Leah Cypess: Young Adult Fantasy Novelist & Jewish Mom

Hailing from Brooklyn, NY and currently living in Brookline, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), Leah Cypess publishes regularly in various short story magazines and is the author of the critically acclaimed teen novels, Mistwood and Nightspell (Greenwillow/ HarperCollins).

Married with three children under the age of five, Leah regularly juggles the Writer’s life along with the responsibilities inherent in maintaining an observant lifestyle.

Here Leah talks with me about her road to success and balancing that with her Judaism:

YL: As a child, did your parents expose you to the arts/ do you have any vivid memories of books or the arts in general that inspired you to write as an adult?

My father is an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, which are also my favorite genres. I grew up reading all the 1960s pulp science fiction books he kept in boxes in the basement. We also had a regular Friday library trip. In fact, my punishment for bad behavior was that I wouldn’t be allowed to go to the library on Friday.

YL: Who are your favorite authors?

There are so many! Fantasy has always been my favorite genre; I grew up reading Diana Wynne Jones (everybody run out and get a copy of Dogsbody NOW), David Eddings, and Robin McKinley. Other favorites include Megan Whalen Turner and Connie Willis (Willis writes science fiction more often than fantasy).

YL: Did you have any obstacles to overcome in order to become a published author?

I had the obstacle that most authors have, which is that it is very difficult to get a publisher to publish your book. Getting an offer is very much a matter of putting the right book in front of the right editor at the right time, and there is a large element of luck involved even when you’ve put in all the effort and research that’s required.

When my editor read Mistwood, she had already read and liked several previous manuscripts by me. I’m sure her knowledge that I could produce something worth reading got me more attention when Mistwood came through the slush. So persistence is a large part of it too.

YL: Has being observant raised any specific challenges in your career, and if so, what were they?

The very first thing my publishers offered to do for Mistwood was have me go to dinner with a bunch of influential librarians and other authors… on a Friday night. They were willing to make accommodations so that it could possibly be done without any violations of Jewish law, but I doubt it would have worked out, and I made the decision that I didn’t want to go down that path. So I made it clear that I was happy to do events, etc., but not on Friday nights or Saturdays.

That first decision was the hardest. I’ve had to turn down other events because they were on Friday or Saturday, but I’m guessing none of them were as important as this one would have been.

Aside from that, I haven’t had many challenges. Writing is something you do on your own time. I did once have a very tight and non-negotiable deadline that ended in the middle of a three-day-Yom-Tov, but I just determined that the deadline for me was actually erev Yom Tov (and let me tell you, that was an interesting erev Yom Tov!)

YL: Any challenges in balancing your work life with your family?

The main challenge is probably the one any mother with any sort of career faces – there’s simply not enough time to do everything. In the case of a writer, it’s somewhat complicated by the fact that there’s not as much of a strict division between “work time” and “family time.” So, the juggling is somewhat more intensive.

YL: Does being Jewish impact on your writing in any way—and if so, how?

None of my published books are explicitly “Jewish,” but I’m an Orthodox Jew and that affects my worldview, the way I work, everything. I don’t really separate myself into “Jewish me” and “Secular me,” so sometimes it’s not obvious how my Jewishness weaves itself into my books. For example, it took a probing Jewish Advocate reporter to make me realize that at some level, Mistwood is about bechirah. 😉

YL: Do you ever see yourself writing a “Jewish book”?

I would love to; in fact, two current work in progress are set in Israel, and I also have a long-term project to write a historical Jewish novel (long-term because the research requirements are intense). But the book has to be one I want to write and one that I think will be a fun reading experience. Right now I have a contract for two more high fantasy novels, so those will have to be what I concentrate on for the next year or two.

About the Author
Yael Levy holds a J.M. in Law & Religion from Emory University School of Law. She is the author of Brooklyn Love.