By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Rebecca Podos to the WNDB blog to discuss From Dust, A Flame, out March 8, 2022 from Balzer + Bray.
Hannah’s whole life has been spent in motion. Her mother has kept her and her brother, Gabe, on the road for as long as she can remember, leaving a trail of rental homes and faded relationships behind them. No roots, no family but one another, and no explanations.
All that changes on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday when she wakes up transformed, a pair of golden eyes with knife-slit pupils blinking back at her from the mirror—the first of many such impossible mutations. Promising that she knows someone who can help, her mother leaves Hannah and Gabe behind to find a cure. But as the days turn to weeks and their mother doesn’t return, they realize it’s up to them to find the truth.
What they discover is a family they never knew and a history more tragic and fantastical than Hannah could have dreamed—one that stretches back to her grandmother’s childhood in Prague under the Nazi occupation, and beyond, into the realm of Jewish mysticism and legend. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah must hurry to unearth their family’s secrets in order to break the curse and save the people she loves most, as well as herself.
Congratulations on your fourth book! What was the experience writing From Dust, A Flame like? Did anything surprise you?
I was surprised by how much research into Judaism this required of me, though I shouldn’t have been! I grew up in a family less observant than the one Hannah and Gabe discover, but still fairly observant, enmeshed in the synagogue and the school and the Jewish community. Then I had to describe these traditions and rituals I’ve been familiar with my whole life, like sitting shiva and preparing for Shabbat, through the eyes of a character completely unfamiliar with them. There were questions I’d never thought to ask which someone raised outside of the religion and the community might, and it took some digging to know how to answer them.
You’ve described this as your gayest book yet. What inspired you to write a sapphic Jewish YA fantasy? And what was the inspiration behind the title?
Hah, I did! I mean I knew that the main character was going to be queer—that’s just kind of a given for me by now—but I didn’t realize that nearly every secondary character was going to be queer until I got into it. Because why not?
The title came out of a brainstorming session with some poet friends (do recommend, they can really put a phrase together) circling one of the big themes of the book; everything you believe is dead and gone and dust—the past and its secrets, even people—has a way of coming back to life in ways you wouldn’t expect. And that can be dangerous, but it can be beautiful, too. When I found out that a flame really can ignite from dust, well, there you go.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines of dialogue to write in From Dust, A Flame?
Ooh, that’s tough to pick. I think some of the most challenging scenes were the most rewarding to write. I’ve never attempted second-world fantasy before, and there are chapters pulled directly from Jewish folklore that definitely pushed me. I’d also never really written historical fiction, which felt a little like building another world, so the chapters set in pre-World War II Prague were their own beast. But I’m proud of how they came out.
Family, both related by blood and chosen, is a really big theme in the book, especially the relationship between mothers and daughters. How did you navigate all these emotional dynamics and what is the biggest lesson Hannah learns over the course of the book regarding familial relationships?
I don’t subscribe to the idea that family can mistreat or hurt you, yet still deserve your blanket forgiveness just because they’re family. But at the same time, Hannah’s grandmother was shaped in part by the terrible things that happened to her, as was Hannah’s mother, as is Hannah. A lot of what goes wrong between mothers and daughters in this book comes down to the secrets they keep out of fear, and because it seems too painful to share them, and because they want to protect the people they love. Families are complicated. Trauma is complicated. Love is complicated. That’s the lesson Hannah has to grapple with; that when it comes to what shapes us, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad. We have to find a way to live with it all, and being honest with ourselves and our people can be the way to start.
Which character (Hannah, Ari, or Gabe) do you see yourself most in?
I’m gonna be predictable and say that there’s a little of teen me in all of them. In the pressure Hannah puts on herself to be perfect, which comes from her own well of insecurity, and in Gabe’s struggle to make the people around him happy while staying true to a self he doesn’t totally understand, and in Ari’s frustration that the community she grew up in might love her, but it’s making it harder to become the person she wants to be. So I identify with them all, but luckily, I’ve had an extra decade or two to figure things out.
Hannah has an intense relationship with school and is consumed with academic success, which she hopes will lead to a successful career (and life). Did you always know what her course of action at the end of the book would look like or did you figure out this arc for her while writing?
It took me a while when drafting to figure out exactly why Hannah wanted the things she wanted, and beyond that, what she really needed. Hannah is a chronic overachiever who’s chosen the path that will help her to become the person she thinks she wants to be—someone in control of every aspect of her own life, including the image she presents to other people. The same night she makes a discovery about her mother’s past and her own identity, she is literally, physically changed by a curse she’ll spend the novel trying to undo. At the same time, she’s unraveling the mystery of herself, including her Jewishness, her queerness, and the truth behind the image she’s spent most of her life constructing. I knew from the start that this was going to be her journey, but I had to write her for a while to figure out where she needed to end up.
What research did you do into Jewish mysticism when writing From Dust, A Flame and what was the most interesting myth to learn about?
So much research, and it was a lot of fun! One Jewish folktale in particular plays a really important part in the world building of this book, which I don’t want to spoil, but it was one I’d never even heard before. I also found the podcast Throwing Sheyd: better living through Jewish demonology, which brilliantly sifts through the Jewish texts to explore mentions of shedim, both well-known and obscure. That was fascinating to explore, and to engage with these stories which are artifacts of culture and history and religion combined.
Until Hannah meets Ari, she had never dated a girl and by the end of the book, hasn’t claimed a label for her sexuality. Why is it important to show a character questioning their identity and not defining it?
Because the book begins with Hannah having to deconstruct everything she thinks she knows about herself and where she comes from, it was important to me that she doesn’t end up with a whole new set of firm beliefs by which she defines herself. Labels can be really useful tools for self-exploration, but she’s also seventeen years old, and it’s okay that she has questions about who she is, and where she’s going.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from From Dust, A Flame?
Hannah’s lesson is a good one to take away, actually. It’s okay for anybody, at any age, not to have themself totally figured out. We’re more than any one facet of our identity, more than the particulars of our history, or the way that our loved ones and community perceive us. It’s a lot to grapple with all at once, and that’s alright. That’s life!
I love all the Jewish references to tradition and legend in this story. It makes the world feel so authentic and really immerses the reader. Why is it valuable to have Jewish representation in mainstream, traditionally published YA novels, especially in fantasy where these voices are noticeably lacking?
I think we’re going through a little boom of YA Jewish fantasy right now, and I’m absolutely thrilled about it, because fantasy is such a rich genre for exploring culture, and history, and faith, and identity. We can build new sandboxes in which to play with and parse through it all. I’m also excited about the Jewish novels out in the past few years which explore intersecting identities, from voices which aren’t always heard within the community, never mind outside of it. We need more books on shelves from Jewish BIPOC, from queer Jewish folks, from disabled Jewish perspectives. We’re richer for including and raising these voices.
Which books do you think From Dust, A Flame is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming YA books?
Speaking of the Jewish fantasy boom! There are some amazing stories out recently, and coming up. Aden Polydorous’ The City Beautiful and Fox North’s Strange Creatures came out last year, and both are brilliant. Next year, we have Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart, and Allison Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic, both of which I’m absolutely pumped for. We get Kalyn Josephson’s This Dark Descent the year after, and I’m already dying for it.
As both a literary agent and author, what advice do you have for new writers, especially for those who want to write authentic YA stories?
It’s so hard when you start out to write about your own identity; it took me four books to want to tell a Jewish story. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right, whatever that means to you and to your community. I had to release myself from the expectation of perfectly representing “the Jewish experience” or “the queer experience” or what-have-you, and accept that it’s okay simply to write one single experience out of infinite possibilities. Nobody is qualified to write “the experience” of anything, so just focus on telling the story you have inside you.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
You asked wonderful questions! One thing I do love to talk about is drafting music, because I make a little soundtrack for every book in progress. Every character gets a theme song, so if you want to get in the mood for From Dust, a Flame, some tracks I recommend:
“May I Have This Dance” by Meadowlark
“Make Them Gold” by CHVRCHES
“As It Was” by Hozier
“Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon
“Young Blood” by The Naked and Famous
Rebecca Podos‘ debut novel, The Mystery of Hollow Places, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a B&N Best YA Book of 2016. Her second book, Like Water, won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Children’s and Young Adult. Fools in Love (Running Press Kids, 2021), a co-edited YA anthology with Ashley Herring Blake, was recently released, and From Dust, A Flame (Balzer + Bray, 2022) is up next. An agent at the Rees Literary Agency in Boston, she can be found on her website, Rebeccapodos.com.
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 (@bookworm613) or at Books of Wonder events sitting in the back row (when we’re not in a pandemic).