You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is a stunning and lyrical debut novel about twin sisters whose lives are forever changed by a brutal medical diagnosis. It’s also a novel that addresses a set of themes that are quite new to Jewish YA. Rather than focusing on the Holocaust, the Catskills, or summer camp, it depicts a Jewish teen in an assimilated, digital American landscape.
Emily Stone: In writing this book, was your initial aim to fill a hole in Jewish YA? Or did you first set out to explore the plotline of twins who receive an unfair genetic result, and then decide to make the characters observant?
Rachel Lynn Solomon: The premise is what came to me first — one twin testing negative and one testing positive — and the first scene I wrote took place on Yom Kippur. Subconsciously, and then consciously as I immersed myself more deeply in the drafting process, I was yearning to write the kinds of Jewish characters I hadn’t really seen in contemporary novels. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone was my fifth completed manuscript but the first with Jewish protagonists. For the longest time, I thought the only stories we had to tell were Holocaust narratives — and while we must never stop telling those stories, they are not the only ones we have. Growing up, I was usually the only Jewish kid (occasionally, one of three) in school, and when I saw myself in books I saw tragedy, and I saw history. I’m hopeful Jewish teens will be able to see pieces of themselves in this book.
ES: The character Adina is very aware of her sexuality, and wields it, while her twin Tovah is discovering herself in the romance department. You’ve talked a lot about wanting to write female characters who are sex positive. Why is this important to you, especially in the era of #MeToo?
RLS: A lot of the books I read growing up painted a stark picture of female desire. Boys were allowed to want sex, and girls — modest girls, good girls — were supposed to push boys away. The way kids and teens are taught about sexuality and bodies is intensely harmful. Boys’ bodies are sources of pleasure; girls’ bodies bring them pain. We learn that above all, girls have to be careful, and while this is true (for anyone, definitely not just girls), there’s often little discussion of sexuality beyond the negative. Growing up, I truly didn’t think girls were supposed to have those desires. I wanted to write a sexually confident female character (Adina) because I hadn’t read very many of them in YA, and I wanted teen girls to see that having those desires and safely acting on them is normal and okay and healthy! In terms of #MeToo, and as a sexual assault survivor, I aim to put my female characters in sexual situations where they are in control. That’s always been important to me. I highly recommend the narrative nonfiction book Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein, which delves into all of these issues in a frank and respectful way.
ES: Why did you choose to make the twins’ mother Israeli? Do you have a close emotional connection to Israel?
RLS: Their mother was inspired by my own mother, who was raised in Mexico City, and also my former college Hebrew professor, who is Israeli. While I haven’t been to Israel, I do feel drawn to it, and I can relate to having an immigrant parent speak another language (in my case, Spanish) in your house. Like me, the twins haven’t been to Israel and each has a different kind of emotional connection to the country — one is desperate to learn more because of her strong relationship with her mother, while the other, who is more devout, is interested mainly for religious reasons.
ES: At the heart of the book is a terminal diagnosis that threatens to destroy a family already struggling to hold on. How do you write a book with this topic and still keep it entertaining? Does one need to get readers in their feelings to write good YA?
RLS: Getting readers in their feelings (I like that phrase a lot!) is definitely what I aim to achieve, but I also don’t think a book needs to be heavy in order to do that. I’ve read some hilarious books that have also moved me to tears, and other lighthearted books that have overwhelmed me with sweetness. My main focus is always on the characters. If your reader doesn’t care about your characters or can’t relate to them, they’re not going to care what happens to them. This doesn’t mean they have to be likable, not by any means — I am usually drawn to characters who are intriguing rather than likable. But they should have goals, and the reader should be able to see how important those are. And when you place obstacles in the way of those goals, you want your reader to have an emotional reaction.
ES: You grew up in the Reform tradition. What drew you to writing characters who are significantly more observant?
RLS: With each book, I grow closer to writing my own experience, and that’s really the beauty of fiction; it gives us the space to explore who we are. I wanted to write more observant characters for a few reasons: Right now I tend to shy away from writing anything remotely autobiographical because I love learning; I love researching. So this was an opportunity for me to learn more about Conservative Judaism. I also really wanted to give readers a window into Judaism that I didn’t have as a teen. I’ve loved hearing reactions from readers — Jewish readers who are seeing themselves on the pages, and non-Jewish readers who are being exposed to something new.
ES: Where do Jews fit into the #OwnVoices movement? What other Jewish YA novels do you recommend and why?
RLS: There’s a lot of room for more #OwnVoices Jewish books! I would really love to see more contemporary YA novels featuring Jewish protagonists of all types. For example, I can name only one #OwnVoices Orthodox Jewish book—Playing With Matches by Suri Rosen. Aside from that, I also recommend Katherine Locke’s The Girl With The Red Balloon and Leah Scheier’s Your Voice is All I Hear.
ES: Has writing these characters made you more engaged with your Judaism? Can we look forward to more Rachel Lynn Solomon YA novels with Jewish protagonists?
RLS: Absolutely. I cannot imagine writing a book without a Jewish protagonist at this point. All my works in progress feature Jewish protagonists, all of them relating to religion in a slightly different way. That’s probably my favorite thing about the way I personally identify — that all of us have a unique, special relationship with Judaism, and yet we all still feel so connected.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is the author of Did Jew Know? (Chronicle Books).