Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Interview with Debut Author--Diana Spechler

by Heather Moore

I've been waiting a long time to share the story of how I met Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire (Harper Perennial).

I met Diana at the BEA Expo in Los Angeles this past May. Her book looked interesting so I stood in her line and ended up talking to her for a couple of minutes. Since I spent time living in Jerusalem, I was especially intrigued by this novel that partially takes place in Jerusalem. And of course, I was interested in how she came up with her story idea and her road to publishing with a major NY publisher.

So without further delay, I'd like to welcome Diana to our blog:

Me: Diana, you’ve been published in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, and Lilith. What compelled you to start writing a novel?

Diana: Who By Fire actually started as a short story that I wrote during my last semester of graduate school and published in the Greensboro Review in 2003. It was told from Bits’ point of view, and after writing it, I was curious about her brother, Ash. I wrote something from his point of view, then returned to hers, then went back to his, and so on. At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I couldn’t imagine that I was writing a novel. That was something that other people did, people who…you know…knew how to write novels. I was just making my characters have a conversation. Like a puppet show. It became a novel, of course, but I still write short stories, too. I love short stories.

Me: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes. I think that when I was eight, I used to tell people I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I doubt I really knew what that was, since I still don’t exactly know what it is. I mean, I know it’s a scientist who studies animals that live in the water, but what exactly would that entail? It sounds complicated. I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pencil. It is really the only thing I’ve ever loved to do (not counting things that aren’t jobs—like drinking good wine or going swimming).

Me: I loved the premise of the story as soon as you told me about it. Having lived in Jerusalem for a couple of years, I was excited to read your book. Where did your ideas first come from in writing this book?

Diana: I studied at Hebrew University for a semester during college. I also spent a summer in Israel when I was seventeen. Of course, I got to know the texture of the country during those trips, which has enabled me to write about it, but the idea for the novel really came from the short story I wrote about Bits and Ash (it was called Close to Lebanon), which sort of came from thin air. Set in Boston, the story takes place over a two-day period while Bits is waiting to hear from Ash after a suicide bombing. I guess the topic was on my mind because my brother had recently gone on a Birthright Israel trip. He was there during a particularly bad time, and I was worried about him, and I guess that’s what planted the seed.

Me: Tell us how you found your agent and the process from submission to acceptance.

Diana: Nothing makes me starry-eyed like talking about my agent. She’s the best. Her name is Kate Lee and she was recently ranked the twenty-first most powerful woman in New York, but I would rank her higher. I was lucky because one of my friends, the very talented author Cristina Henriquez, is Kate’s client. She read an early draft of my novel and offered to recommend me to Kate. I was thrilled because Cristina’s experience with Kate had been so positive, so I knew that if she accepted my novel, I would be in very good hands. When she signed me, I felt like my life was changing. I went to a bar that night to play pool and celebrate. In fact, my life was changing, but the process was slow. Kate had a lot of editing/rewriting suggestions, and then there was a lot of talking with various editors, getting feedback from them, rewriting again, and on and on and on. By the time Harper Perennial bought the novel, Kate and I had been working together for more than a year and a half.

Me: Your writing style seems so effortless. Do you go through several drafts? Describe your writing process.

Diana: Thank you, Heather! Bless you! I could use many words to describe my writing process, but “effortless” would never be one of them. Yes, I write a lot of drafts. I know some people use outlines. I’ve never done that. I just draft and draft and draft. Who By Fire has existed in countless manifestations. In early drafts, there was no plot. Of course, that was a problem. Plot often comes last for me, but until I find a plot, I’m terrified and frustrated. I always think, “What if this is just a plotless, pointless piece of crap?” But then when I do find the plot, I think, “That’s so obvious. Why didn’t I know it from the beginning?” Another integral part of my process is feedback from my readers. I have several writer buddies with whom I regularly exchange work. I don’t know what I would do without them.

Me: The characters in your book are very likeable, and their flaws make them easy to relate to. Did you pattern your characters after yourself or people that you know?

Diana: Yes and no. I think I inhabit all of my characters to some extent. But they’re usually composites. There are pieces of lots of people I know or have known or have met and pieces that are completely invented. For example, in Who By Fire, Ellie and Ben met in Jerusalem in the 1970s. My parents also met in Jerusalem in the 1970s, but they’re nothing like Ellie and Ben. I’ve just always found it incredibly beautiful and romantic that my parents met in Israel; I liked incorporating that detail into the novel.

Me: You write the whole book in first person, present tense. Is this your natural writing style or did you do it just for this book?

Diana: I don’t think I ever toyed with third person on this project, but at one time, all of Bits’ chapters were written in the past tense. (Changing that was tedious, to say the least.) In general, I like first person because of the sense of intimacy it creates. Whenever I start writing in third person, I have to ask myself what exactly I’m shying away from. Sometimes I let myself write in third person if the intimacy of first is daunting to the point of paralyzing me; after all, it’s better to write something than to write nothing. For some reason, I think my sentences are prettier when I use third person, but there’s an immediacy and an openness that only first person can create.

Me: In the “Conversation with Diana Spechler” at the end of the book, you mention some strange coincidences in what you wrote in your book to actual events that happened later. One of them is that your own brother decided to move to Israel to study Orthodox Judaism (when that’s exactly what the main character’s brother, Asher, did in Who by Fire). So . . . is he still on that path?

Diana: No. Not really. He is more religious than I am—keeps kosher, observes more holidays—but religion is not the focal point of his life right now. Which is not to say he’s plummeted into a life of sin or anything (whatever that would mean). He’s a lawyer in Texas who advocates for kids with disabilities. Quite an amazing, benevolent guy, my little brother.

Me: What advice do you have for other writers?

Diana: Write as much as you can. Read a lot. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Don’t let yourself judge people; it’s more useful to step back, observe, and try to get a kick out of how weird people are.

Me: Tell us about the book you are writing now.

Diana: I’m writing a novel based on my experience working at a weight-loss camp for kids in the mountains of North Carolina.

Me: Thanks for the interview, Diana. Best of luck with your new release!

You can find out more about Diana's book on her website.


Julie Wright said...

great interview! So nice to learn more about Diana and her book!

Josi said...

My favorite thing about author interviews is when they say something that validates me--I can't outline, but I draft and draft and draft, all the while thinking I'm wasting my time. It builds to a point of panic at times, completely paralyzing my ability to continue. I've seen this as a weakness in myself and something that one day will completely disable me--to know there are other authors that write the way I do, that pick the plot out as they go is a HUGE relief. Great interview--the book sounds awesome.

Annette Lyon said...

Fascinating interview. Thanks, Heather and Diana! The book sounds very interesting.