Interview: An Interview with Daniella Levy

Book Names and Descriptions:

By Light of Hidden Candles

(Kasva Press, coming October 2017; historical romance/new adult): In 16th-century Fez, a dying woman hands her granddaughter a heavy gold ring—and an even heavier secret. Five hundred years later, Alma Ben-Ami journeys to Madrid to fulfill her ancestor’s final wish. She has recruited an unlikely research partner: Manuel Aguilar, a young Catholic Spaniard whose beloved priest always warned him about getting too friendly with Jews. As their quest takes them from Greenwich Village to the windswept mountain fortresses of southern Spain, their friendship deepens and threatens to cross boundaries sacred to them both; and what they finally discover in the Spanish archives will force them to confront the truth about who they are and what their faiths mean to them.

By Light of Hidden Candles:
Available for Pre-order for print and Kindle on Amazon: Click Here.
Available for Pre-order for print on Kasva Press: Click Here.

Previous book: Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism (Guiding Light Press, 2016; nonfiction/Judaism): It began as an extraordinary correspondence across the Mediterranean. Josep, a secular Catholic from Barcelona, wanted to learn about Daniella’s life as an American-Israeli Orthodox Jew. Her enthusiastic response to his curiosity resulted in this collection of entertaining and enlightening letters. With nuance, candor, and warmth—and a liberal dash of humor—Daniella paints a vivid picture of observant Jewish life. She explains complex concepts in a manner so unassuming and accessible that even the most uninitiated can relate—but with enough depth that the knowledgeable will find new insight, too. Whether you’re a curious non-Jew or a Jew hoping to expand your knowledge, Letters to Josep will charm, inform, and inspire you.

Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism:
Available for print and Kindle on Amazon: Click Here.

 

What gave you the idea for By Light of Hidden Candles?

Like many of the wonderful things in life, it began with another book.

Well, sort of. I think, as with any creative work, it’s impossible to pinpoint every factor that contributed to it, but if I had to point to one of them, it would be The Spanish Jews by Felipe Torroba Bernaldo de Quirós. I received the English translation as a gift from my then-new friend Josep (of Letters to Josep), who knew about my long-standing obsession with the Jews of Spain and the Spanish Inquisition. It was the first real history book I had consulted on the topic, and I read it with great interest. (Now that I’ve read a lot more, I would not recommend it as a resource for several reasons, but that’s for another time.) As I read about the “reconquest” of Iberia by the Christians and the subsequent migration of Jews toward ever-shrinking Muslim areas, an image formed in my mind of a Jewish family fleeing the advancing Christians and eventually ending up in Morocco. I wondered about relations between Christians and Jews during that period, and imagined a Christian family helping the Jewish family, much like “righteous gentiles” during the Holocaust.

The idea further developed inspired by a particular Judeo-Spanish folk song, “Hija Mia,” about a daughter who wants to throw herself into the sea “to save her from love,” and her mother who is trying to convince her not to. Like many Ladino songs, it’s kind of melodramatic and dark, but it got me thinking about the overwhelming power of love that sometimes forces us to make very difficult choices. The lyrics to the song are featured in the book’s epigraph, and appear at key points in the story.

I’ll elaborate more on how the book came to be, below.

 

What got you into writing in this genre?

Simply put, I’m a history nerd—particularly Jewish history, and particularly Spanish Jewish history. This was my first time writing historical fiction, but it seems to me now that it was rather inevitable that I’d end up in this genre. The worlds recreated in historical fiction are not only completely different from the one I know, but they actually existed—and left evidence you can read, touch, and smell. Of course, this also means it requires a ton of research, and that’s very daunting; but when it’s a period that fascinates me, I’m going to be reading about it anyway!

 

How long have you been writing?

Since I was four. Literally. That’s when I taught myself to read and write, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer.

 

Tell us about your past books and stories.

So, I wrote my first “chapter book” in a school notebook when I was in fourth or fifth grade. It was called To Keep the Peace and it was a ridiculous and adorable tale starring myself and my British friend who travel the world to stop a war (by visiting world leaders and asking them nicely, of course). This was a short time after my family immigrated from the USA to Israel, and writing was a powerful coping mechanism for me.

When I turned twelve, I used my bat mitzvah money to buy my first desktop computer, and the first thing I wanted to do with it was write a full-length novel. So I did! I completed my first novel at age 14, and my second (which I had started in the meantime) a few months after that. I averaged a novel a year throughout my teens.

I sent my first query letter at age 15, and spent a large portion of the next five years trying to find an agent. I did better than you’d expect for a teenage wannabe, but nothing ended in a contract. By the time I was 20 I was burnt out and discouraged; it was around that time that I first had the idea for By Light of Hidden Candles, but I felt unequipped to write it at the time. I took a long break from writing fiction that lasted about six years, during which I started and quit college, got married, and had three kids! In the course of that dry spell, I hardly even thought of myself as a writer. I considered writing novels a sort of teenage hobby, not necessarily something I’d do as an adult.

Then, in August of 2013, I was putting my youngest son down for a nap when the idea I’d had for By Light of Hidden Candles just… hit me like a freight train. I have no other way to describe it. I was sucked into the world I hadn’t yet created, drawn deeply into the emotional lives of the characters in a way I hadn’t been in years. I dug up the beginnings of a draft I’d written years ago, and added some touches here and there, but I didn’t really think I’d get back to it. After all, I was an adult now; I had commitments and responsibilities and three little kids running around… I couldn’t write a novel! But then a series of other strange coincidences led to a conversation with a dear friend of mine, where I confessed that I’d been thinking about this idea for a book, and she told me in no uncertain terms that I had to write it. So I did! In a little over three months from that point, the first draft was done.

It took a very, very long time to find a publisher, and in the meantime, I started pursuing other projects, one of which was my blog, Letters to Josep, which eventually turned into my first published book. I self-published Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism as a sort of experiment; for the longest time I’d been so stuck on the idea that I needed to have an agent or at least the approval of an editor for my work to be proclaimed worthy of publication. Self-publishing was a sort of declaration that I no longer needed that approval. Paradoxically, it was only once I shed the need for external validation that publications began accepting my work. First, my short story Immersion was published by the Jewish Literary Journal; then, The Olive Harvest by Reckoning Magazine; then, Shattered Glass by Newfound Journal; then, The Wedding Dress by Rathalla Review. (My short story Scarf Sisters is going to be published by arc-25, the literary magazine of the Israel Association of Writers in English, but they’re running behind schedule and I have no idea when it’ll come out.)

My short stories tend to explore closer to home: contemporary life in Israel and the Middle East conflict. For some reason, I find it easier to write about those topics in short fiction.

 

What is the writing process like for you? What is your writing day like?

I’m a bit of a rebel. I’m aware of the common wisdom that we need to be structured and disciplined about writing, not only writing when we’re inspired, but I just can’t work like that. I write when I’m inspired, and given the fact that I’ve already written six novels, a novella, a nonfiction book, more than a dozen short stories, and countless poems, and that I’m still regularly maintaining two different blogs, I think it’s fair to say that it works for me!

My writing process involves a lot of daydreaming. And talking to myself. Preferably in the shower. Much of the work is done away from the computer, when I’m doing dishes or driving or otherwise spacing out. That’s convenient, because I’m a work-from-home mom, and I don’t have unlimited, uninterrupted time to just sit and write at the computer!

 

What have been the biggest influences on your writing?

I think in terms of life experience, making aliyah (moving to Israel) with my family as a child had a very deep impact on my inner life. I explore grief and loss a lot in my writing, and I used to think that was strange, since I didn’t experience the actual death of a loved one until relatively late in life. But the truth is that I’ve experienced a great deal of loss, not least of which was the loss of the first home I remember, my friends, my community, the relative proximity to my extended family, and the identity I had and left behind when we moved here. I noticed recently that many of the main characters in the stories and novels I’ve written are immigrants or children of immigrants. In By Light of Hidden Candles, Manuel Aguilar—the modern Christian character—is a Spanish immigrant to the US, and the main character of the historical narrative, Míriam de Carmona, is forced to leave her home not once, but twice. Their characters and experiences were certainly influenced by my own immigrant experience.

In terms of writing style, I was completely obsessed with the Harry Potter series as a teenager, and I’d like to think that my writing was influenced by J. K. Rowling’s style—particularly the subtle humor of her dialogue. I am also inspired by the work of writers like Amy Tan, who submerge their readers in their culture in a very engaging and relatable way, and particularly Jewish authors who do that effectively. I like to say that I want to be Dara Horn when I grow up.

 

What is your favorite book (other than your own book, of course) and why?

This is like asking me which of my kids is my favorite. I love them all uniquely and for different reasons, and I can’t possibly compare! If I had to choose one of the books I’ve read in recent years, I’d pick The World to Come by Dara Horn. I think her later books were “better” artistically, more compelling, etc., but it’s The World to Come that I find myself coming back to and rereading passages from again and again. I think it’s because of the deep way the book explores that topic I am so drawn to—grief and loss—as well as the relationships between parents and children, and what death and immortality mean, what love and trust are made of… all from a very Jewish perspective.

 

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I think I’m only just beginning to discover myself as an adult writer. Even By Light of Hidden Candles was first conceived when I was still barely out of my teens. I’m finding myself torn between the teenager who loved lighthearted, humorous banter and the adult who is drawn to a more serious, “literary” tone. My hope and prayer is that I’ll be able to synthesize them. I think I bring those two tones together to some degree in By Light of Hidden Candles, but they still remain mostly distinct, the former dominating the contemporary narrative and the latter, the historical narrative. I hope to make it more seamless.

 

What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?

Something to write on. That’s about it. A laptop, a notebook, a granite slab, whatever you’ve got! Nothing else is really necessary.

That said, I personally cannot live without a thesaurus (and I use it all the time. For everything. Even, like, Facebook comments); I’m perfectly happy to use Thesaurus.com for this purpose, with occasional forays into Dictionary.com. I have done an unbelievable amount of research using Google and YouTube. The Internet is an amazing thing.

 

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?

When I completed the manuscript of By Light of Hidden Candles, I wrote to author Naomi Ragen to ask for advice about submitting it to agents, since her book, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, is in the same genre and explores similar topics. She wrote back very promptly and started with: “Congratulations! Writing a book is a tremendous accomplishment.” She reminded me that no matter what happens, whether I end up publishing it or not, the fact that I completed a manuscript is something to celebrate and be proud of.

 

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?

I’m still blundering through this, so I wouldn’t claim to know what works at all, let alone best! This is an area that is particularly challenging for me. So far, people have found me primarily through my blogs or through social media (mostly Facebook; I hate Twitter, and I’m only just getting the hang of Instagram). Occasionally I write articles for popular Jewish platforms like Kveller or The Forward and those get shared around. I just try to be myself and put out compelling content that people enjoy reading and that helps them get to know me.

 

What piece of your own work are you most proud of?

This is also like asking me which of my kids I’m most proud of!

My passion has always been fiction, but I think I’ll take this opportunity to mention my second blog, The Rejection Survival Guide. I started writing it after publishing Letters to Josep and while I was still trying (and abjectly failing) to get my fiction published. The Rejection Survival Guide is the fruit of a very deep and important process I went through in learning how to be truly resilient in the face of years and years of rejection. Many writers are told they have to have thick skins and that they shouldn’t get their hopes up about their chances of having their work accepted. This didn’t work for me, and frankly, I don’t think it really works for anyone. You can’t selectively numb your feelings, and when we suppress hope, we can’t use it to inspire us. Numbing ourselves to rejection isn’t resilience, it’s denial and emotional suppression.

The Rejection Survival Guide takes a radically different approach to coping with rejection. I advocate facing the tough stuff head-on, cultivating hope, redefining what success means to you, and recognizing and rewarding yourself for your acts of courage even when they don’t bear the fruit you would have liked. Most of all, I try to help writers and artists find and nourish the little voice deep inside them that whispers, “I believe in my work.”

I’m proud of the blog because it’s bold, and unique, and an expression of a personal revolution. I think it would have helped me tremendously if I’d read something like it several years ago.

Since this question is about a particular piece, I will point to this post, which is an elaboration on what I call the “Creative Resilience Manifesto,” a set of affirmations that express the core philosophy of the blog: The Creative Resilience Manifesto: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Rejection and Criticism.

 

For those who haven’t read any of your stories, what story/book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?

This is tough because I feel that my work is still evolving. If I had to choose one short story that represents my work well, I think The Wedding Dress is it. It’s got some humor, some whimsy, some heavy stuff, a main character who’s a child of immigrants and struggles with grief and loss, and a sort of indirect exploration of issues of race, prejudice, and politics in Israel.

 

What are you doing next?

I’m working on something a little unique: a collection of short stories revolving around the evacuation of a fictional Jewish settlement in Gaza during the disengagement in 2005. Each story is told from a completely different perspective: from a left-wing journalist who reluctantly covers the evacuation, to a Holocaust survivor settler haunted by memories of his past; from an ex-religious soldier who must evacuate his long-lost love, to a mother of four who must accompany the body of her murdered husband to a new grave. The result I’m aiming for is a kind of sweeping panorama of many different, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives on this wrenching historical event that seems to have been forgotten by most of the world. I have seven stories written at the moment.

 

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

I’m going to quote from a post on The Rejection Survival Guide called Someday Your ‘Yes’ Will Come, which I wrote when I finally found a publisher for my novel:

“Keep going. Keep doing what you love. Keep listening to yourself. Keep creating when that is right for you. Keep engaging with your work and embracing constructive criticism and opportunities for growth. Keep taking breaks when you need to. Keep your mind open to other possibilities and solutions—and be humble enough to try ‘lower-prestige’ opportunities. You gotta start somewhere. Keep trying new things. Keep putting yourself out there. When you do this, when you are persistent and flexible and in love with what you’re doing, eventually, magic will happen.”

 

bio:

Daniella Levy is a mother of three, rabbi’s wife, writer, translator, self-defense instructor, bridal counselor, black belt in karate, and certified medical clown—and she still can’t decide what to be when she grows up. Her short fiction, poetry, and articles have appeared in popular and literary magazines such as Writer’s Digest, Reckoning Magazine, Newfound Journal, the Jewish Literary Journal, Rathalla Review, and Pnima Magazine, as well as online platforms such as The Forward, Kveller, Aish.com, Ynet News, J-Wire, and Hevria, and in the international poetry collection Veils, Halos & Shackles. She was born in the USA and immigrated to Israel with her family as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert.

 

Links:

Author website

By Light of Hidden Candles (Kasva Press)

By Light of Hidden Candles (Amazon)

Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism

Letters to Josep (the blog)

The Rejection Survival Guide (blog)

 

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