Author Interview with Diane Josefowicz!
Novelist and historian Diane Josefowicz is the author of Ready, Set, Oh, a novel published in 2022 by Minneapolis-based Flexible Press. A novella, L’Air du Temps (1985), is forthcoming from Regal House in 2024. Her fiction and essays have been widely anthologized and have appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, Dame, LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is also the author, with Jed Z. Buchwald, of two histories of Egyptology, The Riddle of the Rosetta (2020) and The Zodiac of Paris (2010), both from Princeton University Press. She lives in Providence, RI.
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Tell me about yourself. What inspired you to write?
The summer I was thirteen, I wrote a novel from start to finish on a yellow legal pad while hiding out from the rain—it was an incredibly wet summer—at the Cranston Public Library on Sockanossett Cross Road. What I loved—and I want to be absolutely honest about this—was the way those finished pages felt, their heft and texture. I’m left-handed, so writing in ink results in a smeary, messy page, and I loved that too. In my family I played the role of the unfailingly steady person, the reliable producer of good grades and athletic accomplishments. I wasn’t supposed to have an inner life, to respond in any authentic way to anyone or be unpredictably moved by anything. The page was one place where I could be freely imperfect, even messy. I threw those pages away because I didn’t want anyone to know I’d written anything.
Describe your desk / writing space:
I work at my grandmother’s make-up table, which I inherited after her death. It’s a delicate piece of furniture with thin legs and ball-in-claw feet. I’ve got my own office, with a wall full of bookshelves and a separate work table where books and papers tend to pile up. I’m usually working on a few things at once, and the projects are organized over there.
Do you have a writing routine, or do you write when inspired?
I write in notebooks, so I can jot things down when I’m out and about. I try to write every day, and I make a point of getting a few hours of dedicated writing time into just about every weekday. I sometimes write on weekends, but I like to keep those days free for reading and doing other things that don’t involve screens.
How do you come up with the title to your books?
My publishers have titled most of my books so far. It’s a marketing decision.
What was the hardest scene for you to write? Which scene was your favorite to write?
They’re all hard. Most of my writing happens through intense revision.
What inspired your book/series?
Ready, Set, Oh is a novel that takes place in the late Sixties in and around Providence, Rhode Island. It’s about two families in very different economic circumstances and what happens when two of their children become seriously romantically involved. The Vietnam war threatens one of those children, who is vulnerable to the draft; the other character gets in trouble because she’s pregnant and can’t get the abortion she might otherwise want. They’re in a terrible bind, both as individuals and as a couple, and the story unfolded naturally from their struggle inside this crucible of history and circumstances. I should add that I spent my early adulthood getting a PhD in history of science at MIT. One of my professors told me this: “The five years before your birth are the site of your biggest historical amnesia.” So I had thought a lot about that period, the late Sixties. I wondered what I could actually know about it. My parents had many fights about the meaning of those times; weirdly, so did all my professors. It was as if they were all trying to deal with some huge ongoing invisible trauma. So this struck me. Then, when I began writing Ready, Set, Oh, it was 2003, and the US was slipping into what was, to me, a very questionable and poorly justified war in Iraq. There was a lot of talk, too, about Vietnam, especially as the first casualty reports came back. I realized that war had informed so much of my life and yet, I had spent almost no time interrogating this, thinking about it. But I’d just had a baby, and her arrival sort of drew a line under my ignorance. I was worried about her future while being newly confused about the past. The book came out of those feelings.
What are you working on next?
L’Air du Temps (1985) is coming out next year, and that’s a story of a teenager named Zinnia Zompa who is stuck in a Rhode Island suburb in 1985. Weird things are happening—a neighbor is brutally murdered, everyone’s going crazy trying to make their lawns as green as possible, and Lincoln Continentals are parked in every driveway despite the skyrocketing price of gasoline. Zinnia’s just trying to make sense of it all, and along the way, she has a few adventures. I’m also finishing a revision of a novel about the housing boom and the beginnings of the opioid epidemic of the early aughts, though I would not necessarily say that on the jacket cover. Remember when everyone was in the business of “flipping” houses? There was so much manic energy around that, so much attention paid to it. And yet, behind and beneath it, there was also this wildfire of addiction and despair. How did that happen?
What authors or books have influenced your writing?
I went to Brown in the 1990s, when the creative writing program was deeply imbued with the fabulism of Robert Coover, Angela Carter, Rikki Ducornet. These were my first teachers. At MIT I worked with Anita Desai, whose sharp eye for narrative structure helped me clarify the difference between good storytelling and kinds of history I had been reading and writing. I love the moody Europeans: Péter Nádas, Bohumil Hrabal, Stefan Heym, Claudio Magris, Eugen Ruge. As far as contemporaries go, I’m a huge fan of Daisy Hildyard and Helen Dewitt.
If you could live anywhere, in this world or fantasy, where would you live?
I would live in Paris, where I spend part of every year.
What is your favorite meal?
Potato chips and Chardonnay. I don’t have this very often, for obvious reasons, but it is my favorite.
Coffee or tea? Wine or beer?
I once met a powerful businesswoman who made a fantastic recommendation: For dessert, always have coffee and another glass of Chardonnay.
Describe yourself in three words.
A working mom.