Born and bred in Melbourne, Australia, and now living in Detroit, Michigan, Rochel Burstyn is a popular author whose numerous short stories and features have captivated Jewish kids from all over, appearing in publications like Mishpacha Junior, Binah Bunch, Binyan, and more. Now, in conjunction with Torah Temimah Publications, she has just released Choices: An Assortment of Delicious Stories about Life’s Challenges, her first full-length book for children and preteens. Packed with 24 dazzlingstories that combine vivid characters, amusing plots, and important life lessons, Choices features a master storyteller at her best, and is sure to delight young readers worldwide.
Q. When did you begin writing short stories?
A. In 2006, my brother got married in Australia and I flew in from Detroit with my kids to be at the simchah. Before I left, I jokingly told my 21-year-old sister Brocha, “Please wait a while to get married; I don’t have any money left!” She didn’t listen to me, and b”H got engaged a few months later. Since money was tight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford another ticket to Australia, and I was beyond disappointed I’d be missing her wedding. At one point, I sat at my computer and wrote a story about a girl who wouldn’t be attending her brother’s wedding and how upset she felt. I called the story “Wedding Daze” and submitted it on a whim to Binah Bunch. They loved it and began to offer me writing assignments. (B”H the end of the other story is that at the last minute, I did end up going to my sister’s wedding, and it was incredible!)
Q. Are others in your family talented in this way?
A. We are all talented in different ways. The only shared talent we have is the ability to understand the language of chocolate—usually it says “eat me!”
Q. How do you come up with ideas?
A. I listen when people tell me about their experiences and then say something like, “Wow, I’m so sorry you had a terrible fight with your best friend/your teacher picked on you/your money blew away with the wind/you fell out of a hot air balloon/a dog chased you up a tree/a bear ate your hiking shoes/you cut open a cantaloupe and a butterfly flew out…Can I write a story about it if I don’t use your name?!” Then I’ll think of some kind of conflict or “lesson” so there’s some meaning to it.
Q. Do you ever get stuck?
A. Nope, the only time I’m ever stuck is in traffic! Just kidding. Sure, I get writer’s block sometimes. I’ll usually start writing when I have at least some sort of an idea where I’m going to wind up, but sometimes I don’t. Deadlines can cause a lot of pressure—sometimes I’ll just start typing and typing and the whole time I’m thinking “this is rubbish, no one’s going to like this,” but I’ll come back the next day and make some changes, and then it’s not as bad as I thought. Most of all, I’m very aware that everything comes from Hashem: ideas, time, energy, assignments and whether a story will touch readers or not. Before I start writing any new story or assignment, I always say a little heartfelt prayer out loud in English, asking Him for success.
Q. How many stories have you published in your career?
A. I lost track a long time ago, and I have three boxes of magazines containing my stories, features and interviews so it will take way too long to count!
Q. What are your favorite themes?
A. I particularly enjoy writing stories that actually happened to me as a kid! I’ll include private jokes in the story that no one will “get” except my childhood friends—if they remember the incident! For example, the story “Camp Potatoes” was based on a true anecdote. I have half an image in my head that my long-lost camp counselors from 22 years ago will be reading Choices to their kids at bedtime out in Yahoopitzville (or wherever else they live now), recognize the story and think, “I wonder whatever happened to that awesome group of Australian girls!”
Q. Why do you think your stories are so popular with Jewish kids?
A. When I write, I try to create characters that are true-to-life— vivid, multi-dimensional, imperfect boys and girls that could be your next-door neighbors or classmates. I also try to focus on challenges that are very real to today’s kids and preteens—like peer pressure, bullying, doing well in school, and behaving with fine middos. Even though my stories are fiction, I suspect that many of my readers see themselves in the stories and relate to the challenges the characters face.
Q. What kind of feedback do you receive from readers?
A. I once got a handwritten note from my 8-year-old next door neighbor taped to my front door. It made me so happy! Another time, I wrote a story about a wedding gemach “The Right Ad-dress”, and a reader wrote that she showed the story to her friend who was so embarrassed because her family was using a gemach… and her friend didn’t feel so embarrassed after reading my story. These are just two examples of the encouraging comments I’ve received, and I treasure them all—whether they arrive in verbal or written form.
Q. How does it feel to be published in book format?
A. Like a dream come true! I’m really excited about it, and so is my entire family! Not everyone out there gets weekly magazines like Mishpacha, Binah Bunch, and Binyan (where my stories are usually published), so I’m thrilled that Jewish kids all over the world will be able to buy this book and get a taste of my wacky imagination. Also, there’s nothing like curling up with a great book: one good short story is nice, but 230 pages filled cover-to-cover with fabulous stories about kids like you…why, that’s a reader’s heaven!
Q. Did you enjoy working with your publisher?
A. As my favorite saying goes: “Time flies when you’re having fun—unless you’re a frog, then it’s times fun when you’re having flies!” The hardest part was trying to “write American”—I never realized how British/Australian I write until I began working on this book! It was an absolute pleasure, though, and everyone I “met” (through email) was so nice. I want to take this opportunity to thank Rabbi Eliyahu Miller for being a fabulous publisher and a really nice person to work with. I hope we’ll have the opportunity to work together again. What a great experience!