THE BOOK OF LIFE - No Vacancy
11:13PM Jul 13, 2020
[COLD OPEN] This is Tziporah Cohen. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast to talk about my Jewish #OwnVoices novel No Vacancy, but I'd also like to use this opportunity to boost black authors' voices. I'd like to recommend Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes. Ordinary Hazards is a childhood memoir written for a wide audience and is told in stunning verse. What I most appreciated in this memoir is Grimes's willingness to address the substance abuse and mental illness in her family, her history of sexual abuse and the failure of the foster care system, while showing how faith and writing helped her survive, and ultimately thrive. It's a tough but beautiful read, and I'd love it to get into as many teens hands as possible.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. No Vacancy is Tziporah Cohen's debut middle grade novel. It's a story of friendship across boundaries, the importance of community... and a Virgin Mary sighting. Curious? Keep listening.
Tzippy, tell us about No Vacancy.
No Vacancy is my debut novel, which will be published in September by Groundwood Books and it's about 11 year old Miriam Brockman whose family buys the Jewel Motor Inn, which is a rundown motel in upstate New York, in a small town, and her family moves there from New York City to run it. And when it's clear that the motel is heading towards bankruptcy, Miriam who is Jewish, along with her new friend Kate who is Catholic, decide to create a virgin Mary apparition to get more people to come to the town and save the motel.
You are a medical doctor in your, in your non writing life.
So does that tie in in any way with your writing life?
Yeah, I mean, how could it not? I'm, I'm a psychiatrist. I do a lot of psychotherapy, as part of that I work specifically with oncology and palliative care patients. And I feel that both as a writer and as a therapist, as a psychiatrist, it's all about stories. You know, as an author, I'm telling stories, making up stories, creating stories. And as a physician and a therapist, I'm listening to people's stories and helping people see their stories from a different angle and possibly rewrite their stories going forward. And so they feel really connected in that way. My work as a physician does not come into my writing work. You're not going to find my patients' stories there. But I've been listening to patients-- I've been privileged to listen to patient stories-- for I don't know, it must be 25 years now. And so you're just immersed in stories all the time. And so I feel like that's that's how the the two parts of my life cross over and maybe why I've been interested in writing stories.
This is your debut novel. What inspired you to write this story?
That is the million dollar question. It actually has a unusual origin story. I was on a family vacation in Hershey, Pennsylvania, staying at a rundown yucky motel in this small town. And there was this little kid probably about seven or eight years old who was following us around when we were at the motel, and he had moved to the motel with his extended family from Staten Island, New York, and they had bought the place and were running it. I thought, wow, there's a great idea for a book, and I started writing it in the motel, and I thought, okay, I want the family that buys it to be Jewish. Because I did want to try and write a Jewish story. And I had this great setting and I thought, well, something needs to happen. I actually need a plot, in addition to a setting, what could happen, that would sort of throw the wrench in the works for this family? And this kind of popped into my head, oh, a Virgin Mary apparition could happen, that would make things complicated. That's where the whole idea started. I'd say much of the rest of the novel other than the initial idea developed over the years I've worked on this book. I started this novel in the summer of 2013.
So you said you wanted to write a Jewish story specifically, why were you looking for a Jewish story to write?
I don't think it was so much that I was looking for a Jewish story to write as I was trying to write from my own experience. The picture books I had been working on were not Jewish with the exception of one. And I felt that I wasn't really exploring some of the themes that were important to me as a person and as a Jew. And I felt like that was the opportunity. And for some reason, when I thought about this girl whose family moved to this hotel, she was Jewish in my mind, and so I went with it.
It's pretty unusual for a Jewish story to include a Virgin Mary apparition, and there's a lot of interaction between Catholics and Jews here. So talk about the research you did in order to create this book. And I was wondering, did you have Catholic sensitivity readers?
So these are great questions. I did do quite a bit of research on Catholicism and Virgin Mary apparitions throughout history. I often had to Google or ask close friends about traditions such as confession to make sure I got those right. I didn't specifically have a Catholic sensitivity reader, per se, not somebody I hired, but had many friends who are Catholic or have other Christian denominations who've read the book, and gave me some feedback. I think overall, people were very receptive to it, much to my relief, and I didn't find that anybody found it offensive or that I wasn't capturing the community in the way that I hoped to. I'd say more research I did was about how religion is treated as a subject in middle grade novels. And I read a lot. I was doing my MFA, we had to read I think 50 books per semester. So I spent reading time that semester on books like that I actually went back to Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, which maybe was the first novel that I could remember reading as a kid that tackled the issues of religion. The other book that was really a mentor text for me was Sarah Darer Littman's book Confessions of a Closet Catholic. The main character is Jewish and her best friend is Catholic. And I think that's where I did a lot of my sort of background research was reading these mentor texts, I would call them.
Excellent. And those are good reading recommendations right there too. Did you learn anything interesting in your research that you weren't able to use in the final story?
I mean, I learned a ton about Virgin Mary apparitions, but most of them are where people see the Virgin Mary appear. There weren't as many where they saw an image like the classic piece of toast image that people talk about. There are apparitions that go back, I don't know probably 1000 years. Many of them are in Europe. There was a Virgin Mary apparition in this tiny town. It really changed the course of the life of the town. Not simply from the religious and faith perspective, but from bringing in so many tourists throughout the years even to today. That was one of the jumping off points for the apparition in my novel, of course, I decided to have my characters create it rather than it just happened. But yeah, it's actually quite fascinating how far these go back and how important they are to the community in terms of people's belief and faith and hope. I found that inspiring in fact,
So you're talking about two kinds of apparitions, the kind in this story where it's an image that's seen on some surface, and then is the other kind more like a ghost sighting, or how does that work?
I don't think people would consider it a ghost sighting, but more like a visitation from the Virgin Mary, not as a ghost but as herself, appearing to give comfort or hope or messages to her followers.
So it's reminding me of the Jewish tradition of Elijah, just showing up, doing something helpful, and then disappearing again. So kind of along those lines?
Yeah, I like I like that idea.
How did this story morph from the beginning of your writing process to the end? Are there any significant differences from how it started out?
There are huge differences. Actually, my classmates from Vermont College of Fine Arts, I think will be surprised when they read the final version because of the pieces they heard about it in those early years. In the beginning, I think it was much more comical, I think, in part because the other novel I was working on was sort of a grief novel. That was depressing me and I needed to write something funny. And there was a bit more of a comic take on the Virgin Mary piece of it. Miriam was quite a bit younger. She was nine in my early drafts of a novel. And there's a bunch of riffs on her not knowing what the Virgin Mary was and as themes took shape, I realized that this wasn't a slapstick novel. This was more serious. And certainly there needed to be some lightness and humor in it but it became more of a serious take on faith and friendship and family and tolerance than it had started out in the beginning. So I think it's actually fairly different than those initial drafts.
Oh, that's interesting. What was the hardest part of this story to write and what was the easiest?
The first response I have to what was the hardest part is the entire thing. I did not see myself as a writer of novels when I started this writing journey. I'm a physician. I didn't start writing fiction until, gosh, probably about 20 years ago when I had an idea for a picture book, and I decided to take some community writing courses which then led to online writing courses which then led to VCFA. But I only wrote picture books. And I never saw myself as someone who could write a novel. Not that picture books are easy. They're extremely difficult. But that is the form I'm drawn to. And so I think the hardest part of writing this book was believing I could, that I could actually write a novel from start to finish, I find it a much harder process for me than writing picture books. And I think that was really the hardest part. I think the easiest parts were writing the scenes with Miriam and Kate. I just fell in love with them and their friendship, and I love writing dialogue. And I think those are the parts that came easiest, the parts that were harder, I think we're writing about the adults as opposed to the kids. It's hard to write adult characters without your adult self coming through. I think that's the challenge for kids' writers, not to sound too authorial when you're writing your adult characters. It was a fun challenge, but I think it was a challenge.
As I read, I kept finding little treats in this book that felt like they were in there just for me. For example, you mentioned the Catholic Library Association, which is a real thing. And while it's not quite as exciting for me as if you'd mentioned the Association of Jewish Libraries, it was still awesome for me as a librarian to see the profession represented like that. And then also, I was very excited when the characters discussed pareidolia because I have taught my own students about that phenomenon. So can you explain to everybody, what is pareidolia?
So pareidolia is the tendency for us as humans, to see random stimuli as representing faces. we're wired genetically and historically, biologically to see faces in things. We're a social species. And so we tend to, to find those patterns in things, and I find that concept fascinating from a psychological perspective, but I also love the tension that concept brings to something like a Virgin Mary apparition and faith and that intersection of biology and science and religion, I find very interesting.
It seems to me that No Vacancy is very much a mirror and window book, meaning a story that lets readers see their own lives reflected but that also lets them look through the window to gain insight about people different from themselves. Were you thinking about that as you crafted this story?
I'm so glad you brought that up because I've been thinking about that a lot. I do want this to be a mirror and window book. I want this to be a book for Jewish kids to have a window on Catholicism and other kids that they may not have exposure to. But I also want this to be a window and mirror book for for kids outside of the Jewish community. So I really hope it's able to reach a broader audience than the Jewish community.
Tzippy, you recently became a monthly supporter of the Book of Life podcast on Patreon.com, thank you very much, which I, which I do want to point out did not influence my decision to invite you on the show. I really just loved your book, and I wanted the world to know more about it. But would you talk a little bit about what the podcast means to you and why you decided to become a patron?
I actually discovered this podcast late. I think, actually, in February, a friend of mine, another Jewish author whose book of short stories just came out, It's called You Are Not What We Expected by Sidura Ludwig, I'll give her that shout out. And we were discussing things we could do together to market our books. Mine's coming out in September, hers just came out. And she said, Oh, you need to start listening to this podcast and you need to become a member of this Facebook group. And that's how I discovered it and I've been writing for years now and I'm so sorry that I didn't discover it earlier. I'm going through the older podcasts in the archives slowly but surely, but it's been around for a super long time. So I wish I had discovered it earlier. But I love it. I don't actually listen to many literary podcasts because I don't have a lot of time. What I love about it is they're short so you're not committing an hour of time to listen to them. And the interviews are interesting. And the people are interesting. And the topics are interesting. And I really they're just a breath of fresh air in my podcast inbox. So I'm really glad I discovered it.
Well, thank you very much. I'm so glad to have you as a listener,
I'll just point out that the Facebook group you mentioned is Jewish Kidlit Mavens, which is a Facebook group sponsored by the Book of Life podcast. And it's people like you who are interested in Jewish children's literature either as a creator or a reader or librarian or somebody who's professionally involved with it in some capacity. So...
And I really love that because it's, it's another community for me. And I think one of the themes of my book is community. One of the things I say in my acknowledgments is how grateful I am to belong to so many different communities. And I feel like this Jewish Kidlit Mavens Facebook group is another wonderful supportive community, I think, especially right now, I know this isn't airing until August, but right now we're all in physical lockdown because of the pandemic. And it's been wonderful to have that community as well as so many other communities to turn to for support during this really hard time.
What are you working on next?
I don't even have a release date yet. It's my debut picture book, a picture book biography about Milton Hershey. And I'm trying to finish the novel that I started years and years ago and kind of abandoned which I will simply say involves time travel and baseball. It's middle grade.
Sounds great. I love time travel. So Milton Hershey of Hershey Chocolate, right?
Yes. So another book that came out of that vacation in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Yeah, I've always wondered because of his name. Was he Jewish? It sounds like a Jewish name, doesn't it?
Yeah, he's not, he's actually from Mennonite community.
But he believed in tikkun olam. And was a great philanthropist and really a wonderful human being, in addition to the fact that he brought us milk chocolate, which I have consumed a lot of in the course of writing that book.
Yeah. And that was a mitzvah in itself.
Speaking of tikkun olam, you're going to have an opportunity to share a tikkun olam suggestion, but first, is there anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
I guess one question that a friend posed to me is how did current events impact this book. And, you know, without giving too much away, there's an act of antisemitism in the book directed at the motel. And that was something that I included early on. I think in very early drafts, I knew that was going to happen. It sort of happens towards the end of the book. And I hadn't written that scene before; I tend to write the beginning and the ends of my books, and then spend four years trying to write the middle. So I had written that pretty early on. So going back to 2013, 2014, not that there wasn't antisemitism then. But I feel like in the past several years, it's unfortunately been raised to a new level. And so that was an interesting struggle for me as I was writing this book, and when it got acquired, and I knew it was going to be published in 2020, was there a way to acknowledge how things feel so much more heightened in terms of the hate in the world, especially the hate in the world that's directed towards religious communities, especially the Jewish and Muslim communities. And I struggled with that, because that really wasn't what the book was about but I didn't want to ignore that. And it's actually my editor who helped me. There's a line in the book where Miriam's mom is talking to her dad and says, when they're talking about the antisemitism, and she's upset with him, and she says, haven't you read the newspapers lately? And that was sort of my way of trying to reference sort of the turmoil in the world in terms of antisemitism and other types of discrimination and prejudice, that was trying to acknowledge you know, what's happening in today's world rather than the world that I started writing the book in.
It's interesting because it felt very relevant to this moment as I read the story. But of course, things aren't written in the moment that they end up being relevant for, hardly ever. So, you know, most books take a while. So it's interesting how that happens.
It's tikkun olam time.
This is your chance for a little bit of activism. So what action would you like to invite listeners to take to help repair the world?
So I've been thinking about this, knowing that you were gonna ask me this. And I want to give a shout out to an organization that I discovered a year or two ago called Barbershop Books. I don't know if you've heard of it. It's a community based early literacy program that uses barber shops to increase access to books for young boys in black communities, to help them increase their out of school reading time and improve their reading skills. And what they do is they supply barber shops across the US with culturally relevant books, they get a bookshelf stocked with books that is housed in the barber shop. And they do some literacy training for barbers. And the idea is that when boys are getting their haircuts, they can pick books out and read them or be read to while they're waiting for their turn. And what I love about these types of organizations is that when I donate to them, I'm helping two communities, I'm helping the community that they are targeting for early literacy. But I'm also helping the authors of these books because their books get purchased in order to supply to the barber shops. And so I love that idea that my donation sort of helps twofold. It's a wonderful organization in this pandemic period. They're doing a lot of online reaching out to the communities that they serve. And I really would love people to Google them and discover them and support them.
That's wonderful. I hadn't heard of that. But what a great idea.
It is a great idea. I actually heard about it in a TED talk, and then looked them up and got very excited about it.
Tziporah Cohen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] Hello, I'm Saadia Faruqi and I'm Laura Shovan and we're the authors of the middle grade novel A Place at the Table. We'd like to dedicate this episode of The Book of Life to first generation American kids.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger, say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group in Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too at BookofLifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon, or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the fFreilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!
NOTE: After this episode was transcribed, the lineup was changed. The updated dedication is: "My name is Patricia Portillo. I'm a classically trained opera singer, recording, and theater artist. I'm also a visual artist, fiber artist, and makeup and wig designer who dabbles in the culinary arts. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast and I'm dedicating the episode to all my beautiful fellow creatives."