Diana Spechler's first novel, Who By Fire, has just been released to strong reviews from all over. It's a compelling story of three members of a family: a sister (Bits) whose life is a mess in all sorts of different ways, a brother (Ash) who has fled to Israel to study at an Orthodox yeshiva, and a mother (Ellie) who thinks Orthodox Judaism may be a cult from which her son must be saved at any cost. But that's just the beginning -- as the present-time events of the novel unfold, a complex past, full of guilt and blame and miscommunication, reveals itself.
Diana Spechler’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Moment, Lilith, and elsewhere. She received her MFA degree from the University of Montana and was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on her second novel.
Diana's about to begin a busy book tour, and I was pleased to grab some moments of her time for a few questions about the book and her writing process.
How did you decide on building the novel from three first-person points of view? Why three? Why first?
The novel started as a short story, "Close to Lebanon," which the Greensboro Review published some years ago. It's told from the first-person point of view of 23-year-old Bits Kellerman, who lives in Boston, uses sex as a vice, and is worried about her younger brother, Ash, a college dropout who became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel to learn in a yeshiva. In the beginning of that story, Bits hears about a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Throughout the rest of the story, she's waiting to hear from her brother.
When I finished "Close to Lebanon," I thought I was through with those characters. But a few months later, I started wondering about Ash. Who was this guy? Why did he make such a drastic life change? So I tried writing from his point of view, also in first person. For some reason, I never even thought to use third for either of them. I liked the immediacy and intimacy of first; it seemed appropriate for the telling of such an intensely personal story.
For many, many drafts, the narratives belonged only to Bits and Ash. I worked on the novel for several years before deciding that Ellie's voice could really add something to the story. I'm glad that I finally gave her some of her own chapters. It shaped her into a flesh-and-blood character, whereas before, she felt sort of blurry and undefined to me. Including her perspective also wound up lending more shape to the novel.
Did the shape of the novel change much as you were revising?
Yes. It changed frequently and drastically. In early drafts, there was no plot. The finished product, by contrast, is quite plot-heavy. Adding Ellie's voice dramatically altered the story. Sometimes I think back to early drafts and I remember characters who once existed and no longer do.
Sorry if I'm being vague...I'm trying to avoid a spoiler!
Did you have a sense of the narrators as writers with an audience? It was interesting to me that Ash found ways to explain Hebrew terms and Jewish traditions, since he would only do that if he had a sense of writing for someone other than himself.
I suppose I was imagining the narrations as peeks into the characters' minds, or perhaps into their journals, although I don't think any of them are the journaling type.
I had a difficult time figuring out how to include all the Jewish/Hebrew references without confusing the reader. At one point, I toyed with the idea of adding a glossary, but ultimately, I decided to embrace the challenge of getting the information into the story. I hope that the information sounds natural, rather than didactic or artificial, in the context of the novel; I certainly tried to make the seams invisible!
The novel moves along quickly and is a brisk read for a book of almost 350 pages. How did you approach pacing it? How conscious were you of working to balance plotting and characterization?
I think the fast pacing happened naturally. The chapters felt best to me when they were short. The ones I wrote long, I wound up breaking up into two or three chapters, interspersing them with the voices of the two other narrators.
What inspired you to include the cult-deprogramming subplot? Was the topic an interest of yours before working on the book?
Yes! I'm very interested in cults, particularly in charismatic personalities, the controversy over the existence of brainwash, and the controversies over which groups are "cults" and which are not. I learned about Ted Patrick ("Black Lightning") while I was working on Who By Fire, and knew instantly that he belonged in my novel. He's such a fascinating figure, who eventually kind of disappeared amid an onslaught of lawsuits. Back when he was deprogramming cult members, people either loved him for fighting cults or hated him for being aggressive and meddlesome. I liked how the Ted Patrick phenomenon paralleled the question in my novel of whether Ash had joined a cult or was infusing his life with meaning.
Have you come to any conclusions for yourself about what is and isn't a cult? Is the term even a useful one?
Jon Krakauer wrote a great book about the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints called Under the Banner of Heaven. One of the things he talks about is that if Joseph Smith had lived thousands of years ago, people today might be more forgiving of the Mormon religion. By the same token, if Moses had "parted the sea" and presented the Ten Commandments in the 1800s, people would probably roll their eyes about him and call him insane. If you think about it like that, it kind of puts things in perspective.
I guess I consider a cult a religious group that sucks its members dry financially and uses force to keep its members from leaving. Admittedly, that's not a great definition; I think many groups walk a fine line between religion and cult.
When did you first travel to Israel? Were your impressions similar to Bits's?
I spent a summer in Israel right before my senior year of high school. It was one of those organized trips involving a bus and lots of other American kids. I loved it. I sobbed the first time I saw the Western Wall, even though I didn't quite understand what it was. We camped out in the Negev Desert one night, covered ourselves in limestone dust just for fun, and woke in our sleeping bags to the otherworldly sight of a pack of camels making their way across the sand, backdropped by the first blue light of the day. I lacked Bits's cynicism. I was in love with every aspect of Israel, and all I knew at the end of that summer was that I wanted to get back there as quickly as possible.
How has your perspective on Israel changed since high school?
I'm more educated about the history and politics now than I was then, but I'm still starry-eyed about it. Israel is a beautiful, magical place.
Have you gotten much feedback from readers for whom you've opened up an unfamiliar culture? And have you heard from any Orthodox readers?
I've heard from a number of non-Jews that reading Who By Fire taught them a lot about Judaism and Israel. That thrills me. I wondered while I was writing it if I was alienating a non-Jewish audience, but the editor who acquired my book isn't Jewish, and neither is my publicist, and the reviews have mostly appeared in publications that aren't geared specifically toward Jews, so it seems to be accessible to everyone.
So far I haven't heard much from the religious community, but I'm not anticipating a splash of any kind. First of all, I don't consider my portrayal of the Orthodox Jews edgy or offensive. Second, it's fiction! The characters aren't real. And third, there are some Orthodox characters in the book who aren't the greatest people, and there are others who are kind-hearted and wonderful.
An enthusiastic reader runs up to you and says, "Diana Diana Diana I LOVED your novel! I read it twelve times and memorized almost all of it! What should I read next!" After you calm yourself and the reader down, what do you suggest?
Depends on the day. No, it depends on the minute. I have a new favorite book every five seconds, but some of the ones I always recommend are The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, That Night by Alice McDermott, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. More recently, I'm loving Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor and Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis. Also, two of my best friends have published books that I think are totally incredible: The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle and Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez.