Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Q&A with Sarah Darer Littman




Sarah Darer Littman is the author of the new young adult novel Some Kind of Hate. It focuses on a teenager who becomes involved with a white nationalist hate group. Littman's many other books include Backlash. She teaches at the Yale Writers' Workshop and in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. She lives in Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write Some Kind of Hate?


A: I spent 13 years as a columnist for Hearst newspapers and then the online political site I started noticing in the run-up to the 2016 election that the hate mail and comments were drifting into antisemitism, as well as the usual misogyny.  Things like this:


Ever since I started as a columnist in January 2003, I’d written pieces about dangerous rhetoric, and how we have to speak up against it always, whether it’s aimed at Jews or at other minority groups. Here’s one from 2003, after being a docent in the Anne Frank exhibit at Greenwich High School. 


Another example is this column about an Islamophobic billboard at a local train station. After that column published, I received a letter thanking me for taking a stand from a local Albanian Muslim man, who told me of how during WWII Albania protected Jews. It was a part of Holocaust history that I didn’t know, and I was grateful to him for sharing it with me. 


So these issues had all been percolating in my brain for years, when in early 2018 I attended a talk about how antisemitism was being mainstreamed by Oren Segal of the ADL and Yair Rosenberg.


I left that talk with the germ of an idea for a novel, but was busy working on Deepfake at the time. Then I read an anonymously written piece called What happened after my 13 year old son joined the Alt-Right in Washingtonian, and suddenly something clicked. I’d been reading up on extremism, but here was an example of how a teen from a liberal Jewish family went down the rabbit hole.


I wrote to the editor of Washingtonian and asked if they would put me in touch with the family - I would of course keep their identity confidential. I was incredibly fortunate that they agreed to speak with me. 


After chatting with the young man for a while, I asked him the question that I’d wanted to ask since reading the article: “You’re Jewish. Didn’t it bother you to see all the antisemitic stuff?”


His reply gives me goosebumps whenever I remember it: “They didn’t use the word Jew. They said ‘globalists.’”


I realized that if even young people in the Jewish community don’t know the dog whistles, how can we expect others to? Speaking in coded language is what has allowed antisemites to mainstream their ideas - to the point that we now have people like Kanye West not even pretending to hide it. 


After that interview I emailed my Scholastic editor and said, “I need to write this book.”


But I still had to finish Deepfake. Then I started teaching full time as a special appointment at WCSU. Then Covid hit…so it’s been a long process from the first germ of the idea to finally seeing the book in print. 


Q: How did you create your characters Declan and Jake?


A: I had a better idea of Jake’s character, because he encompasses as lot of my own feelings. The scene when he goes through an active shooter training with his synagogue youth group before the High Holy Days, and the emotions the kids talk about afterward with their rabbi, are very much based on my own experience attending a similar training at my shul before the holidays in 2019.


Many of the experiences with casual antisemitism he talks about are ones my friends and I experienced in middle school and high school. I also asked friends in a Facebook group for Jewish kidlit writers to share their examples, and there was so much pain in that thread. So I hope Jake gives non-Jewish readers a bit of perspective on that. 


It took a lot of research and many, many rewrites to figure out Declan, because I was writing out of my own experience.  More about that below. 


Q: You write, “I've written about difficult subjects before, but Some Kind of Hate is one of the hardest novels I've ever researched and written.” Can you say more about that, and about how you researched the recruitment of young people into white nationalist hate groups?


A: To write Declan’s character, I read a shelfload of books about extremism and radicalization, attended webinars, and spoke to researchers on the subject. I attended lectures by former extremists to understand what brought them into extremism and just as importantly, the catalyst that made them start to question it and eventually leave.


But the most important part of the research was actually speaking to former neoNazis who’d joined the movement pre-internet, as well as young men who had been radicalized online. Before interviewing the former head of the US National Socialist Movement, I felt sick to my stomach with nerves, but we ended up talking for an hour and a half.


The worst part of my research was lurking in neoNazi and Christian Nationalist chatrooms on Telegram. I created a persona with a throwaway email address. I found I could only lurk for short periods of time, because it was just a continual stream of antisemitic, racist, and Islamophobic invective, and if I read it for too long, it felt like being sprayed with a toxic firehose of hate. My skin crawled. I wanted to take a shower. It made me anxious and depressed. 


Working on this book so intensely did affect my mental health. It was difficult from a research standpoint, but also from a process standpoint. I had to rewrite it several times from different points of view.


When I originally sold the book, it was from both a male and female point of view, but as I continued to research I realized that misogyny is another major vector in extremism. I sat through video after video of self-styled “alpha males” telling other men “what women want,” which bore absolutely no resemblance to anything that any woman I know actually wants. 


In the end, I wanted to write two male points-of-view so that readers understand that it’s possible to “be a man” without denigrating women, and that if you want to know “what women want” the best way is to talk to - and more importantly LISTEN TO - women!


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: As a writer for young people, I don’t feel obliged to leave readers with a happy ending necessarily - because real life doesn’t always get tied up neatly with a bow like it does in the movies. But I feel a tremendous responsibility to leave teens with a hopeful one, even if that hope is just a pinprick of light at the end of a tunnel.


One of the things I learned from interviewing former extremists is that the transition is HARD. You’re giving up something that gave you a sense of community, identity, and purpose, but it’s not like you just magically get forgiven by the people to whom you caused harm. My first draft had a waaaay too happy “all is forgiven” ending, but I realized it needed to be more realistic.


Q: The author Liza Wiemer said of the book, “To stop hate, Sarah Darer Littman has written a critical, heart-wrenching, and hopeful book that not only shows how and why the seeds of hatred grow into a destructive force, but also the importance of owning one's actions, which allows for the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I was so grateful for Liza’s blurb, because I think it does a great job of describing the book. I spoke above about the necessity for hope, and without the possibility of redemption and forgiveness, what motivation would someone have to leave an extremist movement? 


Of course, those who have been harmed don’t have an obligation to forgive - but I’ve seen firsthand how holding on to anger and hatred ends up poisoning those who were hurt in the first place. So exploring the nature of redemption and forgiveness from a Jewish perspective (which is, after all, what I bring to this book) was important to me.


Researching and writing this book has really changed how I approach people with whom I don’t agree, because ultimately I’ve come to believe strongly that it’s only by learning to find a shared sense of connection and humanity that we can save lives, not to mention our democratic republic.


That is what I hope readers will take away from the book, and look forward to the opportunity to share what I’ve learned during school visits. 

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Everything I’m working on is in too early of a stage to discuss in detail, but I’ve got a proposal in for a co-written YA, have started researching a middle grade, and am thinking about how to rewrite a graphic novel idea I’ve been working on. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can find a comprehensive educator guide and resource links at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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