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 last night in front of eleven of us (mainly friends and family):
Before her reading, I sat down with Diana 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."
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."