Anita Diamant is a prizewinning journalist whose work has appeared regularly in the Boston Globe magazine and Parenting magazine. She is the author of five books about contemporary Jewish practice: Choosing a Jewish Life, Bible Baby Names, The New Jewish Baby Book, The New Jewish Wedding, and Living a Jewish Life (with H. Cooper). She lives in West Newton, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughter, Emilia.
Diamant says it was the relationship between Leah and Rachel that stimulated her thinking about The Red Tent. "The biblical story that pits the two sisters against one another never sat right with me. The traditional view of Leah as the ugly and/or spiteful sister, and of Jacob as indifferent to her, seemed odd in light of the fact that the Bible gives them nine children together.... As I re-read Genesis over the years, I settled on the story of Dinah, their daughter. The drama and her total silence (Dinah does not utter a single word in the Bible) cried out for explanation, and I decided to imagine one."
Aiding her work was Midrash, the ancient and still vital literary form, which means "search" or "investigation."
"Historically, the rabbis used this highly imaginative form of storytelling to make sense of the elliptical nature of the Bible -- to explain, for example, why Cain killed Abel.... The compressed stories and images in the Bible are rather like photographs. They don't tell us everything we want or need to know. Midrash is the story about what happened before and after the photographic flash."
She points out that "The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus -- by and about the female characters -- distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text."
Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Diamant:
"I would like to pay tribute to my writing group: Stephen McCauley (The Object of My Affection) and Amy Hoffman (Hospital Time, a memoir). Steve and Amy kept me sane through the writing and rewriting (and rewriting) of The Last Days of Dogtown.
My writing group meets approximately once a month. We share our chapters, we commiserate about the difficulties of the business of writing. And we keep each other from throwing in the towel, which often feels like the only reasonable choice.
The Last Days of Dogtown is dedicated to Amy and Steve for their kindness, wisdom, friendship, good humor and smart suggestions."
"I'm nuts about my dog, a miniature Schnauzer named Buddy. He is my exercise machine, but more than that, he is a dependable antidote to the mopes. Dogs are always in a good mood."
"I think that yoga is the alternative to aging. I've been taking classes for more than ten years, and while I consider myself a beginner, yoga is crucial to my mental, emotional, and spiritual health. I wish there were yoga classes in airports, high schools, hospitals -- wherever stress abides."
"Cape Ann -- the setting for The Last Days of Dogtown and my previous novel, Good Harbor -- is still the place I go to sit still and stare at the sea. I wish I was there right now."
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In the fall of 2003, Anita Diamant took some time out to discuss her favorite books, authors, and interests with us.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. My non-fiction heroine, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, wrote more than 26 books -- most of which are about the pleasures of the table. Responding to questions about why her subject was food rather than loftier topics, Fisher (1908 - 1992) wrote, "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others." For Fisher, eating was a metaphor for everything that is most important in life, and she ate reverently, ravenously, and with exquisite attention to what was on her plate. She is often credited with inventing the genre known as "food writing," but this prose master defies categorization. I should only write so well, eat so well, live so well. She inspired me as a journalist, as a non-fiction writer, and as a prose stylist.
What are a few favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Song of Myself by Walt Whitman -- This long poem is a list of everything Whitman loved and everything he challenges us to love, too: himself, ourselves, humanity, America, music, animals, rivers, city life, work, sex, God, freedom, even the grass beneath his feet which he describes variously as "the flag of my disposition... the handkerchief of the Lord... the beautiful uncut hair of graves." There's something almost adolescent about Whitman's paean to everything that was and remains good about America, and I mean that as a compliment to the buzz and punch of his passion. I own a pocket edition and dip in to it occasionally, like a box of chocolates, for quick energy and a reminder of how grand it is to read words that cause the soul to give thanks.
Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers -- The real Mary Poppins (1934) got lost when Hollywood turned her into a cream puff. Her name now conjures up the image of a "perfect" nanny -- a woman who sweetly charms and pacifies her charges. But children who read the Pamela Travers series know that Mary Poppins is, in fact, opinionated, sharp of tongue, and not always nice. That's not a problem since she is a good egg at heart and, much more important, a witch with a magic satchel and knowledge of secret doorways into the many enchanted places hidden in plain sight throughout London. (Sound familiar?)
Travers had a light touch for the supernatural: newborn babies who could converse with the wind, sunbeams, and birds; an ancient candy-store owner whose self-regenerating fingers are made of barley sugar. But Mary Poppins herself was the best magic of all. A free spirit who comes and goes as she sees fit? A well-traveled person with a fabulous past? A not-unattractive but ordinary-looking woman who adores her own appearance and whose self-regard is as unassailable as the Himalayas? I never wanted Mary Poppins to be my nanny. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- When I first read it as a high school senior, Márquez took the top of my head off with the incantational beauty of his imagination, the mythic explication of South American history, the living ghosts and the dead ghosts, the dizzying repetition of names from one generation to the next, (Jose Arcadio Buendia begets Jose Arcadio, who begets Arcadio, who begets Jose Arcadio Segundo). And after One Hundred Years of Solitude, there was no forgetting that modern literature is bigger than the English language. I re-read it every few years to learn something new about writing and about how many ways the human heart can break.
The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. This slim, poetic volume of practical theology opened my heart to the practice of Judaism. Nearly 20 years ago, my then-fiancé and I read it aloud to each other, a few pages every Friday night, as we started to experiment with our own Shabbat table rituals; lighting candles, a cup of wine, breaking bread, singing blessings. Heschel explains the Sabbath as the source and crux of Jewish spirituality. "There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious. Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time... to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year." The Sabbath is one such sanctuary, indeed a weekly "cathedral" raised up in my dining room, in my family, in my heart -- but only if and when I consecrate it through my intention, words, and deeds.
A Room of Own's Own by Virginia Woolf -- A book that opened my eyes to the untold stories of women's lives, and which influenced me both directly and indirectly, both as a journalist and as a novelist. I recently re-read it and found it very droll. I think I missed the humor when I read it as a college undergraduate.
Odas Elementales by Pablo Neruda -- One of my favorite poets, Neruda writes close to the bone, close to the heart. Though I know only a little Spanish, I like to compare the Spanish and English lines and see how the translator worked.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling -- Yep. I'm a fan. These books make me feel like a 10-year-old. The fountain of youth between the pages of a book!
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Bull Durham -- The perfect baseball movie, as far as I'm concerned. I'm a big Susan Sarandon fan; her intelligence shines through those headlight eyes of hers.
Shakespeare in Love -- Such smart writing of an alternative view of history, and such beautiful acting. Like most Americans, I'm a sucker for the accent. The source of one of my favorite lines, which I often quote, or misquote. When someone wails that the play will never make it, that disaster is imminent, and how will things ever turn out well, the character played by Geoffrey Rush reassures the doubter that in the theater, things always turn out all right. When asked how he can be so sanguine, he shrugs, "It's a mystery."
Walk on Water -- An Israeli film about war, loss, redemption, the Holocaust, the Jewish future and hope. The director, Eytan Fox, has a great career ahead of him, I think.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love many kinds of music: world music, jazz, classical, pop. When writing nonfiction, I try to keep my workspace as quiet as possible. While writing fiction, however, I sometimes put on discs by singer-songwriters that I know by heart -- so I'm not really listening, but some part of my mind is occupied. Non-English-speaking singers work really well for this.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would probably be reading the same books that everyone else is reading. (The Kite Runner is big these days, right?) I think there's something lovely about "everyone" being part of a conversation about the same book/topics/characters. It knits us together as readers.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like getting books that come with an unconditional recommendation on the order of: YOU HAVE TO READ THIS. As for giving, it depends entirely on the person I'm giving, but I like to give poetry by contemporary poets whenever it's appropriate.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Lots of coffee. Lots of dog walking. Too much e-mailing and computer solitaire. My desk is relatively neat, with stacks that I putter with -- a useful time-waster.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm "fooling around." Writing song lyrics. Experimenting with a play. Toying with an idea for a documentary. I hope one of these will eventually be launched into the light of day. But in the meantime, this helps me energize and clear out the cobwebs before taking on another book.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been a professional writer (making my living at this) since about 1978, mostly as a journalist and nonfiction writer. The Red Tent's "overnight success" came in 1998, 20 years after I started.
I actually had a difficult time landing an agent for The Red Tent. I got nice rejections explaining that historical fiction was a difficult "sell." But I kept trying. One it was published, by the wonderful Bob Wyatt, the book's popularity built slowly. I attribute its bestseller status to book group recommendations, for which I am forever grateful.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I tell writers to keep reading, reading, reading. Read widely and deeply. And I tell them not to give up even after getting rejection letters. And I tell them to get support from other writers. (Not just criticism, but loving support.) And only to write what you love.
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|Anita Diamant Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Anita Diamant|
|The New Jewish Wedding, 1985|
|What to Name Your Jewish Baby, 1989|
|The New Jewish Baby Name Book: Names, Ceremonies, and Customs: A Guide for Today's Families, 1994|
|Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families, 1996|
|Bible Baby Names, 1996|
|The Red Tent (10th Anniversary Edition), 1997|
|The Jewish Baby Book, 1998|
|How to Find and Work with a Literary Agent, 1998|
|Choosing a Jewish Life, 1998|
|How to Be a Jewish Parent, 2000|
|Good Harbor, 2000|
|Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith, 2003|
|The Last Days of Dogtown, 2005|