Let’s take a moment to get to know a really fascinating author, S.W. Leicher. She brings a unique background to her stories, one I think you may enjoy. Let’s look at her bio and then find out more about her writing processes and inspiration.
S.W. Leicher grew up in the Bronx in a bi-cultural (Latina and Jewish) home. She moved to Manhattan after graduate school and raised her family on the Upper West Side, where she still lives with her husband and two black cats. When not dreaming up fiction, she writes about social justice issues for nonprofit organizations.
Author Social Links: Website | Facebook
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
S.W.: The story had two main sources of inspiration:
The first was the research that I’ve done for a series of policy reports on the lives of women in New York City’s low-income, insular religious, racial, and ethnic communities—from Latin to African American to Asian to Muslim Arab to Haredi Jewish. Everywhere I went while conducting that research, I heard tales of relentless hours spent in tough, low-paying jobs, thankless hours spent as primary caregivers for children, partners, siblings, grandchildren, and older relatives, and unbreachable barriers to achieving anything different than that.
The tales I heard were invariably told with dignity, wit, and love. But also—all-too-often—with flashes of longing for something more than the lives that those women and girls had been assigned. The experience left me determined to write a book that would celebrate their grace, their unacknowledged contributions—and their unfulfilled longings. And that would explore what might happen should any of them dare to pursue their ambitions and desires.
The second source of inspiration was my own family. My mother was a Latina Catholic immigrant who came to New York for her education and married my New York Jewish father. I spent my childhood moving back and forth between those two cultures. Taking in their deep riches and their deep meshugas.Noting how they view one another, speak about one another, and treat one another. Feeling part of both—and an outsider within each. Much of the book is based on what I learned from all of that as well.
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
S.W.: Before I plunged into writing this novel and the novel that precedes it—for this one is a sequel—I had never attempted to write a book of fiction. I had only produced white papers and proposals designed to prove a point—to persuade policy-makers to push for a particular piece of legislation or funders to make a grant to a particular project. Once I launched into fiction writing, I had to let go of all that. I had to learn how to create characters and imaginative plots and—most importantly—to allow those characters to make their own points and act in their own ways while I just scrambled to take it all down.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
S.W.: All of my characters act badly at some point in the story. They withdraw from one another emotionally, they take vengeance in terrible ways, they remain willfully shortsighted, they betray one another. There is lots of cause for “atonement.” Hence, the title. I dearly love my characters (or most of them, anyway). It was really tough for me to allow them to do all that. It was terribly hard to write those sections.
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
S.W.: Paloma has many of my traits—she’s impulsive and dramatic; she has a sharp tongue and a warm heart. Her voice spoke directly in my brain. Serach was trickier. She is slower to anger, more logical, more stubborn, and more quietly generous. She is, however, a bit like my husband in those regards, so I was sometimes able to tune into what he might say or do in any situation and take it from there. For a long time, one character—Serach’s younger brother, Shmuely—was incredibly difficult for me to portray. He is, for the most part, a stubbornly rigid, fervently religious Orthodox young man. But little by little he showed me his vulnerabilities, his pain, and an unexpected mischievous streak. As all that evolved, I found it easier to get into his head and hear and record his voice.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
S.W.: I had to research much of what I wrote about observant Jewish practice, much of the action taking place in Israel, and everything that I wrote in Yiddish. I was raised in a very left-wing Reform part of Judaism and no one in my immediate family speaks Yiddish. The scenes in Flatbush, Manhattan, and the Bronx were much easier for me to write—my family and my work have taken me into those venues and into those conversations many times. And the scenes taking place among my Latina characters were very easy. I am very familiar with characters like that and have heard people speaking Spanish (or sprinkling Spanish through their English) all my life. I definitely had to do some research about what equipment is used in the Fordham Road auto shop in which a couple of those characters work, however. I don’t even drive…
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
S.W.: I re-wrote and re-wrote drafts of the book six hundred and forty-three times. Yes, that’s right. I just went back and counted them. I didn’t revise the entire thing every time that I re-wrote it, of course. But I ruthlessly revised parts of it—often performing radical surgery. The first time that I sent it out to readers for suggestions and corrections, it was 500+ pages long. Those poor readers! By the time that I was finished paring and parsing and re-working the manuscript according to their suggestions and my own ruthlessly hypercritical eye, it was a nice slim 312 pages. Whew!
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
S.W.: I’ve only written two novels, and they were very different experiences. The first novel (the predecessor to this one—this is a sequel) took a year and a half to finish and I did it in-between holding down a full-time consulting practice. This one took two and a half years, and I dedicated to it practically full-time. Why was the second one so much more time-consuming? Well, the first novel was basically a coming-of-age, coming-out sexually, first-time-in love, rebelling-against-one’s-parents story. A story, in short, that we all have experienced, one way or another. This sequel is about staying in love over time and as an adult. Much more complicated—and never the same twice. Also, since the second one is a sequel, I spent an unconscionable amount of time figuring out how much of the back story had to be included and how to do it. A lot of my re-writes involved solving that particular conundrum.
Betty: Every author has the tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
S.W.: “And.” “And” is my most overused word. Generally, at the beginning of a sentence. One marvelously patient friend (she is also a marvelous writer) took my first draft and began pointing out how many times I started a sentence with that conjunction. The act of removing half those initial “ands” probably cut twenty pages out of the first draft, all by itself…
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
S.W.: I love Amos Oz for the way he communicates the complicatedness of human nature—simply, honestly, and with great empathy. Sigrid Nunez blows me away with her ability to seamlessly weave thoughtful contemplations, high-brow intellectual references, and zinging (almost slangish) asides into a single paragraph. Amor Towles delights me with the sheer joy he clearly takes in writing. I hope my readers can sense the fact that I am having a grand time, too. I have re-read a couple of Judith Krantz’s romance novels more times than I care to admit. I’ve learned a great deal from her about how to portray women’s ambitiousness, friendships, and follies.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
S.W.: I live in an old, Upper West Side apartment house that has two dozen rooms on the rooftop floor that were originally used as bedrooms by the housemaids of the residents who lived in the apartments on the lower floors. The last of those housemaids moved out forty-five years ago, so the rooms are now rented out as storage spaces or offices by the downstairs residents. The room that I rent is lovely, airy, and flooded with sunlight—a real luxury in my over-built and deeply-shadowed neighborhood. I have filled it with plants and paintings and a little desk, and it has become my refuge. When I am in the middle of writing, I mount the stairs to that office as soon as I am finished with my gym routine and breakfast—generally by 9:00 a.m. I tend to my plants for a bit, fiddle with the windows according to the weather, turn on my desk fan if it is the dead of summer, and then sit down at my computer to begin writing, re-writing, re-reading, and re-writing again. Depending on the day and how well it is going, I can go six hours straight—writing, editing, and re-reading—before finally looking up, noting the time, and saying: “I think I’m done. I have to eat something.” And it’s rarely less than five hours. Once that happens, however, I’m done for the day.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
S.W.: My training is in public policy, and—until the pandemic struck and the whole time that I was writing the first novel—I was still in the midst of a forty-five-year consulting practice writing policy reports, evaluations, and proposals for a range of social justice-focused foundations, federations, and non-profits. I loved that work dearly and—as I mentioned above—it ended up providing a splendid jumping-off place for both my novels. By the time I started the second novel, however, COVID had de-railed most of my client base and the launch of social security payments began reducing my need to work so hard. Currently, I only have one client—the Puerto Rico Women’s Foundation—a fabulous organization that supports women’s groups and feminist philanthropy in Puerto Rico.
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
S.W.: Literary fiction is number one. Twentieth Century history—particularly American history and biography—is number two. Mysteries are number three. I love certain poets—Kay Ryan tops the list, along with Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney—but I don’t tend to gravitate toward poetry books without someone saying: “You should take a look at this.”
Betty: Success looks different to different people. How do you define success?
S.W.: The main goal that I have had for my writing is to insert my characters—their situations, their cultures, their trials, and their joys—into other people’s heads. When readers talk to me about Paloma, or Serach, or Shmuely, or Manny as if they were as real to them as they are to me—when it is clear that they care about them and worry about them and want to know more about them and want them to be happy—that constitutes true success for me.
Serach Gottesman—soft-spoken, golden-haired renegade from Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, and Paloma Rodriguez—headstrong, drop-dead-gorgeous trailblazer from the Latina South Bronx, have been in love for ten years. They’ve sacrificed past relationships, cherished beliefs and communal ties for the sake of their audacious lesbian romance. In return, they’ve gained accepting friends, entrée into the diverse cultural riches of New York—and a sense of fulfillment and permanence.
And then an unexpected death, a seductive proposal, and a brutal arrest bring their indomitable families and cultures roaring back into their lives, with devastating results.
The book has been called: “a story of intense character confrontations and…intensely personal dilemmas…interwoven with religious credence, social justice, and cultural relevance,” (Jim Piechota, Bay Area Reporter); “a deep dive into what [readers] at bottom hold most precious,” (Michael J. Coffino, author of Truth Is in the House); “a complex, touching story about the difficulties of navigating one’s identity,” (Eileen Gonzalez, Foreword Review); and “a fast-paced narrative that offers masterful insights into New York City’s social and ethnic diversity and its criminal justice system.” (Jules Stewart, Author of Policing the Big Apple: The Story of the NYPD).
I have to say “wow” to the 643 drafts/revisions to your story, S.W.! That’s a lot of work to put in to make your story shine. Good for you! Thanks for sharing with us, too.
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
Visit www.bettybolte.com for a complete list of my books and appearances.