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Tales of reconciliation rooted in Judaism

Janni Lee Simner
Janni Lee Simner

Janni Lee Simner takes both her writing and her Judaism seriously. Being a full-time writer, with eight published young adult and children’s novels, has influenced her observance of Shabbat, she says. “On Friday night I take a deep breath, light candles in the window,” followed by a Shabbat dinner with challah and wine. “I don’t write on Saturdays,” she says, but she does write every other day.

Simner’s first novel for teens, “Bones of Faerie,” was published in 2010. “I wrote the opening scene or two. Then there was a gestation period of around 10 years” before she completed the book.

Although Simner, 46, has always been interested in the natural world, her young adult books have veered toward fantasy. “Faerie Winter” and “Faerie After” are sequels in her YA trilogy, which deals with the post-apocalyptic world.

Simner was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, N.Y. Her life changed at age 13 after traveling west to Wyoming with her Girl Scout troop. “I fell in love with scouting, the outdoors and hiking” on that three-week trip, she told the AJP.

The West beckoned, which is one reason why she chose Washington University in St. Louis. For her that was way west of New York. She graduated with majors in English and biology in 1989. When her college boyfriend, Larry Hammer, who’s now her husband, came to Tucson for graduate school at the University of Arizona in 1993, she followed. Her career started with freelance science and medical writing. Simner also wrote marketing copy for her alma mater and the UA. But it’s been three years since she’s written nonfiction as a freelancer, although she says she has some nonfiction ideas in her back pocket.

Her connection to Judaism has fluctuated over the years. Growing up in New York, “I took being Jewish for granted. My school was half-Jewish,” says Simner. At home, “we celebrated the Jewish holidays. I went to Hebrew school and belonged to a Jewish youth group. It was part of my identity where I grew up.”

In her books, “why I deal with forgiveness and reconciliation is Jewish. You don’t make things right just by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ You have to take action to make it right,” she says. “For me, this comes out of Jewish tradition. If you do harm you have to make it right in a concrete way. Saying a few words of prayer isn’t enough, [although] you can pray to get guidance.”

Simner realized that her use of reconciliation in writing “reflected my Jewish practice. People try to break Judaism into the secular and religious. I don’t fit neatly into a secular or religious Jewish box,” she continues. “I’m just Jewish. In the Jewish community there’s really more of a dichotomy, but it’s not that simple.”

Her writing process has also taken twists and turns, says Simner. She’s published four middle-grade novels, or chapter books, including “Secret of the Three Treasures” (recently re-released as “Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer”). She has also published more than 30 short stories for youth, teens and adults.

“My first drafts are garbage,” says Simner. “Instead of seeing messy first drafts and thinking ‘I don’t know how to write,’ now I look at a first draft and say, ‘This is a normal part of my process.’ I do at least five drafts as a minimum.” She used to “crumple up a page and say, ‘I can’t write. I can’t draw.’ After my first story was published I thought I was a real writer. But then it was my second story, then my third.”

Finally, Simner made herself an “I am a real writer” certificate. “Only I can do it,” she says, explaining that no one else can make her feel like a real writer. She now thinks of her initial work on a new book “as an exploratory draft more than a first draft.”

Every book Simner writes involves extensive research. “Thief Eyes,” a contemporary fantasy published in 2011, is based on Norse sagas that took the author to Iceland.

Back home in Tucson, Simner volunteers for Owl & Panther, a project of the Hopi Foundation that provides expressive arts for refugee youth affected by trauma and torture. She meets one-on-one with a young person every week at the Tucson Museum of Art, which, she says, reminds her of “pushing back frustration in writing. I can empathize with the kids.” Simner also volunteers at the Tucson Wildlife Center. She notes that her work-in-progress deals with shape-shifting ravens.

Looking ahead to future writing projects, she asks, “What does a writing career look like after 10 or 20 years?” To reflect on that question, Simner started the Writing for the Long Haul blog (, inviting other writers to contribute.

One of the reasons she keeps writing stories is “they let me visit all the places I can’t visit in person (especially the magic ones, which I haven’t figured out how to get to yet),” says Simner. But for now, “I love living in the desert, and I’m not sure I’ll ever live east of the Rockies again.”