The Big Idea: Jane Yolen (and Adam Stemple)
Attention: Jane Yolen is awesome. And Adam Stemple (her son and occasional co-writer) is nifty too. And that’s all I have to say at the moment. I’m going to let them talk about their new book, B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) now.
JANE YOLEN (with a note from ADAM STEMPLE at the end):
Okay, I’m Jewish. I’m only called the “Hans Christian Andersen of America” because that was his name. Maybe I am the “Hans Jewish Andersen of America,” though that was most likely Isaac Bashevis Singer.
But every once in a while I have an idea for a Jewish book and fairy tales. And the new book, out this spring, is one of them. It’s called B.U.G (Big Ugly Guy).
My son Adam Stemple and I were casting around for an idea for a new rock-and troll fairy tale novel, and I said, “Golem.”
He thought I was clearing my throat. “I got nothing,”
I said it again. “Golem.”
And then he got it.
OK, I’ll admit it, as an idea it was pretty thin. I had to explain to him that the golem was a man-made creature, created in medieval Prague by a rabbi out of clay to save the Jews who were being killed at the usual unnerving rate by the locals. The creature is huge and unstoppable, animated by the name of God written across its forehead or on a slip of paper under his tongue. But just as a golem grows from a handful of clay into a monstrous protector of the poor and vulnerable (and usually Jewish), this little idea began to grow between us.
Quickly we got to “bullied Jewish kid”. That wasn’t much of a stretch. Then to “father is a potter”. (This was necessary. We needed a lot of clay you see. Not just the ordinary playdough most kids have lying around in colored swatches) Finally one of us said “klezmer garage band.” That was the genius part. Well, maybe not. Kirkus certainly didn’t think so.
And you thought writers outlined!
Adam insisted it had to be a modern story and not set in Prague, which seemed sensible. Neither of us knew a thing about Prague nor wanted to do that research. Nor did we think a book set in medieval Prague had much of a chance of selling in today’s market. Or being read by today’s kids. I thought we could set it in the Midwest where Adam had lived for the past twenty-five years and he could do the research, if we needed it.
But then we took those oddly matched elements and turned them into cohesive and coherent (coherent is always a plus in fantasy novels for young readers) book which ended up being about how the bullied can turn into the bully, how trust can be broken and then mended through tragedy, and how song can bring young adults together in the most organic ways. God, I love writing. That should be in a piece of paper slipped under my tongue.
The road to publication was rockier than most, strewn as it was with an editor who moved midway to Canada, a publisher who changed his/her corporate mind about the book, and a Jewish editor at a different major house who made us rewrite the damned book till blood leaked from our fingertips. And now he is thinking we need the music for the song lyrics in the book for the ebook version. That’s Adam’s problem, he is the folk-rocker/composer/musical genius, not me. Maybe he is even the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of America. If so, he will need to borrow that white wig tied back with the sassy bow.
(Adam Stemple adds: Though I never let the truth get in the way of a good story (my mother’s career would be rockier if I had), I must insist that as a good Jewish boy, I already knew what a Golem was. And a Gollum. And the difference between the two. Though the thought of Gollum chasing Rabbi Loewe through the streets of Prague calling for his Preciousssssss does hold some appeal….)