The Belief in Angels
A Novel by J. Dylan Yates
She Writes Press April 2014
Q&A with J. Dylan Yates, author of The Belief in Angels
1. The Belief in Angels takes place in two very different times and places—a coastal Massachusetts town in the 1960s/’70s and Russian-occupied Ukraine in the 1920s. What inspired you to combine these two very different worlds in one book?
JDY: Humans struggle toward spiritual growth. I believe this is our genetic trajectory. Storytelling is the spiritual mirror of that trajectory.
Both of these periods are examples of tragic social injustice. In college I studied G. Stanley Hall and absorbed his ideas about childhood development, evolutionary theory, and the inheritance of behavior. Later, I devoured information about quantum physics and genetic intelligence theory. All of this informed and inspired the story.
The characters Szaja, Wendy, and Jules have identities related to the parent communities they were born into. They reflect their small family experiences and also the universal experience of youth and the rituals of their social times. Their experiences were not all intentionally given them by their parents. Each of these characters manages to survive and at times, exploit their situation, to gain self-awareness, resourcefulness and ultimately, freedom. The pogroms and the Holocaust forced the Jewish social norms to shift. Wendy is the result of the religious and social doctrines that drove the racial, gender, sexual and ethnic segregation of the 20’s and 30’s and fueled social change, including a shift into our current Youth Culture, which was celebrated in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Wendy is, however flawed, the Trautman family instrument of victory against that oppression. Jules questions religious and social belief and behavior only because she has inherited the right to do this through the misery of the generations before her. Szaja and Wendy’s struggles bore Jules’ freedoms.
2. You use a lot of specific historical detail in telling both Jules’s and Samuel/Szaja’s stories. How much research went into crafting The Belief in Angels?
JDY: Years. Judging by the fact I had to carve two books out of the tome I initially created, I probably spent too many years in research, both as a scholar and as a child growing up during the ’60s and ’70s.
I learned about the torpedoing of the Mefkura almost accidentally when I began to construct Szaja’s life after the liberation of the Majdanek death camp. After WWII, Jewish camp survivors, some from Majdanek, boarded schooner ships in Romania, sailing with Red Cross flags and symbols and bound for Istanbul and eventual settlement in Palestine after the war. When I researched the Mefkura massacre, I learned about the anti-Semitic behavior and atrocities that continued to be meted out toward the refugees, by not only by the Germans but also the Russians and the British. I had seen the movie Exodus, but had never learned about the Sturma, the Mefkura, and the other ships that were destroyed by hatred and the arrogance that power breeds. I began to assemble every scrap, every bit of historical and archival reference to the Mefkura I could find.
Also, I’m the daughter of a psychotherapist; I was raised in the religion of analysis. That would count as 18 years of research utilizing the bible of Psychology Today. It was sort of like being a preacher’s daughter, but with more experimentation and less parental attachment to the results of my childhood experience.
3. Both Jules and Samuel/Szaja experience dissociative episodes in the aftermath of traumatic events in their lives. Can you talk about why you focused on this particular type of response to trauma in the book?
JDY: It’s fascinating that a brain is so cleverly wired it can actually heal trauma by producing this kind of reversible amnesia. Our minds can even create a new identity, personality, and other characteristics of individuality to deal with physical and emotional trauma, depression, or even a single stressful episode. That our brains can do this and then return to their original states with an intact recovery of memories before the stressor, but without a memory for the time involved with the fugue episode, and that such a fugue can last from an hour to months at a time, is absolutely, terrifyingly intriguing to me. (And based on the number of soap opera characters who experience what is, in reality, a relatively rare disorder, it’s evident that many other people find this phenomenon intriguing as well.)
4. What were your greatest challenges in bringing these characters, and their stories, to life?
JDY: First, I needed time to tell the truth. This story began over 30 years ago as I recovered from a motorcycle accident. I wrote the first 50 pages over and over again for the next 25 years until the story felt true, although Jules’s story didn’t change considerably from that first draft. What changed is the inclusion of Szaja’s story. I realized that although Jules doesn’t feel connected to her family or society, her identity is a result of the history of both. In order to tell her story I had to unravel the mystery of her history. I couldn’t do that until I truly understood how a character like Jules might develop. My work as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) with Voices for Children created a basis for my understanding of the cycle of abuse, neglect, and survival of these crimes against children. It was challenging to invent a way to describe how Jules uses her dissociative behavior to survive, and I needed to understand what was lost through her survival in order to tell her truth.
5. What books, authors or events would you say influenced and/or inspired The Belief in Angels?
JDY: The characters were made human through the imagined spiritual influence of a variety of writers and musicians. The female writers and poets of the 19th century, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Jack Kerouac, Richard Bach, Teilhard De Chardin, Benjamin Spock, Thomas Newman, Philip Glass, The Bee Gees, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller Band, William Styron, Thomas Keneally, the Dalai Lama, the Bible . . . I could go on and on. Most importantly, however, is Dalia Ofer’s significant contribution to history with her book, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel 1939-1944. Her book was based on over 700 refugee family and survivor letters, including detailed accounts of the torpedoing of the Mefkura and the horrific murder of over 350 war orphans and refugee camp survivors. The idea that people who had managed to survive the camps, that young children, were slaughtered despite having only a desire to pursue personal freedom, that this is still happening all over the world, continues to be agonizing for me.
My own grandfather never spoke about his childhood. There was a photo of his family that hung in a dark entry hallway in his apartment. The photo showed 11 siblings. Only 4 of them came to America from the Ukraine in the 1920s during the pogroms. When I asked him what had happened to the rest of his brothers and sisters, to his parents, he refused to tell me. Evidently, it was so painful he didn’t speak about it to anyone or he felt it wasn’t a conversation he could have with any member of his family. He told me not to ask questions. As a result, sadly, I never heard his story. A large piece of what drove me to invent Szaja’s story is a need to create my own history out of the secrets my own family kept.
6. There is a lot of darkness in this book, and yet its title, The Belief in Angels, is rather hopeful—and in their darkest moments, both your protagonists experience a kind of divine intervention. Why is this aspect of the story so important?
JDY: I’m the worst kind of optimist. I have an educator’s heart. Writing expresses my need to deal with societal and emotional litter. Dust it off, clean it up and make it useful again, somehow.
7. What do you hope readers take away from their reading of The Belief in Angels?
JDY: My goal is to inspire a new generation of readers to be able to form their own answers to some of these questions and to dream us all a brighter, more enlightened future.
About the Author
Raised on a tiny, New England peninsula, in Hull, MA., J. Dylan Yates pursued her BFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The Belief in Angels, Yates’s debut novel, was written over the course of many years while she attempted a number of BFA-related jobs, including: waitressing, teaching, corporate training, directing, acting, producing, real estate, nursing, interior design, library science, parenting and reluctant housewifery.
Yates’s next novel, Szaja’s Story, focused on the character created in The Belief in Angels, invites the reader back to the Ukrainian orchards of Szaja Trautman’s tragic childhood, tracing his ultimate journey to America via the desperate Ukranian refugee work camps of the ’20s, his amazing survival of both the Majdanek death camp and the torpedoing of refugees aboard the Mefkura, and his fascinating experiences in the post-war Parisian couture houses.
Prior to publication, The Belief in Angels won the Alexis Masters Scholarship Award at the February 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference as well as a Los Angeles Book Festival Award.
Yates worked with Boulder County’s Voices for Children program as a CASA volunteer for 15 years and now volunteers as a mentor with the Girls Rising program in San Diego. She lives in San Diego with her partner and a talking cat.
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