Monday, January 14, 2013

Q&A with writer Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant, photo by Gretje Ferguson
Anita Diamant is the author of 12 books, including the novel The Red Tent. She lives in the Boston area.
Q: Your books include both fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer writing one to the other, and why or why not?
A: I find writing non-fiction much easier than writing fiction. For one thing, I have much more experience as a non-fiction writer, having been a journalist for many years. Fiction is such a totally blank canvas; everything is possible and the choices are endless. I find that daunting every time I start a novel. That said, I do like the challenge and enjoy the fact that I’ve been able to reach a much broader audience through fiction. 
Q: The Red Tent is perhaps your best-known book. How did you come up with the idea of writing a novel about Dinah, and how much research did you need to do?
A: After many years as a non-fiction writer, I decided to take on the challenge of a novel and turned to the most venerable source for story ideas: the Bible. I started by thinking I’d write the story of the relationship between Rachel and Leah, but I found Dinah’s story to be even more compelling and dramatic. Also her total silence in the pages of Genesis inspired me to tell the story from her perspective.
My research focused on the everyday life of women in the ancient Near East, ca. 1500 BCE. I did not study the Bible or rabbinic sources, but concentrated instead on the food, clothing, social organization, architecture and medicine. I was able to use the resource of Harvard and Brandeis libraries. However, there really wasn’t a great deal of detail about everyday life, so I used the details and hints that I did find and then imagined how they might fit together. So, for example, while I did not find evidence that women in this period and place retreated to a menstrual tent, however, menstrual tents and huts are a common feature in pre-modern cultures around the world, from Native Americans to Africans. So “my” red tent is historically possible and would not be an anachronism.
Q: Many of your books are guides to Jewish family life and practices. Did you plan on writing a series of books on these themes when you wrote your first book?
A: I wrote The New Jewish Wedding in the year following my wedding because, as a bride, I  found no books that answered my questions. As a liberal Jewish feminist marrying a man who had converted to Judaism, the books by Orthodox rabbis and etiquette mavens were less than helpful. I had no intention of following with other books on Jewish practice, but when I had my daughter, I was again confronted with a “hole” on the bookshelf, and wrote the book about Jewish baby rituals and customs that I would have wanted to read.
Q: Your most recent novel, Day After Night, focuses on four young women who survived the Holocaust and end up in a British internment camp in post-World War II Palestine. What was the inspiration for that book, and how did you settle on those four characters to write about?
A: The idea for Day After Night came to me in the spring of 2001. My daughter was a high school sophomore spending a semester in Israel and my husband and I went to visit her there, our first trip to Israel. We spent a good part of the week going on class field trips with the other parents, and one of our stops was at the Atlit detention camp, which now serves as a living history museum. There we learned how Holocaust survivors were imprisoned by the British authorities, and about the breathtaking and completely unfamiliar story of the October 1945 break-out, when all of the prisoners were taken to safety in the nearby mountains. I remember thinking, "Now there’s a novel."
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a novel set on Cape Ann, the place that inspired Good Harbor and The Last Days of Dogtown. I’m also doing some blogging and considering another non-fiction book about Jewish life. Stay tuned.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For the past dozen years, I helped found and lead Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in the Boston area. A thriving example of American Judaism’s vitality, Mayyim Hayyim grew out of the experience of writing Choosing a Jewish Life, a guidebook for people converting to Judaism and for their families and friends. Immersion in a mikveh is the final ritual step in that process. The need for a beautiful place for such experiences inspired what has become Mayyim Hayyim, which has made immersion meaningful and available to others who are marking a variety of important moments of change and transformation in their lives.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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