Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Q&A with Mari Lowe



Mari Lowe is the author of the new middle grade novel The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman. She also has written the middle grade novel Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. She is a middle school teacher, and she lives in New York.


Q: What inspired you to write The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman, and how did you create your character Shaindy?


A: I teach girls in this age group, and I’m always struck by how mean they can be to each other. But at the same time, there’s such a tremendous potential for growth!


The girls I meet at the start of the year are unrecognizable by the end of it. They come into the year as children and emerge in the throes of adolescence, on the long road toward self-actualization.


They do the unforgivable and learn empathy and make friends and shatter relationships. It’s such a tumultuous year, and I wanted to explore that journey.


I was never really a Shaindy in school– I had a place and a name in my classroom, and I was content where I was. But I do remember how easily insecurities would overtake me and how quickly that sense of belonging could fall apart.


I wanted to write a girl like I felt in my worst moments because I think that it’s how many children feel in their worst moments– invisible, unliked, but not through any particular fault of hers! She just hasn’t found her place or her people.


And I wanted to explore how that girl could find agency and strength– not through someone else, ultimately, but through recognizing the power that she holds within herself.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Shaindy and her classmate Gayil?


A: It’s like a really, really toxic love affair. And not entirely one-sided, either! Shaindy is besotted with Gayil from the start, of course, and it makes her far more sympathetic toward Gayil than is probably healthy. Gayil’s recognition makes her believe that she is worthy, and Gayil’s hostility is enough to crush her.


And I do think that Gayil begins the story as someone who thinks little of Shaindy, but respect grows over time! Power recognizes power, and Gayil is someone who is so self-assured that when Shaindy does find her way there, Gayil develops that affection toward Shaindy that she might not have felt before.


It’s a complicated friendship– the kind that veers from beautiful and enriching to no-holds-barred destructiveness. It’s very sixth grade.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “This is a nuanced exploration of the intricacies of friendship, and the fully realized setting, a close-knit development for Orthodox Jews, offers a very specific picture of Shaindy’s home and school life.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s quite a bit of what I set out to do when I sat down to write the story! I wanted to write about the complex middle-school dynamics and growth (I’ve been known to call this book “an exploration of all the ways that sixth graders can be monsters on their quest toward humanity”) and I wanted to write it within my culture.


Before I wrote the book, I spent a weekend at my sister’s house in a completely Orthodox neighborhood– one so full of children and building developments that I was struck by the setting and had to write it.


Developments like those lend themselves to a lot of freedom for the children, but also a sense of uniformity. And sure, some kids are going to stand out naturally. And some are going to fit the mold and be happy there.


But what about the kids who fit the mold but not perfectly? The ones who fall short of that uniformity? That was where Shaindy was born.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I always love it when readers gain a deeper understanding of my community from my stories, so that’s a given! But I really did write this one for those adolescent girls who are working out their place in the world. (My kids inform me that my last novel was “more for grownups than us” but devoured this one.)


I would love for readers to find some power in the narrative and within themselves– not because of what others see in them, but because of what they have within themselves.


And I also think that the Jewish concept of teshuva is an idea that might resonate with many readers– the steps to acknowledge and right a wrong, and the ways to move forward from it.


It’s a little different than atonement as a popular concept. There is no need for the dramatic sacrifices or big gestures that are so ubiquitous in fiction.


Instead, we are asked to instead acknowledge our wrongs, seek forgiveness, and take positive steps for the future– a far more difficult process, in some ways, than the big gesture that changes the narrative.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m very excited about both of my current projects!


The first is another middle grade novel, this one a more speculative piece that takes place in a modern-day City of Refuge, where accidental murderers can live in safety instead of facing their victims’ families’ revenge. Everyone there is either a Levite caretaker of the city or a murderer, and all is well until someone starts killing certain murderers.


It’s a book that explores what justice means and who is deserving of it, ultimately, and at what cost.


The second is an adult novel that is thus far titled on my laptop as “challah and death.” It follows two women: Adina, who is married to the new rabbi of a small Orthodox enclave in a big city; and Ruchama, a widow who is the local challah baker and has a side job speaking to dead people.


Tension in the enclave rises when a car accident brings unwanted attention to the community, and a modern-day blood libel takes root as a white nationalist group gets involved.


I wanted to write about antisemitism as many Orthodox Jews encounter it– more collective than individual, and a very different kind of experience than I often see addressed by outsiders.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mari Lowe.

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