By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Leah Scheier to the WNDB blog to discuss The Last Words We Said.
What prompted you to write a book with Orthodox Jewish characters and why is it important to include a range of religious experiences?
I had never seen Orthodox characters portrayed in YA and even in non-young adult media, its portrayal tended to be the extreme Ultra Orthodox sector, such as in the show Unorthodox. I suppose that’s interesting to people because it’s a way of life that’s so foreign to them whereas Modern Orthodoxy is never really portrayed in media (not in YA) even though it’s such a large part of American Jewry. I’ve definitely seen Reform and Conservative Jews portrayed in both YA and adult fiction but I’d never seen Modern Orthodox Judaism, and that’s the community that I belong to and that I grew up in. It’s important to recognize that when speaking about Orthodox Jews, it’s not just shtreimels and the garb that is associated with Ultra Orthodoxy. Orthodox Jews are a very wide spectrum of people who aren’t necessarily recognized as being Jewish by the media because we don’t always stand out (or aren’t perceived in the public eye). Modern Orthodox Jews will wear kippahs, for example, but they tend to blend in a lot more than Ultra Orthodox Jews. In general, a lot of people don’t know a lot about this community and it was important to me to show that Modern Orthodox Jews in America consider themselves Americans. They don’t try to isolate themselves; they really try to be part of the wider community and the country. At the same time, their Judaism is really important to them and that can be a beautiful thing, too.
All the characters in The Last Words We Said have their own version of Modern Orthodoxy and I think that was important to show, but it was one of my biggest challenges. I’ve written four novels before this one and when I first started writing, I initially never really intended to portray my own community because I didn’t think I could be objective. I think it’s really important for an author to be objective, especially about their own community, and not have an agenda for what they want their readers to believe in their writing. I wanted to show characters who relate to their Judaism in really different ways, and for the reader not to see or feel that one was right or the other was wrong. It took me a while for me to get to that objectivity, but once I started to hear these characters’ voices in my head, I realized I actually do love each and every one of them and that’s the most important thing.
What was the writing process like for The Last Words We Said? Was there a strategy in crafting the dual time period narratives?
Whenever I write a novel, I start with an idea. For example, one of my older novels, Your Voice Is All I Hear, the idea was: What would it be like if your first love was someone whose mental illness made them disappear? In The Last Words We Said, the theme was not as obvious as that. It was meant to be a novel about grief, faith, and friendship and how the Jewish faith can inform all the decisions that some people make, and how everyone grieves in their own way. But it’s also about when your faith is such an important part of your life, how it changes your grief and informs it. I wanted to have three girls with three different ways of relating to their religion and write a romance in the middle of all that.
I view chapters as scenes to some degree. My books tend to be dialogue-heavy because I see it play out in front of me the way you would see a movie scene play out. I try as best as I can to write what I see in a coherent way, in a way that’s musical, but not repetitive. When people have real conversations, they tend to go in circles. Obviously, you do some editing to whatever is going on in your head, but then you put it down on paper in a way that plays out like a movie scene. I usually have these scenes where I think: What would they say to each other, how would they interact, what would they do, what would they be thinking, etc. Then I hear them speak to each other and that’s how I write it down.
The past and present was always part of the plan because Ellie and Danny met when they were thirteen, but the main action of the novel is the present day when they’re 16-17 years old. All of those experiences from when they were younger, up to and including the present timeline, are so important to their lives, especially where Danny is concerned. I had never written a novel with two different timelines before—what was really important to me is the way I arranged the chapters. Typically, one of the past chapters very much related to whatever present-day chapter immediately followed it, and at the very end, they merged.
Many characters in this story are grieving over Danny’s disappearance and presumed death—what sort of research did you do to accurately portray realistic responses to this traumatic event?
I think every person has their own experiences that they draw upon, and I’ve seen how people in my own life have reacted to traumatic events so, of course, I draw upon that. I did a lot of reading about missing teens for years before I even thought about this novel because it’s such an unbelievably painful thing to think about. I have children and it’s this thing that’s always in my mind. What would happen? How would I feel? What would I think? How would I live if this happened to my child? I read all of those stories like Ellie did and absorbed them over the years and that’s what informs the reactions of the characters of the book.
Ellie is a bit of an unreliable narrator—what steps did you take in your writing to keep the readers turning the pages?
Some of my readers didn’t initially realize that Danny wasn’t real in the present-day chapters and that was my intention because he was so real to Ellie. I wanted it to be a little bit confusing for the reader in the beginning and to make them think: Hold on, is he actually real? Is she imagining him? Does she know she’s imagining him? I wanted my readers to believe that Danny might still be alive, almost through most of the novel. I wanted you to say to yourself as you’re reading: I understand why everyone thinks he’s gone, but I want to believe along with Ellie. I want to believe against all odds. I viewed the story arc as very similar to Ellie’s character progression through the novel. I wanted the reader, at pretty much every point, even up till the very end, to absorb some portion of Ellie’s faith and to really believe with your heart if you couldn’t really grasp how it would work in their mind, hope against hope, that he would come back.
A lot of YA novels don’t feature the primary and secondary characters’ parents, but the parents of Ellie, Deenie, Rae, and Danny are all very present in their lives and in the plot. Why did you feature them? And on top of that, what was the significance of portraying the adults’ mistakes, specifically Deenie’s father (a rabbi)?
I agree with you that in a lot of YA novels, the parents are these unrealistic shadowy figures. For most teens (even college students and young adults in their twenties), their parents are a very important part of their lives. I’m in my forties and my parents are still an important part of my life! When you’re a teenager, you live with them and they shape much of what goes on in your life. In Ellie’s case, her parents impose a curfew on her and try to curtail the intensity of her relationship with Danny. You might agree or disagree with their choices, and they certainly regret some of their choices at the end, but at the bottom line, that interplay between a growing teenager and their parent is such an important part of being a teenager. Especially being a Modern Orthodox teen, family life is paramount; it’s the utmost important part of life and the community. Most of Judaism centers around the family so to not include their parents would’ve missed the whole point.
Not only do adults make mistakes, but clergymen are all human. Deenie says it pretty well, and very passionately, when she tells Rae something like: My dad is just a man, you can’t look at him as representing an entire religion. He made mistakes and he acknowledged that he wasn’t trying to be anyone’s Messiah. He’s just a man but he’s trying to be the best man that he can be. It’s important to recognize that about parents and also about clergy members. One of the things that was important to me in portraying the Rabbi was to show that he is a good man. He did make mistakes and he acknowledges them and tries to correct them. I don’t know why this happens a lot in books, but clergymen are portrayed very negatively and sometimes do horrible things. That does happen occasionally (maybe it’s good for plot), but there are so many clergy members that are so good and kind, and who contribute a lot to their community. It was really important for me to show a clergy member as human and that the reader could love at the same time.
This book is pretty dark and heartbreaking at some points, but there are moments of levity and eventually hope—how did you find and keep this balance?
Your reader will never feel grieve or mourn for your characters if they don’t love your characters first. And they’re not going to love your characters if you don’t give them a reason to love them. It’s not enough to have something sad happen and expect them to mourn. On the page, you have to see a boy that you love, a boy with all his craziness, funny jokes, and quirks. He has to be absolutely human and real to the reader or else they will not mourn with your characters when he goes missing. You won’t care what happens to him and you won’t care about the grief of Ellie, Deenie, or Rae if you don’t find them to be sympathetic characters or someone that you can laugh along with just like you would with your real friends. I think portraying everything before the grief is more important because that’s really where the grief stems from because you’re missing what you loved. And that’s what the reader has to do; you have to miss and ache along with Ellie and Deenie and Rae.
Ellie is part of a really close circle of friends (Rae, Deenie, and Danny) that eventually comes to light is a bit of a love circle— What made you decide to make this choice for these characters?
In addition to grief, one of the other themes of the book was guilt, which was a driving force for Ellie. Her guilt was lining her to such a degree that she couldn’t see that both Rae and especially Deenie were being tortured by similar guilt that they couldn’t speak about. To some degree, Ellie had placed Deenie on a bit of a moral pedestal: she was the more religious one, she was the one who never did anything bad, etc. It was similar to the way Ellie had put Deenie’s dad, a rabbi, on a pedestal as if he was her guru, the guy who was going to solve all of her ethical, moral, and religious questions. Whenever you do that, you tend to be blind to that person’s frailty and vulnerabilities. I wanted all three of the girls to be suffering privately and not be able to share that with each other. That was how the interplay of their relationships started in my head—everyone was blind to each others’ pain because they were so absorbed in their own pain and secrets.
What do you think these three characters are doing five-ten years in the future?
I think Rae definitely becomes a baker and is always a passionate and outspoken advocate for whatever good cause she comes across. To me, Rae had the loudest voice and that comes out in the book. (I felt like I couldn’t get her to shut up!) She’s also going to be fiercely loyal to her family and friends like the way she is in the book. I do believe that she’s going to find happiness, but it’ll take her a little while to find her place. I think out of all the characters Deenie has the longest way to go to find peace with herself. Even though she’s not the narrator, she was the one who was suffering the most out of the three of them. She’ll eventually find a comfortable place within Judaism and will certainly stay religious because it’s so important to her and I do believe Ellie will as well. I see Deenie being a teacher, someone who nurtures and nourishes young people for the future. I see Ellie continuing to write—I think I see her going into journalism and pursuing special interest stories, just like she says she’s going to.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines to write in The Last Words We Said?
I think it would have to be the one where Ellie and Danny kiss for the first time. I don’t want to give too much away, but I love it because for them it is so much more than a first kiss. The influence of their faith (and its rules) colors every moment of that scene—so that even the slightest touch feels both forbidden and irresistible.
There is a glossary at the back of the book, but how did you think about what context to give to the Jewish words and traditions in the narrative?
I wrote in a way I expected these characters would talk to each other; they’re not going to sit there and explain to each other what Shabbat is while they’re getting ready for it because obviously, that’s not what they would do in real life. As much as possible, I tried not to include too much jargon because, for a reader who’s not familiar with it, it can be off-putting and tedious to flip back and forth to the glossary. It also places a barrier between your reader and your character if you make them feel like you don’t understand what the characters are talking about half the time. I try to limit it that as much as possible, but when the vernacular naturally came up in conversation, I made it so the reader didn’t have to look at the glossary. The reader should be able to figure out what they were talking about in context, but if someone wanted a more specific explanation of, for instance, what the word kiruv means (even though it is explained a bit), you can go to the glossary and see the definition. But the glossary is quite small—it’s less than a page long and about ten-fifteen words. There is not a tremendous amount of flipping back and forth that the reader has to do. When people within a community talk to each other, they do use terms that no one else would understand and that has to be shown, otherwise, it wouldn’t be realistic.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from this book?
It’s a little bit different now from when I first started writing it—maybe because of the recent political climate and the rise of antisemitic attacks. The book doesn’t have much about antisemitism in it at all and that was my intention because the whole point of the book was just to simply represent this Modern Orthodox community. It’s not insulated in the way that Ultra Orthodox communities are; growing up myself and seeing my children grow up Modern Orthodox, we were pretty shielded from overt antisemitism. Now that I’m able to see more of it in the news, it’s disturbing and frightening. What I want is for teenagers to read about kids just like themselves in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community and say, hey, they’re just like me and it’ll shine a light on the fact that we’re all just dealing with the same stuff in slightly different shades. I want the book to show a community that I love and that most people have not encountered. I also want my readers to fall in love with the characters irrespective of their religion and hope for the best for them.
Which books do you think The Last Words We Said is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway is a wonderful YA novel about a missing boy coming back to his family and community while the Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is one of my favorite YA books dealing with grief and loss. The most recent book I read is The Midnight Library by Matt Haig—not YA, but I think will appeal to young audiences because it explores the profound effects of small decisions, made at a young age, which reverberates through one’s life.
Hailing from Baltimore, MD, Leah Scheier works as a novelist, a pediatrician and a mother of five. Leah’s parents were immigrants to the US and she credits them for her “renaissance” education. Leah and her sisters took violin lessons and were encouraged to read and write stories from an early age. Despite an intensive art education and her early love of writing, she was told (repeatedly) that being an author doesn’t pay, so she chose medicine as a career because she loved working with people and enjoyed science. She put writing on the backburner until she finished residency and found that she finally had time to pursue her hobby. Her first novel, SECRET LETTERS, published in 2012 by Disney/Hyperion, earned rave reviews from SLJ, Booklist, VOYA and Publishers Weekly. YOUR VOICE IS ALL I HEAR and RULES OF RAIN (Sourcebooks 2015 and 2017) were praised for their sensitive depiction of schizophrenia and teens on the spectrum, respectively. Leah’s fourth novel, THE LAST WORDS WE SAID (Simon & Schuster) releases on August 31, 2021.
Aleah Gornbein currently works in publicity at Holiday House, the first American publisher founded with the intent of only publishing children’s books. She liked school so much she went back to get a Master’s in Publishing a year after graduating college. As someone who has yet to read a story with all of her identities represented, her goal is to help put diverse books into the hands of kids. You can find her shouting about books on TikTok and Twitter (@