Rebecca Podos’ fourth YA novel, From Dust, a Flame, is a moving story about a girl discovering the heritage and history of a family she never knew she had. On the morning of Hannah’s 17th birthday, she awakens to discover that her eyes are golden serpentine slits, the first of a series of nightly transformations. Soon Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are catapulted into a quest for answers within their family’s hidden past as well as among Jewish myths and legends.
Podos spoke with BookPage about why she’s drawn to tales of self-discovery and how it feels to contribute to a golden age of Jewish fantasy.
How did this book begin for you?
A lot of my stories kind of begin with the theme of inheritance—the things passed down to you for better or worse, and how you navigate that as a young person still trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become.
From Dust, a Flame started when I felt ready to tackle that question in relation to Judaism. I grew up in an observant family and community, knowing the history of both. But I wondered what it would feel like to discover all of that just when you thought you had a pretty solid sense of yourself and what it would mean and how it would change you.
Tell us about Hannah, the main character of the book.
When we meet her, Hannah has plenty of questions about her mother: why she’s spent the last 17 years moving Hannah and her brother from place to place, where she comes from beyond the few vague hints she’s let slip over the years, and why she never seems to understand—or try to understand—her daughter.
But Hannah thinks she’s got a pretty good handle on herself. A chronic overachiever, she long ago chose the academic path and career path that would help her to become who she thought she wanted to be. She’s completely in control of every aspect of her own life, including the image she presents to other people, even the people who love her.
And speaking of that idea of “how it would change you . . . ”: The same night that Hannah makes a significant discovery about her mother’s past and her own identity, she is literally physically changed by a curse she’ll spend the novel trying to undo. At the same time, she’s unraveling the mystery of herself, including her Jewishness, her queerness and the truth behind the image she’s spent most of her life constructing.
I want to dig into the way you’ve structured this book. “The past has teeth,” says a character at one point. “It may catch you if you turn your back on it.” From Dust, a Flame jumps between multiple time periods, follows objects through generations and draws on folktales, letters and dreams—almost as though the novel itself would seem to agree. Can you talk about how you went about figuring out how to tell this story?
Trial and error, for sure! I’ve never written a book from multiple perspectives or in which a significant part of the story takes place in another time period. I knew that I wanted the book to feel as though it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the past, only for the past to catch up and collide with the present. I tried to pace it out so that Hannah’s timeline—most of which takes place in just one week—doesn’t lose its urgency. I also didn’t want the chapters spent in her mother’s timeline, and briefly in her grandmother’s, to feel less important or interesting just because those events happened long ago. For Hannah and for her family, the threat posed by the past is greatest when they don’t believe it can touch them.
One of the most complex themes you explore in this book is the idea of family—what it means to be part of a family, and the stories, histories and (sometimes) secrets that families hold. What drew you to exploring these ideas?
I really like stories where for the most part, there are no clear villains, just people trying and sometimes failing to do their best when faced with the toughest of choices. Don’t get me wrong, I love the villains, too, and there is a literal demon in the mix, but Hannah’s grandmother was shaped in part by the terrible things that happened to her, as was Hannah’s mother, as is Hannah.
A lot of what goes wrong between the generations in this book comes down to the secrets they keep out of fear, and because it seems too painful to share them, and because they want to protect the people they love. Families are complicated. Trauma is complicated. I wanted every character to have a moment in the story to share their perspective and to shed a light on their own demons.
There’s a lot of self-discovery happening in From Dust, a Flame, not only for Hannah but also for many other characters. When you began working on the book, did you know the discoveries that each character would make?
That’s a really interesting question! I did my heaviest outlining yet for this book. I’ve been a pantser in the past, but since I was juggling timelines and points of view and trying to build a magical system, it seemed pretty necessary to know where I was going. Also, I got halfway through without adequately planning out one of the bigger plot twists and basically had to go back to the beginning to fix it. But I still learned about the characters as I went and figured them out a little better with every draft. It took me a while to figure out not just what Hannah wanted, but what she needed. And that’s what I like to give characters in the end.
From Dust, a Flame contains so much cultural, historical and mythological detail. In your author’s note, you write that in spite of your religiously conservative upbringing, it’s common for a Jewish writer to feel that they’re not “Jewish enough to translate their identity into fiction.” How did you work through those feelings?
I think I just had to release myself from the expectation of perfectly representing “the Jewish experience” or “the queer experience” or any of my identities and accept that it’s OK simply to write one single experience out of infinite possibilities. Nobody is qualified to write “the experience” of anything, but I’m qualified to tell a story about a Jewish girl struggling to understand herself. So that’s what I tried to do.
What was the most enjoyable part of the book to research?
The most enjoyable part of research—of which there was so much—was the lore. One Jewish folktale in particular plays a very important part in the world building of this book, and it was one I’d never heard before! I also found the podcast “Throwing Sheyd: Better Living Through Jewish Demonology,” which brilliantly sifts through the Jewish texts to explore mentions of shedim, both well known and obscure, and I wasn’t really familiar with any of it. It was all fascinating to explore and engage with these stories that are artifacts of culture and history and religion combined.
Your author’s note also mentions a revelation you had while drafting the novel, when you realized that you needed an answer to a question Hannah asks: What does it mean to be Jewish? If someone were to ask you this question today, would your answer be different than if someone had asked you before writing this book? If so, how?
I think it would! Like I said earlier, I didn’t really grow up wondering what it meant to be Jewish, because I just was. It was a fact. If it had been a question, I probably would’ve answered that Judaism is a shared history as much as a set of present-day beliefs and practices (a pretty wide range in modern Judaism). And it absolutely can be that.
But in writing Gabe, Hannah’s brother who was adopted at birth and who wrestles with what his mother’s history means for him, I wanted to be more purposeful. We don’t always make enough space for Jewish converts or patrilineal Jews or anybody who falls outside of what we think a Jewish person should look like. Like the character who answers Hannah’s question on the page, I’d say that Judaism is also very much a story that you can choose to write yourself into, with knowledge and curiosity and respect.
From Dust, a Flame is one of a growing number of recent YA books that explores Jewish identity and mythology. How does it feel to be adding a volume of your own to that group?
It’s wonderful. There are such amazing Jewish fantasies and folktales out recently and coming up next year—Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart, Aden Polydoros’ The City Beautiful, Allison Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic, Phoebe North’s Strange Creatures, Kalyn Josephson’s This Dark Descent. . . . It’s a little bit of a golden age at the moment, and I’m excited to be a little part of it.
This book has a lot of moments in which characters speak—or Hannah thinks—some really stunning words of truth. One of the most meaningful moments for me involved a word written in some spilled sugar. Is there a truth in the book that’s particularly meaningful for you?
Oh, I’m glad you like that scene! It was actually the source of the book’s original title, which didn’t make it (luckily, I like this one better). I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are some big moments where Hannah has to reckon with the idea that, when it comes to where and who we come from, we don’t really get to pick out the good and ignore the bad or separate the burdens we inherit from the blessings. We have to find a way to live with it all, and being honest with ourselves and the people we love can be the key to moving forward.
Author photo of Rebecca Podos courtesy of Zaynah Qutubuddin.