Monday, October 14, 2019

Rafi Mittlefehldt Interview - What Makes Us

Photo Credit: Damien Mittlefehldt

Rafi Mittlefehldt is a writer who has worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance theater critic, and children’s author. His debut novel was It Looks Like This. Rafi Mittlefehldt lives with his husband in New York City.

Shortly after the horrific Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, I read an article that mentioned one of the bombers having left behind a wife and three-year-old daughter. It was a throwaway line, but it stuck with me — I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl, who was too young to understand what had happened. When would she find out who her father was, and how would she process that? How would others react to learning about her family history? Would she keep it a secret? Would her mother?

What Makes Us began very simply as a story exploring those questions. But as I fleshed out the two main characters, Eran and Jade, their personalities took the story deeper, toward matters that are personal to me but relatable to so many. Eran’s volatility and tendency to react instinctively force him to confront issues of impulse control and anger management. And both characters’ uncertainty regarding their own pasts compels them to wrestle with self-determination and to ask, What makes a person? As the novel switches between Eran’s and Jade’s perspectives, we see them reluctantly frame and then try to answer this question, all against the backdrop of a community on the brink of chaos.


Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Candlewick (October 15, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0763697508
ISBN-13: 978-0763697501

Praise for WHAT MAKES US

Provocative. ―Kirkus Reviews

What Makes Us is a heart-stopping, heartbreaking read — a book full of heart. Mittlefehldt’s thoughtful, nuanced exploration of identity pulled me in from the very first page, and I could barely put it down. Eran’s story takes a universal coming-of-age theme — finding out your parents aren’t who you thought they were — to a tightly wound and thrilling extreme. Most important, this book provides satisfying, much-needed representation of a contemporary, complex Jewish teen and his family. ―Lisa Rosinsky, author of Inevitable and Only

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
Third grade is the earliest I can remember trying to write creatively and loving it. Our teacher had us create a “book” – basically four or six notebook pages folded in half, into which we’d write stories. Mine was called “The Haunted House and Other Funny Stories”, which I thought was incredibly clever.

In seventh grade I got really into Ray Bradbury. I read an anthology of his short stories, and had to write a report on it. In my report, I casually mentioned I’d been writing some of my own short stories and thought maybe I’d try to make a book out of them one day. My teacher wrote, “YES!” in the margin next to that line. I only mention this because little bits of encouragement like that may not seem like much at the time to the teacher giving them, but sometimes they really stick.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Thinking about how much I was messing it up in the first few drafts.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
Dream Boy, by Jim Grimsley. That one more than any other influenced my first novel, in the sense that it actually made me want to even write it in the first place.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
A high school friend of mine who now lives in Indian found my first book, It Looks Like This, in his local library. On the inside cover, someone had written a brief description and review of the book. It was beautiful but sad. It’s hard to say it was rewarding, exactly, because there were clearly some not great reasons they had connected to the story and characters. But I was glad that at least they had something to read that they felt spoke to their experiences.

In your new book; WHAT MAKES US, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it.
Eran is this hard-charging, sometimes annoying, sweet but intense kid who has a hard time controlling how much he cares about issues. He has a complicated relationship with his stoic and secretive mother, who refuses to talk about his long-gone father. She only says he left when Eran was a baby.

Then, Eran discovers – at the same time as his entire school and community – that his father did something awful 15 years before, and his mom changed their names and moved them across the country to try to put everything behind them. Suddenly Eran is a pariah in his town, all while struggling to cope with an entirely new identity, his father’s past, and what this all means for who he really is.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Eran?
It’s not easy to make a character both annoying and likeable! The hardest part for me was trying to make him intense enough to be interesting and relatable, but still harmless and endearing in a way. Hopefully it worked.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
This is going to be weird, but I’d introduce Declan, Eran’s best friend in What Makes Us, to Oy, the billy-bumbler in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Billy-bumblers are doglike creatures in the Dark Tower universe, except more intelligent and with very limited speech abilities. Oy in particular is super loyal and loveable.

Declan has a dog (Sky, named after and based on a dog I had!) and loves her to death. He’d be delighted by Oy.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I’m working on a story about a teen whose boyfriend suddenly appears back at school months after dying – but only the main character has any memory of the death. It’s in the very, very early stages, so there’s not much I can say about it, including whether anything will ever come of it.

  • Jade lets her father’s slow rumble of a voice roll lazily over her like first thunder.
  • Texas is full of places like Kiley. Maybe the state offers a racism tax incentive or something, who knows.…Okay. Houston is not terrible. We had a lesbian mayor for a while. Not even New York has done that.
  • “You have no self-control, Eran.”She lets the unspoken part hang there in the space behind her as she walks into the bedroom and closes the door.
    Your father didn’t, either.
  • In the quiet of their shared bedroom, even whispers carry weight.
  • I see it in slow motion. The crack of her backhand against his cheek is so loud it echoes against the house across the street.
  • For a second, I get the faintest whiff of her shampoo. As if it drifted over with her voice, scent carried by sound.
  • “Jews don’t get to speak without thinking, Eran. We don’t get to say the first thing that pops into our minds. When we do, we put every other one of us at risk. We are always, constantly, every freaking day representing Judaism to everyone we talk to and everyone who sees us. Especially in Texas. It’s not fair, but there it is.”
  • Jade listens to the words as they run together, imagines his anger as liquid, as a flowing current carrying words like debris, broken and sharp. It’s soothing, almost, the ups and downs of his tones, the rush of his river-water voice.
  • “Book title that starts with the letter K,” he says. “Jade? What’d you put?”Jade blinks at her empty sheet a few times and looks up at Mr. DeVos’s sly smile.
    “You’re an asshole and you’re wrong about Eran Sharon.”
  • She looks up to the crowd for the first time and says the only line that day not written on her paper: This is not our fight.
What was a time in your life when you were really scared?
A year ago I swallowed a piece of food that I hadn’t chewed well enough, and it got stuck in my throat and squeezed off my trachea. For maybe 10-15 seconds, I couldn’t breathe or swallow or anything, and there was a horrible moment where I had no idea what to do and was very conscious of how little time I had to do anything.

What are 4 things you never leave home without?
Phone, ID, and debit card, but the big one is chapstick.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?
My first job out of college was as a reporter for a small-town newspaper in Georgetown, Texas. Once I wrote a story about a local woman who had a collection of thousands of frog-themed knickknacks in her house. Figurines, ornaments, paintings, oven mitts, clocks – just endless kitsch. She seemed cool, though.

What were you doing at midnight last night?
Trying to stay awake while watching Knife or Death, a competition show where people make their own knives, then run through obstacle courses slashing through wooden boards, ice blocks, PVC pipes, and hanging meat. Then everyone growls at each other about who has the best knife.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
The 2016 election, and not in a great way. It’s made me a lot more cynical about what people really want, what they’re willing to say, and the disconnect between the two.

But… I also have a habit of getting lost in whatever feeling I’m in in the moment, and internally processing a good or bad thing as if it’s permanent. When I’m angry, for example, it’s really hard for me to remember what it’ like not to be angry. It’s hard to imagine not caring about something that is really upsetting me, even though I know the feeling will pass and I’ll be back to my normal happy self within an hour.

So while I understand that I may not think this way forever, it’s hard to truly feel that for now. (A lot of this actually went into creating Eran in What Makes Us, since he has this same trait, but amplified.)

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
The first. I think experiencing both highs and lows makes for a richer life than experiencing neither.

A viral video reveals a teen’s dark family history, leaving him to reckon with his heritage, legacy, and identity in this fiery, conversation-starting novel.

Eran Sharon knows nothing of his father except that he left when Eran was a baby. Now a senior in high school and living with his protective but tight-lipped mother, Eran is a passionate young man deeply interested in social justice and equality. When he learns that the Houston police have launched a program to increase traffic stops, Eran organizes a peaceful protest.

But a heated moment at the protest goes viral, and a reporter connects the Sharon family to a tragedy fifteen years earlier — and asks if Eran is anything like his father, a supposed terrorist. Soon enough, Eran is wondering the same thing, especially when the people he’s gone to school and temple with for years start to look at him differently.

Timely, powerful, and full of nuance, Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel confronts the prejudices, fears, and strengths of family and community, striking right to the heart of what makes us who we are.

You can purchase What Makes Us at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you RAFI MITTLEFEHLDT for making this giveaway possible.
5 Winners will receive a Copy of WHAT MAKES US by Rafi Mittlefehldt.
OCTOBER 16th WEDNESDAY Two Points of Interest REVIEW
OCTOBER 17th THURSDAY Crossroad Reviews REVIEW

OCTOBER 25th FRIDAY Movies, Shows, & Books REVIEW


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