Author pho­to by Melanie Elise Pho­tog­ra­phy, LLC

As part of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award blog tour with the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries, Aden Poly­doros dis­cuss­es his recent Syd­ney Tay­lor Award for Young Adult for The City Beau­ti­ful. Find the full STBA blog tour sched­ule here

Simona Zaret­sky: The city of Chica­go plays a large role in the sto­ry, by divid­ing com­mu­ni­ties – often along class lines – but also by pro­vid­ing space for Jew­ish immi­grants to recre­ate pieces of their lost home. Can you speak to the role of set­ting? How does the World’s Fair fac­tor in?

Aden Poly­doros: While draft­ing this nov­el, the set­ting was always on my mind. It fas­ci­nat­ed me to real­ize how the 1893 World’s Fair attempt­ed to cre­ate this image of a pris­tine and idyl­lic White City’, when the fair­grounds were sur­round­ed by a sec­ond city rife with social injus­tices, labor exploita­tion, and wide­spread pover­ty and suf­fer­ing. The more research I did, the more I real­ized that 1893 Chica­go was a per­fect set­ting for my book. The 1880s and 1890s were a peri­od of increased Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, and both the cir­cum­stances that led Jews to leave East­ern Europe and the shift­ing polit­i­cal and social envi­ron­ments in Chica­go at the time end­ed up great­ly influ­enc­ing the plot and setting.

SZ: In the begin­ning of the sto­ry, Alter con­sid­ers Yakov one of his clos­est friends, but it soon becomes clear that the two har­bored many secrets from each oth­er. Frankie and Alter’s rela­tion­ship is also filled with secrets. Can you talk more about the role of unspo­ken feel­ings, or the dif­fi­cul­ty of feel­ing close to some­one but still not reveal­ing your full self to them? In these friend­ships, or otherwise?

AP: I would def­i­nite­ly say that secrets and unspo­ken feel­ings play an impor­tant role in the sto­ry, and that The City Beau­ti­ful explores what it feels like when there are parts of your­self that for what­ev­er rea­son you feel the need to keep hid­den. All three char­ac­ters are deal­ing with fears, trau­ma, and inse­cu­ri­ties of their own, and while Yakov does­n’t get a chance to over­come his while he is still alive, the oth­er two char­ac­ters come to terms with their past and begin the heal­ing process over the course of the sto­ry. In many ways, I would say that this is a book about self-accep­tance, redemp­tion, and retribution.

SZ: Mag­i­cal ele­ments are woven through­out the sto­ry, and Alter’s pos­ses­sion by Yakov’s dyb­buk is a cat­a­lyst for much of the action. Can you speak on weav­ing these mag­i­cal moments and plots togeth­er with oth­er, real­ist aspects of the narrative?

AP: I knew from the begin­ning that I want­ed my nov­el to be about a dyb­buk, but I didn’t want to write a tra­di­tion­al pos­ses­sion tale, where the ghost is seen as evil. For me, the dyb­buk rep­re­sents more than just a super­nat­ur­al pos­ses­sion — it rep­re­sents grief and trau­ma, and how Alter car­ries that with him. This idea of the dyb­buk being an embod­i­ment of loss is what inspired me to write the mag­i­cal moments as, basi­cal­ly, Yakov’s own mem­o­ries and trau­ma encroach­ing upon Alter’s present.

The dyb­buk rep­re­sents more than just a super­nat­ur­al pos­ses­sion — it rep­re­sents grief and trau­ma, and how Alter car­ries that with him.

SZ: What kind of research did you do into Jew­ish mys­ti­cism? Was there any­thing you found that sur­prised you, or that didn’t make it into the story?

AP: I wasn’t very famil­iar with dyb­bukim or Jew­ish mys­ti­cism before writ­ing this sto­ry, so a lot of my research dur­ing the draft­ing process was focused on those top­ics. I couldn’t find many resources con­cern­ing dyb­bukim or exor­cisms, how­ev­er, it did inter­est me to read about how there are actu­al­ly two kinds of pos­ses­sive spir­its in Jew­ish folk­lore — the dyb­buk and the ibbur. And while the dyb­buk is con­sid­ered a more malev­o­lent pos­ses­sion, the ibbur is actu­al­ly con­sid­ered a benev­o­lent one. I would have liked to men­tion the ibbur in my nov­el, and I actu­al­ly did bring it up in ear­li­er drafts, but unfor­tu­nate­ly those lines nev­er made it into the final manuscript.

SZ: The past haunts many of the char­ac­ters emo­tion­al­ly and lit­er­al­ly; Alter, for exam­ple, is look­ing for eco­nom­ic and reli­gious free­dom in the US, but finds the same anti­semitism and cor­rup­tion that exisit­ed in Roma­nia. Can you dis­cuss the themes of immi­gra­tion and flee­ing the past?

AP: All of the major char­ac­ters in The City Beau­ti­ful are recent immi­grants, and the plot itself is deeply tied into the wave of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe dur­ing the late 1800s. One of the most inter­est­ing things about writ­ing this sto­ry was research­ing what it was like being a Jew­ish immi­grant at that time, and how the details of a character’s immi­gra­tion sto­ry would’ve impact­ed every­thing from the lan­guage they spoke, to their cloth­ing, to their lev­el of reli­gious observance.

On the top­ic of flee­ing one’s past, I didn’t con­sid­er this as I was writ­ing, but I do think it’s inter­est­ing how the three male char­ac­ters in the nov­el approach the past dif­fer­ent­ly. Dri­ven by vengeance, Yakov doesn’t want to flee the past, but instead finds him­self on a col­li­sion course with it. On the oth­er hand, faced with an unfa­mil­iar and some­times hos­tile present, Alter finds great com­fort in immers­ing him­self in the tra­di­tions and lifestyle he grew up in. And Frankie goes beyond sim­ply try­ing to flee the past, and by sev­er­ing all ties with the boy he once was, attempts to recre­ate him­self entirely.

SZ: Alter’s sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion is ten­der­ly potrayed through­out the nov­el. How did Alter’s sex­u­al­i­ty play a role in your con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of this story?

API knew when I began writ­ing this sto­ry that I want­ed Alter to be gay, but I also real­ized that he wouldn’t have the same under­stand­ing of his sex­u­al­i­ty that we have today. He wouldn’t have the same words to describe it, and every­thing he under­stood about his same-sex attrac­tion would be fil­tered through both his upbring­ing and Vic­to­ri­an society’s views on homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. This was some­thing I kept in mind while work­ing on the nov­el, and I put a lot of con­sid­er­a­tion into the words he used to describe him­self, and the way he and oth­er char­ac­ters talked about their sexualities.

SZ: The sto­ry is rich in his­tor­i­cal details and has a goth­ic tone. What were your lit­er­ary influ­ences? Was there a par­tic­u­lar moment of inspi­ra­tion for the book?

AP: Goth­ic hor­ror is one of my favorite gen­res, and I would say that the writ­ing of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and H.P. Love­craft have influ­enced me in that regard. This book was inspired by an arti­cle I read about H.H. Holmes, a real-life ser­i­al killer active dur­ing the 1893 World’s Fair. That arti­cle act­ed as a cat­a­lyst for The City Beau­ti­ful, because it got me think­ing about what the 1893 World’s Fair stood for, and what life was like in Chica­go dur­ing the time.

SZ: What was the process of writ­ing a book like? Did you encounter any chal­lenges in writ­ing the story?

AP: This was actu­al­ly one of the most dif­fi­cult man­u­scripts I’ve worked on, both because of the exten­sive amount of research I had to do ear­ly on in the draft­ing process, as well as the fact that I’ve rewrit­ten the book mul­ti­ple times. If I had to make an esti­mate, I prob­a­bly end­ed up writ­ing 250k+ words for this nov­el over the course of draft­ing and revis­ing it.

SZ: What are you cur­rent­ly read­ing and writing?

AP: I’m cur­rent­ly read­ing The Only Good Indi­ans by Stephen Gra­ham Jones. I’m work­ing on the sequel to my upcom­ing MG nov­el, Ring of Solomon (Win­ter 2023), and revis­ing a goth­ic hor­ror YA nov­el I’ll hope­ful­ly be able to talk more about in the com­ing weeks — all I can say is that it cen­ters Jew­ish main char­ac­ters and involves a golem.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School.