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s writers, we've all heard the saying ‘Write what you know’, and many of us take it to heart. But how about writing what you don't know? Where do you start? Certainly, it would require a lot of research, creativity, and fortitude.

Those of you familiar with Diana Abu-Jaber's work (or her previous interview on WOW!), know that her novels focus on Arab-American culture, delicious recipes, and culinary love stories. Yet in her latest novel, ORIGIN, Diana delves into the literary mystery genre and writes about ‘what she doesn't know’.

ORIGIN is a gripping, spellbinding thriller, and a breakthrough novel for Diana in every sense. Lena, a fingerprint expert, is thrust into a mystery when a woman breaks into the crime lab building where she works and begs her to solve the case of her baby's death. As the crib deaths multiply and become classified as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), she discovers connections, clues to the case, and most of all to her past, embarking on an enlightening and terrifying journey.

If you ever wondered how to write ‘what you don't know’ or are interested in discovering your full, creative potential, you will learn a great deal from this interview. Diana shares her secrets of the process and reveals that learning about character is key. Having the gift of prose and being able to write about anything doesn't hurt either.

Join us as we chat with Diana Abu-Jaber, a WOW! favorite, and learn from her insight as she explores an exciting new genre!

   

WOW:  Diana, welcome back! It's always good to have you. When we last talked you were slightly secretive about your upcoming novel, ORIGIN. Now, since the secret is out and the book is to be released this month, we're thrilled to have total access and plow the depths of ORIGIN. What prompted you to explore this new genre?

DIANA:  Thank you—I love WOW interviews. I think partly I wanted to see if I could write a thriller just for the challenge of trying something so different. I'd written several multi-cultural literary novels—often with an emphasis on food—and it felt like it was time to break new ground and try on a bigger literary identity.

I think part of it also had to do with living in South Florida. This is mystery-central—there are whole bookstores devoted to used detective paperbacks. Surrounded by so many thriller writers and readers, I started to wonder if it might be possible to interweave the tension and excitement of a thriller plot with the texture of literary characters and language. Origin was my attempt to do that.

WOW:  And you definitely achieved that; no matter what genre you write in your voice always shines through. You have the gift of language, each sentence a masterpiece. How much time do you spend crafting your sentences?

DIANA:  Thank you! Oddly enough, I felt like the language in this novel was so plain and sparse! Isn't that funny? But I guess compared to my earlier books it was. I always do several stylistic rewrites of my fiction, but with Origin, it was really the plot that took a ton of revision. I found it incredibly challenging to write a mystery plot—embedding clues and foreshadowing that is all supposed to add up in the end (without giving itself away). Oy. I can't count how many times I redid it.

“...the trick for me was to not be seduced by all the fancy new technical data: instead of showing off the info, I tried to keep the focus on character...”

WOW:  That's why ORIGIN is a breakthrough for you on many levels. Not only are you conquering a new genre, but also you're writing about what doesn't come naturally to you.

As writers, we always hear that we should write what we know. Research expands what we know, but acquiring scientific information and making your main character come alive with that knowledge is another.

How were you able to mesh the two worlds?

DIANA:  I had to do so much research for ORIGIN that it accompanied me throughout the entire writing process. I felt like I really “got” Lena, the protagonist, as a person, but what in the heck was this fingerprinting and forensics job of hers all about? I now own a small library on fingerprinting, as well as my own junior fingerprinting lab set. Probably the most valuable research for me came through interviewing other print analysts, visiting the Syracuse Crime Lab, and learning not only about the technical details of their work, but their emotional and personal feelings about it as well. I found the trick for me was to not be seduced by all the fancy new technical data: instead of showing off the info, I tried to keep the focus on character, and just let strategic details come through to—hopefully—invest the story with more authority and depth.

WOW:  You did a great job with your protagonist Lena. She's a smart, multi-layered woman, someone who is innocent and yet thoroughly compelling. Where did your inspiration come from?

DIANA:  Lena, like most of my major characters, starts with certain elements of my own dreams and obsessions. When I was very young, I had fantasies about living in the wild and being raised by animals. I loved the idea of having animal powers—like flight or gills or a great sense of smell. And my father's ancestors were real honest-to-goodness Bedouin tribes people, which had a similarly mystical / natural quality in my imagination. My father's father and grandfather were reputed to be uncanny trackers; I heard stories that my grandfather could tell from looking at a camel print the health of the animal and exactly what sort of burden it was carrying.

“I loved the idea of having animal powers—
like flight or gills or a great sense of smell.”

WOW:  Diana, that's amazing! Those stories must have fueled your insight into character.

One thing that amazes me is how Lena battles with her repressed memories of the past. How were you able to capture this feeling of memory loss so accurately?

DIANA:  Probably because my own memory is so weird and convoluted and unpredictable!—that helps. When I was working on my memoir, The Language of Baklava, I was constantly trying to re-evoke and re-live the past and I was equally surprised by how much detail I remembered and how much I didn't. I also am quite fascinated by the idea of memory repression—it seems like a kind of magic to me, the way we can “lose” things that we've lived through, and then, almost ineffably, rediscover them, sometimes years later, again.

WOW:  It gives the book a spellbinding, almost eerie, quality to it. When Lena meets people she's unsure of why she's drawn to them, or if they somehow relate to her past. I don't know if that's common, but I've felt this way before—like we're all connected. Have you experienced this yourself?

DIANA:  Definitely:  I think there's a complex system of attachments, connections, chemistries that draws us to each other (or repels us). And then there's that fascinating phenomenon where sometimes a new acquaintance reminds you of another person—and you might decide you're fond of this new person based on your associations with someone entirely different. There are just so many forces and wavelengths working on all of us that we can't possibly be entirely conscious of. I don't know if there's any truth to the notion of reincarnation and the idea that the people closest to us have gone through several lifetimes with us, but I wouldn't rule it out, either.

“...I'm from the school of full disclosure
and blabbermouthism.”

WOW:  That's interesting... because I was thinking about your characters and wondering if you ever have inhibitions about admitting how real your characters are while you're writing?

DIANA:  Oh no, I'm from the school of full disclosure and blabbermouthism. My only inhibition is how little I know the answer myself. I think my characters bubble up from bits and pieces of my own psyche—sort of the way Jung says our personalities populate our own dreams.

WOW:  That's true, and I'm sure our personalities filter into everything we do... but how about the writer who wants to distance herself from her characters?

DIANA:  There are some tricks for inserting “space” between a writer and her character, like writing in third person, switching the gender, deliberately masking or “disguising” the surface details—job, religion, race, etc, as much as possible, until it feels more comfortable.

WOW:  Diana, with a person unable to access many memories, there is a sorrow borne much like a sixth digit that goes unnoticed—until circumstances make it unavoidable. You did a remarkable job of not burying your protagonist in grief, making her morose. Can you explain how you could tell when it was ‘too much’ and yet not lose her essence?

DIANA:  I like the way you put that. Lena is very sensitive, but she also operates with a deep disconnect from the trauma of her past. She's developed some powerful coping mechanisms that allow her to shut down grief. I think that's how a lot of us operate in real life—we find ways to get through. Sometimes it's possible to experience the grief and live through it. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, I think people just have to find a way to defer it until they're ready to take it on. That's what Lena does—to a rather extreme degree. And you know one of the elements of narrative style that I often find myself applying to my own characters is the idea that you want to push them to their very limits, to really see where the writing will take you.

WOW:  That's one of the remarkable things that you accomplish through all of your characters—a willingness to let them take over, so to speak. But with ORIGIN, the scientific research explores another side, which is a major undertaking for any author.

Did you have to learn the psychological make-up of your protagonist as well? Or did you take on one research project at a time?

DIANA:  Thank heavens, I really only did research on forensics; Lena's psychology (and that of the other characters) was much more available to me as an author. I just tried to stay “close” to her, to imagine her as multi-dimensional and layered as much as I was capable of; and I tried to bring as much emotional honesty to her story as I could.

WOW:  Another thing that interested me was your focus on SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which is an unexplained mystery in itself. What drew you to the subject? And what did you ultimately learn about SIDS?

DIANA:  You put your finger right on it—exactly as you say, SIDS is one of those modern mysteries that still manages to confound us, so I felt that it could offer a very authentic and intimate sort of realism to a novel. We think we can know and control everything through science and technology—and we're closing in on some of the reasons behind SIDS—but we still don't know it all. One of the things I learned about SIDS is how controversial it is—sometimes it turns out to be a convenient alibi for a child abuser, but sometimes grieving parents are unfairly cast under suspicion, compounding their tragedy.

“I tried to bring as much emotional
honesty to her story as I could.”

WOW:  Right. It's one of those double-sided mysteries that automatically blame the parents because of the vagueness of it all. Much like spousal death, or cruise ship ‘disappearances’...

It seems like there are many sub-stories within ORIGIN. Driving out to the desert with my hubby, I happened to be on Chapter 7 (The Haverstraw case), and read it out loud while he was driving. At first he objected because he didn't know what was going on in the book, but after I started reading he was completely wrapped up.

Do you purposefully structure your chapters to read like complete stories?

DIANA:  I wish I did—I think that would actually be a very good idea. The Haverstraw case, because it's an extended flashback, does work out pretty neatly as a contained piece. But for the most part I wanted the whole novel to be as tightly woven and integrated as I could possibly get it. I thought that would be crucial for developing the right sort of suspense and tension.

WOW:  Do you ever move chapters around to fit the flow of your book?

DIANA:  Oh yes indeed, quite a lot. Usually it's pieces of chapters that get moved, or paragraphs, passages. I also keep a separate file for saving big chunks of text that I've deleted. It sort of like having a “transitional” closet for old shoes before you relegate them to Goodwill.

WOW:  (laughs) That's a great analogy. Sometimes those old shoes are hard to give away, much like bits of story. You have a great way of making connections, which brings me around to the theme of ORIGIN.

With Lena being orphaned as a child and her memories of being raised by apes, the uniqueness of fingerprints, DNA, mysterious connections etc. it's as if you're exploring Darwinism vs. Creationism. Was this what you intended as the theme of the book, or was it something that just evolved as you wrote?

DIANA:  Yes, Darwinism is very important to the novel, on a thematic level, especially. I admire Darwin's insight and humility as a scientist—the idea that we try to know things, but the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know. I also think his work as a naturalist is very important, and this was a point I wanted to stress in Origin—the absolutely critical urgency of respecting and caring for our planet. Lena understands that the apes are still in touch with something that the humans seem in danger of losing—the ability to live simply and respectfully in accord with mother earth. I believe all good things will come from this sort of symbiotic relationship—wisdom, serenity, health, and beauty. Unfortunately, it's easy to take the natural world for granted, to assume that we can pollute and consume without consequences, and we're paying the price for that now.

“...it took me all the way to the edge to get there!”

WOW:  You know Diana, I couldn't agree more. I didn't recognize the theme immediately, but as I read it came as an epiphany...

Did this book yearn to be told as your others? Or, did you become more involved along the way, much like your readers?

DIANA:  Thank you! Yes, I felt a great pull to tell Lena's story, absolutely—I was deeply immersed in her voice. At some level, I think you have to feel that way to varying degrees about all your books, at least when starting out, otherwise they're too exhausting and hard and you'll never get them written! I actually suspect it must be a bit like baby fever—who would ever have the courage for a baby unless you were really hankering for one?

WOW:  True! When I feel like I want a baby, sometimes I get scared of the process, but then I figure if billions of women can have one, then I guess I can too!

You must have gone through a similar thought-process writing ORIGIN. It was something so new, possibly hard to begin, but it must have been fulfilling as you wrote it... or did the sense of satisfaction wash over you when it was finished?

DIANA:  Well, Origin was probably my most difficult book to write in the long run. It's the darkest; it goes into the scariest, eeriest places; it required taking hard looks at frightening things, so it was emotionally draining. And the revisions, as I'd mentioned were just so mind-boggling—at one point I had something like pieces of seven different drafts swimming around on my desk and I was just in despair. I thought—this will never come together. Even when it finally did, I knew I wouldn't really believe it was done until I saw the finished book!

“Dang, thrillers are tough to write!”

WOW:  So, would you recommend genre hopping to others?

DIANA:  NO. Well, okay, let me qualify that…let me put it this way…Let's just suppose you're a writer of literary fiction - it's easy to look over at block buster genres like mysteries and thrillers and think that it can't be all that hard. In my experience, genre hopping was intensely difficult and humbling. Dang, thrillers are tough to write! In the end, the process was incredibly satisfying. But it took me all the way to the edge to get there!

WOW:  Well, now that you've birthed your baby and are in the midst of promotion, I happen to know (friend) that you've recently discovered MySpace. How has it been for you promotion-wise? And are you thoroughly addicted now?

DIANA:  That is one heck of a good question. Myspace is so funny—it reminds me of trading baseball cards when I was a kid - Get friends! Collect all 20,000! I've certainly learned about a lot of different writers and musicians since joining up, and most everyone is incredibly sweet. I think it's a lot of fun, but in the long run, I'm still not sure how helpful it is or isn't for promotion.

WOW:  It is fun! And let me plug your profile right here: http://www.myspace.com/dabujaber

Diana, since this issue is about balancing life and writing, what do you personally do to maintain a healthy balance?

DIANA:  I work a little and play a lot. I'm married to someone I'm crazy about and we have a very basic, uncomplicated life. Neither of us commutes to a job; Scotty runs the house and yard, and I do the writing and teaching. We try to stick together—he comes to a lot of my readings; we entertain; I take tai chi and I've recently started belly dancing! Cooking and dancing are quite restorative to me. I think it's important to know or try to find the simple pleasures that make us happy. And to remember to be grateful for what we have.

WOW:  Super advice! So, what's next on your plate?

DIANA:  Next, I'm hoping to be finishing up Silverworld soon, my young adult book; and I'm in the early stages of a new novel (for grown ups!)

I start my book tour for Origin at the end of June, and my website, www.dianaabujaber.com, will have the most up-dated information. But these are the confirmed tour dates and cities so far:

June 26th 7:00pm - Liverpool, New York
Liverpool Public Library
Carmen Community Room
310 Tulip Street
Liverpool, NY
June 27th - Buffalo, New York
Talking Leaves
3158 Main Street
Buffalo, NY
June 28th 7:00pm - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Florida Center for the Book
100 S. Andrews Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL
June 29th 8:00pm - Coral Gables, Florida
Books and Books
265 Aragon Avenue
Coral Gables, FL
July 9th 7:00pm - Orcas Island, Washington
Darvills Bookstore
296 Main Street
Eastsound, WA
July 10th 7:30pm - Seattle, Washington
Elliott Bay Book Company
2101 South Main Street
Seattle, WA
July 11th 7:30pm - Portland, Oregon
Powells Bookstore
1005 West Burnside
Portland, OR
July 12th 6:30pm - Eugene, Oregon
Eugene Public Library Downtown
100 West 10th Avenue
Eugene, OR
July 14th 2:30pm to 4:30pm - Detroit, Michigan
The Arab American National Museum
Detroit, MI
July 16th 7:00pm - Oakland, California
Great Good Place for Books
6120 LaSalle Avenue
Oakland, CA
July 17th 7:00pm - Berkeley, California
Codys
1730 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA
July 25th 7:00pm - Old Greenwich, Connecticut
Just Books/Hosted at Arcadia Coffee
20 Arcadia Road
Old Greenwich, CT
July 26th 7:00pm - Albany, New York
Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza
Stuyvesant Plaza
Albany, NY
September 29th 9:00am - Bellevue, Washington
Bellevue Regional Library
Bellevue, WA

WOW'S CLOSING COMMENTS:   Thank you Diana for making this a wonderful interview! I'm sure our readers will want to check out the ORIGIN book tour and meet you in person.

Ladies, ORIGIN is not to miss. Be sure to check out Beryl's Review in this month's WOW!. Diana is an amazing writer who can write anything and everything well... reading one of her novels is like taking an enjoyable lesson in well-crafted structure and prose.


 

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