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Novelist Anita Diamant talks writing with students

Novelist Anita Diamant talks writing with students

By Eric Coker

When it comes to writing, the story always dictates “the when and the who” for novelist Anita Diamant, MA ‘75.

“There has to be a tale that I am intrigued by,” she said. “I have to want to spend a lot of time with it. There’s nothing scientific about it. It’s just something that grabs me.”

Diamant spoke to students about the writing process, the publishing industry and her latest novel, The Boston Girl, during a Skype session at Harpur Edge from her Newton, Mass., home on Nov. 12. Wendy Neuberger ‘81, MBA ‘84, Harpur Edge director, served as moderator of the event.

The inspiration for The Boston Girl came from Rockport Lodge, a Fresh Air Fund-like resort outside of Boston founded in 1906 to give low-income girls the opportunity to take part in recreation.

“It was a Progressive-era approach to poverty and immigration,” Diamant said. “This was a way to Americanize immigrants and give them an American summer experience. Who went there? What was the experience like? That led me to the north side of Boston.”

The Boston Girl — Diamant’s fifth novel — tells the story of Addie Baum, an 85-year-old who recounts her life to her granddaughter, Ava. Addie, born in 1900 to an immigrant Jewish family, describes her early adolescent life living in Boston and gaining friends at Rockport Lodge.

The decision to have Addie tell her tale to Ava was key, Diamant said.

“It lightened the tone of Addie’s voice,” she said. “She cracks wise every now and then. Although Ava isn’t a big presence, she is the reason that Addie comes across as warm and pleasant as a person.”

The book, released in late 2014, has resonated with readers. Diamant said that “The Boston Girl” has generated more e-mail and e-book sales than any of her previous novels.

“Part of it is that (The Boston Girl) is a personal book and people can connect to it,” she said. “I get a lot of e-mail from people talking about their grandmothers or writing that they wish they had known their grandmothers.”

Diamant’s novels have connected with readers since 1997, when The Red Tent was released. She came to Binghamton University to pursue her master’s degree in English after receiving her undergraduate degree in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis. 

The decision to attend Harpur College was “a good move,” she said. 

“I had some good teachers and interesting classes,” Diamant said. “I even had a women’s radio show for a while on Saturday nights. It was an interesting place to be.”

Diamant last returned to Binghamton University in 2011 for a talk in the Osterhout Concert Theater and a campus tour.

After receiving her master’s degree, Diamant moved to Boston and “stumbled into journalism.” She wrote several non-fiction books before debuting as a novelist with The Red Tent, a first-person narrative about the Bible character Dinah. The novel was an unexpected success, Diamant said, thanks to book groups and independent book stores.

The Lifetime network turned The Red Tent into a television miniseries in December 2014, but Diamant was not involved in the production.

“People expected me to be invested in the characters, but it had been more than 15 years since the book was published,” she said. “So I had a lot of distance from it.”

Diamant described the miniseries as “pretty Hollywood,” but said that it did help sell more copies of the book.

“It’s different from what I wrote,” she said. “It was a passion project (for the miniseries creators). They were nice people.”

The book-publishing industry has changed since 1997, Diamant said, because of electronic books.

“The publishing industry was slow to even start publishing using computers,” she recalled. “When I was in newspapers, I was filing stories electronically, but still sending boxes of paper to New York! That’s nerve-wracking. It took (the industry) a long time to catch on. Once it realized what was going on, it was still behind the times.

“I was lucky that I had success on the cusp (of the e-book age). It has permitted me to do what I want in publishing with different kinds of books. Believe me, after ‘The Red Tent’ came out, they wanted ‘The Red Tent 2.’”

Electronic books and audiobooks have helped the industry by making books more accessible, Diamant said.

“Any platform for people to read is great,” she said. “I used to get mad at people on the subway who would be constantly looking at their phones. Then I realized that some people were reading books on their phones! I prefer paper books, but if I’m on a plane, I’m happy to have an e-book.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17