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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?

Diane Lefer
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.


Diane's Artemis of Ephesus
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. See the review here. Thanks for coming by, Diane.

Find Diane's website here. If you want to know more about The Fiery Alphabet, take a look at these additional discussions:

Eliza Gales Interviews
She Writes

The soft cover is available here, from Indiebound, anywhere fine books are sold, and directly from Loose Leaves

Ebook editions: NookKobo | Kindle | Kindle UK | Kindle Canada