I have met some of the most amazing women via social media and other personal and professional pursuits over the last few years, but most particularly during my time producing Listen to Your Mother. These women are talented, creative and extremely prolific. Una LaMarche is one of them. She appeared in the first season of the LYTM show in NYC.
Little did I know that during the production of our show, Una was writing a novel called Five Summers. I also didn’t know that she would meet her agent as a result of being in our show and soon become a fabulous Young Adult writer. I relished every page of her first book and wrote about it right here on this blog. It was a homage to sleep away camp and it fed right into my soul. Her new book, Like No Other, did the same for me. It took me back to my youth, to my first crush, to my desire to break out of my shell.
Una writes with such detail and gives an investment to her characters like no other, and her book sucked me into a culture I wanted to know more about….actually two. Devorah is Hasidic; Jaxon is West Indian. They live on separate sides of Crown Heights (where there has historically been friction between the two groups) and by chance meet in a hospital elevator when it gets stuck during a hurricane. He’s with a friend who had a skateboarding accident; she’s helping her 18 year old sister give birth to her first child. Until now, the Hasidic culture and lifestyle is all she has ever known. She hasn’t really questioned it until she meets Jaxon. They are instantly attracted to each other and her life is forever changed after that one elevator ride. His is, too. They aren’t phased by their differences and truly believe they are the perfect match.
So they start a secret love affair, arranging meetings on Shabbat and near their places of work. Devorah takes out a fake Facebook account to converse with him; Jaxon takes extreme measures to deliver a cell phone to her so they can communicate. She decides, despite her upbringing, that they can be together but it is her family which takes the most drastic steps towards keeping them apart. Teenagers reading this book will relate to their differences in opinion with their parents and obstacles achieving what they want most in the world.
The story will also resonate with readers on other levels, too. It takes place just after Trayvon Martin was shot back in 2012 and Jaxon talks about how hard it is to be a black American. With the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, young readers will connect to his character on a very realistic level. As for Devorah and her family’s ultra-religious values and demands on her future and lifestyle, it’s very telling about religious groups who think there is no life outside the walls of their community. Una packed a lot into this story – diversity, love, religion and a lot of plot twists.
This is the kind of book I want my daughter to read.
Since I adore Una and she happens to be a friend, I was lucky to score an interview with her. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out she’s already secretly cast the main characters in the film adaptation of this book (hopefully there will be one).
Interview with Una LaMarche
The Culture Mom: What inspired you to write this book?
Una LaMarche: I’m new to novel-writing (well, unless you count the handwritten, 42-page “book,” Kidnapped, that I wrote in 1991—apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose bibliography I was unaware of at the time), but I’m a hopeless romantic, so it was only a matter of time before I attempted a love story. I knew I wanted it to be set in present-day Brooklyn, and I knew I wanted both of the main characters to be very much of New York but also extremely different from each other, so much so that the stakes for their attraction would be high–not only in terms of personal sacrifice, but within their families and cultures on a larger scale. I grew up in a diverse community that was just a few blocks from Crown Heights, which is, on one side of Eastern Parkway, the center of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement; the other side is home to a lot of black families, many of them of West Indian descent. So in a way it was easy to set the stage for the high-stakes romance I wanted to write—I took two groups of people saw every day and brought them together. In the New York City of 2014 there aren’t too many things left that can really raise eyebrows, but a Hasidic girl taking up with a black boy is definitely still one of them.
TCM: Where did the idea come from to have your two main characters meet up in an elevator?
UL: It was hard for me to imagine a situation in which the two characters could not only conceivably meet, but also have time to get to know one another. Hasidic culture prohibits most interaction with outsiders, and for women the rules are extremely strict. Hasidic women can’t even speak privately with a Hasidic man unless that man is their husband or close blood relative, so to have a heart-to-heart with someone outside of the faith, of the opposite sex, is unheard of. I knew that they would have to be trapped together in some way, so an elevator made sense. And it’s kind of old school—it reminds me of meet-cutes in classic screwball comedies, and I like how that awkward, cliché sweetness balances out the darker, very real fear that they both feel.
TCM: Did you base the main characters on anyone you know or was there a tremendous amount of research involved? If there was research, how did you go about it?
UL: Neither character is based on anyone I know in real life, although I guess they both have a lot of me in them. I did do a lot of research before I started writing, mainly for Devorah. I read some books and did a lot of online searching, but I also interviewed women who grew up in Hasidic households, which was immeasurably helpful. I knew so little about Hasidic culture going in, I’m actually embarrassed. And while I knew that as an outsider there was no way I could get everything right, I wanted to give as much nuance and detail to her world, and inner life, as possible. Jaxon’s parents are from Trinidad, but since Devorah’s world is so insular I wanted him to be more of an avatar for the reader, a representation of choice and possibilities. He’s first and foremost a Brooklyn kid, the son of immigrants but not feeling that culture clash directly. I made a conscious choice not to make him so “other,” although I did speak to some friends for background.
TCM: How would you describe the process of writing this book, in comparison to your others?
Una: As of this moment I’ve written four books, three YA novels and a comic memoir, but when I wrote Like No Other I’d only written one. My first novel, Five Summers, was much breezier plot-wise and required less research, but the writing and revision process was brutal, just by virtue of the fact that it was my first. On that book I learned how much a first draft can change, and how painful it is—like breaking a bone to reset it. By comparison, Like No Other was actually a lot easier from a structural standpoint because I knew more going in. But it was more anxiety producing on a higher level. I was telling a more complex story, dealing with touchy subjects like race and religion, and writing characters from very different backgrounds than my own. In both life and writing, I tend to live in fear of offending other people, and I knew going in that there would be readers who would take issue with my choices. But the only alternative to taking those risks is to never write about anything you haven’t experienced firsthand, and then where would we be? We’d have no murder mysteries, no science fiction, no Moby Dick. Hopefully no Lolita. The world of literature would be a sad, banal place.
TCM: You really delve into the complexities of growing up Hasidic. How did you manage to do that?
Una: Through an organization called Footsteps, which helps people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities adjust to the secular world, I was put in contact with half a dozen women who generously offered to share their experiences with me. Not all were Chabad—there are a number of different Hasidic sects with different rules and customs—but all of them gave me invaluable insights into both what Devorah’s day to day life would be like as well as her inner struggle as she begins to question her faith. Obviously the end product is a work of fiction but I hope I made her come to life in a way that is if not 100% factually accurate, then at least authentic and real.
TCM: The story is truly a young love affair between two well-rounded, awesome teenagers. How did you put yourself in their shoes?
Una: Since I didn’t have a romantic interest until I was twenty years old and in college, I actually have as little firsthand experience with teen love as I do with Hasidism. However, I did have an active inner life and deep, cruel, yearning for boys who never gave me a second glance. I think becoming a writer for young adults is one of the best ways to deal with your leftover high school angst, short of therapy. Maybe some people don’t feel eternally connected to their teen selves, but I do. I still can feel all of those awful, delicious feelings. I tried to channel my sense memory as best I could to fuel Jaxon and Devorah’s emotional progression.
TCM: What are your hopes with this book? Do you see other authors taking stabs at diverse communities who haven’t been focused on until now?
Una: Putting aside the obvious, unlikely hope that Like No Other becomes a runaway bestseller a la The Fault in Our Stars and sells millions of copies and becomes a movie starring Jaden Smith and Hailee Steinfeld, I just hope this book speaks to people, opens up some kind of world for them, and makes them feel something. I didn’t set out to write a purposefully diverse book, although if I can be any help in moving fiction in that direction I’ll be thrilled. I absolutely think that characters with more racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and sexual identity diversity are being represented in greater and greater numbers across more and more books, but we’re still so far from being anywhere close to reflecting society as it is in 2014. If anyone reading this is debating whether or not to make a character in their novel non-white, non-straight, disabled or otherwise underrepresented, I say with zero hesitation: do it. The only way to promote diverse fiction is to create it.
Book Giveaway – A Copy of Like No Other
I have one copy of LIKE NO OTHER to give away!
To win, just comment below and let me know your favorite Young Adult novel to date. Also, you must follow the Culture Mom Facebook page (no need to tell me, I can check).
Winner will be selected randomly. This giveaway will end on September 4th at 12pm EST. Winner will be posted here, on the Culture Mom Facebook page and via email and will have 24 hours to accept their prize.
Disclosure: I was not compensated to write this post but received a copy of the book to facilitate the review. Giveaway is courtesy of Una LaMarche.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Like No Other online or at the book store.