The Second Mango, Climbing the Date Palm, and A Harvest of Ripe Figs are the first three installments in a fantasy series starring a nerdy young lesbian queen and focusing on feminist themes, family of choice, and all the different types of female (and sometimes male) strength, not just physical prowess. The setting is a world with dragons, wizards, magic spells, and shapeshifting witches, and most of the characters are Jewish. – [X]
The Olive Conspiracy, a fourth Mangoverse novel, has just been released. Fun fact: a glorious abundance of artwork depicting the main characters created by fans and the author can be found here.
The physical landscape, economy, day to day life, and religious practices of Perach and its neighbours emerge throughout each story over the series. In worldbuilding, how do you decide how much detail is enough?
I’m a little impatient with myself when I write and almost underdescribe, for fear that if I spend too much time on description people will skip it. So anything that’s described is something that was important enough to me to fit through my “aaack, description!” filter. Creating a tropical, Jewish world that’s a cross between my upbringing/current life and an idealized version of my childhood home is the backbone of the worldbuilding for my books. I just try to do that as sleekly as possible, so people won’t start to tune it out to get back to the plot.
How do you stop biting your fingernails and write that first page?
So, ironically, and if you’ve only read my Mangoverse novels and not my short contemporary erotica “Wet Nails”, you’d have no way of knowing this, but this question is meaningful on a literal level because I have a disorder called dermatillomania. In other words, I have a literal compulsion to pick or bite my skin (in my case, the skin around my fingernails)–so I laughed out loud when I read this question! I manage it by a strict regimen of weekly homemade manicures, and keeping a clipper in my purse at all times to prevent incidents.
As for what you really wanted to know, for me, a plot has to be entirely mapped out in skeleton form before I can write that first scene. But once I’ve got that skeleton, having a good opening line is all I need to jump in and begin. I wasn’t going to start The Olive Conspiracy until after Sukkot that year because it starts in a sukkah and I wanted to wait for inspiration. But the minute I had the idea for the first line — in August, several weeks early — that was it, and the book was begun.
Rivka, Shulamit, Aviva, and Isaac (not to mention Farzin, Kaveh, Micah, and Esther) are strongly distinct characters. It is always clear who says, thinks, and does what in their interactions. What’s your trick? Do you hold off on writing until your characters emerge, fully (or almost fully) formed? Do they develop over successive drafts as you discover who they really are?
Thank you! The characters did develop over time; I find that I “meet” them as I begin to write their dialogue. After all, precise characterization isn’t needed for a well-mapped plot skeleton, so sometimes I find out who they are once the dialogue emerges scene by scene. Rivka was originally intended to be a sort of Aragorn-like figure, noble and a little tragic in her heroism. The fact that she turned into this adorable, protective Bad Cop was unexpected and fun! Farzin was inspired by a self-sacrificing activist character from German literature, but within a few lines of writing him I realized that he’d become this sweet, lovable, ridiculous punster that made him completely unrecognizable from his origins. So I guess I start with an idea, a shell, and then paint Aleph on their foreheads as it were (that’s how you wake up a golem) and see who wakes up.
How do you get past the midpoint – when the story suddenly seems to lose direction or you lose interest in the story or you don’t know what other characters need to be introduced?
I don’t feel like I go through that because I’m a huge believer in “if it bores you to write it, the reader will be bored too.” I try not to have “ugh, THAT scene”s, unless it’s an ugh because it’s unpleasant rather than boring. Sometimes it’s fun to have characters survive unpleasant scenes!
The subtext and underlying theoretical/worldview principles of your novels is as carefully plotted as the overt action – always a delight for the analytically-minded reader! At which point in your writing process do you start giving attention to the overall structure of your novel?
Thank you! I need it to be there from the beginning because I’m terrified of investing time and words and love and characters in something that won’t get finished. That’s not to say that symbolism won’t occur to me halfway through or even on the second pass.
How do you silence the critic in your head?
Therapy? Friends? Actually, the most helpful answer I have for this, if it’s going to help other people, is to just make sure you’re having a good time. At the end of the day that was the first reason I wrote these things. As I told my accountant, if people could “make a lot of money” writing Jewish f/f fantasy I wouldn’t be one of the only people doing it. I’m doing this for me. Readers, too, but it has to primarily be for my own enjoyment or it wouldn’t even be any good in the first place.
What is the writing habit or practice you find most useful and nourishing?
I like to write in my head before I sit down and actually transcribe it. I don’t like sitting down to a blinking cursor on a blank page.
Thank you, Shira, for your time and answers! We can’t wait to see where Shulamit, Rivka, Aviva, and Isaac will go next!