The ProsenPeople

Interview: Anita Diamant

Tuesday, January 06, 2015 | Permalink

by Laurel Corona

Jewish Book Council recently sat down with Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, whose most recent book, The Boston Girl, was published in December by Scribner.

Laurel Corona: With several of your books, you have said you got the idea from discovering stories of unknown or forgotten people. For your new novel, The Boston Girl, what attracted you to take on the project?

Anita Diamant: There’s a real place called Rockport Lodge, and that’s where it started. It was set up in the early twentieth century by social workers. There was a large girls’ club as well in Boston and those things sort of meshed together. I thought of it first as a bigger canvas, focusing on Rockport Lodge over the years, following the same cast of characters. Over time it started focusing more on Addie. The original working title was actually “Rockport Lodge.”

LC: Did you ponder other ways to tell the story, or did you just know it had to be elderly Addie telling her story to her granddaughter? What do you feel you gained and lost by doing it this way?

AD: Well, it narrowed the focus to the eyes of one character, and there are things she couldn’t or didn’t know. She is telling her story much later, though, and can see more than she once did. With a broader focus I could have told Filomena’s story too, and the story of the cook at the Lodge, but I think the novel needed the kind of focus and intimacy it has.

LC: You said about The Red Tent that you figured out you didn’t need to know everything about the subject before you began writing. For The Boston Girl, when did you say, “Okay, I know enough to start. I’ll research the rest as I go along.”

AD: With The Red Tent, there was no internet, so I felt I needed to know a lot more first. With the advent of online libraries it’s much easier to get the rough overview and then fill in later. I always know that I’ll go back and do more research, to find out what people are eating, and other details, but you add that as you refine. There’s still a big place for physical libraries to poke around in because you find great things by accident too.

LC: There’s a term “elevator speech,” which refers to the thirty seconds or so one would have to pitch a book to some mogul who happened to be in the same elevator. Want to give it a try?

AD: Well, I’ve been describing The Boston Girl for four years now! It’s a coming-of-age story about the daughter born in the United States to immigrants from Eastern Europe. It takes us through her adolescence and early adulthood as she tries to figure out who she is. That’s sort of the elevator speech. It’s a very interesting period of history, so there’s that also. Women’s lives, popular culture, celebrity culture—all of that stuff is really popping in this time.

LC: I read somewhere that as part of your research for Good Harbor, you went to an oncology clinic to experience for yourself what your character Kathleen might have experienced with breast cancer. Did you do any unusual forms of research for The Boston Girl.

AD: Nothing like that! But I did find that all the papers from Rockport Lodge were saved when the building was sold. There were seventeen cartons of Lodge material at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. I was able to look at those papers very early on and they were unbelievably helpful.

LC: Of the same character, Kathleen, you once said that you liked her too much to kill her off. But sometimes you don’t have a choice about putting characters you’ve grown to love in positions you really wish weren’t happening. How do you handle that?

AD: Oh, those times are miserable! I’ve written rape scenes, massacres, deaths of children—it’s just painful! I think I write these scenes a little faster, taking a running leap into it, knowing I will be going back when I have a little more distance. But even beforehand, I am thinking about it and dreading it. Everyone has avoidance behaviors, I imagine. I go for a walk, drink coffee—and I have a very neat house!

LC: How kind are you to yourself as a writer? How do you handle uninspired days, and bad first drafts?

AD: I know that bad days happen and these days are part of the work. But I know that walking on the beach is writing, too. What is that poet’s term?—negative capability?—where you have to empty yourself to do your best work. I am in awe of people who knock out good books every year or two. I don’t know how they do that, and I don’t beat myself up over that because it’s just not me. And then I don’t really know if what I have written is any good until I am told so by readers—when someone I don’t know says they didn’t want it to end. Then I think I did a good job.

LC: You’ve commented elsewhere about how annoyed you get at the suggestion that authors “channel” characters rather than do the hard work of inventing every word on the page.

AD: Oh , I really hate that!

LC: I’d like to push back a little and say that I don’t know any novelist who doesn’t feel sometimes as if they can’t type fast enough to keep up with what is pouring into their head.

AD: That has never happened to me. There are times I read something I’ve written a long time ago, and I’ll say “Oh, that’s good—I wonder where that came from,” but I know it came from my subconscious, from relaxing enough to get out of my own way. People would ask me if I dreamed any of The Red Tent, as if it were somehow divinely inspired! With Addie, I guess you could say the wisecracking part of her came to me like that, and I tried it and it worked.

LC: You said in a recent interview that you don’t know what is next for you. You said that it’s a nice feeling not to know, and that you have never planned anything about your career, just made choices along the way. You did indicate that you thought you would probably continue to write. Can we count on that?

AD: Oh, yes—for sure! I don’t know how to do anything else!

Laurel Corona is a professor of Humanities and World Religions at San Diego City College. She received a Christopher Medal for her non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin's Press, 2008), and in addition to The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) has written three other novels focusing on real women overlooked or misrepresented in history.

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Day After Night: The Book Tour

Friday, September 11, 2009 | Permalink

In her last posts, Anita Diamant wrote about the cover of her newest novel Day After Night and about where she gets her ideas from.

I will be on the road a fair amount this fall, introducing my new novel, Day After Night, to the reading public. (Check out www.anitadiamant.com for where and when.) I’m not looking forward to it.

But fear not. This is not another ungrateful rant about the drudgery of the commercial journey. I heard a writer once call book tour fatigue a “first-world” problem –- on the order of too many choices in the grocery store. Believe me, I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to meet readers, which is the best part of a book tour. Actually, it’s pretty much the only good part.

The problem is that I am always a very reluctant traveler. I head for the airport fighting the gravitational pull of my own home. On the eve of any trip –- a day in New York, a week in Jerusalem, it makes no difference — I am already longing for the consolation of my return. My husband’s unthinking daily kindness breaks my heart. I get melancholy moving laundry from the washer to the dryer.

It is unfashionable to dislike traveling. So many people I know love to travel, live to travel, that it seems like a weakness or even a moral failing not to embrace the adventure of distant places. Does this mean that I lack curiosity? Or maybe I’m just a wimp. My daughter has already lived on three continents and she is only 23 years old.

People assure me that my aversion to travel is due to with working trips, which inevitably lead from airport to hotel to bookstore or synagogue or lecture hall, then back to hotel and airport again. Minneapolis, Cleveland, and many parts of New Jersey are all a corporate blur.

But the truth is, vacations make me anxious on their own terms. I get overwhelmed with choices: where to look, what not to miss. The essential experience or unbeaten track? A conversation with natives or another museum? The museum is easier and you get to check it off the universal travel to-do list. Which leads people to utter sentences such as, “We did London.”

My favorite travel experiences have been utterly random; the wine tasting I attended with a couple of medical students (complete strangers) in Tel Aviv a few years ago; the conversation – in French – with a man from Naples as we sat at a family-style restaurant in Florence; the Israeli restaurateur in Costa Rica, who served us the best meal we ate all week.

You don’t plan stuff like that; it just happens. I just need to scrape up the hope to believe that experiences like that are possible wherever I go — including stops along a book tour.

Anita Diamant’s newest book, Day After Night, is now available. Visit www.anitadiamant.com, her official website.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 | Permalink

In her last post, Anita Diamant wrote about the cover of her newest novel Day After Night.

This is one of those questions that most writers are inevitably asked. For me, the answer is different every time.

The Last Days of Dogtown was inspired by a locally-produced pamphlet I found in a bookstore. The Red Tent grew out of many sources including Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” and my exposure to the tradition of Midrash.

Day After Night was hatched over eight years ago, in 2000, when my daughter was a high school sophomore spending a semester in Israel on the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE), a program of the Reform Movement. My husband and I went to visit Emilia on the parents’ trip – our first trip to Israel.

We spent a good part of the week accompanying the students on their field trips (tiyulim) around the country. These were part of a semester-long comprehensive Jewish History course, which had included an architectural dig and a trip to Poland. By the time we arrived, the curriculum was up to the founding of the state of Israel, which meant bus rides to Haifa and Tel Aviv, to Latrun and to Atlit.

There, in the prison camp that has been turned into a living history museum, EIE director Baruch Kraus gave a spellbinding tour and history, which included the breathtaking and completely unfamiliar story of the October 9 break-out/rescue by the Palmach of all the prisoners to safety.

I remember thinking, “Now there’s a novel.”

I was fortunate enough to visit Atlit two more times after that to talk with the wonderful staff that runs the place and is committed to preserving the history of Aliyah Bet, the post- war immigration that brought nearly 1,000,000 Jews to the land of Israel. Only a tiny fraction of that million passed through Atlit, but it stands as a vivid reminder of the courage, luck, and perseverance of all those who survived the Holocaust and then made Israel their home. Atlit will always be a place that echoes with stories told and untold.

Anita Diamant’s newest book, Day After Night, is now available. Visit www.anitadiamant.com, her official website, and come back right here, where she’ll be blogging all week.

The Cover of Anita Diamant’s New Novel: The Director’s Cut

Tuesday, September 08, 2009 | Permalink

Anita Diamant, author of Day After Night, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

My new novel, Day After Night, is based on the true story of the October 1945 rescue of more than 200 prisoners from the Atlit internment camp, a prison for “illegal” immigrants run by the British military near the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa. The story is told through the eyes of four young women at the camp who survived the Holocaust with profoundly different stories: Shayndel, a Polish Zionist; Leonie, a Parisian beauty; Tedi, a hidden Dutch Jew; and Sorah, a concentration camp survivor. Haunted by the past, the four of them find salvation in the bonds of friendship and shared experience even as they confront the challenge of recreating themselves in a strange new country.

I love the cover. I can’t say that about all the books that bear my name, but I think this one is perfect.

The photograph was found by the persistent, patient, and talented art director Rex Bonomelli at Scribner. Because there are four main protagonists in the book, the search focused on an image of four girls. Some lovely shots were proffered, but because the four main characters – Tedi, Leonie, Zorah, and Shayndel – are described so fully in the novel, the pictures all seemed wrong for one reason or another: clothes, hair color, setting. Many emails were exchanged; many pictures were rejected.

This image arrived via email under the subject line “I think this is it.” Everyone agreed.

The photo comes from the archive of Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld, who were well known in Israel as photographers of Jewish settlers in Palestine in the mid-1940s. Indeed, the Sonnenfelds are said to have helped shape the image -– and self-image -– of the state.

The picture was not taken in Palestine at all; it comes from Germany in 1935 at the Ruednitz youth aliyah (Aliyat Hanoar) camp. This pre-immigration training center allowed young people to test their ability to live collectively and try out the demanding agricultural work of kibbutz life in the land of Israel.

Herbert Sonnenfeld (1906-1972) was a Berlin-born photojournalist who, with his wife, Leni (1907-2004) chronicled Jewish life in Germany until they fled the Nazis in 1939. At that point, they tried to immigrate to Palestine, then under British Mandatory rule, but were denied entry. Instead, they settled in the United States and traveled widely, photographing Jewish communities in Iran, Morocco, Spain, and ultimately Israel.

The image on the book cover haunts me. They look so joyful in their dance, in their shorts. There is no record, however, of their names. Did some of these kids make it to Israel? Did any of them?

Anita Diamant’s newest book, Day After Night, is now available. Visit www.anitadiamant.com, her official website, and come back right here, where she’ll be blogging all week.

MyJewishLearning reviews Day After Night

Monday, August 31, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In anticipation of JBC/MJL Author Blogging Series guest blogger Anita Diamant’s posts next week, Matthue Roth, of MyJewishLearning, offers a review of her newest book, Day After Night here.