We did this interview at Diesel Books in Brentwood Thursday evening. Here's Diana's website. My write-up follows the video files below.
Here's Diana's website. Here's video from our interview.
I am deeply impressed by this young woman. It's the subliminity of her prose, the profoundity of her thoughts, and the beauty of her eyes. Not sure which is most important to me.
Here's Diana at her book reading tonight in front of eleven of us (mainly friends and family):
Before her reading, I sat down with Diana in an alley behind Diesel Books for an hour-long video interview.
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Diana grew up in the Boston suburbs. "I've always wanted to be a writer & Since the time I could pick up a pen."
Her dad is a doctor and her mom owned a party-planning business.
Diana has a younger brother (Orthodox) and an older sister.
All of her family lives in Texas.
Diana: "It wasn't until my senior year in college that I knew you could even go to graduate school [for writing]. I asked one of my professors at [the University of Colorado] can I go to graduate schoool for creative writing, he said, 'I don't recommmend that. You'll be broke for the rest of your life. I haven't seen your writing. Maybe you're a star. Probably not. It's a terrible life.'
"Once he saw my writing, he became a mentor for me. I did go graduate school for creative writing [an MFA at the University of Montana]."
Luke: "Where were you in the social pecking order in high school?"
Diana: "I always assumed I was popular & I had a lot of friends. I certainly chose social life over school during high school. That always makes you cooler when you're young."
"I was always confident about my skill [as a writer] until I got to graduate school, where I was on the bottom rung & At the first day of workshop, the professor said, 'You were all the best in college. Get over it.' Suddenly I was at school with really talented writers & I suddenly felt self-conscious about not being well read enough, about my lack of life experience, which you need to write anything of substance & Once I started to doubt my skill, I really started to work at it. Writing became very serious to me. It's a very serious artistic pursuit and if you don't treat it as such, you're not going to get very far."
"Reading Huck Finn in high school did nothing for me as a writer. It was reading all these writer writers such as Lorrie Moore. You don't read Lorrie Moore in high school."
"When I am not writing, I feel very off-kilter. Right now I'm not writing because I'm on book tour. I don't have structure in my life right now. So I'm not writing as much as I should be or the things that I'm writing are not what I want to be working on. Everything feels off because of that. I keep saying, 'I want to get back to my writing.' What I'm saying is that I want to feel normal."
Luke: "In which emotional state do you do your best work?"
Diana: "When I'm alert and well-rested."
Luke: "How about angry, sad or happy?"
Diana: "If I am too much of anything like that, it's distracting."
Luke: "So you don't write out of one primary emotion?"
Diana: "No. In many ways, I see it as work & Like anybody else going to work, you don't want to be distracted. You want to be well-rested & The emotion that I feel, usually I pick up the emotion of whatever it is that I am working on. To start off with any strong emotion, it's just going to take me longer to get to where I want to be."
Luke: "Even rage?"
Diana: "If I was in a rage, I don't think that I would sit down to write."
Luke: "What role has Judaism played in your life?"
Diana: "Well, I was raised with quite a bit of it. My family, we were Reform growing up. My family now is mostly Conservative. I am sort of unaffiliated. I am more interested in it than involved in it."
Luke: "What did people in high school expect you to become?"
Diana: "A writer."
Luke: "How did you end up in Montana?"
Diana: "I got that magazine US News and they had the list of the top ten grad schools [MFA programs]. I looked at the ones with MFA programs on the list. I crossed off the ones where I couldn't imagine living, such as Amherst, Massachusetts, and applied to all the other ones. When I got into Montana, I had never been to Montana, but I knew it was a great program. One of my friends got accepted with me and we drove out from Boulder, Colorado.
"I had a great two years, not just because I got such a fabulous education, but because it is such a great place to live."
Luke: "How did the MFA program change you as a person?"
Diana: "Again, it made me a serious writer and a better reader."
"I remember a serious shift in the way I saw the world & The ability to question and to step back a bit."
Luke: "Were you a confident program before the MFA program?"
Diana: "Yes, but it was unwarranted confidence."
"I've become more confident about my writing since my book came out. Unfortunately, I am very dependent on external validation. As artists we have to be otherwise it's journaling."
Luke: "How did you decide to make the Shlomo Carlebach thread so exact?"
Diana: "It's based on him but it's not him exactly. It s fiction. You're talking about the character Yudel Zeff."
Luke: "I can't think of any differences aside from the name."
Diana: "I had been to a Carlebach shul in Jerusalem and I was completely blown away by the music and the experience. The feeling that Ash describes in the novel was something that I felt, the music made me feel I was being lifted off the ground. I was so blown away, I wanted to find out who this guy was, then I stumbled on all this information and I felt very conflicted. It hasn't necessarily been proven. I didn't want to slander him or his name, even though a lot of the other events in the novel are true to history. The bombings, the siege of the Church of the Nativity.
"Yudel Zeff means the wolf who's beloved.
"You're the first person who's asked me about him."
Luke: "I'm curious why this guy is exact. There is no fictionalizing aside from the name."
"You dropped him in the same way you dropped in all those historical events. Exact."
"I love research. I did quite a bit of it. It's a great way to procrastinate."
Luke: "Carlebach is such a fascinating story you don't need to fictionalize it."
Luke: "What were the hardest and easiest parts of writing your novel?"
Diana: "There were no easy parts. The hardest part was constructing the plot."
"I remember printing out the first draft and thinking, 'I have a novel!' It was hundreds of page but there was no novel. There were just characters walking around having thoughts and feelings."
"I write character-driven fiction. I first come up with the characters and then the plot emerges because of who the characters are."
Luke: "How do you go about constructing your sentences?"
Diana: "When I was a newer writer, I paid a lot more attention to it. Now that I've found my voice, syntax comes naturally to me. I have to play with the syntax because it is important to make every character sound different."
Luke: "What modifying word would you most like attached to your writing?"
Diana: "Oh wow. Engaging."
"How about you for your writing?"
Luke: "I like brutal."
Diana: "You and I are probably very different people."
Luke: "I love it when people see the savagery in my work. I'm someone who climbs aboard a ship with a sword in his mouth and starts stabbing people."
Diana: "I'm more like the person at the bow of the ship with a rose in her mouth."
Luke: "I am going to get in so much trouble if I print what I just said."
"'Engaging.' Is that analogous to 'compelling'?"
Diana: "'Compelling' is a better word. 'Compelling' implies more substance & smart entertainment."
Luke: "What things have been said to you about your mature writing that have meant the most to you?"
Diana: "The two compliments that I've loved best that I've been getting in response to this novel are (A) people who say they stayed up all night or missed work to finish my novel, and (B), when people say, 'I've never been to Israel,' or 'I'm not Jewish, but your book made me want to go to Israel.'"
"I want to be entertaining. Part of being brutal or savage as you said is being entertaining to people. To be heard, you have to engage."
Luke: "Do you use writing to settle scores?"
Diana: "No, but you do, don't you?"
Diana: "Sometimes I settle scores with myself. I was doing a lot of searching spiritually when I was doing this project. An interviewer was asking me recently about some of the conversations between Ash (convert to Orthodox Judaism) and Monica (a seductress who left Orthodox Judaism). That they felt real. And I said, 'Actually, they were in my head. They were battles I was having with myself at the time I started the novel.'"
Luke: "You strike me as breathtakingly levelheaded."
Diana: "Thank you, Luke."
Luke: "Are you breathtakingly levelheaded?"
Diana: "No. I think I am often ruled by emotion, but it is a beautiful compliment. Thank you."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about being interviewed?"
Diana: "I like being the center of attention. I don't like the anticipation of a question I know I'm not going to want to answer."
Luke: "What are some of the best questions you've been asked?"
Diana: "These are, these are, these are it. These are probing."
Luke: "A friend [Robert J. Avrech] compared my interviewing technique to North Korean torture. I thought that was the greatest compliment."
Diana: "But I'm enjoying it. I don't know if that means I m masochistic. Maybe I should go to North Korea? All I did was come to California."
Luke: "I tend to close my eyes when I think."
Diana: "I've noticed."
Luke: "What has the publication and success of your novel meant to you?"
Diana: "It's tangible reward which is amazing. I toiled for years on this novel and at the risk of sounding dramatic, it really was awful at times because I had no idea if it was ever going to see the light of day. I had no idea if anyone was going to like it. I assumed people wouldn't. Sometimes it just felt self-indulgent, wasteful, pointless, like I was going in the wrong direction. Other days felt the opposite. 'Oh, I'm brilliant. Who knew?' Of course, minutes later, I'd be in the pits of despair. It's an emotional rollercoaster. It's thankless work when you're not getting published. Suddenly, in a day, I had a book deal. Then one day, it looked like a book, and it came to my house in a box.
"I opened the box and thought, 'There is the fruit of my labor.' I can't think of anything more gratifying."
Luke: "Would that be in the top five of things that ever happened to you?"
Diana: "Oh yeah. It's number one."
Luke: "How has your choice of profession affected you?"
Diana: "I'm a highly emotional person. I don't know if the writing does that to me or if I am a writer because I am that way. It's difficult to say because I've never been anything else. My adult life has been very tied up in this career path."
Luke: "How would your best friends describe you?"
Diana: "Loyal and hard-working. I'm sure if they were being honest, they would also have negative things to say about me but I'm not sure I even want to think about what those things are.
"How would your friends describe you?"
Luke: "Cynical, sarcastic."
Diana: "Your cynicism seems willful, though."
Luke: "Yeah. Probably my mother knows me better than anyone."
Diana: "What would she say?"
Luke: "Interesting. Disciplined. A lot of things people cry about I find funny."
Diana: "Honestly or willfully?"
Luke: "Honestly. I don't contrive a laugh. I think of people who want to reform me. They're really sweet people, good people, good Orthodox Jews."
Diana: "What do you they want to reform you to?"
Luke: "They want to save me."
Diana: "They want you to be more observant."
Luke: "Yeah, and not so cruel in my writing. Be shomer mitzvot [observant of Jewish law] and clean up my act. And that makes me laugh. It's a really pure place that they are coming from, but it strikes me as funny."
Diana: "Their earnestness?"
Diana: "Or their failure to not see it in black or white?"
Twenty second pause.
Luke: "Maybe naivete. I'm a bit of a shark. When I'm around guppies, sometimes it makes me laugh."
Diana: "Because of how easily you can eat them? Because of how close they are swimming to sharp teeth."
Luke: "Right, right."
Diana: "This feels like a scene in a horror movie and you're about to kill me. Is this what's happening? I'm glad we're close to the bookstore I'm reading in."
Luke: "Now you see where Amy Klein was coming from.
"I love to lambast myself. I love to disect myself in the most cruel ways."
"Your sentences [in your novel] strike me as unostentatious."
Diana: "Thank you. A lot of people tell me that I write the way I talk, which I think is true. I do edit. I do like the natural sounding sentences."
"Like every other writer in the world, when I was 13 I read ‘'Catcher in the Rye' and decided this is what I want to do. I want to write like this. I thought to myself, 'You're allowed to write like this. I can't believe it.' Because it sounded like a conversation. You can make something so beautiful and it just sounds like someone talking."
Luke: "You mentioned that a few years ago you were on a spiritual search. What were you searching about and what did you find?"
Diana: "I think my main question was, 'Is there value in practicing Judaism that is not Orthodox Judaism? If I believe, why would I not practice to the letter of the Law? If I am not practicing to the letter of the Law, doesn't that mean I'm not sure that I believe?' That was for me. I'm not judging other people."
Luke: "What did you come to?"
Diana: "Sometimes I say, complacency. Sometimes I say, some peace with agnosticism. It depends on how hard I am being on myself."
Luke: "Do you believe in God?"
Diana: "I'm agnostic."
Luke: "Do you believe in moral absolutes?"
Diana: "No. I believe that every person has a right to his safety, to food, water and shelter."
Luke: "Do you have moral guideposts?"
Diana: "None that I can think of. Do you? The Torah, right? Yeah."
Luke: "Anything that I haven't asked that I should ask you?"
Diana: "No. I'm getting so tired."
I turn off the camera.
Diana: "You want to get a drink?"
I lead us down 26th street. We're searching for a bar. I'm lost. I don't drink. I don't know how to do this.
Luke: "I'm not very good at real life."
Diana: "I'm good at real life."
Luke: "You'll have to lead."
She finds a bar on the corner with San Vicenete. She orders a glass of red wine. I order a Diet Coke.
I talk about myself. We have 20 minutes to kill before her reading.
I'm just getting started unburdening myself when it is time to go.
The check comes. One of my gentler qualities is that I have never run over anyone or anything to pick up a check. Nobody gets hurt when they come between me and a bill.
"Thank you," I say from the bottom of my heart.
While no Orthodox Jew touches money on the Sabbath, I'm more religious than most. I don't like to touch money on Thursdays as well.
When we walk back to Diesel Books, I lose touch with Diana. I try to find the bathroom on my own. It's a major trauma.
I could write a novel about it.
I spend ten minutes on The Decameron and then rejoin Diana for her reading.
As I watch the replay on video, I notice that my nightvision feature makes Diana's clothes see-through.
Diana talks about her whirlwind tour. "I haven't slept yet. I wake up every morning and I have no idea where I am."
Luke: "You care to tell us more about that?"
Diana: "Be careful what you say. Luke is famous for recording careless things people say on his blog. Right? I just thought I should warn them. Many of them are my family."
Luke: "Tell me the truth."
Diana: "You wish."
Diana reads for two minutes and take questions.
Bloke: "How come the father doesn't narrarate?"
Diana: "He's absent."
Another Bloke: "Is that symbolic?"
Diana: "Like what?"
Another Bloke: "Like God the father?"
Luke: "Yeah, because God is absent from the book and the father is absent from the book. It's a Godless universe that they are living in."
Diana: "Well, not Ash [the ba'al teshuva]."
Luke: "He believes but [he's a nutter] there's no reason to believe in the book."
"He [Ash] believes in God but I'm wondering about the universe of the book."
Diana: "I don't really know what you mean."
Luke: "Are all three voices equally authoritative?"
Diana: "Probably not. As a reader, you'd probably trust Bits and Ash more than you would trust the mother."
Luke: "I wouldn't trust the mother and I wouldn't trust the guy who became Orthodox. Even though Bits is screwed up, she's still the most authoritative voice in the book."
Bloke: "I'd agree with that."
Luke: "The guy went off the deep end. The mother's a nutter. The girl's a slut, but she's still the voice of reason in this universe of insanity."
Girl: "I think the book is more about family than about religion. You could substitute any religion in there and it would still work."
Diana: "I think so too."
"I think I was writing a family story before I was writing a Jewish story. To me it's a story about guilt, rescue and family bonds before it is about anything else."
Luke: "Did you have an experience of trying to rescue that backfired?"
Diana: "Many times, probably. I think we all do. You'll start to think that someone needs rescuing and what that means is that you want that person to be more like you, or more like society, or more capable of fitting in in some way, you think it is for the good of the person, but it's really a form of narcissism. Growing up and gaining maturity allows you to see that for what it is. If someone is not asking to be rescued and you are offering rescue, you have to question your own motives."
Luke: "Do you see people drowning and do you feel driven to rescue?"
Diana: "I've never seen someone drown."
Luke: "Not literally."
Diana: "Like struggling? Yes, I do. Many people feel compelled to fix, especially when you see a friend take a bad turn. It can be really difficult not to give in to the tendency to try to fix it."
Luke: "Did your theme evolve from the characters?"
Diana: "It came later. I came up with the characters first."
Bloke: "How long did it take you to write?"
Diana: "Four and a half years."
Bloke: "Do you think you'll return to these characters again?"
Diana: "I think these characters are better off without me. I cause them nothing back grief."
"I know exactly what they look like... The girl looks like me."
Bloke: "What was your profession while writing this?"
Diana: "I've always had odd jobs. I would never take on another career because I didn't want to have a career that wasn't this. Currently I'm teaching and working in a bar and working as a ghostwriter. I've done all kinds of things. I had a fellowship at San Jose State for a year. I was a writer-in-residence at a boarding school. Whatever I could do to make writing the center of my life."
Luke: "Were your parents concerned when you said you wanted to be a writer?"
Diana: "Yeah. My mom thought it was something I should do as a hobby. I don't think they knew anybody who did it professionally. The thing about choosing to be an artist is that you make up your own life. You don't have a template. When you're an artist, you just have to do what works for you to make your art your main focus."
A dark mysterious woman asks a question: "When you were writing your book, what was the most self-revealing part?"
Diana: "You're so pretty, by the way. You're strikingly beautiful."
Woman: "It's make-up."
Luke: "Probably the anonymous sex."
Diana laughs and sips her water.
Diana: "The thing I learned about myself that I was happy to learn was that I don't give up very easily. There was a lot of reason to... I also learned that I can lose it very easily. So it's disconcerting. I remember one time I lost three days work because my computer was having a problem. I literally was screaming and trying to pull my hair out of my scalp."
"I don't find writing to be magical or therapeutic. Now that I've been doing it for so long, it feels like work... The actual process is not cathartic for me."
"This is like book club, except that half the people haven't read it."
Luke: "You don't have an interpretative dance about the novel?"
Diana: "That's something I'd have to prepare for. I don't think that I could do it impromptu."
At the end, we give Diana the clap. Clap, clap, clap.