Diane Meier


For Reading Groups

A Conversation with Diane

1. Why did you choose to make your heroine, Joy Harkness, a university teacher?
I needed her to have authority and, as importantly, to be seen as having authority.  I didn't want her mixed into the commercial world, the world I know so well, because her lack of style and her discomfort with those choices wouldn't have allowed her to be successful. She could get away with ignoring or rejecting the expression of personal style in her life on campus. The academic world, in fact, is one where style has been seen as suspect.  And for feminists of Joy's age (48 at the start of the book), style, and in general most things feminine (as opposed to female), have also been seen as less than worthy, as less than credible.  I believe academics and many hard-line feminists have done a disservice to both women and men, in giving license, or worse, a more than subtle directive, to discourage issues of style as bourgeois, frivolous and anti-feminist. Nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth.  And it certainly isn't a truth that would have been embraced by Yeats or Wilde, Byron or Keats, Chopin or Liszt, Rembrandt or Vermeer -- and certainly not by Joy's beloved Edith Wharton or Henry James.

2. And why the discipline of English Literature?
It allowed me to show a character who related to the full nature of life, in all its passion and emotion --  but only within the safety and distance of literature.  So -- we could see that Joy had the depth, the intellect and the instincts for a life of emotional connection, but not the courage to face it --  in the flesh -- so to speak.

3. What connection -- if any -- were you trying to forge between the restoration of a beautiful old house and the teaching of English?
Less, I think between the restoration of a house and teaching -- since we don't actually get to see Joy teach (that's the next book --and another character!)  -- but more between the restoration of a house and the restoration of a civilized and emotionally integrated life.

4. How much were you launching a discussion of the way women make community for themselves?

Most women know very well how friends can form a kind of protective, emotional layer around the hard corners of life.  But I do think that literature has given the fact of this kind of community very short shrift.

In our books we get stories about men and women in passion and out, and tales of women and children from every possible angle -- but the less obsessive and more socially integrated nature of friendship is rarely celebrated. I did, very consciously, want to show this part of life as valuable.

It was also important to me to develop that community as not exclusively female. Josie's husband, Dan, Dr. Catsup and the two professors, Howard and Edward, all step up to meet a variety of challenges through the unfolding of this book.

5. All through the book, there's delicate balance going on between Joy's physical surroundings -- the renovation and opening of this falling-down house -- and the restoration of her own emotional values. In other words - as the house recovers its old beauty, Joy emerges as a woman prepared to engage with friends. How consciously did you plot this or did it just unfold?
It was the inherent 'business' of the book -- so it didn't need much management. But  I did, in the end, find that I had to go back and create a few moments where the reader was able to actually see Joy change in more discernable increments.

6. She has a very clear and distinctive voice. Some writers struggle for years to find such a bell ringing inside them; did you?
Nope. I've always had the ability to write in voices. That's what copywriting is.

If you're asking where this talent comes from, I don't have an answer, but I do have a story:

Thirty years ago I created a series of little witty 'play-lets' which I dashed off on postcards in the clear voices of characters I might see on the street or imagine shopping in a particular kind of store. I invented ironic conditions, sometimes dismal, sometimes rather noble, that we might appreciate as we seemed to overhear bits of their lives.

Many of the pals, to whom I sent these morsels of fluff, continue to refer to their characters -- three decades on.  I suppose, in writing them, I was playing with a talent I didn't yet know how to harness.

7. The other main character in the book -- the jobbing handyman/genius, Teddy Hennessy: he becomes the project within the project -- what is that relationship about?
Teddy is so very central that I wanted to call the book, Teddy Hennessy -- and I still think that's the natural title of this story. He is, I believe, the truly original work in this piece.  Teddy is an intelligent, thoughtful, talented designer and craftsman, locked within an adolescent position of development and held there by forces within and very much outside of himself.  We're allowed to see this as both pathetic and funny -- as so much of life -- or at least as so much of what I enjoy in life --  often is.

But I also like the joke that the reader is ahead of the narrator. All we are supposed to know of Joy's world, comes from her to us, but rather early in the game the reader begins to sense that she's an unreliable witness. Joy believes that this is a story about Teddy Hennessy and his potential for growth, but we understand that it is really a book about Joy.  She's negative, sardonic, and alarmingly guarded; but she's also funny, smart and so insightful that we recognize the conflict of that insight, paired with her self-protection, must be searingly painful.  Teddy, in his goofy tee shirts and pot-infused fog, is equally protected.  They are a bit like the blind leading the blind.  And certainly, they do not, in any way suggest a typical literary love story.

8. Marketing/advertising is a field concerned with the making of style. What effect did your career in that field have on this book?
As a breed, successful marketers have infinite curiosity about the kinds of things that delight and motivate, fulfill and define an articulated audience; and we learn how to speak the varied languages of subtle detail in words and visuals that reflect and ignite the choices of their lives.

It's very difficult to know now whether my fascination with those issues of style and choice came from my thirty years of working in this field -- or whether I became a marketer because I was so damned fascinated with those delicate, ephemeral but discernable issues of style and choice.

9. After years of writing advertising copy, how different was writing fiction?
Not different at all. Dedicated copywriters hear the voices of their target customers. We need to write compelling prose. We need to hear the music of language.
The strategic drafts I create for clients, which define a position, a launch or the turn-around of a brand, have to be clear, clean and convincing. They must be smart and solid. But they also have to be persuasive and seductive enough for a business executive and a team of disparate employees, each with their own agenda, to want to sign on to a course of action.
A novel is just a longer form of what I've done all my working life.

10. Joy Harkness is strong, clear and, by the end of the book, directed forward into a new life; will you write about her again?
I don't think so.  She may show up as a tiny character in a book I'm working on now -- but I think I've said everything I want to say about Joy. We've given her all the tools, now it's her job to get on with her life.