It’s the first anniversary of my debut novel, Appetites & Vices and I figured I should write a little something. It was an interesting debut year with some highs and a lot of lows—professional and personal. And maybe, someday, with a whole lot of really good gin and a pint of Phish Food, I’ll discuss those. However, right now, I’d rather just talk about the book. So, if you’ll indulge me, here we:
Appetites & Vice remains a work I’m extremely proud of and love to pieces. Even though it’s a historical romance set in the 1840s, Appetites & Vices reflects more of my lived reality than anything I’ve ever written. Which was kind of the point. I love historical romance—all of it—the tropes, the covers, the pretending everyone has good teeth and breath, and obviously, the dresses.
However, it was equally important to me to make sure, that if I was the author, I wrote characters like me [read: Jewish characters]. And in particular, Jewish characters who moved in both Jewish and gentile circles, just as real historical women like Amalia Beer, Judith Montefiore, and Rebecca Gratz did. And just like I have my entire life. It’s something I often find absent when gentiles write Jewish characters, affixing Jews to gentile stories, while severing our ties to the Jewish communities which were and have always been so important to Jewish life.
Thus, in Appetites & Vices I tried to show the constant shifting Ursula and her extended family did on a daily basis between Jewish and gentile society as well as the skill and effort it took. And more, how high the stakes were (and are) if you get it wrong. As a minority, your entire group is often judged on your behavior, so missteps can have dire consequences. Getting to center the story around Ursula’s search for a place in the world while acknowledging these challenges was super important to me.
Likewise, I adored being able to give her a non-Jewish love interest in this context so I could, at least for a little bit, make the gentile the fish-out-of-water. While Jay could never actually experience what Ursula has to contend with due to the power differential, I really liked being able to write multiple scenes with more Jewish than gentile characters, and give the Jewish characters realistic arcs. The father figures, especially, Judah Nunes and Bernard Levy are deeply flawed, but both motivated by love their family and fear for the community’s safety. Their discussions echo my real, lived experiences and I was so happy I got to put that in the book.
Similarly, because I feel this is often missed, I wanted to make sure I wrote a Jewish story where it was clear the Jews did not need to be saved. So much of historical fiction written by non-Jews portrays Jews, if we are “good characters” as “innocent,” almost child-like objects for gentiles to rescue and upon which to display their “goodness.”
I could write multiple essays about how, while I’m eternally grateful to righteous gentiles during Holocaust, they didn’t “save” Jews. What they did was help Jews who were already working to survive make that a reality. We weren’t passive objects to receive “mercy,” but real people who actively made often awful choices and sacrifices to live, who appreciated the help when we got it. This might seem like a nitpicky distinction, but the more I see of it, the more I’ve begun to believe it actually enables antisemitism and puts us in danger.
Specifically, if a “good” Jew is an “innocent,” passive object to be saved, then what about real Jews with flaws? Or worse, with opinions and beliefs that are different from our gentile counterparts? Are we “bad” if we do not live up to some angelic ideal? Or more, the gentile ideal of what a person should think or believe? And, if we don’t and aren’t, is anti-Semitism justified? Obviously not, but when, in literature, the ones of us who are “good,” are only written in terms of the gentile gaze, this is often the result.
Thus, in Appetites & Vices, besides working hard to make my Jewish characters fully formed humans with strengths and flaws, I made sure it was clear that none of them needed the gentile characters’ help to “win.” Ursula would be just fine without Jay. I mean, she’d be sad because they’re amazing together as a couple. And, as we find out in Dalliances & Devotion, she could’ve been married off to Karl Marx which might have led to murder, but she would have survived. As would her father. And her uncle and cousins. And their business. Jay made her happy and added to her life, but he didn’t rescue her in any shape or form. And to me, that’s an HEA to celebrate it.
Anyway, I’m still, a year later, so incredibly proud this book is in the world and still so grateful to Carina Press who took a chance on Urs and Jay in all their imperfect—perfect glory. I hope they make people as happy as they make me. And I hope to be able to share more stories like theirs in the future.