I had the opportunity to talk to Leah Scheier, a novelist AND pediatrician AND mother of five children. Her fourth young-adult novel, The Last Words We Said, was published recently by Simon & Schuster. It’s a moving story about love and loss and growing up, centering around a teenager struggling to accept the fact that her boyfriend, Danny, is gone.
What’s most interesting about the book, is that it is set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in America. In fact, it’s the first YA novel to have Modern Orthodox characters.
There are books by Chaim Potok (who can forget The Chosen?) and best selling novels by Naomi Ragen, but there are no YA novels about the Modern Orthodox.
“Nothing?” I repeated. It seemed incredible.
“I’ve said this often and nobody’s ever corrected me,” Scheier said.
Modern Orthodox Jews make up about 30 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population. While they follow Jewish law (Scheier observes the Sabbath), they are not insular, managing to maintain Jewish traditions while participating in secular society.
“Often, the portrayal of Orthodox Jewish communities in the media is very negative,” Scheier said. “There’ a lot of emphasis on suppressing women – not just in the religious Jewish community but in other religious communities as well.”
Scheier wanted to portray the community objectively as well as lovingly. Readers have said they had never read anything about this population, and Modern Orthodox readers thank her, saying, “It’s the first time I’ve seen myself in a book!”
So this is a very big first.
The world she creates in The Last Words We Said is very believable. The three teenage friends depicted in the book speak like “real” teenagers, sometimes religious, other times rowdy.
“How did you do such realistic dialogue?” I asked.
“I asked my three daughters, all in their twenties, to read the book,” Scheier said. “They gave me authenticity.”
Scheier’s first novel, Secret Letters, is a historical mystery. Her novel, Rules of Rain, is a story about how a girl named Rain has taken care of her twin brother, who is autistic, their whole lives. Rain feels protective of Ethan and eventually, Scheier said, he “outgrows her.” Your Voice is All I Hear is about a high school girl who falls in love with a charismatic boy who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. As Scheier’s characters make their way through troubling times, readers find themselves rooting for them.
Scheier said that even if she could pay the bills writing full-time, she enjoys working as a pediatrician so she can meet people and get more material. She moved to Israel from Baltimore in 2008. She said she isn’t sure of which direction to take her fifth novel.
“Do you write an outline for your novels?”
“I don’t,” she replied. “For Secret Letters, my mystery novel, I had to write an outline so that I could keep track of the clues. Scheier said she thinks of her books in scenes and lets the characters talk in her head.
“Sometimes they say something that surprises me,” Scheier said. “That’s the best moment. The characters have a mind of their own.”
Scheier fell into young adult novels by accident. She wrote the first draft of Secret Letters in a year and half as fantasy fiction; there was a 16-year-old character as well as Sherlock Holmes who “showed up” in the novel.
After she finished it, her agent showed it to Disney/Hyperion and the editor wanted a complete rewrite. Scheier had to rewrite 95-percent of it, she said. The novel was then pitched as YA, which is “the fastest growing genre out there.”
“I’m perfectly happy writing YA novels,” Scheier said.
She added that she loves hearing from readers. She recalled when she wrote a letter to the middle-grade fantasy/adventure writer, Lloyd Alexander, never thinking she’d hear back from him, he responded in three days.
“It’s much easier with twitter,” she confessed. “The majority of authors love getting feedback from readers.”
In fact, when I interviewed her, I was in the middle of reading The Last Words We Said.
“What part are you up to?” she asked excitedly.
“They’re in the supermarket,” I replied. “Near the watermelons.”
“Oh,” she replied knowingly. “I don’t want to spoil it for you. Let me know when you finish it so we can chat.”
I thanked Scheier for her time and then said good-bye – sort of abruptly, I admit. I wanted to get back to reading her novel.
Scheier’s books can be found at your favorite local bookstore or on bookdepository.com.