Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet; here is a link to her website:
Q: What is The Fiery Alphabet about?
A: I pretend to have discovered and translated a collection of 18th-century documents including the journals of Daniela Messo who begins life as a child prodigy in Rome. Giuseppe Balsamo arrives, convinced that Daniela has inherited the secrets of a long-dead Jewish mystic. She doesn’t believe anything he says, but she falls for him and they travel across Europe posing as wonder-working pilgrims as they swindle their way east.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, an era of science and reason and free thought, but all that existed in tension with orthodox religion as well as mystical traditions and new sects in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That’s the backdrop as Daniela struggles to find a place in the world for her body, mind, and what Balsamo would call her soul.
Q: What inspired you to write it?
A: I grew up in a secular Jewish home. Jewish by culture and tradition, but not religion. Maybe because I don’t feel a spiritual hunger, I am fascinated by people who do. Before I dropped out of college, the one class that held my interest was a course on religion in the anthropology department. So I guess it’s not as strange as it seems that several times in my life I’ve been romantically involved with men who were considering converting to Judaism and saw me as a path to that end. It made no difference how many times I explained I didn’t know Hebrew and couldn’t take them with me to synagogue because I didn’t belong to one and no, I didn’t want to get up early in the morning to study Torah. I think some of my own feelings–including exasperation–came out through the character of Daniela.
I do think most of us seek transcendence in some way but Nature and art and love and sex seem to me awe-inspiring enough without having to bring a Supreme Deity into it. Still, the connection with religion persists. I usually screen my calls but recently I somehow ended up answering a telephone survey. The woman asked “Age?” “Race?” Then she asked, “Religion.” I said, “None.” She said, “Oh! That’s so interesting. I’ve never actually talked to a nun before.”
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?
A: Lots of book research but much as I love libraries, I always feel the need for direct experience.
I attended occult ceremonial rites like the Gnostic mass where a semi-clothed man blew a blast on a ram’s horn and a coffin flew open so a Christlike figure could emerge. A woman lay on the altar while everyone (including me) took communion and walked in a circle as we beat our breasts crying There is no part of me that is not part of the gods!
çatal Hüyük in present day Turkey is the site of the first city in history and I learned it was a matriarchal Goddess-worshipping society. So off I went – just to breathe in the atmosphere because at the time there was little to see there. (Since my visit, archaeologists have resumed excavations, uncovering dwellings, wall paintings, and artifacts and now seek to debunk the notion of a matriarchy.) I sublet my apartment and with the rent off my back was able to spend a month not just at the ancient site but traveling around Istanbul and Anatolia, tracing Daniela’s steps. That’s what’s great about being a writer: You can take a month off to see the world and call it work.
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: As I’m a literary writer and anti-racist activist, people are often surprised that I cite Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. But I read that novel four times in junior high, excited that a WOMAN had written a big book that included something as serious as war. My best friend and I were both studious nerds and we found it thrillingly scandalous that Scarlett O’Hara got married three times when she was really just a kid. But I’d say Mitchell was more inspiration to me than influence.
The authors who’ve more directly influenced me are Oscar Hijuelos who taught me to read fiction not just for pleasure but to observe how novels and stories worked, how they were put together. Sharon Sheehe Stark – whose novel, A Wrestling Season, should not be out-of-print – brings poetry to every sentence and made me care about my words and rhythms. After reading her fiction, I understood it’s not enough to tell the story. It’s how you use the words to tell it.
Q: What makes Daniela Messo worth reading about?
A: Good question! At different times in her life she faces the accusation of being “unnatural” when she’s just naturally being herself. I think women – and men, too – often find themselves boxed in to very narrow definitions of who and what they are supposed to be. There are maybe more twists and turns and adventures in Daniela’s life than most of us go through, but her story – taking place more than 200 years ago and probably more extreme than the reader’s – should also afford some jolts of recognition. Entertainment, too, I hope. And Daniela’s story is pertinent today because, after all these centuries, the conflict between science and faith isn’t settled. We are also seeing a horrific backlash against women’s rights. In some countries, it’s taken particularly violent form but women are under attack in many ways here in the US as well.
Q: What kind of day job do you have and how does it influence your work?
A: My day jobs and volunteer work have always kept me connected to the world outside my head. You never stop learning, you never stop expanding your horizons, and it all feeds directly or indirectly into the work. Writing can also feel very self-indulgent. When I spend hours doing “real” work or volunteer work, it’s as though I justify my existence and that gives me permission to go home and isolate myself and write.
In my younger years I did everything from picking potatoes to slicing apples in a pie factory to typing autopsy reports. Totally out of the blue, I was hired to teach in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and that was my job up until a couple of years ago.
Since then, I mostly do short-term assignments and the teaching I’m most interested in is working with people who don’t think of themselves as writers. I’ve facilitated workshops for emotionally disturbed kids in the foster-care system and young people caught in the crossfire of the armed conflict in Colombia. In the winter, I worked with the nonprofit organization, ImaginAction, on a Theater of Witness project. We developed a script through which torture survivors from around the world were able to perform their own stories in their own words.
Right now I’m with a group of men in transitional housing who were serving life sentences in California prisons till the parole board and Jerry Brown decided they’d turned their lives around, posed no threat, and deserved a chance at freedom.
Q: What is the most common theme that the men you work with write about?
A: Mostly they write with gratitude and awe about the simplest things in life: looking at the sky, watching a cat with her kittens in the backyard, riding a bicycle. They write about remorse over what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused. And, oh yes, they write about God!
Q: How does writing help them with the transitional process?
A: To be granted parole, I figure you have to keep your head down and your mouth shut. So I like to believe it means a lot to them to be in a situation where someone actually wants to know what they have to say. For some of the guys in the workshop, this regular practice in reading and writing helps them gain skill and confidence as some hope to go back to school and all are seeking employment. I like to quote Amiri Baraka: Make some muscle/ in your head, but/use the muscle/in yr heart.
Q: Have any of them ever written about anything that shocked you?
A: Their crimes don’t shock me. I was prepared for that. What really shakes me up has been that some men served 30 or 40 years – extreme sentences that their crimes really didn’t warrant. It’s hard to think about how different the outcome would have been in so many of their cases if they’d been able to afford a lawyer.
Lifers on parole aren’t the scary monsters the media might have you believe. It’s not easy to convince the parole board and the governor to let you out. Statistically, people who’ve never been convicted of a crime are more likely to commit a violent act than a lifer on parole.
I’ve been a loud critic of our prison system of mass incarceration and the lack of meaningful education, training, therapy, rehabilitation and pre-release planning for people inside, but I figured these guys are the real experts. I had hoped that they would write their complaints and suggestions for reform. So it disturbed me at first that the men in the workshop were unwilling to criticize the system.
At first I thought they were choosing to look forward instead of back like the political prisoner and torture survivor from Cameroon. When we worked with him in the Theater of Witness project, he was reluctant to share his story and he quoted what his grandmother used to repeat in French: When you shit, don’t turn around to look at it. But during a recent workshop, one of the men on parole finally said, “We suffer so much from guilt and remorse and self-hate, nothing the State could do to us was as bad as what we did to ourselves.” In his case, it took more than 13 years till he could begin to believe there might be anything worthwhile in him.
Then I finally began to understand what the men meant when they wrote about learning to love themselves: they couldn’t begin to change their attitudes and thinking and behavior until they saw themselves as human beings worthy of change. With this transformation, they still feel the guilt and remorse, but the self-loathing has lifted and they can begin to move forward.
But here I am interpreting their lives when, ultimately, I don’t understand. One man humbled me with the words: “Before we went to prison, we lived in the world you live in and so we know how people in society think. But then we went to prison and we learned things about human nature that you will never know. We know both sides. You only know one.”
Q: What is the most challenging thing about being a writer?
A: Aside from making ends meet?
Today’s blockbuster mentality. It’s why I am grateful for small independent presses like Loose Leaves Publishing, the house that’s brought The Fiery Alphabet into print (e-book to follow). And Eliza, it’s why I so appreciate blogs like yours. Writers, musicians, filmmakers whose work might not appeal to many millions of people aren’t getting mainstream media coverage. But what if my work – or anyone’s work – can be truly meaningful to ten thousand people or one thousand or fifty or even ten? So how do we send out a signal – Hey, hello! This is what I’ve got. Does it speak to you? I hope my words can move someone, stimulate discussion, argument, thought, or make someone feel less alone.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)