I am getting super excited for the release of The Path of Names in May. Last week I had my first conversation with my publicist at Scholastic, Lauren Felsenstein. This was great, in part because now I get to use the phrase, ‘my publicist at Scholastic.’ It was also great, because she seemed smart and on the ball in all sorts of ways that I am totally not.
Among other things, Lauren asked me to come up with a few lines describing how I came to write The Path of Names. At first, this didn’t seem like such a big deal. However, the more I thought about it the more I wondered, ‘huh. How did I come to write The Path of Names?’
I know some authors – you ask that question and they’ll say, “Oh that. I was walking home from work one day and I remembered how my old next door neighbor used to always want to go on a witch hunt, and I never thought witch hunts were moral but I felt all this pressure to go along, anyway. So last spring I decided to write Witch Hunt! about the ethical problems one boy faces when his neighbor invites him on a witch hunt.”
It wasn’t like that for me. It may be that I just have trouble answering any question with a short answer. In my day job as a teacher at a local university, it took me years to learn to answer yes / no questions with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The real world is complicated, and I’m always wanting to give the whole story.
It’s not that I don’t remember writing it. In fact, I remember very well. I started writing the short story that became The Path of Names in July, 2001. I was attending the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle, a six week workshop where everyone writes one story / week. One weekend, I drove back to Vancouver where my then-girlfriend, now wife was living. She was reading a book about mazes. It was the middle of summer, and at that time summer always reminded me of the summer camp where I’d spent 14 summers.
Simple enough, right? Maze + Summer Camp = The Path of Names
Okay, but that doesn’t say anything about my grandfather. At some point, a few years before — after I’d been attending the summer camp for a few years — I discovered my grandfather had visited the same summer camp half a century before. That image stayed with me for years: a teenaged yeshiva drop out from the Lower East Side visiting rural Pennsylvania in the early 1940s – standing in the same field where his suburban descendants would play Frisbee and knot friendship bracelets half a century later. What would they make of each other – teenagers from these two very different mileus? How could they meet? Those questions were in the back of my mind as I wrote the short story that turned into THE PATH OF NAMES.
And, hey, I should also mention I didn’t look at the short story for eight years. Really. Not once. I went to graduate school. I wrote a totally different novel. Then another one. I got married and had a baby daughter. After my daughter was born, I started thinking about middle grade novels, and how I wanted to write a middle grade novel that had a strong female protagonist. I wanted her to be smart and capable and obsessed by her own idiosyncratic obsessions, and I wanted the conflict not to be defined by her sexuality or relationship with a male character, but rather by her strength of will and intelligence. So, really, that’s how I came to write The Path of Names.
But wait, I should also mention how I’ve always loved the little bits of Jewish magic and folktales I’ve come across in various places. My impression is that in the last few generations, Jews have moved away from a lot of the folk tales we used to tell. Still, over the years, I’ve come across little glints of stories about wonder rabbis calling down lightning on their enemies and exorcising disembodied spirits and so on. (This may also be a good place for me to note how much I love the phrase “wonder rabbi.” Like a super hero / rabbi hybrid.) Anyway, I always wanted to write a contemporary fantasy novel drawing from these old Jewish folk tales. Once I started working on a fantasy novel set in a Jewish summer camp, it seemed obvious that this was my chance.
And that’s how I came to write The Path of Names.