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.