Kidlit Interview with Sarah Darer Littman

DANNA ZEIGER: With antisemitism continuing to rise nationally and globally, Sarah Darer Littman’s book SOME KIND OF HATE couldn’t be better-timed. Not only have recent inciting incidents sparked serious concern and heightened security in places of worship and schools, but they have cultivated genuine – and familiar – fear for Jewish people around the world.

For all of these reasons in this disturbing milieu, this interview feels especially important.

I was honored to interview Sarah here. Diving into a neo-Nazi character and understanding their psyche is not easy feat (especially when their real-life counterpart would want to harm you as an author.) This book was gripping and unputdownable. For all writers hoping to craft such a thought-provoking, entrenching book, this interview is for you!

DZ: From your author’s note, it was clear you spent a lot of time doing research. I imagine you don’t always need to do research for your books, right? How long did you spend researching? When did you get to the point that you were writing?

SDL: Funnily enough, I do a lot of research for all my books – even my fun middle grades!  For my fractured fairytale Fairest of Them All, I looked up how to disable a security camera because the kids had to steal a rare plant from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to put in a potion to cure the spell that Aria, the main character, was under.

You never know when that weird piece of knowledge you’ve acquired along the way will come in handy, because I used that information in Some Kind of Hate as well.

I often joke that if any government agencies subpoena my search history, I’m in trouble. But basically, I’m a huge geek, so I love researching. The research for this book started in late 2018 when I began reading some books on online extremism, and continued throughout 2019-2021 when I finished revisions of the book. It started with a lot of reading, attending online workshops on extremism, and then moved to interviewing. I started writing in late 2019 and submitted the proposal in January 2020. Scholastic bought the book in mid 2020, but I was teaching full-time as a temporary appointment that year, and like everyone else in teaching, had to learn how to shift courses online with virtually no notice and not a whole lot of training. Still, I continued to research, and attempt to write when I had time and wasn’t grading. By the end of 2020, I’d written about 20K of my first draft (about a third of my usual first drafts of about 60K words) while continuing to research. When I stopped teaching full-time and finally could focus on the book again, I made some important realizations about point of view. More on that below.

DZ: What does the writing process look like for you – from writing a first draft to revisions?

SDL: Every book is different – what works for one book doesn’t work for the next. It’s important to have a lot of tools in your writer’s toolbox. That’s why I still read craft books, even though I’ve published a lot of novels.

It usually takes me about 20,000 words into a book to figure out what tools I need. Sometimes it takes several rewrites.

When I sold SKOH in mid 2020, the proposal was for it to be written from two points of view – the radicalized boy and a Jewish girl. When I got back to the book in earnest in late December 2020, I realized that because misogyny was an important online vector into extremism it felt important that there were two male characters. I talked to my editor right after the New Year in 2021 and she felt we should still have the female character. So I rewrote the book from three points of view, Declan, Jake, and Kayleigh. But when I turned in that rewrite, we realized Kayleigh wasn’t adding enough to the story in her own point of view – that I could transmit her part of the story through conversations with Jake and Declan.  I rewrote the book again from Jake and Declan’s point of view and it worked much better. Because ultimately, it’s a book about friendship and betrayal, and how we can find our way to forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.

DZ: I read in another interview that as the Colleyville synagogue attack was unfolding, you had to cut some of the attack details from your proof so as not to inspire any ideas. I can’t imagine that has happened with your other books?

SDL: Never. Usually by the time we’re in first pass proofs the changes are relatively small – more about word choice and clarity. I totally panicked when Colleyville happened, and fortunately my editor understood why. Todd Gutnick of the ADL gave it a read and his feedback was invaluable. The last thing I want to do is cause harm.

I had a similar moment when I was working on the book on the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah (I was on a very tight revision deadline, so was working almost up to when I left for synagogue). There I was, trying to get my head ready for the High Holidays, and I found myself writing soft Holocaust denial (ie/there were camps but they were just labor camps, not death camps) in Declan’s point of view. I suddenly stopped and thought – “WHO AM I? WHAT AM I DOING? AM I INSANE?” It was a very emotional moment for me – and I think it’s part of the reason I’ve decided to finally become a Bat Mitzvah to celebrate my 60th birthday this year. Interestingly, my haftorah is Zachor, and I’m reading maftir from one of the 1,564 Czech Memorial Scrolls rescued by Ralph Yablon in 1964.

Some of the other freakouts I had about Some Kind of Hate have happened with other books, like when I was writing in the head of an internet predator for Want to Go Private? for example.

I think it’s hard not to have “who am I and what am I doing?” moments when you’re writing as someone who believes or does things that are anathema to you. That’s when you have to dig deep in your search for understanding and empathy so you can write them authentically, not just as a one-dimensional evil person. The closer those topics are to painful experiences in your own life and experience, the harder that can be.

 
DZ: In your acknowledgments, you said that you had bounced ideas off your editor and that she was instrumental in this book’s ideation – can you share more about that process? For us pre-published authors, when does this relationship happen? After the 1st book or after several?

When do you get to the point that you can share ideas with your editor and know that they will want to acquire it (vs going through the brutal sub process)?

SDL: It took me several books with the same editor to get to that point. Early on in my career, I was always envious of authors who seemed to be able to get book deals based on a one-page proposal. Developing a relationship and a track record takes time and hard work – like everything in publishing. I’m grateful to be at that point in my career. There were years when I never thought I would get there.


DZ: How did you decide on character names? I imagine it’s hard to find a name for a future neo-Nazi?!

SDL: I chuckled at this because I spend SO MUCH time on character names, even sometimes for minor characters. I think it’s because of the Jewish concept of  kishmo ken hu–“Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25)

I also use names as a homage. Jake’s surname, Lehrer, is an homage to a major influence on me as a teen, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer.  Declan’s name in early drafts was Todd, which was an homage to a Neo Nazi character in one of the most brilliantly written series I’ve ever watched, Breaking Bad. But I got feedback that Jake and Todd were too close as four letter names, so I had to find another name. Kayleigh, his sister, was already named, so I looked for a boy’s name of Irish origin. I’ve always loved the name Declan. It also means “full of goodness.” And as we learn in Judaism, we all contain both the Yetzer Hara (the inclination to do evil) and the Yetzer Tov (the inclination to do good). Declan’s accident and the subsequent changes in his outlook make him vulnerable to extremism because he’s lost his identity and he’s searching. That’s when his Yetzer Hara starts to gain control.


DZ: I noticed that Declan, during his downward spiral, recognized that certain terminology like “globalists” and other extremist thoughts were anti-semitic and wrong – and he progressively started to ignore those thoughts. Is this the downward spiral that typically happens, based on your research?

SDL: One of the articles I read early on in my research was anonymously-written piece in The Washingtonian, What happened after my 13 year old son joined the Alt-Right. The book idea was already percolating in my head, but I was busy writing and revising Deepfake. Still, I was so struck by the fact that this young man was from a liberal Jewish family and yet still went down the rabbit hole of extremism. I ended up writing to the editor of the Washingtonian asking if she’d be willing to put me in touch with the family, promising to keep their identity confidential. I was able to interview the young man, and ask him the question that had been nagging at my brain since I read the article: “You’re Jewish. Didn’t it bother you when they said antisemitic stuff?” His answer gives me chills to this day: “They never said Jew. They said ‘globalist.’”

This was a point where the then President of the United States was using the term to describe a Jewish cabinet minister. Even some Jewish kids and adults that I’ve mentioned this to don’t know the antisemitic history of the term, which derives from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

We need to educate people about dog whistles, so that they recognize them when they see and hear them online – especially because a recent ADL survey found that the exposure to white supremacist ideology is increasing in gaming spaces.

DZ: I wonder if the people you interviewed were more likely never to have encountered a Jewish person, or if they were more like Declan and did in fact know (and like) Jewish people.

SDL: A mixture. But as my conversation with the young man from The Washingtonian article shows, even Jewish people can be sucked into this.

An example: a relative of mine forwarded me this email:

I usually delete these kinds of emails without reading because they make me angry and are filled with misinformation. But because I’d been working on SKOH, the link stood out to me – it’s the name of a white nationalist, Neo Nazi organization based in Charlottesville, VA. So I went on their website and sent my relative these screenshots:

I pointed out that his paternal grandparents, my great-grandparents, were murdered in Ukraine in WWII by people who held these beliefs and asked him why he was helping them by spreading their hateful propaganda.

Information literacy is so important, and the impulse to share a social media post or forwarded email because it evokes strong emotion in you is something we all must work to overcome. Stop. Fact check. Make sure you’re getting information from a wide variety of sources, not just ones that agree with your point of view.

DZ: Also, while the focus of attacks here were on Jewish people (even though they also said islamophobic and racist things too) do these extremists simultaneously target Jews and other marginalized groups? We didn’t see Ronan’s group go after other minorities –  was that a decision you made in order to focus the book?

SDL: Yes. In the early drafts, the group went after different minority groups – for example, leafleting with Islamophic ideas. But after several rewrites, my editor and I made the decision that being Jewish was what I brought to the table in writing this, so I should lean into that.

Part of the reason is two of the former extremists I interviewed had said that their hatred of Jews was the last one to leave, and when I asked why, I learned that it boils down to ideas in the age old conspiracy theory from The Protocols – that we are part of this international cabal controlling the banks and the media. Linked with that is the Great Replacement Theory, which motivated mass murders by extremists at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, at two different mosques in Christchurch, NZ, and was the basis for the “Jews will not replace us” chant at Charlottesville.

When politicians in Congress are spouting this ideology and Tucker Carlson is promoting it on Fox News, it affects ALL of us. Nothing makes white nationalists happier than other minority groups fighting each other. It’s divide and conquer.

 
DZ: The way you created empathy for Declan was simply impressive. I found that I at least understood his collapsing world and desperation – even if I did not condone his joining an extremist group. How do you ultimately feel about Declan? Do you feel empathetic towards him? Did this book change your perspective about extremists?

SDL: I had to find empathy for Declan so I could write him. As far as changing my perspective about extremists, I’m still scared and deeply concerned about how extremist ideology is being displayed in Congress and in legislatures and school board meetings across our country.

 Researching and writing the book didn’t eliminate that fear. I had to work to overcome it. What the process of this book did was change how I REACT to people who hold those views, especially young people, because I learned that most people aren’t initially attracted to the movement because of the ideology. It’s because they’re missing something in their lives, and becoming part of the group gives them community, identity, and purpose.

 In the past, my fear has caused me to shut down or attack – the flight or fight reaction. I’m not entirely cured of that, especially online, where I tend to employ the block button freely. But in real life conversations, I’m trying a different strategy – one which filmmaker Deeyah Khan (White Right, Meeting the Enemy is a must watch) calls “radical curiosity.” Rather than confrontation, I approach these conversations with a genuine desire to understand.

My deepest hope is that I can speak to students in parts of the country where they might not have ever met a Jewish person before.


DZ: How did you decide that no one in Anshe Chesed would get hurt? In a book I read right after yours, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, the Jews targeted were hurt and even killed. How did you make this decision as an author? (I actually felt very anxious knowing that the attack was coming, and wondering whether Jake and Arielle were going to make it!!)

SDL: Isaac Blum did such a great job of making Hoodie Rosen humorous that the violence comes as more of a shock. SKOH was already dark and I personally I didn’t want to go there. What I did want readers to understand though, is that even when violence doesn’t happen, that fear is always there – and has been for a long time. Most of my non-Jewish friends had absolutely no idea about how much security we have, just to go pray on Shabbat, let alone for events or the High Holidays. They don’t get how Jewish places of worship struggle between the desire to be open and welcoming spaces, and keeping congregants safe. They have no idea how much money our congregations have had to raise to implement things like active shooter locks on Hebrew school doors. The walk-through that Jake and Arielle do with their youth group and the conflicting emotions they discuss afterward with Rabbi Jonas are 100% based on my own feelings following a similar walk through at my synagogue before the High Holidays in 2019.


DZ: In your research, did you speak to families of ex-extremists? I felt so much sympathy for Kayleigh and Declan’s parents. I almost felt the worst for them!

SDL: Early on in my research, I spoke with a mother whose son is an extremist and who is totally gutted by it. She is a wonderful, kind, empathetic person. Parents can certainly be an influence, but so much radicalization is taking place online these days, busy parents might not even know the kinds of things their kids are being exposed to.


DZ: Multiple family members did try to reach Declan once they realized that he was in a rabbit hole… and nothing helped. Is there any way to reach someone who has gone down the extremist rabbit hole? How can we protect our kids? It seems like even if we are aware that they’re in dangerous territory, it’s not clear there’s much we can do! Could Declan’s parents have done more? Therapy? Groups? Forbidden him from going to Ronan’s? (I wish they would have, anyway!)

SDL: Ask questions with curiosity, not judgement (even though you might be feeling it). Try to understand what lack there is in their life that being part of an extremist group is filling. Is it a sense of identity? Community? Purpose?

What are some healthier ways that they could find those things?

Having them read or listen to talks by former extremists is useful, because they know the language and how groups recruit.

DZ: What is your advice for burgeoning MG or YA writers?

SDL: Read a lot of books in your genre – both as a reader and then critically as a writer.

 Go to conferences and listen to editors and agents and other writers.

Find trusted readers who will give you honest and helpful critique. Learn that if more than one person says there’s a problem, you need to pay attention.

But the best advice is what Jane Yolen said at a SCBWI conference when I was first starting out: “Get your butt in the chair and write the damn book.”

For more information (includes places to order) https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books/some-kind-of-hate/

Sarah Darer Littman is the critically acclaimed author of 19 middle grade and young adult novels, including Some Kind of Hate, Deepfake, Backlash (Winner of the Iowa Teen Book Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award) and Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. As well as writing novels, Sarah teaches in the MFA program at Western CT State University, and at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. She is also an award-winning columnist. Sarah lives in Connecticut, in a house that never seems to have enough bookshelves.

Social Media:

Twitter, Instagram, & Post = @sarahdarerlitt

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahdarerlitt/

(Check out this related post by Laura Fineberg Cooper: THE ASSIGNMENT BY LIZA WIEMER: WOULD YOU SPEAK UP FOR WHAT IS RIGHT?)

5 comments

  1. What an amazing interview. Some Kind of Hate, while meant for young people, is important and relevant for adults as well. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s