Dana Reinhardt lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. Before becoming a writer, she held many different jobs. Among them, waiting on tables, working with adolescents in the foster care system, checking facts for a movie magazine, working as a reader for a publisher, and after graduating from law school, working for Frontline on PBS and then assisting Peter Jennings on a documentary about the Los Angeles Police Department. After her stint with Peter Jennings, she wrote and published her first novel, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life. Other books include, How to Build a House and Harmless.
Q. In A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and How to Build a House, there are similar themes. One is the intermingling Jewish and Christian religions and cultures. Why is that important to you and what are you trying to accomplish?
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life isn’t so much about the intermingling of Jewish and Christian cultures as it is about a girl who thought she knew something about herself only to learn that she didn’t. Her Judaism is a complete surprise and is at odds with the Atheist she believes herself to be. In How to Build a House, Harper comes from a blended family, like so many of us do, and this informs the way she thinks about and is open to different people and experiences. I’m not trying to accomplish anything, particularly, in writing about religion and culture other an exploration of some of the questions about identity that interest me.
Q. While both books are “spiritual” in A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, spirituality is dealt with more overtly—for instance, there is a scene with Simone talking to Rabbi Klein about the after life and there is a scene near the end of the book where Simone is talking to her birth mother Rivkah.. I found the Rabbi scene a bit flat but the scene with Rivkah is beautiful, touching and gives a real spark of the divine. It is said that the best scenes are the easiest to write. Was it hard writing the Rabbi scene? Did the Rivkah/Simone scene flow more easily? Can you talk about your thought process writing those scenes? What did you want to achieve and how satisfied are you with them?
I’m not sure I’d describe either scene as easy to write, but I imagined both long before I reached them, which isn’t always the case with scenes, and they both came out how I hoped they would.
Q. A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life has moments of great tenderness and sadness. Many readers will cry or at the least have tears well up. Did you cry at all while writing the book and was it hard since writing a book you have to be with the characters a lot longer than when you read it?
No, I didn’t cry while writing the book, but I did feel tremendous sadness for Simone and Rivka and wished they could have known each other longer because I think they were headed toward a deep and rich relationship.
Q. There is a fairly well-known book by a Rabbi Kushner—When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The title at least seems appropriate for your book. Did you read this book or any other to help you with the questions Simone has about the events she has to face?
I did some basic research about Judaism and ritual, but I am Jewish and I observe Jewish tradition and ritual so I didn’t have to do too much. Many of Simone’s questions about faith, basic as they may be, are my own.
Q. Since as the author of your books, you are the creator of the characters in your book, was it difficult having bad things happen to your creations? Did you agonize over Rivkah’s fate? Did you consider a happier ending or was it all inevitable?
About half way through the book, right when Simone realizes Rivka is sick, I started to have second thoughts. It was my plan from the very beginning to have Rivka die at the end because to me a book about faith should deal head on with death. Without questions of death and dying I don’t think faith is as critical. But I was having so much fun writing the book and I feared venturing into the territory of illness and death would suck the life out of the story. I wanted it to continue to be fun to read and funny at times and still about friendship and dating and I struggled with that balance in the second half of the book. But I also believe that teenagers are great at compartmentalizing their lives. Simone is falling in love and this occupies her almost as much as losing the mother she’s just met, and that’s a wonderful thing, that she can embrace the excitement along with the sadness.
Q. Do you feel perhaps that once you give your characters “life”, and they act and grow on the page, their destiny becomes clearer and clearer, if not to them, but to you.
Yes, although sometimes it takes longer than I’d like to get that clarity.
Q. Which of your characters have stuck with you the longest or made the deepest impression on you?
I’m not sure… I’m always writing something, so I’m always thinking about the character I’m writing about. I don’t have much time to sit and think about the characters in the books I’ve already written unless I’m talking about them in an interview such as this one! So today, Simone is very much on my mind.
Q. In A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, Simone, who considers herself an atheist, has to deal with not just Jewish family roots but Hasidic family roots. Do you have any background or history with Hasidic Jews and why did you choose that Rivkah come from a Hasidic family?
Primarily that choice had to do with setting up the story—creating a situation from which Simone became available for adoption. And I wanted to show a life as far from the one Simone grew up in—I wanted her past to be a very foreign land. I was also interested in choices within the Jewish faith. How Rivka has abandoned her Hasidism, but is no less Jewish.
Q. The characters in your books who have the strictest orthodox views (both in a sectarian and nonsectarian sense) are the most heartless. Do you think orthodox views make one heartless or that heartless people tend toward orthodox views?
I certainly don’t mean to portray anybody as heartless, and I certainly don’t think orthodox views make anybody heartless or vice versa. In fact, I think Rivka’s parents are both full of heart. Her father is committed to his way of life and to his role in the community and her teen pregnancy isn’t compatible with what he’s devoted his entire life to. And yet, he doesn’t confront her or banish her or punish her, he pretends he doesn’t know, which for him is an act of great kindness. And I also think it’s pretty clear that Rivka’s mother isn’t heartless or she wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to help her daughter, and to find a good home for the baby.
Q. In A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, the story of Simone’s birth father is barely dealt with. That she even has a birth father isn’t mentioned until more than halfway through the book and he turns out to be conveniently unconcerned with her existence and living in Israel. Why did you choose to deal with him like that?
For one thing, Simone says early on that her parents used to talk about Rivka all the time, so that is the name she carries with her even when she tells herself she doesn’t want to know. And also, that’s who her parents knew, there was no information about the biological father, so that is what is available to Simone. But I also think most adopted children who are interested in finding their birth parents almost always seek out their mothers, at least initially. Not to take anything away from fathers, but that connection and the longing and the questions, seem to be primarily about mothers.
Q. Another element of the book I found surprising was that Rivkah and her mother, Hannah, even though they are Hasidic Jews, seem totally unconcerned with finding a Jewish home for Rivkah’s baby. This issue is dealt with in one or two paragraphs. Why did you want Simone to be raised in an atheist Christian household?
This is a question that comes up quite a bit. People get angry and write to me and say something about how Orthodox Jews would NEVER allow a baby to be adopted into a non Jewish family. Well, my first response is always that this is a work of fiction. And it’s what makes this particular work of fiction interesting. And if Simone had been adopted into a Jewish family I wouldn’t have had much of a story to tell. In this story, Rivka and her mother cared more that Elsie Turner was a good person who would give the baby a good home than they did that she wasn’t Jewish. That may not be common, but it is not impossible, and it was true about these characters in this book.
Q. Another similar theme of both books is that while the books do not have any detailed sexual descriptions, a lot of the characters are having sex. In most YA adult books, if any of the main characters are going to have sex, that issue is a major element of the book. In your books, there’s a much more relaxed attitude. You can’t write a YA adult book without thinking about how you are going to deal with sex. Why did you decide on the attitude your books have?
It’s not that my attitude is relaxed, it’s that I try to write about sex realistically. We all know that many teens have sex. And some don’t. And everyone thinks about it whether they are having it or not. But it isn’t the be all and end all. There are many other pressing questions and issues kids are dealing with. I try only to have sex in the books for a reason—for example in A Brief Chapter, Simone’s friend Cleo is having sex with a boyfriend who doesn’t really love her. And Simone is falling in love for the first time. So Cleo’s exploits offer Simone something to think about as she gets to know Zack. But I think we are making a mistake if we think sex must be the centerpiece of every teen story. I think teens struggle with many other pressing issues, even when sex is on their minds.
Q. When you write about male characters that your heroines fall in love with are they guys that you yourself would love?
Yeah, I think so.
Q. Another similar theme of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and How to Build a House is that both main characters are deeply involved in liberal political causes. Simone’s mother is a lawyer for the ACLU and Simone is involved in a case her mother is handling. In How to Build a House, the main character, Harper, is a committed environmentalist concerned about Global Warming. When you deal with political issues in a book, you risk alienating large numbers of people as well as having your book become too “preachy.” Why did you decide to tackle these problems and what did you do to prevent your books from becoming too didactic (which by the way you achieved)?
I don’t want my books to be didactic. And I honestly don’t try to or want to teach anybody anything. I simply want to write a good, true story. And I know that teens care about issues. They care about the environment and politics. They don’t only think about boys and dating and how annoying their parents are. And if what my characters care about is at odds with how a reader feels about those same issues, that’s okay. I don’t find myself alienated by books with characters who think differently than I do.
Q. In A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life and How to Build a House, both main characters are going through crises caused by family issues. Teenagers are usually lost in school, popularity, dating, college, sports, etc., yet in these two books they are very much against their will drawn into their family. Why are family issues important to you?
I guess it’s my belief that family issues are critical to most of us. And I’d bet there are a whole bunch of therapists out there who’d back me up on this.
Q. How to Build a House takes place primarily in Memphis, Tennessee. A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life takes place in Boston. Have you lived in these areas? Why did you want to change your book’s locales?
I lived in Boston for several years and when I left Boston for Los Angeles, I drove through Memphis, Tennessee. I’d never been, but I was smitten. I vowed to go back someday and what better way than to write a book and go on a research trip?
Q. I listened to both of your books on CD. The readers for both books are excellent. Have you listened to the CD versions of your book and did you take away anything from hearing your books read that has helped you with your writing?
It’s always strange to listen to my own books read by somebody else. I always find these moments when I imagined an emphasis falling someplace else or a totally different tone of voice, but I also find myself realizing that the book has become its own thing, separate from me, and that’s exciting. I tend to read my books out loud as I’m writing. It’s the easiest way to find out if the writing is flowing or if it’s clunky, and I think in the end that helps make them books that work well in audio.
Q. Both books are first person narrations and Harper and Simone are very charming people to meet and be with. As a matter of fact, all the characters the two meet, even the people they don’t like, are in some way charming. Do you feel this relates to your own attitude toward life? Do you yourself have a good sense of humor? Do you try to see the good in people? What do you think accounts for this “glow” the characters in the book have?
I try to see the good in people, and most days, I’m able to do so.
Q. When you are writing your main characters, do you feel that you are straying far from yourself? How do you create your different writing “voices” for the narrators of your books?
I’m always trying to get away from who I am and who I was when I write. I let my characters do the things I didn’t or couldn’t or failed miserably at.
Q. Do you write every day? How long do you write every day? What in general are your writing habits?
I try to write every day. 700 words. That’s when I’m in the middle of writing a book. There are long stretches of time when I’m revising or editing or just thinking.
Q. What are some of your favorite YA books?
There are so, so many great YA novels out there. My recent favorite is Dark Water by Laura McNeal. Coming in September 2010. It’s beautiful.
Q. What projects are you working on now and what future projects do you have planned?
The Things a Brother Knows is due in September and another book, The Summer I Learned to Fly, in Summer 2011. They’re probably the two books I’ve written that are the most unlike each other, but I’m quite proud of them both.
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