Diane Zinna is a longtime champion of the literary community and author of the debut novel, The All-Night Sun, out on July 14 from Random House. Diane was kind enough to correspond with The Masters Review Reader, Courtney Harler, about her book, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Courtney Harler: First, congratulations on your debut novel. I read that The All-Night Sun was twelve years in the making, and its publication was potentially complicated (but only in your mind?) by the release of the horror film Midsommar. It’s been a long yet satisfying journey for you, and I do want to ask you more about your writing process, but I have to confess something first, something that may offer some structure for our conversation about your book: Of course the best books are those that help others feel seen and heard, as your protagonist Lauren so desperately needs and desires. Yet the very best books for me, in particular, are the ones that miraculously seem to see/hear me as an actual individual. I’ll try to explain this (selfish?) instinct more as we go on, but suffice it to say for now, these points of connection feel like windows into my mind/soul that the author was somehow able to fashion, then fling wide open. As a rabid reader, for me, these moments offer an emotional/intellectual cleansing, followed by a spark of knowing. To get to the point, your debut novel absolutely just lit up my mind. And I don’t doubt others will have a similar experience, even if my particular reading experience seems unique (and self-centered?) to me.
I felt the first spark quite early on, for instance, at this point: “Teaching gave my life some aspect of normalcy, and I thought then that it was normalcy I craved.” As a writer and instructor myself, I read that line and thought, “Yes, I delude myself, too.” It was a stark recognition, encapsulated in a seemingly logistical sentence. The truth is, we writers are always distracted—by the needs of ourselves and our families, by the daily humdrum of regular life, or even by our next great idea. In the end, twelve years is not a long time to write a book, especially a good book, and especially if the writer has other important work to do. I know you’ve been doing very important work in the literary community, that you’ve held positions that probably didn’t afford you a lot of time to work on your debut novel. I also read you liked to escape to your car to write—but why the car? What other innovative quirks in your process allowed you to “stick” to your story, so to speak?
Diane Zinna: I love that you said twelve years is not a long time to write a book. It reminds me of an early moment in my novel after my main character, Lauren, tells her student that she’s been mourning the deaths of her parents for ten years. The young woman responds, “Ten years—it’s not really that long, is it? Sadness is long. It’s always long. A long string from a big ball that you roll and roll.” I have always felt that is the moment Lauren recognizes Siri as someone like her.
But yes, back to your question about writing in the car! When my daughter was born, I had a hard time separating from her to do anything for myself. My husband would encourage me to go write at a café across town, and I’d try to go there, but I’d usually only get down the block before getting too nervous that something would happen that would require me to come home quickly. So I started pulling into the parking lot at a shopping center around the corner and just wrote there, with the motor still running. Over the past eight years it’s become where I feel most comfortable. I guess the muse knows to find me there. She floats out to me from the storefronts of CVS and Ross Dress for Less! But really, I’m away from Wi-Fi, so there’s less distraction for me; I am in a space where I can adjust the view and the temperature; and if I’m stuck, I can drive around and think a scene through while in motion, which always helps. Or I can park somewhere, take a walk wherever I want. I can people watch. I just wish I still lived near the water. Growing up on Long Island, I knew so many spots where I could park and think and write with the water taking up the whole view through my windshield.
My car is my regular writing space, but when I am on deadline for a big project I will often spend the night in a local hotel, again, just down the road. This also started my daughter was a baby. They would drop me off in the afternoon, I’d write through the night, and then they’d meet me for breakfast in the lobby restaurant the next morning. After breakfast my daughter would always want us to chase her up and down the narrow hallways of that Hilton Garden Inn. So thinking about it, the car, the hotel—they’ve been creative separations, but ones where I was still able to take my family into consideration.
CH: As I read along, devouring the book in just a few short days, a felt a lot of those little zings, and as much I’d love to gush about gorgeous lines and stunning images—again, I am going to try to create some focus here for us: You seriously zapped me when Lauren travelled to Gothenburg. Here I was, reading this beautiful book set in Sweden, yet having absolutely forgotten about my Swedish grandfather. My mother’s father, Louis, died suddenly when she was only a small child. She never knew him, so I never knew him, and what stories she told, I could never truly believe, because, like Lauren, my mother was “a great fucking liar.” However, she always said he came “straight off the ship” from Göteborg, and because she used the Swedish spelling, I was happy to believe that then. There’s more to my grandfather’s story, of course, much of which I explore in my own writing, but my question for you is—why Sweden? What spark began your obsession with the country, its ancient kennings (the lovely mångata), its elusive Midsommar traditions? And how did you dedicatedly develop that interest over time? How did your particular passion inevitably become your debut novel?
DZ: Like my character of Lauren in The All-Night Sun, I too went to Sweden during a time when I was feeling emotionally fragile. I often describe that trip as a time of thawing out after a long period of grief, but I didn’t think of writing about it for many years.
The feeling for this book was actually given to me in a dream. I woke up one morning, ran to my computer, and quickly outlined twenty chapters. My dream was about two women traveling by train through Europe. They stop in Paris. One woman goes down into an underground bathroom full of art on the walls. And in walks a former lover. The feeling of the dream was that she was going to have to make a choice between staying with this lover or getting back on the train and continuing this journey with her friend.
Almost as soon as I started to write, Paris floated away and I found myself describing Stockholm because it was a city I knew so well. The underground bathroom filled with art was likely my subconscious remembering the art-filled subway stations of Stockholm. Once I allowed myself to remember the feeling of being in those stations, I realized that the friend in my dream was the friend I had traveled with to Sweden all those years ago. And I knew that the choice my protagonist was making was not between a friend and a lover but between two sides of herself.
People can see how much I love Sweden from the way I wrote about it in The All-Night Sun. I’ve tried to keep the memory of my time there close to me. I’ve taken several Swedish classes at Svenska Skolan, a Swedish language school outside of Washington, DC. And there is a description in the book of a Santa Lucia service that Lauren attends, with a Swedish bazaar happening in the church hall next door. All of that is based on a Santa Lucia service I’ve gone to every year for twelve years in Potomac, Maryland. Every time I watched the girls sweep into the church in their white robes, I’d tear up and wonder if I’d someday get to share my Santa Lucia scene and my novel with readers.
CH: Another zinger, especially in the Age of the Selfie: “I was always the kind of person who hated to have her photograph taken, dreading that instant when the camera might catch me looking stupid or at a bad angle, reduced to one version of myself, someone thinking that’s all I am. Something like death in a photo. A stranger might pick it up, and to them that’s all you’ll ever be, this moment you had no control over, that had no before and no afterward.” I’ve felt this way about photos my whole life—like they somehow steal my living soul and replace it with a dead one—and I often claim to be “philosophically opposed to selfies,” though I have a few pics I keep “archived” for emergencies. I also then thought of this TV series I recently watched called Dead Still, a darkly comedic murder mystery about a funereal photographer. And then I thought of the photo I have on my dresser of my dead son, who died at birth—his clothes blue, his face already gray. Strange that it took me three whole cognitive leaps to get to him, but I think that is what grief is like—some of us have to avoid it, like we avoid the camera. We don’t want to be forever “caught” in the throes of it, but the more we push it away, the more it pushes against us.
All through your book, Lauren is in a fistfight with her grief. It makes her selfish, clingy, needy. Once Siri steps in to “save” her, Lauren needs that relationship to be her new “family,” her new sense of the sacred. Lauren says again and again she wants to be “alone” with Siri’s friendship, to be the sole recipient of her affection and attention. Lauren can only be herself with one other, one who can isolate with her in her grief. Hating photos is another expression of self-isolation, as photos themselves are meant to celebrate and preserve community, the mutuality of existence. But a writer too must isolate—perhaps in her car?—to really see, hear, and feel enough to put it all on the page. Maybe I don’t have a fully formed question here—maybe I am just having a suspended moment, brought on by your book. Like Lauren, I am still suffering. What can you say to me, that your book hasn’t already said? Obviously, you’ve touched me deeply, and maybe I didn’t realize how deeply until I tried to write this “question.” Maybe I want most to know how you managed to so deftly and thoroughly explore such deep grief without losing yourself to it. Did your book, in allowing you a metaphorical “drawing” of grief—one that delved much more deeply than a mere photograph, a quick snapshot—ultimately “save” you, too?
DZ: First, I want to thank you for honoring me by sharing about your son. I will never forget that.
And I so appreciated how you described making those cognitive jumps. There are these energetic connectors that exist for us between memories and as we push back or we push our way forward, we can often find ourselves—especially if we are people who have experienced deep grief—suddenly in the throes of a memory and not knowing how we got there. That is what I was trying to show in the telling of Lauren’s story—how these sometimes synesthetic connectors work on her, how grief can be a memory overlaid with real life, nearly hallucinatory. I am probably most proud of the chapter in my book that is a retelling of an earlier scene. The retelling is studded with what once seemed to be random details, but in that moment we see the items, words, and images that have had a power over Lauren, that existed as those connectors for her.
You mentioned the word mångata, which literally translates to “moon road,” or the reflection of the moon on the water that gives the appearance of a luminous path. I think of Lauren walking it. I think her every step is like a drowning.
I just had so much love for Lauren and wanted her to be okay at the end. Earlier versions had her getting married. I had her getting a new job. I showed her with hobbies. She was a scrapbooker and went to parties where she decorated photo albums and drank wine with good friends. I was trying to do too much for her because I wanted her to be okay. I am happy with the end now. It simply shows her no longer drowning. We see her coming up for air after being underwater for so long and taking her first, deep breath. We breathe with her and we know that there will be another breath, and another day, and she is ultimately going to be okay.
When Lauren speaks of grief in The All-Night Sun, she is speaking in my voice. I am often asked if the book was healing to write, and I suppose no one can be that intentionally close to a long, similar pain for years and not be changed by it. But it has been the reception of this book by empathetic readers that has felt most healing. I truly thank you for the way you’ve expressed connecting with the story.
CH: Final question, for now (and one you can skip, if you like). The pandemic has made many of us more mindful, more compassionate, more empathetic than ever before, I think. Especially those of us who read and think deeply. But I have another confession to make—I attended AWP this year, not yet thinking much of the virus, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad here in the USA, thinking it almost inevitable. My accommodations made, I convinced myself that I needn’t miss the biggest literary event of the year: AWP 2020 in San Antonio, a conference and city I longed to visit once again. Armed with foresight (which we are now ironically calling “2020 Vision”), you felt differently. In fact, you left AWP on the basis of your convictions—an act I admire more now, given the facts. To respect your privacy, I don’t want to delve too deeply into that decision, unless you feel comfortable doing so. Instead, I’d like to ask you about human decency. In 2020, we’ve seen disasters, nature-made or human-made. We’ve seen the calls for justice, for equality, for fairness, in a world that is broken by its privilege. Frankly, it’s a lot to process at once, and it’s a kind of grief in itself. In your opinion, what can and should we do, as writers and teachers, to best help ourselves and others work through this time, and to help others be seen and heard?
DZ: With every book we read, with every story we allow to come into our hearts and change us, we build up our empathy. As writers and readers, that has always been our superpower. We intentionally seek out the work of writers who are making art from experiences unlike our own. It doesn’t just inform or entertain us. It changes us. We seek out not just their published work but the stories of their journey and what’s made it difficult for their work to be heard. The more we read, the more we care. The more we see that solutions come from doing what is right for the most vulnerable. The more we will know what’s right when voices say otherwise.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler