Pho­to: Ian Grant

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.