A Whale is a Whale is a Home is a Lamp: An Interview with Dana Diehl About Craft and Her Debut Story Collection, Our Dreams Might Align
by Michelle Ross
March 6, 2017
Ross: Dana, after reading your gorgeous story collection, Our Dreams Might Align (Jellyfish Highway Press 2016), I’m struck by how much your stories are built up of observations or details pertaining to the natural world–caterpillars, whales, cliffs, stars. Please talk a little about that in terms of your writing process. Do your stories often begin with the natural world? Do you find yourself looking to the natural world when you’re at an impasse?
Diehl: When I write a story, I usually begin with a fact or image from the natural world and develop the story by imagining characters and a plot around it. For example, in “Swarm,” I began with memories I have of bagworms (which are actually caterpillars, not worms) building nests in our trees when I was a kid. In the summer, my dad would carefully burn the web-like nests from the branches. I wrote a scene in which I tried to capture that complicated feeling I had of being both disgusted by the worms and feeling sympathy for them. I thought about who might be burning the nests and who might be watching them burn. I wondered what might make a person relate to the bagworms. The story developed from there.
When I feel stuck, I usually turn to research. I look for a detail that might push my metaphor or enlighten something new about a character. Researching the life cycle of bagworms and learning that females die after they mate helped me to realize that part of “the girl’s” journey involved coming to terms with her new identity as a wife.
I find it hard to write a story without drawing on nature, and maybe this is one of my weaknesses as a writer. But I believe that writers should lean into whatever excites them, whatever makes them ask questions, whatever feels mysterious and magical to them. For me, that thing is the natural world. Using it as my lens is the most genuine way I know how to tell a story.
Ross: You wrote in the days leading up to your book launch about wanting to experiment in “Swarm” with a distant third person by referring to the main characters as “the boy” and “the girl.” I’m curious how common it is for you to begin a story with a formal experiment or technique in mind from the start. And when you begin this way, do you often stick with these restraints or do you find yourself abandoning them sometimes because a particular story requires something different?
Diehl: Though I enjoy writing with formal constraints, only a couple of stories in this collection began that way. An example is “Astronauts,” one of my flash pieces. The first draft of that story was actually about seventeen pages. During my first year of graduate school, I took a class with Peter Turchi in which he gave us a list of “formal constraints” and asked us to choose a few to respond to. I chose the prompt that required us to cut a longer piece down to 700 – 1000 words. “Astronauts” wasn’t working in its current form, so I decided to apply the constraint to this story. I felt very attached to some of the images in my original draft so it was a difficult challenge. But ultimately it forced me to drop the scenes that weren’t forwarding the story and put pressure on the moments that were.
Ross: What is one other way you typically begin a new story (other than with the natural world or with a formal experiment)? Is there a story or several in the collection that began in this way?
Diehl: Many of my stories are inspired by authors I admire. Several of the flash pieces in this collection were written in response to a story I was reading at the time. I wrote “Stones” after Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, because I admired how Stein transformed mundane items into objects that felt precious and electric and wanted to replicate that in my own style.
When I was in college, my professor, Catherine Zobal Dent, noticed that I often internalized what I read and recycled the bits of style and imagery I picked up into my own writing. I hadn’t been doing this consciously. Though Catherine meant it as a compliment, I was embarrassed to realize how many of my ideas came from other authors. Now, I’d like to think that I am more conscious of my influences. As I’m finishing a story, I try to think about who the story is in conversation with and how it contributes to that conversation. I want to make sure my stories are adding to the conversation, not just repeating what has already been said.
Ross: Because I’m fascinated by how some writers love first drafts and loathe revision, while others thrive in revision but find first drafts painful, I have to ask which camp you’re in. Why do you think one is easier for you than the other?
Diehl: I actually think there’s a third camp writers can be in, and that is the planning stage. I love that first stage of the process, when I’m exploring an idea, but I haven’t committed to it yet, and I don’t yet feel the pressure to put my ideas into story form. For me, this stage involves a lot of freewriting and Googling and fragmenting. Usually this is my most confident stage, when I haven’t found any of the flaws in my idea yet!
However, if I’m choosing between first drafts and revision, I would definitely choose revision. After I’ve gotten pass the “planning” stage, writing a first draft is painful and full of a lot of self-doubt. Revising is easier, because the raw material is there, and so I can relax. Revision is where play happens.
Ross: I believe that whales appear in about four of the stories in this collection. The most obvious example is “Swallowed,” about two brothers who are swallowed by a whale, but then there is the father studying whale sounds in “Closer,” and there are smaller references to whales in a few other stories. And your book’s cover features a whale. Were you conscious of this fascination with whales during the writing of these stories or was it a pattern that you noticed later or even deliberately drew out later? Why whales do you think?
Diehl: Well…I learned a lot about my own obsessions by reading through my collection for the first time! It was not a premeditated choice to have so many whales in these stories, but once I noticed the pattern I wasn’t surprised. I read and think about whales a lot, so it makes sense that they would turn up in my stories. I’m interested in the fact that whales have historically been a great source of mythology for humans. You can find stories and depictions of whales in almost every ancient civilization that had access to the sea. Whales are part of our collective imaginations, and until recently their worlds have been inaccessible to us. We try to understand whales by imagining them in relation to ourselves. We ask if they are lonely when we find one that sings at the wrong hertz. We ask if their hearts are big enough for us to swim through their ventricles. A whale is a whale, but it is also so many other things. For the ancestors of modern-day Inuits, a whale was a home. Inuits would collect the curved bones of whales and use them as a frame for their homes. In the 18th and 19th century, a whale was a hoop skirt, a corset, a lit lamp. Whales have such great metaphorical potential, because they’re so hard to define and understand. In her lovely essay, “The Moon by Whale Light,” Diane Ackerman writes that “A whale’s glimpse of us is almost as rare as our glimpse of a whale.”
Ross: Do you have a favorite story in this collection? Why?
Diehl: My favorite story is probably “Going Mean,” the last story in the book. This story was a lot of fun to write, because I got to imagine all of the trouble two baby Komodo dragons could get into. Like whales, Komodo dragons have a history of being mythologized, and I loved being able to tap into that rich mythology.
Dana Diehl is the author of OUR DREAMS MIGHT ALIGN (Jellyfish Highway, 2016). She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Diehl has taught Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore, Florence Prison in Arizona, and ASU. Her work has appeared in Passages North, North American Review, Booth, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Tucson. You can find more of her work at http://www.danadiehl.com/.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michelle Ross is the author of THERE’S SO MUCH THEY HAVEN’T TOLD YOU, winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (Moon City Press 2017). Her writing has appeared in The Common, Cream City Review, Hobart, Moon City Review, and other venues. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review. More about her writing can be found at http://michellenross.com/.