Let's start with you telling us a little bit about yourself, Shira.
All my life, I've been fascinated by the relationships between fictional characters. When the existing fiction that I liked - historical, vintage mysteries, fairy tales - didn't give me anyone who was queer or Jewish like me to work with, I made them up myself. I also grew up in a single parent household and a blended family at the same time - raised by my mother but also by my grandparents and aunt, and visiting my father, stepmother, and half-siblings far away - so the idea of family as a large and meandering web rather than two parents and X number of kids in a neat unit seeped into my writing as well.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
I'm such an open book that I have to think about this, but given the super-Jewishness of my works, and the fact that "Perach" is a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking land, I'll surprise people by saying that I don't keep kosher. Plenty of American Jews have a more secular approach to our faith, so I'm not unusual that way, but a lot of non-Jews seem taken aback when they see me eating bacon or shrimp.
When did you start writing, is it something you've always been interested in, or did it develop later in life?
The first thing I can remember writing was fanfiction in which I got to meet my favorite characters. I was six years old. As a fifth grader I remember writing long rambling narratives in my notebook about a girl who found a runaway girl living in the bushes outside her house.
Has it been everything you thought it would be or not?
Most reviews have been good so far, but it's certainly very different and in some ways difficult to expose yourself to other people's unfettered opinions like that. It's been up and down and a bit scary at times. But I think that's normal.
How did it feel when you realized that your very first book was going to be published?
I was in shock and I was ecstatic.
What's your favorite part of writing a book?
When you get to the parts that would be the part of the movie you'd watch over and over again in YouTube clips and memorize if it were someone else's project, and you get to feel it coming out of YOUR fingers.
Do you get time to read for pleasure? If so, which books do you enjoy?
I own nearly every single novel Agatha Christie ever wrote. I enjoy other vintage whodunit writers as well (Doyle, Sayers, etc.) and I also find Isaac Asimov's nonfiction science essays really fun.
Are there any other genres you'd be interested in writing?
I tend to combine genres anyway -- the third book in the Mangoverse series is fantasy, with romance, like the others, but it's also a whodunit/mystery. So, learning how to write a mystery was on my list and I hope I'm doing it well.
Please tell us a little about your most recent release.
The Second Mango is the story of a young woman--Shulamit--who becomes queen far too young when her father dies in an accident. She's dealing with grief, with isolation from being the only lesbian she knows, and with food allergies that everybody thinks she's faking because they live in a fairy tale world that's never heard of celiac disease. Enter Rivka, a five-foot-eleven dragon-riding warrior woman with a Yiddish accent. She hires Rivka as a bodyguard to take her around and search for a girlfriend. In the meantime, they get involved in a rescue mission, share each other's stories, and become friends. There's romance for both of them, so the book contains both f/f and het, and there are two sequels so far.
What can we look forward to in the future from you?
The second book in the Mangoverse series, Climbing the Date Palm, is scheduled for release in July 2014 and tells the story of how Shulamit and her friends help save a bisexual prince's labor activist boyfriend from the prince's conservative father. There is a third book in the works, the whodunit I mentioned above, in which Shulamit is confronted with a series of impossible thefts in her capital city. By this time she has a baby, so it was fun to write a babywearing lesbian mom detective.
Thank you so much for the interview, Shira!
Shira Gassman's most recent releases:
The Second Mango
Queen Shulamit never expected to inherit the throne of the tropical land of Perach so young. At twenty, grief-stricken and fatherless, she's also coping with being the only lesbian she knows after her sweetheart ran off for an unknown reason. Not to mention, she's the victim of severe digestive problems that everybody think she's faking. When she meets Rivka, an athletic and assertive warrior from the north who wears a mask and pretends to be a man, she finds the source of strength she needs so desperately.
Unfortunately for her, Rivka is straight, but that's okay -- Shulamit needs a surrogate big sister just as much as she needs a girlfriend. Especially if the warrior's willing to take her around the kingdom on the back of her dragon in search of other women who might be open to same-sex romance. The real world outside the palace is full of adventure, however, and the search for a royal girlfriend quickly turns into a rescue mission when they discover a temple full of women turned to stone by an evil sorcerer.
Excerpt from The Second Mango, publised by Prizm Books:
Under the white sky, Shulamit beheld the stillness of the courtyard. A dragonfly landing on a small pool of water on the ground attracted their attention simply because it was the only moving thing in sight. The rest of the courtyard was dominated by somewhere between a dozen and two dozen life-sized statues of women in the simple robes of holy women.
Rivka and Shulamit left the horse by the entrance and walked down the central path, looking at the statues. There was something terrifying about them -- they were incredibly realistic, and were completely free of dirt, dust, or animal leavings, as if they had just been installed before the women’s arrival. Each one was different, and they seemed to be placed haphazardly around the yard.
“Why are their faces so...” Shulamit asked in a hushed voice.
“This one looks like she’s had the life scared out of her. What a thing to carve,” Rivka commented.
“This one looks angry. I’m scared of her!”
“Their poses look so natural, so -- lifelike.” Rivka furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand. I thought you said there’s no art in holy houses.”
“Something like this would distract from their meditation and simplicity,” agreed Shulamit. “And no holy house could afford statuary this well-crafted.”
“Don’t you dare tell me the holy women carved these,” said Rivka. “I won’t believe it. Not with expressions like these.”
For every single stone face was wracked with pain. In some, it was the pain of anger, of rage, and one statue even looked as if it were ready to attack any observer. In some, it was terror, and in some, merely sadness. Some of the faces were older, and some more youthful.
Shulamit had paused beside a younger face that was shaped in an expression of sad resignation. “She’s so beautiful,” she murmured, reaching out to gently caress the stone shoulder.
“I don’t like it,” said Rivka, turning away. “Ho! Who’s there?”
An aged woman had appeared from inside the temple, her yellow-orange robe hanging from her frail, bony body as if it had blown into a tree branch during the previous afternoon’s storm. “Peace, my son. Peace, my daughter.”
“Peace to you,” said Rivka and Shulamit together, and bowed their heads in respect.
“I’ve prayed for your arrival for many months,” said the woman. “I’m all alone here and couldn’t go for help.”
“Help? Why? What’s happened here?” Rivka’s hand flew to her sword hilt instinctively.
“Please, sit down and have tea with me, my son,” she replied. “I’ll explain everything. You must help us. We have nobody, and we have no money. But you have been sent by God.” She turned around and led them inside the temple with faltering steps.
“I hope this isn’t a trap,” Shulamit whispered as they followed.
“Shhh.” Rivka nodded toward her waist, indicating her sword. Shulamit knew that even if it was a trap, Rivka had everything under control.
They sat on simple cushions facing the old woman and let her serve them tea, and then listened as they drank.
“My name is Tamar. I’m the oldest woman here. That is why I’m the only one who wasn’t turned to stone when the sorcerer came to steal a wife.”
Rivka spewed tea and rocked forward. “What?!”
Shulamit covered her face with her hands. “Oh, dear Lord.”