Diane Lefer, author of books such as Radiant Hunger, talks about her approach to writing and her plans for the future.
Why do you write? Is it something you’ve always done, or always wanted to do? Or is it something that you started fairly recently?
I feel psychically constipated when I’m not writing. Thoughts, feelings, ideas – they have to come out. A couple of years ago I realized that words themselves long for an outlet. I was in Colombia, leading an arts-based workshop for literacy and social justice, and someone asked me which language I liked better, English or Spanish. I love our language, I live most of my life in English, but being in Barrancabermeja and speaking Spanish all day, I had felt such joyful release as words I don’t usually get to use poured out of my mouth. Writing is like that for me – such a relief it’s an actual physical pleasure.
Tell me a little about your books.
Of my ten published books, the one I care most about and think is the best I’ve written, is Radiant Hunger, the novel I self-published. It’s about the aftermath of an apocalyptic cult. A lot of people think about Charles Manson, and wonder about the women who joined him. I was always more curious about the children who grew up on the Manson Ranch. To them, that life was normal, and probably very free. And then one day they are taken away and they go into foster care or get placed with healthy suburban families. What must that have been like for them!
I spent six years writing not about a cult leader but about people whose lives were changed by their contact with him. Trying to get into those heads took me to some dark places. Believe me, I don’t want to go there again though I did enjoy a lot of the research: interviewing an arson investigator and criminal defense attorneys; visiting cattle ranches and wheat farms. Then I spent seven years trying to get the manuscript published. Along the way, excerpts came out in Columbia, The Kenyon Review, The KGB Reader, The Quarterly. I thought with exposure like that, surely a publisher would want the book. Nope. One comment I got a lot was I should focus on a single person’s experience. For me, that wouldn’t work. Too simplistic, I thought. If you read one person’s traumatic experience and where that person ended up, it comes out as cause and effect while I think different people experience life and react to it in different ways. I wanted to explore a range of experience, not present one outcome as destiny.
I finally went ahead and got Radiant Hunger into print myself. It was gratifying to publish the book the way I wanted it to be, and to illustrate it with my own photographs.
My most recent novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty (Rainstorm Press), is a mystery set in my hometown – New York City – back in 1992 (several years before I relocated to Los Angeles). It commemorates a neighborhood in which people looked out for each other before gentrification broke the bonds. But as I started to write, I discovered how much material I had: how many times and in how many ways I had crossed paths with organized crime families of different races and ethnicities. They all went into the book.
I was nervous about Nobody Wakes Up Pretty. Too uncensored maybe about sex? Too political in its stance on race and class? So many times I’ve been told no one wants to read “political fiction.” Then I was invited to speak on a panel about censorship and David Ulin, LA Times book critic, commented that maybe you have more freedom to express political views in genre fiction. And I thought, yes! Maybe when people read for plot, they don’t right away disparage a book as–heaven forbid!–political. It’s been a pleasant surprise how well the book has been received by readers–especially the affection they say they feel for my outspoken characters.
My connections to Latin America – which began when I dropped out of college and ran away to live in Oaxaca, Mexico – figure in other books. Almost half of the short stories in The Circles I Move In were inspired by my time in Mexico; with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal I co-authored a nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound: A story of art, activism, and transformation; my story collection, California Transit, received the Mary McCarthy Prize and includes fiction set in Mexico as well as a novella inspired by my volunteer work as an interpreter and legal assistant for immigrants in detention.
Are there any authors who inspire you?
Lately I’ve been raving about Sergio de la Pava who self-published A Naked Singularity. It’s a sprawling experimental novel that draws on his work as a public defender in Manhattan. One of the most penetrating and devastating accounts you can read of how our criminal in/justice system really works. Add to this, his digressions on philosophy, media, cosmology, immigrant life, and more. I swear, if this novel had been written in the Sixties, it would have been snapped up by a major publisher, been on the bestseller list, and probably received the Pulitzer Prize. This year, the University of Chicago Press “discovered” his work and issued a new edition.
How have you marketed your books?
I use Facebook quite a bit and do my share of guest blogs. Here’s a link to the most recent. It’s very brief. In the old days, I did tours to bookstores. It’s hard to set that up these days – and I don’t blame the stores. They are struggling. I do look for reading and workshop opportunities, visits to groups and schools – not just for marketing but, to be honest, to get out from behind the computer now and then and into the world. I’m also out in the world as an activist, so I’m sometimes interviewed on the radio or at public events and I write a lot of advocacy journalism. All these activities serve to introduce me to different audiences.
Do you worry about Amazon gaining a monopoly in the ebook market?
Yes! Right now, Amazon’s terms are excellent, but I saw what happened to small print publishers. Amazon’s split was so out-of-balance that small independent publishers were losing money on books sold through Amazon. This put some publishers out of business. Others don’t list their books on Amazon and as a result, almost no one buys them. I’m afraid if this giant achieves dominance in the ebook market, we’ll start seeing Amazon raise prices and start imposing unequal financial terms in the ebook realm as well.
It’s like what I fear is about to happen in Mexico. Once trade barriers came down with NAFTA, the US flooded the Mexican market with cheap, subsidized American agribusiness corn. Small farmers in Mexico were forced out of business and many families sought to escape poverty and ruin by crossing the border to the US. Now, with drought destroying much of the US corn crop, prices go up here and we won’t even have enough corn for our own use. I hope I’m wrong, but I worry that Mexicans may not have tortillas to eat at any price.
Market dominance is just not healthy in the long run.
How do you write? Do you make yourself write a certain number of words per day?
I don’t wait for inspiration, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t get around to writing every day. There’s more to life than writing. And I don’t think it helps anyone’s writing to be separated from the challenges and joys of daily life.
The challenges… That makes me think of the book I wrote with Hector. For him, the wounds were the civil war in his country and the torture and assassinations of his brother and many of his friends. The blessings were the inner resources he didn’t even know he had that he discovered and was able to draw on for his own survival. Since then, he has channeled all those energies to use on behalf of other people who suffer. I haven’t lived through a civil war, but every person has wounds and I think we, as writers, don’t have to look hard for our blessings. Every wound end up being the seed of a story or a poem. When we can use those words to touch others, everything in our lives has value.
What’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment? Do you have anything new coming out in 2012?
I’m always working on something new. In 2014, Aqueous Books is going to publish The Still Point which – I hope the editor doesn’t see this – I finished writing in 1978 and had been seeking a home ever since. I hope that anyone who is reading this and may be feeling discouraged at this moment, gets the message: DON’T GIVE UP!