Daniella Levy, author of By Light of Hidden Candles, talks about her recent book and offers advice to aspiring authors.
Well, when I was four years old, I examined the ABC’s posted above the blackboard in my nursery school, and decided I would copy the letters onto a sheet of paper and pretend I was writing a letter…
I’m not joking. That’s how and when I taught myself to read and write. My mom would pick me up from kindergarten the following year and find me reading aloud to my fellow preschoolers. I always enjoyed writing, but I think it was when I immigrated to Israel at age nine that I started really thinking of myself as a writer. I started keeping a daily journal a couple weeks before the move. I wrote my first chapter book within the first year of aliyah. I used my bat mitzvah money, as was customary, to purchase my first desktop computer, but my reason for being particularly excited about getting one was a bit unusual: I wanted to start writing a novel. And I did. I completed my first full-length novel between the ages of 12-14. I penned four additional novels before my 20th birthday. By Light of Hidden Candles is actually my sixth!
Q: Did you try to get your other novels published?
Did I ever! I sent my first query letter to a literary agent at the tender age of 15. I did get some encouraging responses, but nothing ended in a contract. When I was 19 a literary agent I’d come to know online even suggested the idea for my fifth novel and was planning to represent it, but it didn’t work out in the end. I had a long dry spell after that, and when I finally wrote By Light of Hidden Candles, I threw myself back into seeking an agent. I must have sent something like 150 query letters for that manuscript alone. Again, I got some encouraging responses, but ultimately they were all nos. I was very close to putting it back in the drawer and moving on when Yael Shahar of Kasva Press asked me to send her the manuscript.
Q: So it took you 15 years from your first query letter to your first published novel?
That’s right. Half my life. I turned 30 in February.
Q: How did you keep going despite so much rejection?
That’s the million-dollar question! If you’d have asked me a couple years ago, I’d have said that I had no idea. I was driven by a force I didn’t really understand. The rejections hurt, and continuing to subject myself to a barrage of rejections felt like some kind of bizarre masochism. But at a certain point I realized that wasn’t it. It was that there’s this little voice deep inside me that whispers, I believe in my work. No amount of rejection, criticism, or discouragement had been able to silence that voice. When I realized that, I understood that nothing ever would. I was going to get published—or I was going to die trying. And given that I was 29 when I came to that realization, I figured my chances were pretty good!
Q: That’s when you started The Rejection Survival Guide. Can you tell us about it?
The Rejection Survival Guide is a blog I started exactly from that place—trying, and failing, to publish fiction for 15 years. I wanted to explore what it was that helped me build resilience against rejection, and challenge the common ideas of what that resilience should look like. Most writers are told not to get their hopes up when they’re waiting for a response. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with that approach; that we need to cultivate hope, not stifle it.
The crazy thing is that just one month and four days after I started that blog, I received my first ever acceptance for a short story. My fateful meeting with Yael Shahar came just a few months after that. After 15 years of “no”s, the “yeses” just started rolling in. It was as if God had been waiting for me to appoint myself an expert on rejection before finally letting me experience some “yeses”!
Q: But it’s not that you hadn’t published anything before then. Tell us about your first book.
Yes, that’s true. Fiction has always been my passion, but I did publish nonfiction before. Most notably, I self-published my first book, Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, in March of 2016. The book was born from my other blog, Letters to Josep, which is a collection of letters to a Christian friend of mine who lives in Barcelona about Judaism. (Kasva Press intends to re-release Letters to Josep as well, probably next spring.)
Q: An American Jewish woman explaining Judaism to a Spanish Christian friend; that sounds familiar…
Yes, indeed! There are definitely elements of the interfaith friendships in By Light of Hidden Candles that were inspired by my real-life friendship with Josep. Readers of Letters to Josep will recognize at least one conversation between Alma and Manuel that was as good as copy-pasted! I have always had a soft spot for intercultural friendships. Even as a kid, I took particular interest in people who came from very different places, had different practices, and spoke different languages (or even just with a different accent), and my writing has always reflected this.
Q: What inspired you to write about 15th century Spain and crypto-Judaism?
The history of the Sephardic Jews, particularly during that tumultuous period, has fascinated me since the moment I picked up a copy of Naomi Ragen’s The Ghost of Hannah Mendes. If a history teacher ever mentioned the Spanish Inquisition in school, it was during a time when my Hebrew was not quite good enough yet to follow history class. So Naomi Ragen’s book was my first encounter with this captivating historical period. Years later, I met someone who believed she was descended from crypto-Jews and was interested in returning to Judaism. I was completely floored by this phenomenon—that anusim held on to their identities and practices for so long that five hundred years later, their descendants were rediscovering their roots. Since then, I have been completely obsessed with medieval Spain, Sephardic Judaism, the Spanish Inquisition, and the phenomenon of crypto-Judaism. Dr. Gloria Mound, of blessed memory, founder of the Casa Shalom Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies, was a family friend, and she introduced me to the world of scholarship in this field. It was only a matter of time before this obsession expressed itself in fiction!
Q: How did you go about your research?
I muddled through it! Thankfully, these days, the Internet is an incredibly rich and useful source of information. I read extensively from books and academic papers, and when I got bold enough, I relayed some questions to experts. I joined an online initiative for transcribing medieval Spanish manuscripts—the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict project—and took two of the related “Deciphering Secrets” courses through Coursera and edX. The courses gave me a good background in working with medieval manuscripts. I also contacted the professor running the project, Dr. Roger Martínez-Dávila, to ask a few questions, and he has been enormously helpful! I took another online course on the Alhambra through the University of Granada; one on the Inquisition and the Jews through Rutgers University; and one on the relationship between the Jews and the Catholic Church via Coursera and Maryland University. I explored the streets of Madrid, Granada, Toledo, and Cartagena with Google Street View and sat through painfully boring footage from tour buses and dash-cams on YouTube. I even went from zero Spanish to B1 level literacy thanks to DuoLingo’s Spanish program! The Internet is amazing.
Q: What brings an Ashkenazi Jewish writer like yourself to focus on this little-known minority within a minority in the Jewish world—Sephardic Jews under the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco?
First of all, as mentioned, I’ve always been fascinated with cultures that are different from my own—especially other Jewish cultures. Many people are completely unaware of the cultural diversity within the Jewish people, and I hope that By Light of Hidden Candles helps bring to light (so to speak) that not every Jew is a Yiddish-speaking, lox-and-bagel-eating, light-skinned person!
I fell in love with Moroccan Jewish culture the way one would expect a Jew to fall in love with anything: through my stomach. Moroccan Jewish cooking features bright colors, bold flavors, a rich abundance of spices, and varied fresh vegetables. In other words, it’s everything traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food isn’t! Many typical Moroccan Jewish dishes have become the standard fare at Israeli weddings and events, like their fried beef “cigars” and pasteles, slow-cooked tajines and couscous, and colorful, spicy, and tangy salads. If I recall correctly, Moroccans are the largest cultural group of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, so I had plenty of opportunity to encounter other aspects of their culture—the music, the traditional dress, and the history. Most famously, they are known for their Mimouna celebration the day after Passover, which involved cooking lots of delicious foods that would have been forbidden on Passover and sharing them with their neighbors and Muslim friends. Jewish-Muslim relations tended to be relatively warm and peaceful in Morocco through much of its history.
So when I needed to decide where Alma’s ancestors would migrate from Spain, Morocco was a natural choice!
I chose to focus on the Jews under the Spanish Protectorate mostly for linguistic reasons. Moroccan Jews spoke Haketía, the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa, and when the Spaniards took over, the Jews in those areas reverted back to Castilian Spanish as a vernacular. I wanted Alma’s grandmother to have a strong linguistic tie to Spain, so I chose Tétouan as her birthplace.
Q: Why did you choose to set the historical story in Lorca?
Originally, I wanted to set the historical story in Málaga, because of its historical significance and its proximity to Morocco; but I discovered that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell if it was set in Málaga. The Jews of Málaga all left immediately after its conquest by the Christians in 1487. There were no Jews left when the Spanish Inquisition was set up there! So I needed to select a place where the Spanish Inquisition had already been established; where Jews still lived; and that was a reasonably close distance to the sea to allow for a quick escape. Those three criteria ruled out the vast majority of the Iberian Peninsula; the entire west and southern coast (because of Portugal and Andalusia) and most of the east coast (because of Aragón). All that was left was a relatively small stretch of coastline between Valencia and the Emirate of Granada: a region called Murcia.
As I Googled around, I stumbled across a temporary website that had been set up in honor of an exhibition called Huellas de la cultura judía en Lorca—“Traces of Jewish Culture in Lorca”. It turned out that the ancient Jewish quarter of Lorca had been discovered relatively recently in the hilltop fortress known as Fortaleza del Sol. The website had information about the history of the Jewish quarter, and it even had some 3-D renderings of what the place might have looked like in the 15th century. (They have since produced several 3-D virtual tours of some of the buildings and streets in the judería (including the synagogue); you can find these and others on YouTube!)
I was so inspired by this discovery, I wrote 5,000 words of the historical story within the next 24 hours!
Q: The main dilemma in By Light of Hidden Candles surrounds the delicate subject of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews and its relationship with what you call “Jewish continuity”. What brought you to write about that topic?
I think there is no Jew in the world, and certainly no American Jew, who has not had to contend with this issue personally in some way or another. I have experienced it from various perspectives throughout my adolescent and adult life: my sister is married to a very sweet lapsed Seventh Day Adventist; I have many cousins who “married out”, and friends and family who were or are in romantic relationships with people who are not Jewish. It is indeed a delicate, even a painful, subject, and I feel I have something important to say about it. I hope that By Light of Hidden Candles conveys my views on it with complexity, nuance, and compassion.
Q: What message do you hope to impart to your readers on this topic?
The message doesn’t only relate to intermarriage and Jewish continuity; it’s much broader than that. It’s that despite what Hollywood may have us believe, love does not conquer all—or at least, romantic love doesn’t. There are other loves in our lives that may feel less glamorous, but that are no less important to us. There are so many stories out there about people sacrificing everything for love—their families, their livelihoods, their dreams. Giving up everything for love is glorified and idealized in our individualistic Western culture. Sometimes these sacrifices are worth making; but sometimes, and in fact—often, they aren’t. Ultimately it’s a question of what’s really important to you.
Q: So it’s a bit of a counter-culture message about romance?
Absolutely. I think modern Western concepts about romance and sexuality are one of mainstream culture’s biggest blind spots—and it shows in our divorce rates. It was beyond the scope of this book to fully address this, but we definitely need more voices calling these perceptions about what romance and marriage should look like into question.
Q: In closing, let’s return to your personal history as a writer: what advice would you offer aspiring novelists who still haven’t managed to get published?
Honestly, when I was still in that position—drowning in “no”s—and someone would send me some “inspiring” story or an interview with a published author answering that question, it annoyed the hell out of me! I didn’t buy empty platitudes, and I won’t offer them, either. The fact is, it’s a very tough market, and all the talent and persistence in the world cannot guarantee you that you will make it. I can’t promise you that if you just keep trying, you’re going to succeed in the traditional sense.
But here’s what I can promise you.
People usually define success in terms of fame and fortune. That is an extremely narrow definition. You don’t have to restrict yourself to it. You get to define what success means to you. Once you do that, once you become more flexible in your vision of what you want to accomplish with your writing, the world becomes a much broader and more promising place. The fact is that whatever it is you’re dreaming of is not going to happen. Even if I waved a magic wand and conjured exactly what you’re hoping for—a hotshot agent, a contract with a major publisher, a place on the NYT bestseller list—reality will not look like it does in your fantasies. I think it’s important to dream; and it’s also important to understand that our dreams don’t necessarily have to meet reality to give us satisfaction and hope. We can still say yes to “lesser” opportunities and explore other options on our way to realizing our biggest dreams. And that’s what I advise you to do. Keep going, stay flexible, explore, experiment, try things you hadn’t thought of trying before. If you do this, and you keep writing and sending your work out, not because you want fame and fortune, but because you’re totally in love with what you’re doing—you will find your audience. It won’t be everything you dreamed no matter what you do. But it will be good. That I can promise you.
In the meantime, if you need encouragement and advice on building resilience and coping with disappointment, self-doubt, and the other joys of being a creative person, check out The Rejection Survival Guide!