Tal Tsfany on Sophie, the Book

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tal Tsfany about his new book, Sophie. Tal is an entrepreneur, investor, businessman, and cofounder of the Ayn Rand Center Israel. He recently accepted the position of president and CEO of the Ayn Rand Institute, beginning at the end of June. This interview, however, is solely about his book, Sophie. Although the interview doesn’t contain any substantive spoilers, it does contain indications of a few scenes and of the natures and actions of some of the characters. If you’d rather not read such indications before reading the book, I recommend that you read Sophie before reading this interview. —CB

Craig Biddle: Tal, let me begin by thanking you for writing Sophie. What a wonderful and moving story! My wife, Sarah, and I just finished reading it—actually, she read it aloud to me. I’m spoiled that way. But when we got to the last few pages, we were unable to continue—because both of us were in tears. So we asked our daughter, Darcy, to read the final pages to us. She had already read the book and was able to maintain her composure.

Tal Tsfany: I’m so glad you enjoyed the book and were moved by it. This type of feedback is the kind of reward I was hoping for when I was writing Sophie.

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Biddle: I have a lot of questions, but I’m going to try not to include or elicit any spoilers, as I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t yet read Sophie. Let’s start at the beginning. How and when did you first conceive of this story?

Tsfany: It was during the year that I discovered Objectivism. That was a very powerful year for me. It felt like somebody was cleaning the windshield of the car I was driving—everything was becoming clearer. But I didn’t have outlets to share the discoveries because the people around me didn’t seem to be interested in the ideas as much as I was. I felt a need to share my learnings with my kids, who were too young to read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. So I thought it would be great to incorporate these ideas into some kids’ stories with a Howard Roark-type character and with conflicts and resolutions that kids could understand and enjoy.

My initial idea was that each story would illustrate or highlight a particular virtue. So I began writing short stories in this vein and reading them mainly to my two younger girls, Shiri and Yael. Ron, my eldest son, helped by illustrating the characters of Sophie and Leo, who were there from the very beginning. The name Sophie comes from “philosophy” or “philo-sophia”—meaning “love of wisdom.” And Leo is my debt to Leonard Peikoff as a great educator.

After a while, I had twelve or thirteen stories involving Sophie and Leo. And my kids and I had enjoyed reading and discussing them. But I soon realized that I could merge them into something bigger. So I decided to write the book.

That, of course, was easier said than done. It took almost a year and a half to define the storyline, and the characters became bigger and deeper as that developed, so I had to make them older. They went from eight or nine to fifteen, and then later back to thirteen. That’s where I found the balance. At that age they were old enough to have deep thoughts and interesting dialogues while still maintaining the innocence of first discoveries, like a first kiss.

As for the plot, that draws to some extent from my life and my history in Israel, which, in the story, I changed to Syria. Sophie runs away from Syria and comes to America, and her path to the discovery of American values is similar to mine. Some elements of the environment and dialogue are drawn from my childhood.

Biddle: So there is some autobiography in here?

Tsfany: Yes. I’ll tell you a story. When I was six years old, I started first grade in Israel, and that’s when you start studying the Bible. It’s mandatory. Every kid gets a Bible, and their mothers usually wrap it with something nice. My mother went the extra mile and made a book cover with my name embroidered on it.

I asked her, “Why do we even study the Bible? God doesn’t exist.” I didn’t share with her that a couple of months earlier I had concluded that God was a fairytale as he didn’t respond to my ultimatum to show himself or give me some proof for his existence. After failing to come up with real evidence, she tried the “trust me on this” argument that didn’t satisfy my young but principled mind.

Being a dedicated, honest educator, my mother realized she couldn’t offer any real explanations, and that made her cry.

Biddle: You were quite philosophical at an early age.

Tsfany: Yes, but it would be a long time before I discovered philosophy and the existence of the fully integrated philosophical framework of Objectivism. I regret not picking up Ayn Rand earlier, as her books were available when I was a teenager back in Israel.

Interestingly, I grew up in a kibbutz, an Israeli commune. A kibbutz is based on pure communism—I was not allowed to have my own property. But I remember seeing Ayn Rand’s books there. I saw them lying around on beds, and I saw people reading them. It is fascinating that people were reading Rand in a kibbutz. I think it was because most of them took ideas and philosophy seriously.

In regard to the philosophy that was taught in the kibbutz, however, Rand’s ideas were nowhere to be found. We were taught the ideas of Marx and Popper and others but nothing rational. None of it made sense to me, and I deemed philosophy to be useless. I later turned to the clearly sensible field of engineering as a career.

So, yes, a lot of Sophie’s soul is my soul in that I always searched for rational ideas to guide me in living my life. But whereas she has a clear and well-integrated view of the world and the purpose of life, I was still quite confused at her age. She’s a bit of what I was and a bit of what I wish I was as a kid.

Biddle: I certainly wish I had had her clarity of thought at age thirteen.

You’ve woven a great deal of philosophy into this story. It deals with every branch of the science—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, even aesthetics. It also deals with various aspects of life and the kinds of relationships and conflicts that kids and teenagers face—from wanting things and needing money and figuring out how to earn it, to dealing with bullies and worse, to seeing the difference between good teachers and bad ones, to grasping the nature of trade and the importance of freedom, and so on. I don’t want to get specific, as I don’t want to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. But it really does cover a huge amount of philosophical ground, and it does so by means of plot-driven action and dialogue. So my question is, in writing the book, did you say to yourself, in effect, I want to include these elements and concretize and integrate them in this way? Or did the events and connections develop more organically? How did all of this come together?

Tsfany: Well, as I mentioned, I started with a series of discrete stories, each of which involved some philosophical idea I wanted to manifest. And when I decided to merge these, I realized that I had to weave them into a plot. That was a real challenge. And some elements were hard to place. The bully chapter, for instance, was removed at one point because it wasn’t working where it was. But then I put it back in when I found the right place for it in the story. And I permanently omitted several other scenes because I felt they were just conveying philosophy without advancing the plot.

This was a constant question while writing and editing the book: Is this advancing the story, or is it merely delivering a message? I wanted to illustrate philosophical ideas, but only insofar as I could work them seamlessly into the story and integrate them with the nature of the characters.

Another example where I made a substantial change along these lines was in the scene where Sophie and Leo are sitting in the waiting room with the modern art. I initially had Sophie express her views on the “art,” but I decided to flip it because Leo is the artist, so it was more fitting for him to address that subject, showing us that he is learning from Sophie how to think critically.

Biddle: Given the extent of philosophy you convey in the book, I expect it will be criticized by some as didactic or as a morality tale. “Hey, you’re intentionally trying to teach here!” My response would be: Yes. So what? Show me a novel with a powerful story that doesn’t teach. Why do people write novels and tell stories? Aren’t they trying to get some kind of message across? Isn’t that part of the purpose?

Tsfany: I agree. During the first round of editing, the editor was trying to eliminate parts were I was “pushing an agenda.” And I rejected some edits, explaining that I’m not shying away from it. On the other hand, it was important for me to make the story interesting and carry itself without long speeches. Early drafts definitely had some of that. Although the finished book has a definite philosophical message, I think and hope it integrates well with the story.

Biddle: I think you pulled it off. My concern when I first heard about the book was that it’s hard to do this kind of thing well, and it’s easy for such an effort to become overly or inappropriately didactic. I didn’t know you or your writing at all, so when I heard that you were trying to convey Objectivist ideas in a tweens’ and teens’ novel, which makes it all the more difficult, I was skeptical. But the way you conveyed the ideas through the dialogue and the story really does work. Yes, its didactic, in that it’s intended to teach. But it’s not pushy didactic. It’s organically didactic. The ideas flow out of the story and the dialogue in a way that feels natural.

I see the theme of Sophie as the importance and benevolence of independence and integrity. Is that roughly how you see it?

Tsfany: That’s very close to the way I think about the book. I wanted to portray a heroic, virtuous young girl with a Howard Roark-type character. And I wanted her to be believable, someone kids could see as real and get attached to. I agree that the most important thing about her is her commitment to independent thinking. She learned a lot from her grandfather and from others, but she insists on making sense of the world for herself and through her own observations and integrations. She constantly asks questions and looks for connections. She also makes mistakes, such as in the Sharing is Caring Day. But her aim is always to evaluate things and people rationally and to act accordingly. So I would say the theme is the importance of independent thinking, integrity, and consistency.

One thing that was hard for me, given that the story is told from Leo’s first-person perspective, was showing Sophie’s internal conflicts and how she tries to maintain integrity and consistency—for example, when she wants to work for Ingrid to earn the money she needs for the immigration paperwork, yet she senses that Ingrid is corrupt.

Biddle: I thought that conflict was a good way to show that life is not always neat and tidy. We face difficult decisions, and there’s always a hierarchy of values at play as well as degrees of knowledge about the people we deal with. One of the main values in Sophie’s hierarchy was her need to resolve her immigration problem, and the project for Ingrid was a means to that vital end. It didn’t seem to me, at that point in the story, that Sophie fully understood the nature of Ingrid’s character.

Tsfany: Exactly. I wrote several paragraphs about what was going on in Sophie’s head, but my limitation was always that I was writing in first person, from Leo’s perspective.

Biddle: My daughter, Darcy, just walked into the room, and I think she wants to ask a question.

Darcy: Hi, Tal! I just wanted to say that I think writing the story from Leo’s perspective was one of the most gorgeous choices of the whole book. It makes Sophie quite mysterious—you’re never sure what’s going on inside her head. Maybe I’m not as wise, but at the beginning of the story watching Sophie making some of her choices, I was with Leo, saying, “Oh my god, take the money!”

Tsfany: Ha! You know what? My first editor advised switching to third person because with that you have an easier time, you can float the camera anywhere you want. You can go in her head, his head, wherever. But it felt so intimate to tell it from Leo’s perspective and to watch him deal with the new ideas and perspectives Sophie challenges him with. Telling it from Leo’s perspective also enabled the readers to share his affection for Sophie and think, “Wow, that Sophie girl is cool.”

Darcy: And the spotlight scene was amazing. I’ve never wished that I could draw more than at that moment. Your son’s drawing there was incredible; I think it was my favorite drawing in the book.

Tsfany: Thank you. Now that he’s older, Ron looks back and says, “Dad, I could’ve drawn those so much better now.” He is a full-time student in an amazing art school dedicated to character design, so maybe in a later edition he’ll decide to revise them.

Biddle: My next question is sort of from Darcy, too. Is Mr. Sumner based on Dr. Eric Daniels, who teaches history and science at LePort Schools?

Tsfany: Though I know of Dr. Daniels, I have yet to meet him. No, for me, Mr. Sumner is my fourth-grade teacher.

Biddle: Well, your descriptions of him and the words you give him sound exactly like Dr. Daniels. At one point, while Darcy was reading the book, and before I had read it, she came running in, asking, “Does Tal know Dr. Daniels? This character is Dr. Daniels!”

Tsfany: I’ve heard good things about him, so I’m happy to know the similarity exists.

I have a story related to that. One day the teacher who was the inspiration for Mr. Sumner took us outside—she was wearing black pants and a white shirt, and for forty-five minutes she would not give us the answer to the question, “Why are my pants warmer than my shirt?” She had us discover for ourselves the fact that light interacts with material differently depending on its darkness. I’ve never forgotten the experience. She was phenomenal.

Biddle: Yep. She sounds like Dr. Daniels. I wish there were a million teachers of their kind.

Do you have plans for a sequel to Sophie?

Tsfany: No, but I’m playing with the idea of writing something bigger. I’m fascinated with the idea of Lord of the Flies and with starting a society from scratch. I have a framework for an idea of what I want to do. I just hope I can make the time and generate the energy to do it.

Biddle: This would be Lord of the Flies going in the other direction, I take it? What boys can do when they put their minds to productivity and trade?

Tsfany: Exactly—it’d be a good, non-cynical version of Lord of the Flies.

Biddle: Well, I’ll be first on the list to read that one.

Where can people keep up with your work, news about Sophie, and any future books you write?

Tsfany: Sophie has a Facebook page, which is “Sophie—The Book,” and I have a website, which is Sophie-book.com. I also have an author page at Amazon and Goodreads.

Biddle: And, of course, the book is available in both print and Kindle versions through Amazon. We’ll link to all of these in the published interview online.

Thank you again, Tal, for writing Sophie—and for taking time to speak with me about the book.

Tsfany: Thank you, Craig, I appreciate this, and I will cherish the feedback of you and Sarah tearing up while reading the ending.

Let me add that if parents want to read the book together with their kids, there is a Parent-Child Discussion Guide downloadable on Sophie’s website that can facilitate discussions after each chapter of the book.

Biddle: Ah, yes—I’m glad you mentioned that. I had intended to.

A final word to our readers: If you’ve not yet read Sophie, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy today. And if you have children or teenagers—or friends who have them—let them know about this book. It is profoundly good.

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