Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Q&A with Caroline Gertler




Caroline Gertler is the author of the new middle grade novel Where You've Got to Be. She also has written the middle grade novel Many Points of Me. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Where You've Got to Be, and how did you create your character Nolie?


A: This book started with the character of Nolie. She came to me as she is, along with her older sister, Linden, and their parents.


In early drafts, I set the book in a beach town, where Nolie and her mom and sister had moved to help take care of an elderly woman. But in revision, that story didn’t feel right. I ended up setting Nolie’s story in New York City, where I felt I could better explore some of the themes that Nolie would face.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Nolie and her sister, Linden?


A: The sister relationship in Where You’ve Got to Be is the framework for the rest of the story. I have two older sisters (and a younger brother), my mother and mother-in-law come from families of sisters, and I am the mother to two sisters. Sister relationships are one of the most complicated, yet rewarding, that a woman can experience.


I describe Nolie as the younger sister who feels overshadowed by her older sister. She looks up to her older sister, Linden, but is also confused by her behavior, and hasn’t quite caught up to her yet.


They are at the ages (11 and 12) when their bodies and minds are changing rapidly, and that affects how they feel about each other. But even though they fight and drift apart, we get the sense that their connection is strong and will remain steadfast in their lives going forward.

Q: What role do you see Judaism playing in the novel?


A: I am Jewish, and my experience of Judaism is similar to Nolie’s. My family is very assimilated, and I wanted to explore that experience of being American, yet in having a religious and cultural identity that makes us different and minority.


I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, the fear that something like that could happen again. And now that historical time feels distant for my children. Antisemitism is rampant, even though we feel protected living in a place with a large Jewish population.


Aside from all those complicated feelings, I wanted to capture how the rhythms of Jewish holidays bring joy and positive connection to the life of a reformed family. And, in a subtler way, how a religion like Judaism can guide a child in discovering her moral compass.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Where You’ve Got to Be is about finding your place in the world, and the title came from a song in the book: "Simple Gifts," which is a Shaker hymn that I learned at school, that always runs through my head, and which I sing to my children as a lullaby.


The line is: “’Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be.” We considered making the title Where You Ought to Be, but that felt too preachy and Christian to me, plus the book designer thought the word “ought” might read strangely on the cover. So that’s how we got to this title. It unintentionally rhymes with the title of my first book, Many Points of Me.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on another middle grade novel, told in the interweaving voices of a boy and a girl whose lives come together when they find an injured hummingbird on the street.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My great-great grandfather was a peddler who died in 1936 driving his horse-drawn wagon over the Williamsburg bridge, when a policeman’s car struck him and catapulted him over the edge. The news appeared on the front page of the Brooklyn Times Union newspaper on Aug. 21, 1936.


The story goes that my grandmother was away at camp when this happened, and her parents didn’t tell her about her grandfather’s death, but they sent her the newspaper so she could read the comics (the “funny” pages), and that’s how she found out. This story didn’t make it into Where You’ve Got to Be,  but it could’ve made a nice anecdote for Nolie’s grandmother to tell her!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caroline Gertler.

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