A Peek at Yael Mermelstein
By Rochel Burstyn
Printed in Binah Bunch Magazine: Sept. 2012
If you enjoy books, I have some great news for you! The Jewish world is about to be hit with an awesome new teen book called The Face in the Mirror (Artscroll) by Yael Mermelstein. Yael’s a busy mom; when we spoke, she had fix-it men taping up her phone line, a new washing machine making its way in and a big white rabbit jumping across the bedroom. Join the excitement, meet Yael!
Hi Yael, now you’re a well-known writer in the English-speaking religious world. What were you like as a kid?
I grew up in Queens, New York. When I was in 2nd grade, I wrote a haiku which my teacher loved and read aloud to the class. I remember being so flattered; that was when I first began thinking that maybe I could be a writer one day. Later, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, my parents bought me a pretty little gold book and I’d write poetry in it. My mother showed my poetry to an English professor and she actually took the time to write me 5 pages of critique, admiring as well as critiquing my poetry.
So did you always know you’d be a writer?
When I was older, someone told me “writing is not a job, it’s a hobby,” which was a little discouraging. As a result, I pursued a different direction and became a teacher for post high school girls in Israel. I did it for ten years and really liked it, but I always wanted to try writing. B’H I was very lucky- the first thing I submitted to Hamodia was accepted for publication. Since then, I’ve had many rejections, but a writer has to develop a thick skin and persevere.
Now you’ve written for adults and little kids, but “The Face in the Mirror” is your first book for teens. What’s it about?
It’s about 2 cousins, Tami and Ariella, who are very different. Tami has lost her father and she views Ariella’s life as picture-perfect because her family is well-off and she’s popular. One day, and I won’t give away how….by the light of the moon…their souls end up switching places in each other’s bodies. As you can probably tell, it’s a fantasy, the first fantasy written for the Jewish orthodox teen audience that I know of!
What did you do once you had the idea for The Face in the Mirror?
The idea for this book was percolating in my head for a few years. I have some friends who are writers and editors and I ran the idea past them. Most of them raised their eyebrows skeptically. I was so excited about the idea though and wasn’t discouraged, even though it might sound weird. I’ve done surveys in religious schools and discovered that many teenagers don’t enjoy Jewish books when they have a perfect ending and the kids are always perfect. Those books can be hard to relate to. If there are no struggles, characters don’t seem real. In this book, I deal with many issues that are very real for religious teens today, spiritually and emotionally. It’s also a page turner- umm- if I do say so myself.
How did you start writing The Face In the Mirror?
Since I had the idea in my head for so long, I just started writing. I always knew how the story would begin and how the story would end, but once I started writing, the characters took on a life of their own. Their voices brought the story to life. I was even surprised at some of the twists that the plot took. For example, there’s an election for school president in the book that I hadn’t even planned on! In total, I was sitting on the plot for about two years, then wrote the book in about two months, then it was edited for another year… and it’s due out by September!
How did you create the characters for The Face in the Mirror?
The book is written from both girls’ perspectives, one chapter at a time. At first, both characters sounded identical in my head - they were both struggling. But I realized that some teenagers are more happy go lucky than others and it would be ok to make one character more like that. I had to rewrite Ariella’s character. I imagined what she would think about, what her favorite ice cream flavor might be, what she was good at, etc. I had to get into her head and under her skin in order to write her part.
In the book, Tami is a poet. What can you tell us about that?
When I started writing the book, I didn’t know she’d be a poet; that was a surprise! Tami discovered new things about herself, some good, some bad. She needed a way to express herself, took to writing and discovered it was fun. That’s why you’ll find that the first ¼ of the book, there’s no poetry, and then all of a sudden, there’s lots! I was able to write her poetry quickly, usually in about ten minutes, because Tami’s intimately connected to my own voice. She reminds me a bit of myself.
How did you come up with the story idea?
I remember back in high school, I’d stare at certain people and wish I could be them. I just thought, “Well, what would happen if I really could?”
What would you say to teenagers who feel this way?
That success in life has absolutely nothing to do with status in high school. I know it sounds like adults are out of touch when we say this since popularity is a major issue for teens. It’s hard to imagine that it will one day come to an end, but everyone eventually grows into their own skin. For example, I may have felt that way back in high school, but now I’m glad I’m me, even with all of my challenges and idiosyncrasies! It’s not easy, trying to figure out who you are.
What’s it like being an author? Do you go into stores and pick up your own book?
I actually don’t really frequent book stores much, although when my friends in the U.S see my books on display, they’ll take pictures and forward it to me so I get to see it. My mother’s quite funny; she goes into bookstores and will complain to a book store owner, “How come you don’t have Yael Mermelstein’s books!? You’re not well stocked!”
How do your kids feel about their mom being a famous writer?
Since we live in Israel it’s really not much of an issue at all. It’s not like their Hebrew-speaking friend’s parents read my books or articles! The only time they’re involved is when I want to write about them and then I ask their permission first. They’re usually fine with it – one son says that if I write about him, he should get a cut!
What do you love best about writing?
I really love writing for kids. I feel like kids are so open to hearing and reading things, they’re not jaded by the world. They’re honest and I’m honest with them, too. I actually take writing for children very seriously; I spend hours reading, analyzing and developing my writing for kids. It’s definitely not, as some people might think, easier to write for kids than for adults.
What’s your message for teen writers?
Don’t give up! Writing is an art that you have to develop a thick skin for; some don’t like my writing, some love it. Everyone has different taste. I believe successful writing is 50 % inspiration and 50% perspiration, with a sprinkle of natural talent thrown in. Most of all, writing is a skill that needs to be learned and developed. It’s like any other job; you have to work hard at it. It’s not quicker just because it’s an art… although the rejections can sting precisely because of that: writers become very attached to what they write because it’s a form of self-expression.
Another message: Read the book! You’ll like it!
Thanks so much Yael, I will… And give your rabbit a cuddle from us!