You were drawn to this interview with a promise of love and baklava-Arab-American style. We promise, before you finish reading, you will love Diana and know where to find the recipe for baklava.
We first met Diana Abu-Jaber at the Orange County Literary Guild, "Festival of Women Authors." We told her of our WOW! dream and she lit up, (now, she had our hearts, for sure) and said we had to contact her when we were up and running.
As we lined up our first issue, we called Diana and, as the best laid plans of mice, women and deadlines would have it, she is gracing our "No One Is Born Published" issue.
There's so much to share with you and the most orderly fashion would be to let you eavesdrop on our memories. Here are some questions and her honest, knowledgeable, funny...answers.
WOW: "We have popcorn, chocolate and soda. You said you had some scary stories about getting published. Go ahead, scare us, please.
DIANA: "Oh, where do I even start? When my agent sent out my very first manuscript-for ARABIAN JAZZ -an editor at a big house said that she liked the writing but she didn't think that Arabs were "politically appropriate." Another editor said she'd take it if I took the word "Arabian" out of the title (she said it would turn people off). I tried to change it but then I had all these nightmares. Luckily, my agent eventually found a very wise and wonderful editor.
"After ARABIAN JAZZ, I worked on another novel for five years, published all sorts of excerpts, but couldn't get the manuscript published, rewrote it for another year, still couldn't get it published, rewrote it for ANOTHER year, couldn't publish, threw it on the floor of my office, now I don't like it any more!"
We had to smile, through the pain, at this remarkable woman and her indefatigable spirit. Obviously, it takes more than talent to get published.
WOW: "That is scary! It's remarkable that you didn't give up. We want to know if the air is thinner at the height of published? What was your reaction/feeling when you realized that you had done it-you were going to be published?"
DIANA: "I remember my agent called and I think I fell on the floor. I was sort of laughing and crying. It was so great. Of course, I'm an emotional maniac-as my husband will attest. When my agent told me that CRESCENT was going to be published I started crying for joy, and the she started crying, then she started laughing and said, 'Don't cry!'"
WOW: "You're going to make us cry! That's so great. Diana, when you look back at all the things you didn't know before you sold your first book, which was the most important?"
DIANA: "I didn't know ANYTHING. I've never been one of those writers who's really aware of the biz. Of any biz. I guess one of the biggest things was how powerful the marketing biases are regarding considerations like the genre you work in-how publishing literary fiction is so much more difficult than nonfiction, how it's so much harder to get reviews or media attention. But, I think it's probably good that I didn't know!"
WOW, we all laughed: "We certainly understand that one," as Angela and I think of launching WOW ! "Since you've been to the other side of the world and you've been published, can you tell us which was the biggest trip of your life?"
DIANA: "Both trips are so amazing and life-expanding, but in radically different ways. I don't know if I could've had one without the other."
WOW: "Then, once you were published, how did the way you see yourself change? Who treated you differently?"
DIANA: "I've always thought of myself as a writer-whether published or not-it was just a fact of my life and personality-beginning way back in early childhood. But certainly, the more you publish and the more national success you experience, the more you feel like they know me because they've read my work, and I really love that. Someone sent me an antique miniature set of the THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. That made me so happy; now I keep it on my desk."
WOW: "There's a heartwarming reward for persevering. Speaking of persevering, did you have the support of a writing group and/or a mentor, on your journey to the land of Published ? If you did, how important was it?"
DIANA: "I began ARABIAN JAZZ, my very first book, while I was a graduate student at SUNY-Binghamton, and my advisor, Larry Wolwade, suggested (strongly) that I write about my personal experiences in a multi-cultural family. Since then, I've always belonged to an informal writing group-in Portland , and now, in Miami . These friends and colleagues are very important to me, in large part, simply to hear people saying yes, you're not crazy, while we're each on our long, crazy journeys of writing books."
WOW: "I have some dear friends that have been with me since 'Oh, dear, did I write that!' I think they beat me to the goal of seeing me published. I can't imagine being where I am today (representing WOW ! and interviewing authors, the likes of you) without their belief in me. Please, tell our readers, how important family and friends were to you when you started writing. How instrumental were they in keeping you on track to selling your first book?"
DIANA: "Many of my closest friends are the same people who are in the writing groups I mentioned. I lean a LOT on my friends. My mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my siblings, my cousins all egged me on through my childhood, and all of them read my work and cheer me on now. My mother says she's my biggest fan and everyone should have one of those."
WOW: "I have to ask, since I've gained approximately fifty-five pounds just reading THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA (thankfully, I'm kidding), it brings up an obvious question, how do you stay looking so great, growing up eating such scrumptious food? We know there is no way you could quit eating Poetic Baklava, or 'Distract The Neighbors, Grilled Chicken (that's on page 79). Now, our readers know they will have to read your book."
(page 192 for you bakers)
DIANA laughs: "Thank you!! You know, I'm a huge 'truster' in the wisdom of the body. I love to eat and cook (obviously)-I really, really like to sample new stuff, I love restaurants. I adore going out with friends and having others cook for me and cooking for them. And I must have chocolate at least a couple times a day! BUT I only eat when I feel hungry and I don't stuff myself-I never liked the feeling of pigging out. So at restaurants, I'll often only eat about half of what I'm served and take the rest home and have that for lunch the next day. Not because I'm planning on it, but because that's really all I want. I think one of the best things people can do is simply start to eat slightly smaller portions, like three-quarters of what they're used to, and use smaller plates! And I also walk and bicycle tons."
WOW: "I'm seeing my gazelle in a whole new light." We pause for laughter. "My gazelle aside, what's your favorite recipe?"
DIANA: "Among my faves: the Magical Muhammara; the Mad Genius Knaffea; the Homecoming Chicken Fatteh. And, of course, the Poetic Baklava (we grin) is incredible. People will follow you around if you make it."
WOW: "We can guess at how you became a good cook, but what have you done to develop, perfect your writing skills?"
DIANA: "The very best thing I believe I do for my writing is to read, read, read. I read all sorts of contemporary writers, to see what's going on now, and I return again and again to the greats- Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Joyce, Tolstoy-to see how the masters do it."
WOW: "In the midst of all of your learning, was there a certain amount of fear to overcome as you exposed yourself through the written word? How did you overcome that?"
DIANA: "I was terrified to write a memoir, to tell 'the truth,' of my own story, and not use that safety cloak of invisibility that I thought fiction would give me."
We shake our heads in sympathy with her sentiments.
At first, I didn't even try to overcome my fear; I just tried to write really nice, polite, dull stuff. Then I talked to my mother, to my sister, to my agent who is a close friend...and they just kept saying, do it, do it, do it. They pushed me to get over my fear of upsetting people. When my mother said, 'aw honey, @#$#$ 'em,' that's when I knew I have to go for it."
WOW: "Another area where nerves had to be controlled, how do you prepare for a radio interview, like NPR? How many butterflies do you have? And how do you tame them?"
DIANA: "Gosh, you know, I don't prepare-maybe I should start! Interviews don't tend to be that scary because they usually seem really intimate. I love the NPR reporters and producers I've worked with-they're tremendously smart, well-read, articulate people-so, you just feel like you're having a delicious conversation with your brand new, instant best-friend. For TV interviews, I prepare by trying to remember to comb my hair and I put on lot of face powder."
We laugh and hope we'll be as confident on the other side of the table.
WOW: "Do you consider yourself an Arab-American writer, what does that label mean to you, could you tell us a little more, beyond the scary stuff we started with, about the effect you think it has had on your writing career?"
DIANA: "I consider myself an American writer of multicultural heritage. But I'm very proud of my Arabic heritage (on my father's side) as well as my American identity (my mother is Irish-German). My Dad's culture has been hugely influential in the way I got my start as a writer. When I was younger especially, I was very caught up in trying to understand this upbringing of living in the States while being told that I was 'a good Arab girl.' I love the color, humor, wisdom and richness of my father's beautiful, ancient culture and family, and it infuses all my work, whether I'm writing about it explicitly, or not."
WOW: "Diana, this is only one charming example, out of THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA, where your gift of writing enables your reader to 'see' your soul and live the moment. I have to share it because most, sadly not all, girls to women can relate to this occasion.
"It is when you, Mrs. Manarelli, your Mom and sisters have your neighbors aghast at the spectacle of everyone eating at the picnic table, in the cold...in the front yard!
"To quote: 'The neighborhood cars pass, some quickly, some slowly, and we wave at them all with the wave we've seen at Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, a feathery tilt at the wrist, forearm upright. No one can tell us anything. We are five queens drifting over the suburbs on our own private float.
"And, a part of that little girl still lives today, doesn't she?"
DIANA: "Oh my goodness, yes! I think all women should have their own impromptu collection of tiaras and feather boas."
Let's just pause a moment and enjoy the whole picture; there's a stress-reliever!
WOW: "We believe THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA should be required reading for all families. You communicate the truth about your feelings while growing up, so beautifully. You're an excellent example of how to grow up and have the child and family survive."
DIANA grinning: "Aw, shucks..."
WOW: "What do you hope your readers will get from reading THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA?"
DIANA: "Well, I really hope it will help to get people thinking about their own favorite food memories, retrieve their own traditions and talk to their parents and their children about food and cooking. I think the world would be a much healthier, saner, safer, nicer place if we all did more cooking and if we took the chance of cooking for others more often. I also hope it will help my readers to enlarge their perspective on Middle Eastern culture, to enlarge the conversation between cultures."
WOW: "With THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA, we don't see how you could miss. So, tell us, all of us, what's next for Diana? Any new novels or any events that we should know about?"
DIANA: "I've got a new novel called ORIGIN that's coming out from W. W. Norton in June 2007. It's a literary thriller about a fingerprint analyst! I'm so excited to have tried something so new for me-I just loved it. And it seems that I'm currently at work at a young adult novel-also hugely fun.
WOW: "We can't wait and maybe we can meet you in Portland when ORIGIN comes out. We know our readers will be excited with and for you and want to hear what you have to say at that time."
Diana agreed that it would be wonderful and even suggested that we would love Miami . So, we'll see what exciting things happen for all of us and where we'll be in June 2007. Until then, may those of you working hard on your books, articles, etc. get published, and we hope this and our other articles have helped in some way.