Finding a Path: An Interview with Diane Lefer by Curtis Smith

Diane Lefer’s novel, Out of Place, has just been published by Fomite Press. Her books include three story collections: The Circles I Move In, Very Much Like Desire, and California Transit (Mary McCarthy Award), four other novels: Radiant Hunger (shortlisted for PEN USA West Award in Fiction), Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, The Fiery Alphabet (a Small Press Pick), Confessions of a Carnivore (inspired by her relationship with a baboon at the LA Zoo), and nonfiction, The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism and transformation (co-authored with longtime collaborator Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International).

For twenty-three years, Diane was a member of the fiction faculty of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s also taught at other writing programs throughout the country while in recent years she’s focused on nontraditional students and their service providers, offering creative workshops in the US, Bolivia, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Senegal.

Her advocacy journalism has focused on social justice issues, especially the criminal in/justice system and immigration. Diane has served as a Spanish/English interpreter in immigration detention centers and for migrants stuck at the border in Tijuana and she works with the Program for Torture Victims-LA which, since 1980, has treated the physical and psychological wounds of survivors. To clear her head after facing so much human need, Diane observes and documents animal behavior for the Research Department of the LA Zoo.
Diane Lefer (@DianeLefer) / Twitter
Diane Lefer | Facebook
(She asks that anyone asking to friend her on FB send a message mention this interview as she receives many fraudulent and cloned requests.)

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Out of Place. I’m always interested in a book’s journey from a writer’s desk to published work. Can you tell us how you came to work with Fomite on this project?

Diane Lefer: Thanks, Curtis. We often discover small, independent presses when we come across and admire something they’ve published. I think Gary Lee Miller’s story collection, Museum of the Americas, was the first Fomite book I read. I wanted to check out the publisher and found they’re located in Vermont in what I think of as the free city of Burlington and they call themselves “post-capitalist.” Well, that’s interesting! Then I saw editor Marc Estrin has done street and guerrilla theater and has a long relationship with Bread and Puppet Theater. I felt an immediate kinship. I’ve done some political street theater including with giant puppets—though never at the level of the great Bread and Puppet Theater. (Soon after this interview was completed, we learned of the passing of Elka Schumann, co-founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater.) Fomite obviously made sense to me. I was looking for a publisher for Confessions of a Carnivore, a novel centered around a guerrilla theater group—Gorilla Theater— performing interventions in the service of animal rights. Fomite published it in 2015.

As I said at the start, writers find pathways by following each other. At the time Confessions came out, I was a great admirer of the Talented Reader blog written by two guys in New Mexico—Peter Nash and George Ovitt. Their essay-reviews belonged, I thought, in the New York Review of Books or the Los Angeles Review of Books, not written on a voluntary unpaid basis for a blog with limited readership. They often covered little-known works in translation and I rarely read one of their essays without ordering a book. I took a chance and sent them a copy of Confessions and George included it in one of his typically erudite essays. That was their introduction to Fomite Press, and both of them have now published novels with Fomite. I particularly enjoyed Peter Nash’s Parsimony and George Ovitt’s Stillpoint. Fomite has now brought out a collection of their essays. It makes me very happy and I’m glad both men are focusing on their own creative work now even though the downside is I haven’t seen a new post at Talented Reader for over a year.

Curtis, I’d like to add one more note about my publisher. When Marc Estrin and Donna Bister founded Fomite Press years ago and chose its name, no one knew Covid-19 was on the horizon. They weren’t thinking about the transmission of viruses but rather this quote from Tolstoy: “The activity of art is based on the capacity of people to be infected by the feelings of others.”

CS: The book takes place from 2000-2003, correct? Can you discuss the book’s origins? What drew you back to this time period—and did the passing of years help put this period in a more understandable light?

DL: Out of Place was inspired immediately after the 9/11 attacks when I was having dinner with some local scientists. They were very worried about the new security protocols that were sure to follow. What would happen to their international collaborations? What about their foreign-born colleagues doing research here who would suddenly face security clearance barriers? Would all researchers be criminalized for what till then had been ordinary and accepted practice? The War on Terror has affected everyone in one way or another, but if I hadn’t been at dinner that night, I doubt I would have thought even for a minute about the impact on science and scientists. But I was at dinner, and their worries infected me till it became a subject I wanted to explore.

There was no intention to have the book come out on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. That’s just a function of how long it takes to get anything done.

With the passage of time, I think there are ways the story will be more credible to the reader than it might have been back then. In the novel, the FBI looks at facts about Emine Albaz and they connect the dots to see her as a terrorist. The novel takes the same facts and interprets them differently. From the start of the War on Terror, it was way too easy for false narratives to be created. Twenty years later, I think most of us have personally had the experience of being misinterpreted as all of our internet activity and even grocery store purchases are tracked. Lots of data, right? Lots of dots to connect. My friend Anne Creed takes photographs of birds and she posts these beautiful images on Facebook. So she gave one photo a caption something like “life in nature” and she right away gets ads for a nudist resort. It’s a laugh, but not so funny these days when an algorithm designed by an invisible hand can decide whether someone goes home or stays in jail. For the characters in my book, false narratives can be deadly.

But 2000-2003. A lot of Americans weren’t even born then and I think the events of those years need to be remembered, and not just for the terrorist attacks. On the domestic front, there were so many warnings we didn’t take seriously enough. The discrediting, suppressing, and distortion of scientific research we see today was going on throughout the Bush administration. Lies and manipulation? Nothing new. The administration’s lies led us into the disastrous invasion of Iraq. The recent film, The Mauritanian, reignited my shame and my outrage as it tells the true story of an innocent man, Mohamedou Slahi, who was tortured while imprisoned at our detention camp in Guantánamo from 2002-2016. But the media doesn’t focus as much on the Gitmo story in the here and now. Prisoners are still being held without charge and we’ve released innocent men to the UAE, supposedly for resettlement but they’ve been held instead in prisons and subjected to torture. And while my novel doesn’t touch on what happened in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, thousands of fully qualified Black voters were purged and turned away from the polls. A ruling (on a different matter) by the conservative Supreme Court eventually decided the outcome.

CS: There are a number of different story lines here, and I’m wondering how this came to you. Did you start writing one and then it deposited you in another? Or did you sit down first and plan things out (or at least their general shape)?

DL: I knew from the start the canvas would be global and there would be many intersecting story lines. If you have an international cast of characters, they can’t just shazam! appear in California, they come from somewhere. And the FBI agents, even the icky informant, I knew I needed to tell their stories because I didn’t believe they were simply malevolent and malicious.
I couldn’t write about the so-called War on Terror without questioning who gets targeted, so I’ve got scenes with violent white supremacists – something that’s suddenly timely though I’ve been researching and sometimes writing about hate groups and white supremacist militias for decades now.

So I knew from the start there’d be this scope, but when it came to actually doing it, I felt overwhelmed. I find the only cure for that is to start writing and not worry about where it’s going. Then it wasn’t so much that one story line led me and deposited me in another. The difficulty was in figuring out how to organize the pieces and put them together. The revisions I did over the course of years were mostly about moving the puzzle pieces around. I ended up with something mostly chronological and with each story line more or less consolidated.

CS: I read in another interview that you often write early drafts longhand. I find one of the joys of an early draft is writing longhand. I feel like it allows me to think more—and it gets me away from the screen—but perhaps it’s a generational thing. May I ask what you like about longhand?

DL: I don’t love writing longhand. I think better at the keyboard. Some years back, too much screen use damaged my eyesight. Focusing muscles stopped working and I was unable to read, write, or drive for 8 months. Now I have special glasses and eye exercises but I’m still very anxious about time spent staring at the screen and sometimes I still overdo it and pay the price. So these days I often do make notes and draft short sections longhand. I still have to transfer what I’ve written to the screen, but I can do a lot of revision and editing in longhand before I type it out.

Over the years as I was working on the novel, my eyesight was sometimes better, sometimes worse, so there were some long continuous sections that I wrote when I wasn’t bothered by the screen and other short bite-size pieces when I had to protect myself more. In the final draft, I broke up even the long sections into many short takes and gave each short take a heading. These short pieces are not flash fiction. For me, that’s the hardest form of all. It’s something you’ve mastered, Curtis, the way you develop a complete story in such a small space. I don’t know how you do it. You see how longwinded I get just answering your questions. No wonder I can’t write flash. But I still had the notion that if I broke sections up, readers might get a small sense of completion and satisfaction with each little piece of the puzzle and that would keep them going, step by step. At least I hope so.

CS: You’re very active in political and social causes—and I’m wondering how this influences your work. I talk to my students about understanding what themes and issues motivate them—and then, once they’re identified, working with rather than against them. Do you do any writing that doesn’t in some way address these beliefs?

DL: I’ve written a lot of advocacy journalism, and my own beliefs are channeled there. I’ve had powerful experiences in researching these articles so of course some of the themes work their way into my fiction as well, but in fiction there’s more ambiguity and less certainty and characters often espouse convictions different from my own.

The thing is, I don’t write from a place of contentment—except when I’m writing about non-human animals. That comes from an uncomplicated appreciation and respect. But my writing usually starts with something that disturbs me or something or someone I don’t understand. It’s not just politics that troubles my sleep. There’s plenty of personal stuff too. But as I was saying before, you’ve still got to factor in perspective and interpretation. When California Transit was published, I looked at the stories and thought, yes, this collection comes out of a belief in social justice. Then I overheard a leftist friend when someone asked her “What’s Diane’s book about?” She sort of sniffed and said “Relationships.”

CS: You also write nonfiction and plays. Did you start as a fiction writer and then venture into these areas? Or were they part of the rotation early on? If you started with fiction first, what was that transition to a new genre like? And when you returned to fiction, how did writing in those other forms influence your new work?

DL: I started out writing fiction and occasional journalism but I was always a theatergoer. I just had no idea how to get started in that world. When I moved to LA more than 20 years ago, the ASK Theater Projects was a foundation with the mission of getting book writers and screenplay writers involved in theater. The foundation sadly didn’t outlive the death of its founder, but while it was still going I was lucky enough to study with amazing artists such as Luis Alfaro, Hirokazu Kosaka, and Ruth Maleczech. I also met actors and directors I wanted to work with as I began to write plays.

At first there was a clear distinction between my plays and my fiction. The fiction continued to be realistic while the plays were often experimental. In time, I was comfortable writing naturalistic plays and being less inhibited about incorporating surreal elements into my fiction.

Along the way, thanks to ASK, I became friends with a very ethnically diverse bunch of theater artist. At that time the theater scene in LA was very segregated. I ended up co-founding a new company dedicated to inclusion for artists, tech personnel, and audiences. One of my co-founders, an Asian American woman, was also an ASL interpreter (and, incidentally, puppet designer) so we decided to caption all our live productions for the deaf. I wanted to work bilingually in English and Spanish. We also became aware that few venues then were ADA-compliant. We did what needed to be done, getting ramps installed, finding accessible bathrooms, arranging performances with audio description for the blind. You could call it a political statement. Of course, it was, but it was also simply our needing to remove barriers so we’d be able to work with people we wanted to work with. I’m not co-directing the company anymore and I’m happy to say the overall situation in LA is very much improved.

I became interested in the ideas of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theater artist who developed what’s known as Theater of the Oppressed – techniques that open the space for community members to use theater to demonstrate problems they are facing and explore possible solutions and outcomes. I joined a local group and that’s where I met Hector Aristizábal, a theater artist, psychologist, and torture survivor from Colombia. We collaborated on many projects including his solo performance “Nightwind” that traveled the globe as part of the international campaign to end the practice of torture. While several of my plays had been produced at that point, working with Hector I moved away from writing my own scripts to helping community members create and perform their own productions.

All this speaks again to your question about the role of politics in my work. Yes, there’s this lifelong commitment to social justice, but when it shows up in my writing or in my activism it usually comes about naturally, though personal relationships. Hector is a close friend, so among all the evils in the world, torture became something I needed to fight. I knew the impact on him of what he endured directly and then when his younger brother was abducted, tortured, and murdered. My work in challenging the criminal in/justice system started through my friendship with a young man who shouldn’t have been in prison to begin with, let alone serving a life sentence. And my perspective is, of course, affected by the society around me. My hometown is New York City and I’ve lived in LA more than 20 years – both world cities, both with wildly varied demographics. In the course of my daily life, white folks are often the minority and probably half the people I interact with were born outside the US or have immigrant parents. That has to have an effect on the way I see the world.

CS: I first met you as a teacher long ago. Has teaching impacted your writing? If so, in what ways?

DL: When it comes to writing, I’ve always resisted the so-called rules. If there’s a rule, I want to break it. So how could I possibly guide anyone? I had to think long and hard about what seems to make a piece work and what doesn’t. I had to think about shape and structure and the individual sentence.

I started to realize that reading great literature doesn’t always teach us much as reading work-in-progress or stories that just don’t work at all. Whether you’re a teacher or a student, you need to read imperfect work to develop discernment and editing skills. Looking at student drafts taught me a lot. With fiction I admire, I learned to zero in on one small aspect. Look at a great work as a whole and you can be too overwhelmed with awe to analyze the craft.

As a faculty member, I was often giving readings and this attuned my ear. I started reading all my work aloud in the process of revision. I could see where the rhythm was off, where the words were bogging down and boring me. So I encouraged students to trust their ears.

Teaching taught me to activate the delete key more often. In workshop, you often hear someone say I want to know more about this. Then the writer ends up adding explanations and material that bog the text down. I started to realize when people ask for more, what they really need is less. It means you’ve put something on the page that opens up an unnecessary question. It’s a distraction. Cut it, and everyone’s happy. Something else I noticed about particularly clunky paragraphs. Sure, you can revise over and over but often the solution is to delete it altogether. It’s almost as though the subconscious won’t get the words right when the material doesn’t want to be there or is just plain wrong.

Teaching also bolstered my belief in the value of writing, reading, and teaching. Most of us will not have an audience of millions. We’ll publish in literary journals or small presses. But whether you’ve written a bestseller or a story in a journal with limited circulation, you reach the reader one at a time. When a student tells me no one has ever taken her seriously before, it reminds me that what really matters is each and every individual you touch.

Students have inspired me and broadened my horizons. I loved teaching in the MFA Program and many former students remain friends but ultimately it was clear to me that many people could do just as good a job or better. I was moved to do the work it seemed not everyone was ready to do as I gained the trust of children in conflict zones and men on parole and severely traumatized asylum-seekers and gave them the space and skills for self-expression.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the late Ruth Maleczech who set an example of how to address even the most startlingly bad whoppers and set the record straight without ever humiliating anyone.

CS: What’s next?

DL: I don’t ever set out with the intention to be funny. It’s more that as literary writers we often feel we have to be serious. Without even realizing it, we censor out the humor. There’s always at least a little bit of humor in my work, but when I wrote Confessions of a Carnivore, the censor was notably absent. I want to be that uninhibited again. It may be tricky, given the subject matter that’s now on my mind. I recently tried to track down some old friends only to learn they’d been murdered. This has brought up a lot of emotions and a lot of questions and that’s exactly the sort of trouble that makes me write.

 Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was published last summer and was named one of Kirkus’s Indie Picks of the Year.

One response to “Finding a Path: An Interview with Diane Lefer by Curtis Smith

  1. Pingback: Interview – Live This Morning | Nobody Wakes Up Pretty·

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