An Interview with Author Holly Sortland

Holly Sortland’s debut novel, Uri Full of Light, is now available on Kindle and in paperback, on Amazon. It’s on my current reading list. Check back next week for my review.

Q: Can you sum up Uri Full of Light in 20 words or less?

Uri Full of Light is a story about a conversion, redemption and forgiveness in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy during Israel’s second Intifada. 

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

So many things! The main character, Hannah, is somewhat semi-autobiographical.  Like Hannah, I grew up with a terminally ill father, and, like Hannah, I was in an emotionally/border line physically abusive relationship when I was 18, and on the verge of making some very poor decisions. I can’t pinpoint one thing that inspired me to write the book; it some ways the book wrote me. 2019 was an extremely difficult year for me. I was serving as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and our congregation experienced a lot of deaths. I  was also hospitalized for a mini-stroke, which led to the diagnosis of late stage Lyme Disease. I also experienced the death of my first love in high school, Patrick, who died from injuries related to a sky diving accident. Patrick brought me out of the abusive relationship that I mentioned earlier, and helped to birth the character Uri. As I was finishing the book, Patrick’s sister informed me that their maternal grandmother is Jewish. Strangely enough, when I was dating Patrick, I found myself drawn to Judaism and starting to research it, and even thought about conversion. I had know I idea that I was dating a Jewish boy at the same time!

 I also spent two weeks in Israel in the fall of 2019, which was life changing, and cemented my decision to leave the church and convert to Judaism. I spent lots of time in Tel-Aviv and Joppa, so when I wrote the scenes that took place there in my book, they were very fresh in my mind. 

Q: What research did you do when writing this story?

Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  In my story, the Geller family practices modern Orthodox Judaism. The term “Modern Orthodox” required a lot of research in and of itself. I spoke with Jewish friends and a rabbi who serves in a Conservative shul, though he grew up Orthodox. We had a lot of discussion of what it meant to be “Modern Orthodox,” and in the end, we found that everyone seemed to have their own interpretation. One of my editors is an Orthodox Jewish woman, and we spent hours over zoom shaping the characters and the story. Did the Geller family speak Yiddish or Hebrew? Was it feasible to imagine that an Orthodox family would leave their Jewish community for a year because of work purposes, and if so–could they worship at a Reform shul? These were just a few of the questions that I grappled with, and I couldn’t have done with without the help of my editor, Shoshanna, and Rabbi Stuart Federow. I also had to ensure that my Hebrew was correct. Again, my editor and Rabbi Stuart were immensley helpful with that. 

I also had to research a lot about life in the IDF. I read up about secretive units that were created as the suicide bombings began to increase in the late 1990’s early 2000’s and weren’t acknowledged by the IDF until the second intifada ended. It also helped that my Israeli tour guide served in the IDF, and he shared a lot about his experiences as a soldier. As I noted in my book’s acknowledgements, an event that takes place later in the book is loosely based off of a story that my Israeli tour guide shared. I was pleased with how well I was able to weave it into Uri’s story. Finally, I also had to research a little Arabic, and my Palestinian tour guide was very helpful with that. I am incredibly grateful to have made such great connections during my trip to Israel. 

Q: What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Probably plot development. I am not an organized persion (ask my husband or children about my housekeeping skills), so I am not one to plot out the book/storyline before I start to write. As I said earlier, in a lot of ways, the story ended up writing me. I truly believe that HaShem planted this story in my mind and the characters and plot just came to be. But there were defintely times when I wondered if I was taking the book in the right direction. After I made a major decision regarding one of the main character’s, I read that portion of the story to my 11 year old daughter. She started to cry! I knew that it could have that sort of impact, I was taking the story in the right direction. 

Q: Who was your favorite character to develop?

Oh, definitely Hannah! As I said, she is somewhat semi-autobiographical, but there are many things I added to Hannah’s story that were very different from my own. Hannah is a fiery, strong-willed character, yet she still found herself in an abusive relationship. I think that holds true for so many women. It amazes and saddens me the amount of strong, confident women I know who have endured some form of partner abuse (including myself). And even though she doesn’t get a lot of attention in the book, I enjoyed creating the character of Uri’s mother, Devorah. My Jewish editor and I had to invent a background story for her. We had to decide–was she a woman who would wear a tichel or a wig, or a headcovering at all? In the end, Devorah ends up having grown up in Israel and comes from a very Orthodox family. There is a lot more to be told about Devorah. 

Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from readers?

Well, without giving away spoilers, the first thing people tell me is how much they cried. There is tragedy in this story, but it’s realistic to the horrors that so many families faced during the second intifada. I also have had women tell me how much they see themselves in Hannah, especially before she undergoes her conversion, when she was harboring guilt and carrying scars from her abusive relationship. I think a lot of women can see a bit of their younger selves in Hannah. 

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Q: What inspires you to write?

I have always wanted to write a novel, but never imagined myself during it. I found that the writing part was easy; editing it was a grueling, never-ending process. In this case, writing the story of Hannah and Uri was incredibly therapeutic. It helped me deal with my the grief I harbored from my father’s death over twenty years ago, as well as the grief I experienced when Patrick passed away. I also think that writing is way to permanently leave our mark in the universe. I hope that forty or fifty years from now, when I’m dead and gone, people will still be reading the story about Hannah and Uri.

Q: What message do you want readers to take away from Uri Full of Light?

As I was writing the story, breath and light seemed to be two elements that popped up again and again. Breath and light are part of creation, and ultimately, transformation. In the book you see a transformation of virtually all of the characters, including minor characters who, on the surface, harbor ill will. But in the end, you find that they too are capable of changing for the better. I hope that readers feel renewed when they finish the story, and also, though it sounds trite, hopeful. In the time that we’re living in now–a global pandemic filled with civil unrest–we need to read stories about people changing for the better. We can’t change the world if don’t change ourselves. 

Q: What is on your current reading list?

Lots of Jewish literature! Right now, I am reading Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. I’ve loved her since I read The Red Tent almost twenty years ago. I also have her book Living a Jewish Life on my Kindle, along with some titles about the IDF and secretive Masad operations. I am facsinated with real-life spy thrillers. As I am embarking on my conversation, I’m also reading To Pray as a Jew by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin,The Book of Jewish Values: A Day by Day Guide to Ethical Living by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and some other books about the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism. 

Q: What is your next writing project?

My friend and mentor Rabbi Federow wants me to write an autobiography about my faith journey into Judaism, so I am considering that. My next fiction project will be a prequel to Uri Full of Light, focusing on Avi and Devorah Geller. There is a reason they left Bala Cynwyd temporarily for South Dakota, and I’m excited to delve into that back story. 

Q: Can you provide your web address for the audience?

My author Facebook page is best:

Q: Any closing remarks?

Nope, I think I said it all! 

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Join 5,500+ Followers

As a thank you for registering for our email list, you’ll receive free printable reading journal templates and a bonus 100 book reading list! Members of the email list also receive an exclusive discount code for my Etsy store: MapleStreetStudioHRS.

Read My Review of Uri Full of Light

Book Review: Uri Full of Light by Holly Sortland

By: Holly Sortland Uri Geller is a high school junior, trying to adapt to life in South Dakota when his father chose to take a job in the local hospital, transferring his family from their Modern Orthodox community in Pennsylvania. It’s a challenging transition for him but all of that changed when he met Hannah…

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