As she celebrates the launch of her novel, TWO OF A KIND, I’m very pleased to host my fellow New American Library/Penguin author, Yona Zeldis McDonough right here!
The author of four previous novels for adults, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, IN DAHLIA’S WAKE, BREAKING THE BANK (which has been optioned for a film) and A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK, Yona is also an award-winning children’s book author, freelance writer and editor.
Welcome, Yona! Many people only dream of publishing as many books as you have. Wow! Congratulations! Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for your newest novel, TWO OF A KIND. Is there a story behind the story?
I always start with a voice, whispering in my ear, goading me on. In this case, it was the voice of Dr. Andy Stern, a kind of obnoxious (but essentially decent) high-risk OB/GYN who believes all the doctor/God hype he’s been fed. He started telling me his story—his wife had died, their teen-aged son was ricocheting around in grief and confusion—and I listened. Then the story widened, and I started hearing the voices of his son, Oliver, and Christina Connelly, the woman who at first seems all wrong for him—until it’s clear she isn’t. Her ballet dancer daughter’s voice chimed in too. And also his mother, because Jewish mothers have to have their say. Pretty soon all these stories came together in a novel.
With all of the writing you’ve done, I’m sure you must have met some challenges and hurdles along the way. What kept you going as a writer during difficult times?
The knowledge that as difficult as things might get, it’s always worse if I am not writing. Writing organizes my experience, gives me hope and sustains me. So it’s pretty simple for me: I have to write to feel sane and whole.
What strikes me most about your career as a writer is how many different types of writing you’ve done. Do you have a different process for writing children’s books and adult novels? Do you prefer writing one over the other?
I like crossing over into different genres. It’s like a mental palate cleansing; if I am stuck in one area, I can work on something completely different and still feel productive and accomplished. I often find I can take that feeling back to the place where I got stuck, and it carries me over the hump. The confidence I gain from that gives me the courage to go back to the other. And I can see solutions that were not visible to me before. As for children’s books, I always say that I am writing not for children per se, but for the nine-year-old girl who is still alive and boisterously kicking inside of me. I consider a children’s book a success if it’s the kind of book I would have liked at that age and I feel very fortunate to have been able to publish a few books that meet that standard.
How about writing fiction versus nonfiction? Do you find one more difficult than the other? (Though I have to say you make it all look easy!)
I don’t find one form more difficult than another; it’s more about finding the right form for the particular idea. Some things are just meant to be essays for me—I want to adhere as close to the truth as possible and not embellish or embroider. In another cases, it is precisely that sort of reshaping that I am after; I want to retool reality and bend it to my authorial will. And still other ideas seem to cry out, Children’s story! Children’s story! I can’t say how or why I make those inner decisions but I am usually pretty confident in knowing what story needs which form.
In your biography, you say you were inspired to read by some of my favorite children’s books, like ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and that you learned to embrace all kinds of books because you have an eclectic reader’s palette. Do you still? And do you have a favorite genre now, your “go to” sort of reading?
I’d say my interests have narrowed—or become more refined, depending on how you choose to look at it—as I’ve grown as a reader. I read mostly fiction, some poetry and some non-fiction in the form of memoir. I almost never read biography, history or science, though I did read A.N. Wilson’s JESUS: A LIFE and Natalie Angier’s WOMAN and loved them both, precisely because they were outside my comfort zone and felt so new and different.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
I am a not a linear reader and often dip in and out of books a lot. Right now my stack includes: John Irving’s THE FOURTH HAND, Alice Munro’s DEAR LIFE, and because I just read of his death, two volumes by Seamus Heaney: POEMS 1965-1975 and FIELD WORK.
I’ve heard you say that Brooklyn has really inspired you as both a place to live and a place to write. It seems that Brooklyn is kind of an epicenter these days for writers. Why do you think that is? And do you feel it in your particular neighborhood as an inspiration?
I think Brooklyn first became a haven for many people—writers included—when Manhattan grew too expensive. Then Brooklyn became a destination on its own. This is somewhat amusing to me since I grew up in Brooklyn and as a child, I always chafed at what to me was the provincial feel of the borough. Brooklyn was a place where life always felt slow and sleepy, like a hot afternoon in August, when nothing much was happening. So I moved back here with some apprehension and resentment, like I was returning to the place I had come from, a path that carried with it the whiff of failure. All that changed once I settled in though. I love the eclectic mix of Park Slope, where I live now. It has a wonderful, small-town feel to it, and yet it is so close to Manhattan. I like the scale, the density, the rituals and history that make it such a coherent place to live. And that sense of place works its way into my fiction; my characters feel it too.
I know you’ve worked as a fiction editor for Lilith Magazine. What has being a fiction editor taught you that you apply now to your own writing?
I am still the Fiction Editor at Lilith and I love, love, love the job. I read every single story that comes in and when there is a really good one—the kind that makes the hair on the back of my neck rise up, and my skin start to tingle—I am just so excited. I feel gifted and privileged to be shown this work, and I consider it an honor to help bring it to a wider audience.
Because I am a writer as well as editor, I try to be very tender with the authors who submit their work to us—they are delivering their hot, beating hearts into my hands I must treat them with consideration and care. Even when I say no, I say it kindly and respectfully. And when I don’t have an answer, I write back to say that. I treat authors the way I hope to be treated when I am on the other side of the desk.
If you could list three unbreakable rules for fiction writers just starting out on their journeys, what would they be?
• If you try to write about anything and everything, this does not make you a real writer; it makes you a hack. Write about what moves you, excites you, stirs you and compels you. It does not have be something you already know about—interest is a great spur to acquiring knowledge—but it should be something that matters to you deeply.
• Do not edit your work while you are writing it; that can stop you dead in your tracks. Editing is a necessary part of the process but it comes after not during the actual writing.
• Write what you can; write what God gave you. Flannery O’Connor said that first but I adhere to it as well. Your voice is your voice; your song is your own. Don’t compare yourself to others; compare yourself to yourself at your best and strive to be that best self all the time.
Are you working on a new project now? And is it far enough along for you to talk about it?
Yes, I had the good fortune to have sold a partial manuscript to New American Library, the publisher of my last two books. It’s called YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME and begins when a 35-year-old single woman finds a newborn baby on a subway platform (this actually happened to friends of friends of mine!) and ends up adopting that baby. But the baby’s biological father comes onto the scene and that creates all kinds of drama and problems—just the sort of juicy fictional situation I love to sink my writer’s teeth into. The manuscript is due in early March so I’ll be pretty busy these next few months!