The Whole Megillah (TWM): What was your process for writing Believe? Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
Sarah Aronson (SA): Every book I write teaches me at least one thing: how to write that book. With Believe, I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that I have a lot of tenacity, that I am able to overcome many obstacles, and that I am more sensitive than I sometimes like to admit.
I was first inspired to write this book in a hair salon in 2006. I had received a letter from Tim Wynne-Jones re: my fourth packet of my last semester at VCFA telling me that my creative thesis was done! He gave me some sage advice: For my last packet, take some risks and try something daring! As I sat under the dryer, waiting for my hair color to process, I picked up some copies of People. Back then the covers were dominated by Jon and Kate, people famous for being famous. But in one issue there was a story about the woman I knew as Baby Jessica—the baby who fell in the well. It made me think about how people deal spiritually with second chances—especially after near death experiences. (I’m not just a former religious school director: I’m also a rabbi’s granddaughter! It is a struggle not to be didactic!)
I left the salon thinking about how fame and the media have changed our world. The truth is: I have tons to say about that topic. That day, I found out that one of the men who had saved Jessica killed himself after his fifteen minutes of fame were over. It’s so tragic. He left behind a wife and family. I also found myself judging Jessica for not leading a more purposeful life—and that wasn’t fair. She hadn’t asked for fame.
When I got home, I began my journey. It took me many tries and many complete deletions (as in the whole thing) before I found Janine’s voice. Then I spent a few drafts finding her story. And a few more developing the secondary characters and subplots. Each step was a challenge—each discovery led to more re-imagination and moral questions. The whole time, I grappled a lot with Janine’s likeability. I think it’s funny that the first line is, “You never really knew me,” because it took me a long time to figure her out. But from Day One, one thing was clear: There was a story to tell. And it was a story that I wanted to write. Faith and fame were themes I needed to explore. I had some strong opinions and once I knew what all my characters wanted, I didn’t hold back.
TWM: What beliefs in yourself did it challenge?
SA: Like most people, there have been times when my faith has been challenged—when I wondered what kind of God would let terrible things happen to good people. It wasn’t easy reliving those feelings in Janine—in fact, there were times when I felt pretty cynical. That’s one of the reasons why I loved writing characters like Dave Armstrong, the man who rescued Janine, and Emma, a girl who put her complete trust in God. Because she is so trusting, I also wanted her to feel completely reliable and true. I didn’t want her or Dave to seem silly or disrespected. I respect people whose faith is solid. I wanted Emma especially to speak out and offer optimism. Those believers moved me. I felt their pain, too. I know from my own struggles, when we are faced with challenges, it helps to be hopeful. Her ending was really hard to write.
TWM: How did you grow as a writer as a result of this book?
SA: With each book I write, I feel more willing to take chances. In Believe, I didn’t shy away from Janine’s faults. I embraced her unlikeability and let her be interesting first. (In truth: That’s the kind of character I prefer!) I let her make mistakes; I made her pay for them. Of course, that meant I also had to deal with some readers’ disappointment that Janine was not more heroic. The funny thing was: They felt exactly the way I did when I read about Baby Jessica. The bottom line is: As much as I want to be liked, I had to accept that Janine wasn’t always going to do the right thing. After being in the spotlight for so long, she had become jaded. Maybe even a bit paranoid. At the end of the book, I think she takes huge steps toward maturity, but she still has a long way to go.
TWM: Finally, did it affect your ideas about Judaism in any way?
SA: Every book I finish gives me a great sense of satisfaction. There is something spiritual about the process of telling a story, of finding a character, a voice, and the people who matter to her. I feel blessed when I find connections to write about. Every time I sit down to write, I consciously trust the reader, my abilities, and the opportunity I was given to write again. More than anything, I love having the opportunity to collaborate with an editor. It is a very solemn experience for me; I appreciate the work Andrew Karre put into this book.
Specifically, I sought to write about a family whose conflicts begin with one interfaith marriage. This issue, and the way the Jewish community welcomes interfaith families, is important to me. Although the Reform movement has made great strides since 1978 when Alex Schindler said, “We must remove the not wanted signs from our hearts,” I also know too many people who still feel abandoned, rejected, or estranged because they fell in love with someone who was not born Jewish—and that saddens me. It’s terrible. When I meet a person who embraces synagogue life—who helps raise his or her child in a Jewish home—who allows our faith to flourish—I call that person a hero. No matter what they believe in.
As I wrote Janine’s story, I thought a lot about how her families’ actions set up a lot of the problems. I couldn’t help wondering if her story might have been different if her grandparents had not disapproved of her mother’s marriage. What if Lo had found a community that would have welcomed her and Sharon as a family, if Janine had grown up understanding Judaism, knowing a rabbi, having a foundation to help her make sense of her tragedy? I am sure it would have been a different book.
Bottom line: Writing Janine’s story made me realize how important community is to me. I feel supported and welcomed—and that makes every hardship easier to face. (The truth is: When I first found out I was moving to the Midwest, the first call I made was to the synagogue!) I am so proud of the work my synagogue, Beth Emet, does every day, especially when it comes to welcoming every family and working in our larger interfaith community. And I’ve always been impressed with the work of Interfaithfamily.com. Check them out! They offer a lot of great resources! It’s something I really like talking about, too.
About Sarah Aronson
Before starting her writing life, Sarah Aronson had worked as a physical therapist, a religious school director, and salesman at Jewish Lights. She began writing in 2000, when a friend dared her to give it a try. What a wonderful journey it has been! After writing many stories that now spend time in a drawer, Sarah went to Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Since then, she has published three novels for kids and teens: Head Case, Beyond Lucky, and her newest novel about faith and fame, Believe. When Sarah is not writing, she loves working with aspiring writers of all ages, in person and online at www.writers.com. She also organizes the Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College, now in its 11th year. Sarah lives in Evanston, Illinois with her family. You can find out way too much about Sarah, her books, and her classes on her website: www.saraharonson.com.