Pho­to cred­it: Jason Stemple

In the Jew­ish book world, I am most­ly known for my Holo­caust nov­els—Devil’s Arith­metic, Bri­ar Rose, Map­ping the Bones, and the pic­ture book, The Stone Angel.

The PJ Library knows a bit more about me: my Golem nov­el B.U.G (with Adam Stem­ple), How Do Dinosaurs Say Hap­py Chanukah, Milk and Hon­ey, Jew­ish Fairy Tale Feasts (with Hei­di Stem­ple), Meet Me at the Well, (with Bar­bara Dia­mond Goldin), and others.

While my her­itage is Jew­ish on both sides, I come from a non-reli­gious fam­i­ly; we didn’t keep kosher and we didn’t cel­e­brate Jew­ish hol­i­days — unless it was a seder at Uncle Lou’s, a Purim Par­ty at Uncle Sam and Aunt Rose’s tem­ple, or some of my many cousins’ bar mitz­vahs. We didn’t attend tem­ple or go to Hebrew school.

As a teen, I had to plead to go to a Con­fir­ma­tion Class — no bat mitzvah’s on the hori­zon yet — just to meet oth­er Jew­ish kids. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the sto­ries of Jew­ish his­to­ry and lore and want­ed more. I became the first girl at the tem­ple to read from the Torah at Con­fir­ma­tion (fast learn­er faster for­get­ter). This fas­ci­na­tion prob­a­bly explains in part why I was a reli­gion minor at Smith Col­lege, which is how I have read both the Hebrew Bible and the New Tes­ta­ment, plus the Book of Mor­mon, and the Quran, among others.

Yet, while the sto­ries with­in each reli­gion enchant­ed me, none of them made me par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious. Rather I was spir­i­tu­al­ly-mind­ed, became a folk­lorist man­qué, and have remained so to this day. My soft spot as a writer is the place where his­to­ry, poet­ry, and leg­end com­bine to tell a deep­er truth.

My soft spot as a writer is the place where his­to­ry, poet­ry, and leg­end com­bine to tell a deep­er truth.

How­ev­er, my book-writ­ing career — which began in 1963, with women pirates, fol­lowed quick­ly by pic­ture books about kings and princess­es and witch­es, plus non­fic­tion about kites, bells, and dis­ap­pear­ing islands — did not fea­ture any­one or any­thing Jewish.

And then in the 1980s, one of my edi­tors, who hap­pened to be a rabbi’s wife, asked me why I had nev­er writ­ten a Jew­ish book. And I had to think long and hard about that. And she noodged. Boy! Was she an expert noodge. The result was The Devil’s Arith­metic. And then the Jew­ish sto­ries began to tum­ble out — between more books about women pirates and kings and princess­es and uni­corns and dinosaurs— in prose, in rhyme, for pic­ture book read­ers and for teens.

So, it shouldn’t have sur­prised me that, years lat­er when asked by an edi­tor for a short sto­ry for a drag­on anthol­o­gy he was edit­ing, that I wrote one with drag­ons and Jews.

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy of course. There’s a long road between an idea and a sto­ry. Longer still between all that and a novella.

At first I told the short sto­ry edi­tor that I didn’t want to write anoth­er drag­on sto­ry. Actu­al­ly I said, I am DONE with all that.” I had writ­ten more sto­ries and poems and books about drag­ons than I could count, and tru­ly believed that I had none left in me.

At first I told the short sto­ry edi­tor that I didn’t want to write anoth­er drag­on sto­ry. Actu­al­ly I said, I am DONE with all that.”

Moments after I’d sent off that email say­ing no, two lines came teas­ing into my head. The drag­ons were har­row­ing the provinces again. They did so when­ev­er the tsar was upset with the Jews.”

No, I don’t know why I thought such a thing. Those lines arrived ful­ly formed. Clear­ly the Muse was work­ing over­time and she — bul­ly that she can often be — want­ed me to write that story.

Now, some­times, I hoard ideas close­ly; some­times I give them away to writer friends and fam­i­ly. All three of my chil­dren are pub­lished writ­ers, but only Adam, my mid­dle child, writes fan­ta­sy almost exclu­sive­ly. Often his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy. Those lines had his name all over them. I did what I always do at such a moment — I sent an email to him with those two lines and a note that said, Want to play?” And off we went.

Take a quick look at Adam’s pro­lif­ic and wide­spread career as a writer of pub­lished nov­els, short sto­ries, poet­ry, non­fic­tion, and music books. He is also a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian and one of his bands (there have been many) cov­ered Boney M’s Rah, Rah Rasputin.” He also cre­ates web­sites for children’s book writ­ers, cre­ates book trail­ers (along with the music in them), and is a no-holds barred polit­i­cal gad­fly. He has a dark sen­si­bil­i­ty, can plot like crazy, and will kill peo­ple off in his books with­out a bit of regret. I have prob­lems with all of the above, so we make a great team.

We wrote the short sto­ry — it was 13,000 words. I most­ly wrote the parts about the roy­al fam­i­ly and Rasputin and Adam most­ly wrote about the Jews. Then we switched and edit­ed one another’s parts. We tried to make the whole thing seam­less so it didn’t sound as if had been writ­ten by two sep­a­rate peo­ple. The edi­tor loved it, gave us a con­tract, and pub­lished it.

But once it was pub­lished, I thought—This could be a nov­el. I have done that a num­ber of times, turned a short sto­ry into a nov­el, or a poem into a pic­ture book. Luck­i­ly Adam agreed. But we could find no edi­tor who thought it could be done as a nov­el. That would have meant 80 – 90 thou­sand words, and we only had 13,000 going in.

Fast for­ward­ing three or four years, the two of us were work­ing on oth­er projects. I had start­ed doing sto­ry col­lec­tions with Tachy­on, a small San Fran­cis­co com­pa­ny I absolute­ly love. They have a line of fan­ta­sy novel­las and I pitched Last Tsar’s Drag­on to them. A novel­la is usu­al­ly in the 35,000 word range. That meant dou­bling what we already had. Not just adding words, but enlarg­ing the roles of some of the char­ac­ters, adding more his­to­ry; for exam­ple, I read the let­ters between the tsa­ri­na and the tsar that lent depth to their rela­tion­ship. It also gave us a lot more room for flesh­ing out the Jew­ish por­tion of the book, and we were able to change the end­ing of the roy­al fam­i­ly. Adam got to turn the per­fect bureau­crat” into a hid­den killer, which he loved.

We were both per­son­al­ly fond­est of the Jew­ish char­ac­ters. They were bril­liant, and had moral com­pass­es that seemed to find True North most of the time. I tried to like the roy­al fam­i­ly, but it was tough going. Tsar Nicholas was a bit stu­pid and lim­it­ed, and ter­ri­bly anti­se­mit­ic. He was the tsar who sup­port­ed and dis­sem­i­nat­ed the Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion” and used it as the excuse for his attacks on the Jews. And while the tsa­ri­na (a great grand­daugh­ter of Queen Vic­to­ria) was smarter and more car­ing, she was also an anti­semite and so, hard to love.

Right now Adam is off chas­ing zom­bies and mag­i­cal samu­rai. I have tak­en a turn towards poet­ry and talk­ing fish.

The novel­la came in at about 37,000 words. And we are very pleased with it. But I think the edi­tors who turned it down as a nov­el were right. By the time we fin­ished the novel­la, we were both done with dragons.

For the moment.

Right now Adam is off chas­ing zom­bies and mag­i­cal samu­rai. I have tak­en a turn towards poet­ry and talk­ing fish.

But if the Muse comes call­ing, my door is always open, and I have a pantry full of exot­ic teas.