Today we are thrilled to host a stop on Phoebe North’s blog tour celebrating the release of Starbreak, the second book in her Starglass sequence. Thea was a fan of Starglass, the eponymous first book in the series, so we are delighted to have Phoebe talk today about the worldbuilding in her writing.
Please give a warm welcome to Phoebe, everyone!
Starglass, Starbreak, and Jew-ishness
I didn’t intend to write a Jewish YA sci-fi novel.
In fact, there were years when I was reluctant to even call myself Jewish. With a gentile father, I was a halfsie. With a nebulous belief in a higher power, I was an AgnostiJew. Sure, my speech might have been peppered with Yiddish, and I went on a Birthright trip to Israel in my mid-twenties but I’d never belonged to a temple or had a Bat Mitzvah. Really, I was more Jew-ish than truly Jewish.
My early trunked novels all featured similarly Jew-ish protagonists, but their cultural identities were as incidental to their characters as I felt my own Jewish identity was to mine. This was initially true for Starglass, too. Though I’d named grumpy protagonist Terra Fineberg, after my mother’s family, she wasn’t a particularly Jewish girl in those early drafts. In truth, I fully expected to change that last name to something a little cleaner, cooler, and more typically YA. In short, I expected to make her generically Anglicized. Which was another way of saying I was going to make her seem Christian.
My book’s worldbuilding was similarly generic at first. But I’m a lucky writer in that I’ve had some excellent beta readers who were disappointed to see blandly futuristic slang and cultural elements in what they felt was an otherwise compelling book. One day, I found myself reflecting on Terra’s name, and on the isolated society of the Asherah, the spaceship where she lived. In fleeing a dying Earth, the ship’s inhabitants were nothing if not a society in diaspora. I thought about how my own religious identity had become diluted and muddled by time—how I love both Christmas trees and the seder plate, how I can recite prayers by rote by otherwise can’t speak a lick of Hebrew.
I thought of my experiences in Israel, on an intense and sleep-deprived two-week trip. My grandparents had supported Israel in any way they could, of course, like most American Jews of their generation. But they never considered moving there. Their roots were elsewhere—in the Orthodox synagogue in the mostly-black town in New Jersey where the men sat on one side and the women on the other, around my grandmother’s table at the holidays. Their parents had escaped conscription in Russia. They’d faced the Depression and a World War themselves. They were American, truly. But they remained Jews. And so did their children and grandchildren, even as they married gentiles and raised them in mixed households.
I decided the people of the Asherah would reflect that uniquely diasporan, uniquely American Judaism, with every individual representing a unique flavor of belief and cultural identity. Terra is less spiritual than I was as a teenager, though, like me, she grew up immersed in Jewish practices she didn’t always understand. But her friends and family members come to navigate their own identities differently, particularly as the events of Starbreak unravel.
In Starbreak, Rachel, Terra’s best friend, rediscovers a more observant Judaism for herself. It was through Rachel that I was able to explore Zionism. I found myself often thinking about the character of Rachel Menken in the first season of the television series Mad Men. When asked about Israel, Ms. Menken says that her life is here (meaning America), but she’s glad that Israel exists. Still, she notes that “Utopia” means both “the good place” and “no place.”
And the citizens of the Asherah are confronting a future where Zionism seems impossible—a world where Israel would have likely been destroyed, along with the rest of the Earth. Yet the Rachel of Starbreak begins to believe in the promise of Israel. Perhaps that might seem like madness; it certainly does to Terra. But one of the hallmarks of true faith is that those on the outside often misunderstand.
I didn’t want to provide any clear answers to the religious questions raised in Starglass. This isn’t a cautionary tale of religious extremists (there are enough of those stories out there already, if you ask me; that story has been amply told in literature for both children and adults). Rather, it’s the story of a girl and her identity—religious, sexual, and vocational. And I wanted to ensure that the world behind her was complicated, just like our world, that it bore the mark of a myriad of influences, political, spiritual, and cultural.
A mish mosh, as my grandmother would say.
Ironically, through the writing and publication of Starglass I found my own interest in Judaism renewed. Sure, I remain an agnostic humanist. Yes, we still have a Christmas tree. But I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I find great comfort in lighting the Shabbos candles, in saying the motzi—in calling myself Jewish. Yes, I have a goyish name, nose, and freckles.
But like Terra, I know where I came from. I look back, even as I look ahead.
About the Author
Phoebe North has an MFA in poetry from the University of Florida. She lives in New York State with her husband and her cat. Her first novel, Starglass, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in July of 2013.
We’ve got a signed, hardbound copy of both Starglass and Starbreak up for grabs! The sweepstakes is open to ALL and will run until Friday July 4 at 12:01am (EST). To enter for a chance to win, use the form below! Good luck!