I am honored to welcome Anita Diamant whose novels include The Red Tent, Day After Night, and her latest, The Boston Girl.
Diana Bletter: I admire the way you are able to write historical fiction in such a way that the reader feels immediately swooped into the time and place you’re writing. The Red Tent takes places in Biblical times; Day After Night takes place after the Shoah just before Israel was founded, and your latest novel, The Boston Girl, is set in pre-World War I Boston. How do you choose your time periods—or do they choose you? Some writers say they write and then fill in the historical details after the first draft. What about you?
Anita Diamant: I don’t choose a time or place, nor does a time or place “choose me.” My novels usually start with a story. I wrote Day After Night after I heard about the rescue of prisoners from the Atlit detention center in October of 1945. I knew nothing about it and it seemed like a story in need of telling. I came to write The Last Days of Dogtown after reading a pamphlet about how the original settlement of Cape Ann (North of Boston) came to an end in the mid-1800s; and there were several names attached to that tale that also drew me in.
I begin by reading about a historical period so I have a basic sense of the concerns, slang, food, worldview of the period. I am not interested in becoming an expert but I do want to avoid any and all anachronisms. Once I begin writing, I circle back to fill in historical details.
Diana Bletter: The Red Tent was lyrical, almost like a woman-written midrash, and Addie Baum in The Boston Girl is downright funny, throwing out zingers like the one about her Shakespeare teacher, Mr. Boyer, who spoke as if “…every other word started with a capital letter.” Can you talk about finding the right voice in your work?
Anita Diamant: I think I find the voice in the process of revising and revising and revising. Dinah, in The Red Tent, had to have a somewhat “elevated” tone – no slang – but nothing that would read “biblical,” which in English means the King James Version. Addie got funnier and looser in later drafts as I got clearer on who she was – which is to say, a pistol.
Diana Bletter: You’re the founder of Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh, ritual bath, and an important educational center. You’ve emphasized the idea that Jewish rituals give our lives meaning. Can you talk about how you chose to reclaim this ancient ritual and put a different spin on it?
Anita Diamant: While writing a book about conversion to Judaism, (Choosing a Jewish Life,) for research purposes I made several visits to the Boston area mikveh that was open for liberal conversions for only two hours a week. One day when I was there, I saw a line out the door. The Conservative movement had graduated a class from its program and brought everyone to the mikveh on the same day so a dozen men, women, and children spilled down the stairs and onto the walkway. In a way, it was inspiring to see so many people waiting and wanting to become Jews. But it was hot in the sun and the mikveh is no place for a queue.
The mivkeh should be a place for reflection and celebration but none of those people had the time or space for a thoughtful, personal ritual. And afterward, there was nothing to do but get back in the car. As if it was no big deal to transform your identity, alter your family constellation, and change the Jewish people forever.
That shondeh, that injustice, started me thinking about the need for a space where converts could linger at the mirror, before and after the blessings and immersions that symbolically transform them from not-Jewish to Jewish. A mikveh where there would be a gracious room for songs and blessings, for hugs and champagne, for gifts of books and candles.
That’s where it started. The Boston Jewish community got behind the idea and ten years ago we opened an amazing resource for marking all kinds of transitions: traditional ones like conversion and monthly immersion, and others based in basic human and Jewish needs: after ending chemotherapy, after a year of mourning, after a period of sobriety.
Diana Bletter: Some writers use an outline to write novels. What about you? Do you find your characters often do things that surprise you? Do you have a set schedule for writing? Any special suggestions for new writers?
Anita Diamant: I do not use an outline. While I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by my characters, they do unfold and reveal themselves as I rewrite them.
I have no set schedule for writing, though my best hours are usually in the morning, after coffee and a walk with the dog.
New writers: read and read some more. Read deeply and widely and from cultures and eras other than your own.
Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?
Anita Diamant: I am not working on a book-length project and don’t plan to for several months. I will be doing a lot of promotion for my new novel, The Boston Girl.
Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog talks about making this the best chapter of our lives. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make each day a part of your best chapter?
Anita Diamant: I try to be as kind as I possibly can and to recognize the kindness in others.
Thank you, Anita, for your interview! For more information on how Anita Diamant discovered the Rockport Lodge and turned the house into her latest novel, read her blog here. You can also read about her novels and non-fiction books on her website.
If you have any questions for Anita Diamant, feel free to ask now!