You spoke with a holocaust survivor, can you give us an insight into what that was like and how that affected you and the subsequent drafts of the book.
During the Jewish holiday of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jewish people around the world will take the day to remember the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. While many people can trace direct relatives, pretty much any Jewish person of Ashkenazi heritage lost family members to this event, whether they’re aware of the names or not. And on this day, many synagogues will invite a local Holocaust survivor to tell their firsthand story of what they went through, what it felt like, and so on.
In 2018, the year following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally– wherein people with torches repeatedly shouted “Jews will not replace us,” amid other ethnic slurs towards Black people, Latinos, and so on – the woman who spoke at our synagogue for Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary, made a point of directly calling out how much these recent events echoed what had happened in her own childhood. She described it vividly—the hatred, the look in these men’s eyes, the fact that America’s own leader would not denounce white supremacy after that, and so on. What she said stuck with me. It’s one thing to draw comparisons, as a younger person, but when someone who actually survived this historical atrocity draws these same comparisons … you know? Talking to her, after that, was something that really spurred me to write this book.
Holocaust awareness is such an important thing. The few survivors are getting older and older, and with the proliferation of conspiracy theories these days, it’s so necessary to make sure younger generations hear the facts, not only out of respect to those who suffered and died, but also because such atrocities can very easily happen again, in many forms, wherein a persecuted minority group faces attempted genocide. Here in New Hampshire, in 2020, there was a bill passed mandating Holocaust and genocide education in NH schools, which is a positive step.
How has your Jewish heritage influenced this book in particular, and can you give a bit of an explanation of why you chose the titles of each part to correspond with Ancient Jewish mysticism?
Ah, thanks so much for asking this. So much about this book is rooted in my own Jewish background, on so many levels, but the most immediately apparent is in the character of Billy, and how his story is meant to reflect the nature of the Jewish diaspora, I.E., the exile and spread of Jewish communities, scattered across the globe, into distinct regional groups. For instance, you have the Jewish population who came to America as refugees in the 20th century, fleeing from antisemitic oppression, and for them there was often a concentrated effort to “blend in” and be “less Jewish,” or to emphasize one’s identity as an American, first and foremost, to the point of changing Jewish-sounding names to more American ones. This was my own family’s background. Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but because my connection to these roots was largely secular and deemphasized, I felt separated from my own “Jewishness,” by time and space, and had a deep longing to connect more deeply to my cultural heritage. Later, as an adult, this is what drove me to embrace the deeper, spiritual connection I now feel with Judaism, and as a parent, the power, love, and cultural elements of these traditions is something I deeply value and carry with me on a daily basis.
Anyway, with Billy: though he faces antisemitism from a young age, he’s a kid who is lucky enough to be surrounded by Jewish culture and traditions—at first. That changes quickly, when he’s violently ripped away from his family, and dropped into a gentile bubble. He never even gets a Bar Mitzvah. He still deeply connects to his inner Jewishness, and it’s something he values tremendously, but situations have caused him to feel unable to reach out and be fully connected to it. This represents the diaspora: the yearning so many younger Jewish people feel for deeper connections to Judaism, because the oppression their ancestors faced has caused them, as the descendants, to be separated from it in various ways. This is also represented in the scene wherein Billy finds a synagogue that has been converted into a Thorne Century grocery store: on its face, this is an obvious critique of capitalism, but it’s also meant to show how the dominant Christian/white/capitalist culture has, for centuries, marginalized Jewish traditions.
Now, the part titles – and I’m excited you asked about this! – are very deliberate, obviously. The entire narrative structure of Knight in Paper Armor is modeled after the ten sefirot from Jewish mysticism, AKA Kabbalah—the “Tree of Life,” as they are often called. There are 22 pathways connecting these sefirot. Now, Kabbalah is endlessly complex, but basically, what you have, outlined here, is a process of emanations, creation, of a divine and/or spiritual sort, with each sefirah representing various aspects of life, existence, a higher power, and a steady path to a more enlightened consciousness, and/or joining deeper with the universe at large. Each part of the book, in themes and structure, corresponds with the sefira it is named after. So, for example, the beginning part of the book, which builds up the two protagonists from the ground up, is named Malkuth – “Kingdom” – which is related to more earthly, grounded matters, thus why it’s at the bottom of the diagram, furthest away from the divine source of creation (Keter).
Now, I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t read Knight in Paper Armor, because there’s a lot of this weaved into the book’s narrative, and again, the entire structure is modeled after this. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the book, of course, but those with some familiarity with Jewish mysticism will probably like the small touches.
how much did the arrival of your new baby add to the direction of your story and the messages therein?
I did most of the writing of Knight in Paper Armor before my daughter was born. However, my wife and I did have a miscarriage, beforehand. I think one element that both of these experiences—the pain of the miscarriage, and the joy of the birth—emphasized to me, which reflects in the final version of Knight in Paper Armor, is the importance of being rooted in family, legacy, and traditions. All these things are highlighted throughout the book, through Billy’s Jewish background, as well as Natalia’s Guatemalan heritage. While both characters are trying to forge a new world, they’re both also steeped in – and fighting to preserve – their unique cultural identities, in a society that so often marginalizes these cultures. Looking back, I’d imagine that me becoming a parent caused me to further emphasize these aspects, within the book.
I’ve noticed a number of reviewers, when reading Knight in Paper Armor, have mentioned both George Orwell’s 1984, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Which both surprises me, and also doesn’t surprise me, because they’re two books that have had a huge impact on my life. Another big influence, for me, has always been the works of Kurt Vonnegut, particularly Slaughterhouse Five. And anything by Stephen King, of course.
Although it’s incredibly early and probably a little cheeky to ask…what’s next?
This is my last book! Just kidding. Honestly, though, it’s a bit early to say what’s next. I have a couple drafts for my next few books written already, though my editing process is rigorous, exhausting, and deadly, so who knows what they’ll look like by the time they’re published. Stay tuned, I guess!