Monday, August 7, 2023

Susan Lynn Meyer Interview - A Sky Full of Song

Photo Content from Susan Lynn Meyer

Susan Lynn Meyer is the author of two previous middle-grade historical novels—Black Radishes, a Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner, and Skating with the Statue of Liberty—as well as three picture books. Her works have won the Jane Addams Peace Association Children’s Book Award and the New York State Charlotte Award, as well as many other honors. Her novels have been chosen as Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selections, included among Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, and translated into German and Chinese. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Wellesley College and lives outside Boston.


Can you tell us when you started SKY FULL OF SONG, how that came about?
I came across a photo of a family in front of a dugout in Oklahoma (see below) and I began thinking about homesteading. I wondered what percentage of the current American population descends from homesteaders (the answer is about 25-30%) and about whether any Jews were homesteaders. The answer, to my surprise, was yes! Some refugees from the Russian Empire settled in North and South Dakota in the early years of the twentieth century, relatively late in the homesteading period. I started reading about that history, and that was the beginning of A SKY FULL OF SONG!

What were your feelings when you first saw the cover of the finished product?
I was absolutely thrilled and delighted when I saw the original of the spectacular cover art by Ramona Kaulitzki. It does an outstanding job of conveying the mood of the novel—the energy Shoshana falls in love with on the prairie, the wind, the animals, the cranes flying overhead. The vivid colors captures the beauty of the prairie landscape at sunset. The cover also conveys warmth of her home and the importance of her family’s Jewishness, with the menorah in the glowing windows of the dugout. The only tiny suggestion I had was that Shoshana’s hair should be made curlier, since her curly hair is important in the book. Ramona changed that and now her curly hair floats beautifully in the wind behind her.

What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
My heart was beating faster as I wrote the chapter where Shoshana is caught in the blizzard. When I have that feeling of intensity myself, of stress and almost fear or anxiety, I feel pretty sure that my readers will experience it as well.

What were your inspirations for the character development?
Shoshana has four brothers and sisters, and I have five myself. I enjoyed weaving my memories of my siblings into the book in some places. There’s a taunting older brother who bears some resemblance to my own, and remember where Anshel shoves Libke over backwards because she’s beating his record for standing on one foot repeating Rabbi Hillel’s words? Well, there’s still a scar on my left elbow I could show you. Remember, David?

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to have a life in writing?
The most helpful advice I could give, I think, is to read, read, read. When you feel you are ready to share your work, share it first with a fellow writer or group of writers and listen to their feedback. And then, when you begin to submit your writing, know that lots of rejections will come your way before the acceptances begin. It’s part of the experience of being a writer, and every rejection gets you closer to that moment when someone, gloriously, wants to publish your work!

Writing Behind the Scenes
I did most of the writing of this novel during the worst phase of the pandemic. When the pandemic began, I told myself I would deal with the isolation by making sure I walked outside every day and that I talked to one person outside my household and outside of my work (I’m a professor at Wellesley College) every day. My friend Jaya Mehta and I were both working on novels, and we soon devised a routine of meeting by Zoom every weekday, saying hello, then writing together silently for a couple of hours and then reading our work to each other and commenting on it. Jaya’s influence is everywhere in this book. She has twins and she shared many twin stories that shaped the representation of little Tsivia and Pearlie. (We also jointly wrote a picture book during this time [NISHA AND BABA’S JUST-RIGHT CHRISTMAS TREE, forthcoming from Beaming Books], based on an incident from her childhood, but that’s another story!)

Choosing the names was interesting. I chose a Jewish surname I liked from Ukraine—Rozumny. I also looked for Yiddish names that would have been used in Eastern Europe when Shoshana is born. I wanted names that weren’t too familiar (not Sara or Rivka) but I also wanted names that wouldn’t sound too alien or hard to pronounce to an American child reader. And yes, Shoshana’s name isn’t Yiddish, it’s Hebrew! But I love that name so much (it is my own name in Hebrew) that I wanted to use it. So I googled the name “Shoshana Rozumny.” And, amazingly, I found one, a Roza Shoshana Rozumny, from Romania, born about the same time as my character. So I decided it was a realistic and plausible choice!

What is the first job you have had?
Babysitting for my four younger brothers and sisters. Including my baby brother, who was impossible to get to sleep. And it was unpaid! Don’t you think I deserved SOME compensation?

What is your happiest childhood memory?
I loved being taken to the public library. My parents had a challenging time making sure that six children’s library books were all returned on time to avoid late fees, so they had a rule that we could only take out as many books as we could carry. I quickly mastered the art of piling my books onto my extended arms so that the pile went right up to my chin. The only challenge was then wrestling them onto the checkout counter without dropping the whole pile!

Name one thing you miss about being a kid.
I miss all the time I had to read. And can I sneak in a second thing? I was a serious gymnast as a child and teenager. And I miss that. For years after I graduated from college and had to stop, I dreamed about the gym and woke up terribly missing it.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
My child.

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be?
I would have had more children and worried less about whether I could afford to support them. Who ever has enough money to support them? Not most people. And I would have been less prudent and started writing fiction earlier.

What was your favorite subject when you were in school?
Reading! And then English, when I was in junior high and high school. And now I teach English and American literature at Wellesley College. I feel very lucky to have a life filled with books.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
My father (and my aunt and grandmother) came to the US from France fleeing the Nazis. That history has really shaped who I am today. I believe that the way I value education, the way I value striving and hard work, the general feeling I have that life is to be taken seriously, that what we do here matters tremendously, the need to be self-reliant and to be able to do without less important material things in the interest of what is more important, the life of the mind—all of that comes from my background, I think. I don’t know if I ever was a lighthearted person. I wish I were more that way sometimes, but a kind of seriousness is part of me because of my origins.

When was the last time you told someone you loved them?

Have your childhood dreams come true?
I wanted to be a novelist and live in a big house with a turret and two dogs on the coast of Maine. The most important parts of that have come true. This is my third novel, I’ve had a dog though I don’t currently have one, and we often rent a cottage in Maine for a couple of weeks in the summer. So—that’s pretty close! (But if someone has a turret on their house, please invite me over so that I can see what one looks like from the inside!) 

This heartwarming, beautifully written middle-grade historical novel about an untold American frontier story is destined to be a cherished classic.

North Dakota, 1905

After fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, eleven-year-old Shoshana and her family, Jewish immigrants, start a new life on the prairie. Shoshana takes fierce joy in the wild beauty of the plains and the thrill of forging a new, American identity. But it’s not as simple for her older sister, Libke, who misses their Ukrainian village and doesn’t pick up English as quickly or make new friends as easily. Desperate to fit in, Shoshana finds herself hiding her Jewish identity in the face of prejudice, just as Libke insists they preserve it.

For the first time, Shoshana is at odds with her beloved sister, and has to look deep inside herself to realize that her family’s difference is their greatest strength. By listening to the music that’s lived in her heart all along, Shoshana finds new meaning in the Jewish expression all beginnings are difficult, as well as in the resilience and traditions her people have brought all the way to the North Dakota prairie.

You can purchase A Sky Full of Song at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you SUSAN LYNN MEYER for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of A Sky Full of Song by Susan Lynn Meyer.

a Rafflecopter giveaway