I first contacted Diana Bletter when our two novels were listed in the same ‘Publisher’s Marketplace’ blurb — the first sort of public notice when a novel sells to a publishing house. It was like having a little book birthday (maybe an early birthday, but close enough!), so I looked up my new peers to see what they’d written. Diana seemed so personable and interesting, and we agreed to do guest interviews on each other’s blogs. Mine appeared here.
Here are some words from Diana about writing a first novel, riding a motorcycle from New York to Alaska, being a military wife and keeping the faith.
Your first novel, A Remarkable Kindness, will be published in summer 2015 by William Morrow/ Harper Collins. Congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit about that book?
A Remarkable Kindness is the intertwined stories of four American women who are members of a burial circle in a small beach village in northern Israel. As they participate in this ancient, powerful Jewish ritual for the dead, they come to understand what it means to truly be alive…
I am a member of a burial circle in an Israeli beach village—similar to the one in my novel. I moved here from New York twenty years ago. There are no funeral parlors in Israel and communities take care of their own deceased people. Women take care of dead women and men take care of dead men. It is considered the greatest of all good deeds—the most remarkable kindness—because the dead can never thank you.
Since this is a small village, most of the time we know the deceased. We dress the dead in simple linen shrouds and say traditional prayers. It is an incredibly powerful ritual. At first it seems morbid but I believe that birth and death are bookends of life and we can’t shy away from witnessing either experience.
How long did it take you to write your novel? Did you go through many drafts?
I thought of writing this book after one of the first burial rituals I ever attended. I walked into the small burial house (it’s located in the corner of the local cemetery) and there were three other women there. I’m a journalist always on the lookout for a good story and I thought, “Wow, this is a great story!” Four American women who somehow wind up miles away from home in Israel. Four fascinating stories of love and grief, sorrow and acceptance.
I wrote the first draft in 2005. Then life (and a war) got in the way. I took the novel out again in 2013 and rewrote it. The characters remained the same. There’s Lauren, a spoiled yet unflappable maternity nurse from a wealthy family in Boston who accidentally winds up in Israel. Emily, her artistic best friend, who is determined to make a new life for herself after her first husband leaves her. Aviva is a sensuous, strong former Mossad agent struggling to come to terms with the death of her eldest son and husband. And Rachel, a young optimistic woman from Wyoming who comes to Israel to try to help only to find herself caught up in the Israel-Hezbollah 2006 War.
After the war ends, the question burns: How do we come to accept life on life’s terms? In the midst of sorrow, how do we find beauty in the world?
You have also written a memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle. (Did you really ride a motorcycle from Long Island, NY to Alaska?! What was that like?) How was the process of writing a memoir different from that of writing a novel?
I always joke that a stunt woman who looks just like me rode her motorcycle to Alaska. I still can’t believe it, either. Riding a motorcycle from New York to Alaska and back again was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. (Among other scary things!) Doing the one thing I feared most (as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you have to do the thing you think you cannot do”) made me unafraid of just about anything. Fear controls you until you really face it and move through it. Once you do that, it loses its power over you and then you are free.
As for writing a novel versus a memoir, both require the same discipline. But writing a novel is much more fun because my characters sometimes said or did things which surprised me!
You’ve mentioned that you are a soldier’s wife — has that had an impact on your writing?
First, I want to say that I salute and honor and respect all the soldier’s wives and families who are reading these words. Your loved ones are defending America and I am filled with admiration for your/their sacrifice. In Israel, there is a military draft for young men (three years) and young women (two years). Each Israeli Memorial Day in May, there is a nation-wide siren that goes off and people in the entire country stop whatever they’re doing and stand silently to reflect and pay homage to the military services. It’s like a gigantic game of “Freeze!” No matter where you are, you stop. Even the train stops on the track. This gives people an awareness that we’re all in it together.
My husband served in the Israeli Military for many years as a combat soldier and then in reserve duty and our children — we have six children — served. I strongly believe that citizens can give back to their country in some form of national service as a sign of respect and gratitude.
As a soldier’s wife, I enjoyed hearing my husband’s stories, both good and tragic. I’m reminded that life is filled with inspiring, incredible stories.
I enjoy your blog, “The Best Chapter,” which focuses on making today the best part of your life. Recently, you wrote about avoiding self-pity: “Our minds take us where we want to go.” This seems like a useful attitude for a military spouse, and I think I’ll be writing that one down! Do you have any other bits of advice that might be especially applicable to military families?
As a mother and wife of soldiers, I told myself often, “Don’t jump ahead of God.” There were many times when I was petrified about losing a loved one but I kept reminding myself, Stay in now. Now, everything is OK, and I tried to steer my mind away from worst-case scenarios. Worrying doesn’t help down the road. I tried to stay “prayed up” and strong.
It’s hard not to slip into resentment and mutter, “Oh, if my spouse wasn’t away, I could be a regular person and I wouldn’t have to do such-and-such.” I try not to tell myself the back-story again and again, and instead just focus on the task at hand.
The husband of one of my friends in New York went to Iraq in 2009. Kelly told me she could either (in her words) “complain and get fat” or do something for herself. She started exercising while her husband was away which kept her mind off his absence and gave her a personal goal. I admire her practical way of handling the situation. (Her husband, by the way, came back safe to a fitter, happier wife.)
Well, that is a good way to end! And here is the trailer for Diana’s book:
Bletter, Diana. A Remarkable Kindness. Harper Collins, 2015.