Interview with Acorn Author, Alyssa Petersel
My name is Lacey Impellizeri and I am the newest member of the Acorn team. Since I was little I’ve dreamt of making people smile through books. After recently being hired for my first intern position with Acorn Publishing, I was given the task of interviewing each of our authors. Acorn has so many wonderful, unique authors to promote, so I jumped at the chance. It was a difficult decision, but I chose Acorn author Alyssa Petersel as my first interviewee. I found Alyssa’s story magnificent and groundbreaking, and I found Alyssa herself an intriguing, wonderful woman. As I glean knowledge from these amazingly talented writers, I hope readers will relate to my questions and find the answers useful and thought provoking.
You write about a very interesting topic! What was the inspiration for Somehow I am Different?
In March 2013, during my senior year at Northwestern University, I participated in a week-long volunteer program in Budapest, Hungary. Volunteering abroad was a unique opportunity for me to get a taste of the personality of a community between the lines of the most popular attractions. The trip was organized through Fiedler Hillel, and thus, was operated through a Jewish lens. Best of all, we were visiting Budapest during Pesach, or Passover, an eight-day-and-night Jewish holiday that commemorates freedom and has come to incorporate dialogue around social justice. Planning for the trip, I began my research.
At the onset, I read of only the darkest sides of the Hungarian Jewish experience. Articles from The New York Times, The Guardian, and various sites translated from Hungarian to English highlighted the far-right Jobbik party, infamous for its anti-Semitic platforms and for gaining increasing political influence in Hungary. I scrolled through pictures of anti-Semitic protestors against the World Jewish Congress, desecrated Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, and the Hungarian government’s request for a list of the Jewish names and leaders in Budapest. Discussion pieces and blog posts explored whether Hungary was on a downward spiral to pre-WWII conditions. I feared what the situation on the ground would feel like and wondered whether Jews in Hungary had a chance.
During the volunteer program, I interacted with Jewish Budapest on a number of levels. In a basement accented with exposed-brick, I toasted “To Life!” with nearly one hundred guests from different countries, different backgrounds and different futures. I listened to young Jewish adults describe their unexpected discovery of their Jewish roots in their teenage years and their revival of their Jewish identities in their twenties and thirties. In many cases, these individuals’ grandparents were either murdered in the Holocaust or survived the Holocaust and swore off Judaism to protect their families. If the survivors’ children were open to embracing Judaism, they were forced to do so in private because of communism, the reigning political ideology in Hungary from post-WWII until 1989. It wasn’t until this generation – my generation – that religion was a topic of conversation.
Despite these individuals not knowing about their spiritual roots, they took it upon themselves to learn. They dove into educational and community-building programs. If they could not find a program they were looking for, they created it. They experimented with religion and asked the crucial question: What does it mean to be Jewish? Most of all, they yearned to fit this new element of their identity into their otherwise muddled sense of self. They emerged with budding answers to questions like Who am I? and What is my place in the world?
Though I traveled to Budapest with the intention of giving something to the community on the ground, instead, the communities in Budapest shared an invaluable gift with me. The contrast between the joy and optimism of everyday Jewish Budapest and the frightening chaos portrayed in the news struck a chord. From then on, I felt a need to learn more and to share what I was learning with others.
How can you find inspiration for writing where there is none to be had?
I believe the inspiration is always there, but there are times when we are less tapped into it. Then, the question becomes: why? What is holding us back? What are we afraid of? Rejection? Insufficiency? Change? How can we channel our attention and compassion toward that experience?
Sometimes, we aren’t yet ready to release the story that’s building. In this case, I would suggest practicing patience. Another tactic is to temporarily shift focus to another piece. Forcing a premature story onto the page does not necessarily serve the writer or the audience.
One way to find inspiration is to press pause on publishing. If we write for a private or familiar audience, we may suddenly feel less impending judgment, opening our thoughts and pens to allow the story to unfold. One may write to maintain a conversation with him or herself, which carries tremendous insight and power.
Often, writing is a tool that can generate momentous attention and transformation. That tool often calls for deep research, immersing in the history, the people and places, and the sights and sounds of the topic being explored and exposed. In this case, if the story feels at the tips of your fingers, I would suggest observing, reading, and interviewing as sources of inspiration.
What was the greatest lesson that you learned through researching and writing this book?
I learned that you do not need someone’s permission to do what you believe is right or to pursue the path you believe is calling you. We grow up internalizing various societal and cultural expectations of us. Our first step is to become increasingly aware of what those expectations are and how much we have bought into them. Our next steps are to question whether those are internalizations we believe are in our best interest, to choose whether we want to carry those perspectives with us, and to muster the courage to explore and further understand whatever path we choose.
Did you get discouraged through the writing process? What did you do to overcome that?
Absolutely. The ebbs and flows of elation and discouragement are natural to the writing process, and to any long-term project. My approach to overcoming that is to not view it as a problem or as something to be “overcome,” but to sit with it.
I have found that if you go into a process with as realistic expectations as possible, for example, that you will have some days where you feel that you are on top of the world and other days where you wonder who will really read your sweat, blood, and tears, on the days that you are struggling, you won’t be as caught off guard. You might say, “I knew this day would come.”
Accordingly, set a realistic schedule. As an arbitrary example, if you know that you can write 15 pages per day, schedule for 12 pages per day, with the expectation that on the day you cannot write because you are not feeling up to it, you can practice self-care while also feeling assured that you are not falling behind schedule.
Has writing this novel changed you? Has it changed your writing? Motivations? If so, how has it changed you?
Writing this anthology has changed me tremendously. Since publishing Somehow I Am Different, I have realized that my connection to my book has a lot to do with what has felt like a severed relationship with my family’s ancestry.
Three months into my stay in Hungary, I learned that I was one-quarter Hungarian. This profoundly impacted me, in that it brought an element of Ba Shert, or “meant to be,” into my work. While I was writing about Jewish life and activism in Hungary, the story, my experience, and what I learned from it was about so much more.
Since then, I have maintained the belief that we sometimes write before we know where exactly the writing will take us, or what exactly we are writing about. Continuing to write without a compulsion to know all of the answers upfront may guide us closer to the story we intend and need to tell.
What is the best advice you could give another author?
Keep reading and keep writing. Practice patience with yourself. Structure your work, but remain open to reorganizing or refocusing as you write, as your primary thesis or intention may change with newfound information. Prioritize balance and self-care.
How did you choose your cover art? What was the decision process like for you?
While in Hungary, I worked with an artist named Zsili who designed street-style graffiti inspired by my book and themes of Judaism, resilience, human rights, reading and writing, and community. When it came time to publish in the United States, I chose a cover designer recommended by Acorn (ebooklaunch.com) and worked with that designer to incorporate Zsili’s designs into the Somehow I Am Different cover. Together, we moved forward with a color scheme of beige, black, and red, to highlight courage and passion. I love my cover and feel pride and gratitude for those that contributed to it each time I see it.
How did you feel when your book was first published and released? Was it an emotional roller coaster? Were you cool as a cucumber? How did you address these feelings?
When I received the first review copy of Somehow I Am Different in the mail, I felt an out-of-body experience of gratitude and pride. Part of me didn’t believe that the culmination of two years of hard work was actually in my hand.
This relative calm evolved fairly quickly into adrenaline, which ultimately supported my ability to apply for reviews, writing awards, book festivals, and speaking engagements outside of my regular 40-hour work week. The work I put into Somehow I Am Different did not feel like work, per say. I walked away from hours spent with Somehow I Am Different feeling fulfilled and somehow more in tune with myself and my innate skills.
What was the inspiration behind the title? How did you finally end up choosing this title over others?
In the epilogue of my book I actually write about my discovery of “Somehow I Am Different,” which became a fitting title as it links my story with my interviewees’. My favorite aspect of the title is that various individuals who do not yet know about the book perceive the title in various ways. Some assume it means that I have changed as the writer, others assume I am writing about people who are different, still more are curious for an answer: different how?
About halfway through my stay in Hungary, I asked an interviewee what it was like to grow up in Budapest. As he described his life in elementary and high school, he said, “Somehow, I felt different. I didn’t know why, but I felt it.” Previous interviews flooded my mind. Something in me clicked. Somehow, we all feel different. This is innately linked to our search for why that is, for who we are, and for who we want to be. Somehow, I am different; different from who I was, different from who surrounds me, and different from who I might’ve expected or wanted myself to be. Somehow, pieces became connected, and I found a title to my book.
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