Rena Rossner isn’t the typical writer of Fantasy novels: while many writers have fought for an inclusive voice in mainstream publishing circles, she is one of the only ones representing Orthodox Jewish women. Rossner was born and raised in Miami Beach, FL in a Modern Orthodox environment but has lived in Israel for much of her life. “One thing that always bothered me is that I never got to see myself as an Orthodox Jewish teen represented in the pages of novels.” While there may have been some depictions in The Chosen or My Name is Asher Lev, those novels were dour slices of life. She was an avid reader of fantasy and that genre was certainly bereft of any representation. “I never saw an Orthodox teen being represented in a positive light, or even a negative light, being the heroine of her own tale.” That moved Rossner to write The Sisters of the Winter Wood. Publisher’s Weekly called it:”Intricately crafted, gorgeously rendered…full of heart, history, and enchantment,” and named it Best Book of 2018: SF/Fantasy/Horror. Kirkus said, “Rossner’s debut weaves a richly detailed story of Jewish identity and sisterhood… emotionally charged, full of sharp historical detail and well-deployed Yiddish phrases…Ambitious and surprising.”
“Ever since I was able to read and write, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.” With teachers and mentors who gave her great feedback even from early on, she simultaneously struggled with being pigeonholed as just a Jewish writer, as rabbis would tell her she could write for Artscroll and Feldheim. “I had bigger dreams. [People would say] ‘but we need books that are well-written, that are appropriate, that people can read on Shabbos…’ and I was like ‘But that’s not what I want to do with my life.'” She studied at Johns Hopkins University and Chaim Potok was one of her writing teachers. “I was super lucky to have had that.” At the time, there were two renowned writing MFA programs and Iowa was one of them. Rossner chose JHU, even though it meant missing out on going to seminary. “Baltimore was great to me.”
Despite Rossner’s success with The Sisters of the Winter Wood, it was a long time in coming. “I had two other novels besides this one that had an agent…but that didn’t make it past the editorial board.” By day, Rossner works as a literary agent at the Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem. There, she saw from the inside what worked in the world of publishing. “This book was right for a number of reasons. It’s a story about resistance, about Jewish life, not about Jewish death. The Holocaust seems to sometimes be the only thing we can talk about. It’s important, and it’s critical…we need to keep telling these stories. But there are so many other stories [too.]”
Another success of Rossner’s was the cookbook she published a few years ago called Eating the Bible, which connects recipes with the parsha. “I wanted to create something for men and women to read while they cooked, to enrich their cooking with divrei Torah, and then they have something to bring to the table. ‘This food that I made is from the parsha, here’s a conversation we can have.'” Her novel was different. “This was going to be the most ‘me’ out of every book I’ve written, the most unapologetically Jewish, it’s just going to be my heart and soul on the page, something that I wish had been there for me when I was a teen.” At the end of the day, Rossner knew that she would be happy with it, even if no one else ones. “Often that’s the project that shines the most, and that’s the one that’s going to get published.”
Rossner explored the idea of Jewish fantasy in general, defying the myth that so much of Judaism is so reality-based. The Midrash, even the idea that a prayer can affect the world, are core to the religion. Hasidic tales, often miracle stories, are filled with fantasy. That most inspired Rossner in researching her book. “We’ve always done miraculous things in every generation, in order to remain faithful but also in order to survive…Every single one of us who is a Jew today is a miracle, because there’s no other way to explain how we’re here. Somebody, somewhere did something incredible.” It was just pushing the envelope a tiny bit more to make it fully magical. Rossner is 75% done with the second book set in the world of Jewish European fantasy, and hopes to have something out to readers by the end of next year.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood ended up selling at an auction between three different publishers. “Not everything that’s published ends up at all the stores.” Rossner was soon told that she was her publisher’s top new title. “The reviews were so fabulous, but even then, you have to have people come out and buy it.” While she hasn’t hit the New York Times Bestseller List yet, it is something to aim for. Now Rossner has spent time correcting the pronunciation of all the Jewish words in the Audiobook. “I am an ambassador now to talk about my religion and my Orthodoxy so openly. It’s important that I get it right.”
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is available here.