Tammar Stein's first two young adult novels, Light Years and High Dive, were realistic stories of young women trying to find their places in the world.
Her new one, Kindred, is about another young woman trying to find her place. But here's how Miriam's story begins: "The first time I meet an angel, it is Raphael and I am eighteen." That's not a metaphor for a hot boy. The archangel Raphael crashes through the college student's dorm room wall in a commanding vision so terrifying it knocks her unconscious.
When she comes to, her whole life is changed. A girl who has never been committed to any faith (even though her father is a rabbi, her mother a former nun, and both are theology professors), Miriam finds herself grappling with baffling visions as well as a new job, disturbing physical symptoms and a crisis in the life of her twin brother, Mo.
What moved Stein, who lives in Clearwater with her family, to venture into the genre of supernatural fiction?
"I was driving one day, and on the radio I heard that Black Crowes song, You know she talks to angels/ Says they call her out by her name. And the only thing I could think of was, if the angels knew you by name, that would be a really bad thing."
The idea so intrigued her that she wrote a short story about a girl who meets an angel. Her husband read it and declared it her next novel. "I said, 'What? I don't write those kinds of books.' I think I wanted to prove him wrong. Next thing I knew I had 30 pages."
Angels are enjoying a surge of popularity in fiction — still running behind vampires, but doing well — but when Stein began her book four years ago, she says, "There were no angels around."
Kindred is not a typical angel book because its human characters don't fall in love with their celestial counterparts. "I couldn't imagine human beings falling in love with angels — they're terrifying," Stein says. "I know it's funny to say, but this is a realistic angel book."
She did extensive research on angels, studying Renaissance paintings and interviewing a religion professor and a rabbi about the beings' nature and history. Angels appear only rarely in the Bible; much of the information about them comes from apocryphal sources.
One thing became clear from her research. "These are not cozy, cuddly little cherubs. They are this other being." One of her interview subjects noted that in most biblical accounts of encounters with angels, the first thing the angel says is, "Do not be afraid."
Stein, 33, may not have written supernatural fiction before, but she has been writing for a long time. She grew up in the United States and Israel, and loved to read so much that she decided she wanted to be a writer while in high school. She earned a degree in English literature at the University of Virginia.
“Light Years started as a short story I wrote in college. The class loved it, the teacher loved it. I entered it in a contest and won $400. So that made me think writing fiction was a practical way to make a living. I didn't know it would be seven years before I made any more money from it."
While working part-time jobs and living in Italy, Germany and around the United States while her husband was in the military, Stein spent five years on Light Years, not trying in earnest to sell it until the book was "ripe."
"For a while I thought it wasn't going to happen for me," she says. "Then it was like a fairy tale."
She was approached by two agents on the same day; the one she chose soon had three publishers bidding for the book, and it was published in 2006. Light Years was named a Virginia Readers Choice book, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and New York Public Library Pick for Teens.
While writing it, she says, it never occurred to her it was a YA novel. But her agent and editors at Alfred A. Knopf were enthusiastic about it as a book for young readers. "YA chose me," she says, calling it "a welcoming field, a very exciting field."
One reason young readers respond to her books, she says, is the age of her protagonists, who have all been about 19. (Miriam is just about to turn that age as Kindred begins.) YA readers are variously defined, but they're roughly ages 12 to 16. "YA readers like to read up about four years."
Stein is already at work on her next novel, which while "not exactly a sequel" will pick up some of the characters who appear in Kindred.
She also makes time for her first love, reading. "I like to say I self-medicate with books." Some books she returns to over and over, ranging from James Clavell's King Rat to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
Her current favorite among YA novels is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. "She's my YA hero, because she wrote this series for middle schoolers, about Gregor the Overlander, that are these great boys' books. Then she wrote a YA series with this great, strong, independent girl as a protagonist, for girls at the age when they can be so passive.
"Hunger Games is a perfect book. It's YA, but oh my gosh. It's a dangerous, wonderful book."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.