Oh, my. Seems like I’m all over the blogosphere this morning. I just posted my essay in Connotation Press, and here’s Susan K. Perry interviewing me about The Fiery Alphabet. And coincidentally, in the interview I mention an essay about the juvenile in/justice system that Connotation Press published a few years ago.
Archive for the ‘The Fiery Alphabet’ Category
Thank you, Douglas Glover, for publishing this write-up and excerpt.
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The Fiery Alphabet
ForeWord Review — Fall 2013
This complex and thoroughly satisfying book tells of a time when womanhood was repressed, yet the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge gave them dignity.
Diane Lefer has dipped her pen in fire to create the story of a brilliant, impetuous, yet strangely naïve 18th century Roman girl whose mysterious antecedents are hidden from her until life, with its adventures, torments, and inevitable losses, reveals itself to her in all its pain, folly, and blazing beauty.
Daniela Messo, a mathematical and intellectual prodigy raised to be a freethinker and named for a mother she never knew, grows up on her father’s secluded estate, unaware of the suffering and degradation that exists just outside the walls of her enclosure. The young girl’s uncanny gifts, though a joy to her father, put her at risk of being scrutinized by the Church’s inquisitors, who hold life and death power over any that might pose a threat—especially gifted women, who are all too easily branded “witch” in 18th century Rome.
The unannounced arrival of Giuseppe Balsamo, a slight, disheveled young man of unknown origin, turns Daniela’s world inside out and becomes the catalyst for the young girl’s awakening, as the two escape the confines of the Messo estate and cross Europe, using their wits to swindle the unwary. But who is this strange, salvation-addicted Balsamo? Obviously an alchemist, Balsamo is bent on discovering the secrets of Daniela’s past, which he believes hold the key to the hidden knowledge of a long-dead Jewish mystic—knowledge that could lead to true salvation. But Daniela, having lived too long in the world of the mind, seeks not more philosophy but the lover’s touch that will allow her womanhood to fully blossom.
Daniela’s arduous journey to find her true home in the world brings her into contact with the most elevated and the most debased in human society, leading to some stunning realizations on the roots of men’s lack of esteem for women. In ancient times, a people only had the right to be considered human through their relationship with a god; if conquered in war, it meant that a people’s god had deserted them or died, and it was then considered proper and right to treat them as chattel. And women had been robbed of their goddess. “‘The Queen of Heaven,’ I whispered. Anne understood it in that moment just as I did: that we needed our Goddess, whether we believed in Her or no.”
Lefer has written a complex and thoroughly satisfying book, a work that, above all, is about the power of words to bring life or death, to create walls that imprison body and mind, or to break those walls down and open the gates to freedom. It is also the story of how, in a time when womanhood was suspect and repressed, it was, nevertheless, as Balsamo guessed and Daniela came to know, the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge.
August 31, 2013
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Book Debut and Interview: The Fiery Alphabet by Diane Lefer
More than a year ago, toward the end of my time in Tucson, Diane Lefer sent her novel The Fiery Alphabet to me at Fireship Press. I loved it for all the reasons the COO didn’t: It’s smart, it’s not formulaic, and it tells a story most women today can sympathize with. When my colleagues and I all left Fireship for various personal reasons and got together to found Loose Leaves Publishing, I wondered if that crazy wonderful novel was still looking for a home and, with my new partners’ blessing, I asked Diane about it. (Insert incredible amounts of work and joy here.)
I’m inestimably proud of this book and the wonderful response it’s already received from reviewers. The Fiery Alphabet makes its official debut tomorrow, September 5.
Diane Lefer: Thank you for the introduction, Jessica. When I sent you The Fiery Alphabet, I didn’t dare admit the manuscript had been making the rounds of publishers for 26 years. I thought, who on earth would want to publish a book that had already racked up so many rejections? Well, you did. You know, years before, I had drinks with a prominent editor in New York. She said, “If I used my own taste, I’d be betraying the trust the company has in me.” That’s why I have such love and appreciation for small independent presses like Loose Leaves. You get to use your own taste and judgment. And I hope my experience can encourage other writers to never lose faith or give up.
JK: That’s exactly what Loose Leaves aims to do: give good books a chance in this bizarre new publishing milieu. What happened during the intervening 26 years?
DL: I had agents, I lost agents, I fired agents, and I tried to place the manuscript myself, but the policy in mainstream publishing changed and all of a sudden even editors who knew me weren’t allowed to read work I sent directly.
Even before that, The Fiery Alphabet had a long gestation period. It’s a book I’d wanted to write since I was a kid and saw a TV show about the occultist Cagliostro. I wasn’t that enthralled with his magical powers but very impressed with the idea that a person could be an actual historical figure – even a famous one – and yet shrouded in mystery. Like Shakespeare. As a kid, I loved Shakespeare because he wrote about witches and ghosts, and this unlikely pair became the creative polestars of my youth: Shakespeare and Cagliostro.
Then, in the early 1970’s, I was in Brazil during the brutal dictatorship. People were being detained, tortured, disappeared. Any gathering of students was dangerous and forbidden but what happened was, if you sat down in a cafe with a book, a student would join you, hoping for a good conversation. That’s how I met a young writer, Mauro Costa, who had just read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and was eager to discuss it. Unfortunately, I had never read it. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I sought out a copy as soon as I returned to the US and the book awakened an interest in the Divine Feminine – the archetype with such beautiful names: Queen of Heaven, Rosa Mystica, Star of the Sea – and reawakened my desire to write about mysticism and Cagliostro. I learned his real name was Giuseppe Balsamo: one mystery about him solved. But another ten years passed before Daniela presented herself to my consciousness and I began to write.
I worked on the manuscript for several years. Once I started sending it out – and by the way, I avoid using the word “submit.” I think it was Muriel Rukeyser who said offer your work, but don’t give up your power. Never submit! – there was a lot of discouragement. The very first rejection began with the words, “Daniela is a passionate creature, but her passion is for learning. Intellectual women aren’t interesting.” As though there’s something wrong with being curious about the world and wanting to know and understand and experience as much as you can – which for Daniela definitely includes love and sexual desire. I took the criticism very personally because I came of age during an era when girls weren’t supposed to be smart. Some adults actually expressed their sympathy as they assured me I would never fit in and my life would be very hard. A few took a more optimistic view of my future: they said I might get to marry a doctor. Of course, in the novel, Daniela’s intelligence lands her in more trouble than mine ever did. But the manuscript (and I) finally lucked out to find a smart woman editor who had the authority to make an offer without having to sneak it past the gatekeepers.
Though I did a lot of research, I didn’t really think of my novel as all that high-brow. Several years before I began writing it, I was broke and had to borrow rent money. A nonfiction book project I was working on for which a contract was supposedly being drawn fell through. I ended up getting out of debt by writing two Regency romances, that is, romances set in nineteenth-century England during the time King George III was too mad to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead. (The books were published under a pseudonym because the editor said, “Diane Lefer isn’t a romantic name.”)
Writing those books was a great experience. Getting paid for my work? What a concept! But also, I admit, my orientation as a writer had always been to concentrate on my characters’ inner lives. I was not very observant of physical reality. The Regencies, however, had to be written to a formula which went so far as to specify not only when the romantic encounters were to occur (and how far they could go), but also how often descriptions of food and clothing and furniture had to appear on the page. This was excellent training for me. Of course, in The Fiery Alphabet, I wasn’t writing to formula and didn’t include quite that much sensory detail. Most of the novel is in the form of Daniela’s journals and a person writing a journal takes much of her world for granted and doesn’t describe everything the way an outside observer might. But the Regencies taught me to pay attention to the world of the senses.
JK: What first drew me in to The Fiery Alphabet was the fictionalized Translator’s Preface, in which you have a subtle adventure in Turkey. Tell me about the research.
DL: I went to Turkey to visit the harem and the archaeological sites associated with Goddess worship: Çatal Hüyük, the world’s most ancient city; Ephesus with its temple to Artemis. I brought home a small statue of the goddess and one day, trying to get all the dust off her, I made the mistake of washing her. The statue started to melt. I saved most of her!
In order to immerse myself in Daniela’s world, I tried to read everything she would have read, though often in translation as, unlike Daniela, I don’t know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I read Casanova’s memoirs – useful but boring. I needed special permission to access eighteenth-century obstetrical manuals. I stared at Piranesi’s etchings of Rome until I could dream myself into them. So, OK, I knew there was a lot of … erudition in The Fiery Alphabet, but I believe I’d also learned a lot about just telling a good story.
JK: Did you revise much during the 26 years?
DL: At some point I changed the title. The manuscript first made the rounds as “Ardent Fire,” which is actually a phrase Balsamo quotes from St. John of the Cross, but people thought it sounded like the title of a romance novel. Daniela does fall in love with Balsamo, but editors who expected a more familiar romance novel were disappointed. Marketing isn’t just about ads and blogs and reviews. I understand now it’s about a cover and a title that don’t mislead potential readers, that help a book find the readership that will most enjoy it. I’ve been happily stunned by all the positive reactions to the cover Loose Leaves designed and I appreciate the way you all wanted my input.
Over the years, I did some revising and cutting. I found myself simplifying the manuscript – without, I hope, dumbing it down. For example, in the original draft, Daniela writes two journals. One she leaves lying around hoping Balsamo will find it and read it and love her for it. The other is private and in it she writes what she really thinks and feels. Then A.S. Byatt published the novel Possession which also features a public and a private diary. I was afraid people would think I’d stolen the idea from her so I very reluctantly rewrote the novel. Daniela has only one journal now. And though I still think there’s psychological truth in the original concept, I ended up happy I made the change. The revision does make a somewhat complicated novel more readable, easier to follow. After all, we got that review from ForeWord calling the book “complex and thoroughly satisfying” – which sure beats someone saying it was too damn complex to read.
JK: That issue of ForeWord is out now in Barnes and Noble and many other venues. Johnny Depp is on the cover! Thanks for coming by, Diane.
Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet, her tenth small press book to be published. It was released on September 5th by Loose Leaves Publishing after making the rounds of publishers since 1986. She Writer Dorothy Bendel, author of Expatriate (poems) and a novel-in-progress, wanted to know more about Diane’s novel, as well as her thoughts on agents, the self-publishing option and, most of all, persistence. Here’s what Diane had to say.
Dorothy Bendel: Set in the 18th century, the story that unfolds in The Fiery Alphabet deals with faith, feminism, history… What inspired you to write this novel?
Diane Lefer: I hope you’re not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.
Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind, but at that stage of my life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. The more I tried to learn about the world she lived in, the more excited I got.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had great power while orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy. As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women’s pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.
Dorothy Bendel: Can you describe the long and winding road to publication?
Diane Lefer: I finished the novel in 1986 and it’s only being published now in September 2013. So that road truly did have twists and turns.
In 1986, I actually had an agent. A famous one. I lived in New York City at the time, so I brought her the manuscript in person. The Famous Agent said “It weighs too much. Cut 100 pages.” I said, “I wish you’d read it first.” She said, “If I enjoyed reading, I would have become an editor, not an agent.” Soon after, she called and asked me to come in. Of course my fantasy was that she’d actually read my work and loved it, maybe even sold it. Instead, I entered her office and found her standing on the window ledge throwing things and screaming she was too stressed out to get her hair done. When a sheaf of pages landed at my feet, I bent to retrieve them. She hollered, “Freeze!”, then jumped down, grabbed me with her fingers around my throat and started to squeeze. We struggled. When I broke free, the Famous Agent said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone what happened in this office.” It was Christmastime and I thought I should wait till after the holidays to fire her. In January, I sent what I thought was a polite letter. She phoned me right away. “No one fires me ever,” she said. “You are not getting your manuscript back.”
She had the only original. I had a messy carbon copy because I hadn’t been able to afford a photocopy. (Does anyone reading this remember carbon paper?) So I had to retype the manuscript–which back then was 500 pages long. That turned out to be a good opportunity to revise and edit what I’d written.
Then I made another change. In the original version, Daniela wrote two journals: one which she left lying around for Balsamo to find in which she presented a self designed to attract him, and the other in which she was honest. I thought this was psychologically important, but then A.S. Byatt published Possession which also features the split between a public and a private journal and I was afraid people would say I’d stolen the idea from her, so I reluctantly got rid of the concept. I now think simplifying the manuscript’s structure was not a bad idea.
I found another agent–a lovely person who was well respected in the business. Soon after she took me on as a client, everything started getting screwed up. Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be early Alzheimers.
I figured I could do a better job representing myself but overnight the policy in mainstream publishing changed. Only agent submissions were read and I had no luck finding a new representation. Since then, with the advent of POD and e-books, we have more small independent presses than ever and once again there are actually some editors out there who will consider your work. I started sending out queries and sample chapters. I also reread the manuscript and found myself cutting about 100 pages. The Famous Agent might have said “I told you so,” but if I’d tried to cut back in 1986, without guidance I don’t think I would have recognized which pieces needed to go.
Finally, in 2012, I heard from Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing. She had loved the manuscript when she worked for a different publisher but her boss turned it down. Now she had the authority to make an offer and she wanted to know if the book was still available. YES! Besides being an astute editor, Jessica is a specialist in medieval history, especially medieval Spain–a place that’s figures briefly in the background of my novel because Balsamo believes Daniela has inherited the secrets of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah. Jessica and I both love Spanish language and literature. It really does make a difference when you find an editor with whom you share common interests.
It also occurs to me that the cultural tensions in the 18th century–science vs. religion; the subjugation of women–may have seemed irrelevant to contemporary life when I started sending the manuscript around. Sad to say, not anymore.
Dorothy Bendel: How has your writing process changed from the time you wrote The Fiery Alphabet to the way you write now?
Diane Lefer: The computer! In the old days, the chore of retyping made me reluctant to make changes even when I recognized awkward language or unnecessary paragraphs, or sections that would work better if moved. The computer made me–or let me–set the bar higher. But it came at a price. In 2003, I developed a severe case of computer vision syndrome from so much staring at the screen. My focusing muscles went slack and it was eight months till I was able to read, write, or drive again. These days I have to limit my hours at the computer. That may account for why I used to write from point A to point B but now find myself working in fragments that then have to be pieced together. Completed manuscripts still read as though they are more or less continuous–at least I hope so–but they aren’t created that way.
Dorothy Bendel: Daniela, the protagonist of the novel, is a strong and determined woman. While reading The Fiery Alphabet, the root of her character reminded me of the tenacity required to push the novel forward to publication. Do you see any parallels between your own journey and Daniela’s?
Diane Lefer: Not so much the tenacity as her weaknesses! The idea of the two journals got dropped but it came from my own memories of being 10, when I had a diary with a lock but even so I never told the truth in it. I wrote the sentiments that I thought a girl my age was supposed to have. And Illusion vs. Reality, Truth vs. Lie — it’s a personal obsession. Three times in my life, I’ve been duped by a pathological liar. Three of them! Once can be understood. But three times? And I don’t mean lies like “No, I did not have sex with that woman.” I mean Big Lies.
Dorothy Bendel: What advice can you give to those who are struggling to get their work published?
Diane Lefer: Never give up! Publishing is important. We write because we want to communicate with others, not just mumble (or scream) to ourselves. But don’t let that desire spoil your joy in the process of creation.
To tell the truth though, I did give up. Writing fiction had begun to seem thankless and pointless. And then there were the Famous Agent’s parting words: “You will grow old, embittered, and unpublished, and you will blame the publishing industry but it will not be the publishing industry’s fault.” I didn’t want to become bitter so I self-published my novel Radiant Hunger, decided That’s all, folks! and devoted myself to social justice work. But I have to write, so I started writing for the stage. It was reinvigorating to explore a new outlet for creativity and to see my plays brought to life, but I did miss the texture and heft of fiction. I decided So what if no one publishes me? I started writing new stories and began a new novel and also revisited old manuscripts. Some I cringed at and abandoned. Others, including The Fiery Alphabet, I still believed in.
Next year, Aqueous Books will bring out The Still Point, and that novel had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (It seems even when I write contemporary fiction, by the time it’s published, it’s historical.)
So I repeat: Never give up! There will always be people like the Famous Agent who will try to paralyze you with the curse of self-doubt. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been vulnerable at least for a while. I had to remember that writing well is a joy in itself–as well as the best revenge. Today I have three short story collections, three novels, and a co-authored nonfiction book in print. While I wonder if the Famous Agent found a safe way down from her window ledge.