High Dive

YA Author Tammar Stein Searches for a Hero in The Six-Day Hero

Tammer Stein

Tammer Stein

By Lindsey Wojcik

Nearly 50 years ago, Israel and the neighboring Arab states fought in what is now known as the Six-Day War. Just in time for the 50th anniversary in June, young adult author Tammar Stein's The Six-Day Hero will officially be released (it is currently available on Amazon).

While The Six-Day Hero is not directly about the conflict, it does aim to transport readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem during that time. The story follows 12-year-old Motti, a boy who dreams of being a hero, and thinks the only way to become one is by being a soldier like his older brother (who serves in the Israeli army).

Stein, the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, recently talked to me about her writing process, what inspired The Six-Day Hero, and her advice for other authors. 

Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically young adult fiction?

Tammar Stein: I love books, the physical feel of them, the look of them, the way that they’re gateways to making connections and getting lost in adventures. Even as a young child, I remember my mother scolding me to go outside and get some fresh air because I had been inside reading for hours. It felt inevitable for me to try and create that same kind of magic for someone else.

I never set out to write for young adults, but when my agent read my manuscript for Light Years, she felt it could be a great young adult title. The character was 20 years old; it never crossed my mind that that could be a YA title. But the themes were classic YA: figuring out who you are, who you want to be. We got great response from the YA editors and I never looked back.

LW: What is your writing process like? How has it evolved over time?

TS: My writing process used to be: sit, write, delete, and repeat 50 times. This is not the most efficient way to write a novel. Light Years, my first book, took me five years to write. It turns out that just because I knew a great book when I read it, didn’t mean I could just write a great book myself. My second novel, High Dive, was also kind of a pain to write. I wrote the whole draft of it, almost 300 pages, before realizing it just didn’t have that magic spark. And I started back on page one.

By my third novel, Kindred, I wised up. I outlined. Now I do that for all my books. Not necessarily a detailed breakdown of each chapter, but a strong, two-page outline so I don’t get lost getting from the beginning to the end. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s helped me so much.

LW: What kind of research went into outlining and writing The Six-Day Hero?

TS: The first thing I did was read. Other than the fact that it lasted six days, I really didn’t know much about the war. So I read dozens of books on the subject. I read newspaper articles from the time period. I watched documentaries. I'm also the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and once I had a good sense of the events, I started interviewing Israelis who had experienced the war. Some as soldiers, some as children. I ended up speaking with half a dozen Israelis, including my parents, whom I pestered on a weekly basis for more details.

LW: What made the Six-Day War an intriguing and important topic for you to write a fictional story about?

TS: In 1967, Israel teetered between existence and annihilation. By winning the Six-Day War, it averted annihilation…and began the modern dilemma of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This summer (June 5-11) marks the war’s 50th anniversary.

The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Jewish Settlements are constantly in the news. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How in the world did we get into this hot mess?,” the answer is, the Six-Day War. That’s the war that started all this. This is a 50-year-old hot mess. In this book, I look at the history of the war through the eyes of the people living through it. And it's the first English book for younger readers set during the Six-Day War, giving context and perspective to the complexity the world is still trying to solve. I do believe this is a situation that will be resolved one day. We will move on. We will find a way for all these millions of people to live in peace with one another. But to do that, we have to understand how it got started.

You cannot shape the future without knowing the past. But because there are so many hard feelings, because people are tired of constantly hearing about the same conflict, there’s this tendency to just want to move on, to ignore it. Especially when it comes to kids. So there’s no one writing about it, no one publishing about it. And kids are just left in this vacuum. They hear the news, but they don’t have any basis for truly understanding it. I wanted to change that.

To be clear though, the book is not about the war. The book is about Motti, a 12-year-old boy, who wants to feel heroic. But when you read the book, you learn about the history of the war through his eyes. The violent details of war didn’t strike me as the best way to tell a kids’ story. Rather, I wrote a book about the struggles of a 12-year-old, struggles shaped by the same forces that shaped the war. I hope the book will transport young readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem 50 years ago.

LW: What inspired you to write it from a 12 year-old’s point of view?

TS: Motti just came to me. It’s one of the moments that felt almost mystical. I just had this scene pop into my mind: a restless, bored kid forced to sit through an assembly, desperate to get away. Motti is a scrappy boy, always looking for mischief and fun. He struggles to shine in the big shadow cast by his successful older brother, Gideon. Straight-arrow/Gideon is now a soldier in the Israeli army, and Motti is equally proud and jealous. Over the course of the next month, everything Motti knows about Israel, his brother, and himself will be put to the test. He will realize that war is not a game, and he will face harsh challenges to be the hero he always dreamed of.

LW: The Six-Day Hero will be officially released in time for the 50th anniversary of the war. How does the book honor its history?

TS: When you hear that something happened 50 years ago, there’s this reflexive feeling that it’s ancient history. That it barely matters. But I spoke with people who lived it, fought through it, and are still haunted by what happened. The whole world is still being shaped by what happened. It’s far from ancient history, and I wanted to make sure that there was something there for kids to connect to.

LW: What's next for you?

TS: The Six-Day War was just one in a chain of wars for Israel. The history of an Israeli family can really be told by tracing the family’s lives through the wars they fought. Six years later was the Yom Kippur War, and my next book is about Beni, Motti’s younger brother, with the Yom Kippur War as the setting.

LW: What's your advice for aspiring authors?

TS: My best piece of advice is to try to balance a sense of urgency with lots of patience. Both are absolutely necessary to write a book. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll never write. It’s always much nicer to plan to do it later, in the evening, tomorrow morning, over the weekend. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll always put it off. But you have to be patient with yourself and your work as well. Your first draft will be terrible. Your sense of urgency will shout at you to share it with your family and friends, to start sending it out to agents, to publish it as an e-book. Don’t do that. You need to go back and revise. Then you let it sit for a month (or three) and come back to it with fresh eyes. And just as you get comfortable with your patience and want to keep tinkering with your manuscript forevermore, your sense of urgency needs to rise up again and urge you to send it out and share it with the world.

To learn more about Tammar Stein, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @TammarStein.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

A Conversation With High Dive Author Jonathan Lee

Photo credit: Tanja Kernweiss

Photo credit: Tanja Kernweiss

By Adam Vitcavage

Jonathan Lee is no stranger to the literary world. He is a senior editor at Catapult and a contributing editor to Guernica. Lee has previously published two books in Europe, but the British writer has just published his first novel in America. High Dive has already received advance praise ahead of its March release and was selected to be apart of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.

His smartly written story about the 1984 assassination attempt of the British Prime Minister juggles multiple characters and threads in an inmate way. Fellow authors have proclaimed Lee’s pacing and dialogue are exceptional, which is obvious from the very beginning.

I chatted with Lee via email as he embarks on a U.S. book tour about where this book came from, his writing process, and the literary world he’s a part of.

Adam Vitcavage: Why this event? Did you already have interest in the bombing when you thought of the idea? Or did you seek an event out for the book?
Jonathan Lee: For me a book always comes out of a specific image or fact or moment. I’ve never been able to write well about broad ideas—I’m more of a micro thinker, and, therefore, a micro writer. I’m interested in small details and moments and hope that by paying an almost absurd amount of attention to those micro moments—finding the right word when a character is fusing electrical components together, or finding the right image to capture the feel of the air in a swimming pool—larger patterns will emerge on their own. So my idea for High Dive wasn’t “I must write about the conflict in Northern Ireland.” It was that I’d seen The Grand Hotel on various childhood visits to Brighton, was maybe struck by the grandeur of it—so different from the three-bedroom, viewless terraced house I grew up in—and eventually heard the small details: that this long-delay device had been planted in the hotel under the bath in room 629, and had exploded 26 days later. That 26 days, and that bath, and that room number... These were the kinds of micro things that fascinated me. I began at some point to wonder what life was like in the hotel during that 26 days of highly charged unawareness, if that makes sense. And also what life was like for the men who had planted the bomb and were back in Belfast, waiting to see its effects on a television screen. 
AV: What sort of research had to go into this?

JL: Lots of reading of IRA memoirs, many of them self-published. Lots of hanging around in hotels. Lots of reading about hospitality, as a trade—books written by people who managed hotels, and also brilliantly absurd 1980s books aimed at telling travelers on how to get the most out of their hotel experience. I tried to avoid reading too many books about the time and instead focused on books written in the time—1984 and the years before it—as well as newspaper accounts from the relevant months. Those kinds of contemporaneous records have none of the lethal objectivity of hindsight, do they? I wanted to avoid deep-freezing my novel with hindsight. If a character said or thought something about Thatcher, I wanted the hot mess of what they thought or said to be there on the page. I wanted everything to be in the moment—very partial and open to revision.
AV: How did writing this book differ from other projects? How was it similar?

JL: High Dive is my third novel, and somehow the writing doesn’t get easier with each new book. The good news is it doesn’t get harder, either. I guess I worry a little less about things like plot than I used to do. I’m keener now to let the entire plot, the sequence of events—and I do like there to be events; I like my novels to offer a compelling narrative—to just emerge from the personalities, the natural decisions, of my characters. With High Dive, more than with earlier projects, I wanted to be very focused on day-to-day lives. I wanted character to be plot, and character to be language, and character to be structure. The other thing that gets very slightly easier the more books you write, I find, is that you get better at getting characters in and out of rooms, and using section breaks and chapter breaks to your advantage—leaning into the white space when you need to. There was a time when I’d send my characters on all these costly 5,000-word taxi rides. Now, more often, I just have them thinking about going to X or Y’s house, and then turning up. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to no longer be describing those taxi rides.
AV: Building off of that: how did you decide to weave these particular stories together?

JL: I just started writing a few pages from the perspectives of six or seven possible characters, and the three who are center stage in the published book seemed to be the ones that intrigued me most. I didn’t have a specific structural idea at the start, save for the fact that I wanted the story to look at things at least two ways—to have an Irish republican perspective as well as a protestant English one—and I wanted it to move back and forth in time in a manner I still think of, perhaps rather grandly, as tidal. As the book progressed it also seemed to me to make sense to pull the rope of the narrative very gradually tighter—to have the three main threads, the three characters’ stories, get closer to each other as the ending came near. So by page 300 or so you have these very short sections—sometimes just a paragraph—before the next character has his or her close third person section. The characters’ fates and thoughts become more intertwined as we approach the explosion. There’s a sort of structural empathy, maybe—purely structural.
AV: How would you describe your writer process for novels? How intricate are you outlines? For instance: do they include white boards of each chapter?

JL: No, I’m not much of a planner. I just start writing and see what comes. Worse, I’m a hypocrite about it, because when I teach students on occasional residential courses or workshop weekends, I preach the importance of planning. It’s because I know my own methods lead to so much wastage—tens of thousands of words needing to be cut away, and several novels abandoned midway through. 
AV: A lot of aspiring writers don’t really get the process of selling a book. Can you take us through how this became your first American release?

JL: Well, that’s a long story. It took me a long time to find the right U.S. editor—one who could fall in love with weird novels set in England, which are the kinds of books I seem to write. For my first two books I was lucky to have publishers in Poland and Taiwan and all sorts of places, but not America. But I think sometimes aspiring writers worry about trying to please everyone, as I used to do, when in fact you just have to please one person. Publication is a process of matchmaking, I think. It is more intimate than people think, and it requires patience. At each stage before publication, you only need one person to really love your work. One agent’s assistant—the one who looks through the slush pile. Then one agent. Then one editor. In Diana Miller at Knopf, I happened to find the perfect U.S. editor, and in Jason Arthur at William Heinemann in the U.K. I’ve had for many years an essential relationship too—he was the first editor who ever saw any potential in my work. Then there’s also this issue of community-building, and that too is intimate. I sometimes get messages from writers starting out that contain a line like “I only read the classics.” That’s an infuriating thing to say. You have to support the system you want to be part of. If you want to write contemporary fiction, read some contemporary fiction. If you want to be an author reading your work at a bookstore one day, go see authors reading at bookstores today. Maybe even set up your own reading series. Build the community. Go to the library and read a story in Tin House before you think of submitting to Tin House. You don’t want to be published everywhere, and you don’t want to be edited by everyone—you just want to find the one or two key people who love the sentences you love. 
AV: When you’re giving talks, how different is each appearance? Or is there a script where you always want to hit certain points for discussion? If so, what are those points?
JL: A script! If only. It depends who the audience is. I feel like a lot of readers that I’m meeting on the High Dive book tour at the moment are also aspiring writers. So I try and bear that in mind and not get too caught up in talking about this or that moment in the book when what they might be looking for is more general encouragement, or to hear me or another author talk about craft. When I went to readings in my early twenties in London, I was often attending more out of a fascination with process than through obsession with a particular book. It’s the same reason I compulsively read Paris Review interviews back then. They got into the nitty-gritty of process, the staples and paper and handwriting. And I remember writers like David Mitchell being really kind when I queued up to get a copy of an early book of his signed many years ago. He took one look at me and said, “So you write as well, then?” Not “want to write.” Not “hope to write.” He didn’t condescend. There must have been a certain desperation in my eye, and he was incredibly kind—he knew he was part of a community.  
AV: You interview a lot of authors. What’s your approach to those conversations? What do you choose to focus on?
JL: I like interviewing other writers. I like that, in the book world, it’s so easy to meet your heroes, because no literary author, however famous, is too famous. Authors hardly ever get asked about their sentences, so I like to ask about that if I’m interviewing them. I like to find out what they’re trying to erase or emphasize as they re-write, given most writing is re-writing. Sometimes I’m a little rude and bring up a particular review of their work, perhaps a negative one, because I think the type of response to that question speaks a lot to the honesty or at least the openness of the writer, and I tend to know at that point whether it’ll be a good interview or not. When I was interviewing James Salter for Guernica several years ago, and the conversation turned to a negative review that Robert Towers had given of Light Years in The New York Times on its original release, he immediately smiled and said “that review was wounding.” Then he went on to explain how the reviewer’s criticisms had actually changed the way he wrote his subsequent work. I loved him for that. A less generous writer would have covered up their pain. 

To learn more about Jonathan Lee, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @JonLeeWriter.

Full Interviews Archive