Extraordinary, Backstory

So, there I was, watching the musical Wicked (from the novel by Gregory Maguire, musical adaptation by Stephen Schwartz, with book by Winnie Holzman), and we’d gotten to the final scene where the two witches sing their goodbye duet to each other:

Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?

By the time they got to “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good,” I was in tears. In my life, I too have experienced that hugely important friendship, and so I knew that I was witnessing that aim of all art: emotional truth.

Wicked and “For Good” made me want to try to write a novel that would go to that same core place. It would be about an enormously important friendship between two teenage girls, one more pivotal than a romantic love affair. This friendship would test both girls to their limits, and would force them to grow, not just into maturity, but into better selves than they could ever have imagined becoming alone.

For this to work, I felt, only a fantasy landscape would do.

Also, full disclosure. I wanted to repair what I saw as a tiny flaw in Wicked: in my view, Elphaba gave Glinda a lot more than she got in return. (And here I’ll reference Holly Black who remarked in a speech that all art is in conversation with previous art [July 2010, Vermont College for the Fine Arts]).

But once I began working on my novel about the two teenage girls, one human, one fey, and of their friendship gone dangerously wrong because of some secret (what secret? I’d figure that out later), I had a second idea.

“Why can’t my human girl be Jewish?”

It was a hasty, almost thoughtless choice. I expected my human girl, Phoebe, to be largely secular in her outlook, and so I didn’t anticipate that her religious background would affect the story much.

Truly, all I was thinking about was making some room at the table for girls who, like me as a teenager, loved reading fantasy but sometimes wondered wistfully why there was never anyone like them in it.

But then, as I worked, I discovered that the decision had put me into a strange place of vulnerability and fear, for reasons that I only later began to understand (see Michael Weingrad’s Spring 2010 essay, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia”).

And so another quick, emotional choice followed: “I’ll not only make Phoebe Jewish, I’ll make her a Rothschild! I’ll make her a member of the most storied Jewish family in modern history!”

I wanted to protect her, I now see. It was pure instinct, because she was going where Jews didn’t go, and where they were—it seemed to my subconscious, which was suddenly demanding to be in charge—not known, not understood, and certainly not welcome.

And then my plot and my characters screeched off in a direction I would never have predicted. And Phoebe’s heritage gave me the answer to the question “what secret?” that I had taken on faith, at the outset, that I would somehow find as I wrote.

I hope you’ll judge for yourself how it all worked out.