‘I’m writing about people who are left out of history’

‘I’m writing about people who are left out of history’

Questions for Anita Diamant

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In her latest novel, The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant chronicles the life of Addie Baum, a daughter of Jewish immigrants who comes of age in the early 20th century in Boston. Although the setting is vastly different from the biblical backgrounds of Diamant’s best-known book, The Red Tent, it, too, is a story about women who have been “left out of history,” as she puts it. 

Diamant will speak at a Book Club luncheon at Green Brook Country Club in North Caldwell on Wednesday, Oct. 7. In advance of her appearance, Diamant spoke with NJJN about The Boston Girl and writing in general. 

NJJN: Are you always looking for your next novel? How do you know when you’ve found the next inspiration? 

Diamant: I spent many years as a columnist, sometimes writing biweekly. I was always looking for something to write about. It’s the same with a novel, but it’s a bigger commitment. I have to love it enough to spend three years on it! 

NJJN: Once you have the inspiration, how much research does it take before you can begin writing?

Diamant: I write about history but from eye level, as it was experienced. In The Boston Girl, it’s Addie’s experience of World War 1, or the flu. There’s no sidebar for statistics or information about a particular battle. It’s just her point of view. I need to know the history, but also about daily life: What were people reading? What movies did they see? It was in the flu material I read that I found Boston was one of the epicenters of the [1918] epidemic. So I thought, what would it be like for her? There were bodies on the sidewalk. The schools were closed down — probably a week too late. But all of that has to be from the perspective of the narrator. 

NJJN: Much of The Boston Girl takes place in your own backyard in Boston and also in Cape Ann. You’ve written two other books set in Cape Ann. Is it a different experience writing about places close to home rather than biblical places or locations in Israel and Europe?

Diamant: It’s always different. I don’t necessarily go looking [far or close by] — it’s just where I find my stories. I vacation in Cape Ann and I live in Boston. That made [the research] easy and fun. I could go to Symphony Hall and look at material from the teens and ’20s. And I could go talk to the historian at the Museum of Fine Arts or Simmons College. 

NJJN: You often write about women facing adversity and finding their way. Can you speak to this theme and why it holds your interest over so many novels?

Diamant: I do focus on women and women’s stories because I think they are under-told. That was certainly my inspiration for The Red Tent. Women’s stories in particular do not make headlines. I’m not writing about queens or firsts, like the first woman surgeon. I’m writing about the people left out of history. I have tremendous respect for the lives they lived and the obstacles they had to overcome. 

NJJN: This novel is one person speaking through the whole book. Was it difficult to write in this style, as opposed to including various voices?

Diamant: It was tricky. The book was originally written as an oral history, being taken by a stranger with a tape recorder. The decision to have Addie speaking to her granddaughter came late in the process. But everything we need to know about the granddaughter is that she and her grandmother have a great relationship — so Addie can talk as directly as she did, and with humor and warmth. That means that for Addie, she has a better relationship with her daughter and her granddaughter than the one she described with her mother. Ava was really an excuse for the warmth that wouldn’t happen with a tape recorder. 

NJJN: Did you base Addie on someone in your family? 

Diamant: The Boston Girl is not autobiographical. My parents came over after the war. I’m first generation. Some of the characters in the book are based on real people. But Addie and her friends, not so much. And many of the places and groups were real. For instance the Saturday Evening Girls — the group Addie joins that opens her world — was real. And the fact that they were an interreligious group — that’s real. Everything is based on historical facts, but the people are my creations.

NJJN: Can you speak about some of the darker parts of the book — Addie’s sister Celia’s suicide, and Addie’s boyfriend with PTSD? 

Diamant: We love happily-ever-after immigrant stories. But not everyone had happily-ever-after stories, especially in the tenements. So Mama is an unwilling and miserable immigrant. Celia is delicate; this is not her country and never could be. Who knows what would have happened to her or what her life would have been like if she’d stayed in the shtetl she came from? And remember that regarding Celia’s suicide, no one talks about it in the book, but everyone feels guilty. Addie only realizes late in the book at the cemetery that everyone felt guilty.

After the flu epidemic, no one talked about it. Their attitude was to put it behind them and soldier on. And then there is Addie’s sister Betty. She’s a classic American success. She became Hadassah, NCJW. She’s the backbone of the community.

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