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.

ADThat 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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