visits are always varied, depending on the age of the students and which of my books they have read. I try to find out from the staff what curriculum might tie in with my visit and connect with what students are learning. Every program is different, since class lessons are always different.
When I speak at a JCC or other venue, I have a different challenge. The audience is generally made up of children of different ages, as well as adults. I have to make sure that there is something of interest to everyone. Kids need to be engaged with my talk, and I don’t want adults to be bored!
TWM: What are some of the common questions kids ask you?
JDG: Young people always want to know where my ideas come from. They seem amazed that I have drawn on history to create stories, and that at times I have also drawn on my own childhood experiences. I like to help them realize that every person is living through history every day, and that by the time they are adults, the things they think are humdrum and uninteresting today will sound quite old-fashioned and be an interesting part of history.
I often get surprisingly probing questions, such as, “What is the hardest part of writing a book?” or “If you could meet any of your characters in person, which one would you choose?” Other times, I get fun questions such as “What is your favorite color?” Mine happens to be turquoise, by the way.
TWM: Do you have a favorite book among those you’ve written?
JDG: That is a question that pops up regularly from kids! Choosing a favorite book is like choosing a favorite child—I don’t have one! The book I’m working on at the moment is my favorite book. I can say that I think of my characters as people by the time I’ve completed a book, and so each one is special to me!
TWM: Have you been inspired by any authors?
JDG: As a girl, I read so many books that I am convinced that my reading led me to become a writer. More than any one author becoming a model to emulate, instead the love of reading an engaging book led me to want to create some of my own.
TWM: What advice do you have for writers of Jewish-themed books?
JDG: It would be the same as my advice to any writer—write what inspires you. Each writer is drawn to certain topics because they feel a connection. Learn all you can about the background of the setting and time period, even if you think you know it personally. Then envision your characters and tell their story. I never feel that a writer should begin with a theme or try to “teach” something or show a “lesson.” Instead, each author needs a good story to tell, the background needed to tell it well, and the dedication to keep crafting the story until it is ready to engage a reader of any age. After all, if an adult wouldn’t enjoy a particular book, why would we want a child to read it?