Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, my crime novel is set in New York City, summer of 1992. Holly – who describes herself as a white woman who likes black men – finds herself caught up in a web that connects Jewish, Italian, and Black organized crime. Her main ally in getting out of this alive is her lover Samps, once a young artist of promise, now homeless, living in a Harlem squat and, she fears, clinically insane.
How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in the book?
Not so hidden, I’m afraid! Holly does things I have never done and probably would never do, but more than anything else I’ve written, a lot of my own memories and attitudes made it into this book.
How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?
While I still lived in my native New York, as early as the 1980′s, I began to write sketches about the neighborhood, trying to preserve a world that was vanishing due to gentrification. I lived on a block that was integrated in every sense–racially, culturally, economically, where many languages were spoken and movie stars had apartments next door to welfare families. Kids played in the street because there were always neighbors on the stoops to keep an eye on them. We all looked out for each other. Then tenants were forced out and the people who bought those apartments weren’t used to living in proximity with others. In my building, we had washers and dryers in the basement, but the guy who moved in on the ground floor didn’t like the noise so he took a pair of shears and cut the power cords.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
About ten years ago – and I don’t recall how it happened – Holloway House, publisher of African American authors, asked if I – white girl – had a manuscript. I was thrilled. Not only at the chance for publication but because while working for the New York City Transit Authority in Brooklyn, I’d come across the works of Iceberg Slim and so I had a collection of much-thumbed Holloway House books on my shelf.
Iceberg Slim was the pseudonym – or maybe street name – of Robert Beck who began writing after serving time in prison. His books were packed with action but they weren’t plot-oriented. He was more concerned with bringing a society to life, with taking the reader to the streets and letting marginalized people speak in their own voices. I loved those books and thought it would be an honor to be on the same list.
So I developed a mystery plot that would make use of those old New York sketches. But by then, the publisher was going in a different direction and I believe is no longer in business. So the manuscript languished till Rainstorm Press took it.
Who is your most unusual/most likeable character?
Readers seem to love Samps. I don’t think they’d like living with him, but they do enjoy reading about him, a homeless eccentric artist who is maddening and stubborn and unreasonable but whose opinions – when they’re not entirely off-the-wall – carry a lot of weight. And narcissistic as he seems, in the clutch, he comes through.
Why will readers relate to your characters?
Holly says out loud a lot of things that people think but don’t dare say. She also says plenty that readers will most likely disagree with or be startled by, but I think people get a kick out of watching someone who is so uncensored.
How long did it take you to write your book?
You could say decades. I worked with this material in so many different forms over the years. But when it came to turning all those pages into a crime novel, I pulled a first draft together in a couple of weeks.
What challenges did you face as you wrote this book?
In my personal life, I am committed to nonviolence but there’s often a lot of violence in my fiction. I do think our culture of violence has to be faced head-on, but I am always questioning myself: Is this violent scene just for entertainment, or is it something more? So it’s a challenge all the time to find a balance. Without glorifying crime and violence, how do I explore where violence comes from and where it takes us.
What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
Much of the book is sheer invention but I did draw on my own memories and I worried a lot about people recognizing the neighborhood or themselves. Especially as I did not back off from writing about organized crime figures whose paths I’d crossed.
What I always remind myself is this: Thirty years ago I published a Regency romance novel under a pseudonym and one of my aunts was furious. She said I’d revealed the family secrets. There it was, a novel about royals and aristocrats in early 19th-century England. I couldn’t imagine what that had to do with my Jewish immigrant family from Poland. My aunt wouldn’t explain. She just said, “You know what you did.” I came to accept that whatever I may write, someone is gonna take offense. I think about it, but ultimately, I just can’t worry about it.
How has your background influenced your writing?
I’m a child of the Sixties. I know to some people that means drugs, but for me, it meant involvement in the civil rights movement and it meant the values of the counterculture. If you didn’t care about material things, it showed you were honorable. Now it seems to mean you’re a loser. (But really, getting used to living on minimal income is probably the best training you can have if you intend to be a writer.) These values ended up being at odds with what I found when I went off on scholarship to an Ivy League college. I dropped out and ran away to Mexico. I was “adopted” by a wonderful woman who ran a school for young people from the indigenous villages and had also taken in about 40 rural kids. She considered them her godchildren and was supporting them all on her own and putting them all through school. She invited me to live with them as the gringa godchild.
Almost half the stories in my first published book (The Circles I Move In) came out of the experience of living in Mexico and I’ve continued to be involved in Latin American issues and to write about them. I co-authored a nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal. Here in Los Angeles, I developed a series of arts-based workshops to boost literacy and provide therapeutic self-expression for emotionally disturbed kids in the foster-care system. I was then able to take Spanish-language versions to South America. For a lot of kids–whether in LA or other countries–the classroom is often a site of failure and frustration, being yelled at and disrespected. So I try to teach in an environment as different from a school building as possible. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, I got to hold writing workshops with kids sprawled out on the floor of a circus tent. When they weren’t writing, they were learning tricks on the aerialist silks. I loved it!
What advice you would give to an aspiring author?
Never doubt the worth and impact of your work.
I just had a novel accepted for publication that had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (Please don’t tell my editor!) I truly hope everyone reading this finds an easier path to publication than I did.
Keep in mind that when people read our work, it’s usually at a distance. We so rarely meet our readers and so we just don’t know when we’ve moved someone or made someone’s day a little brighter. That’s true even with a rejected manuscript. Over the years, I’ve sometimes run into a person who turns out to have been an editorial assistant at a publication that turned my work down. And this assistant tells me she loved the story and was deeply affected by it, but didn’t have any clout and wasn’t even allowed to send me a note. So remember that even when your work is rejected, some people have read it, and some of them may have been touched in the true deep way that was always your goal.
Where can people learn more about your books?
You can support independent publishing by purchasing Nobody Wakes Up Pretty directly from Rainstorm Press: http://www.rainstormpress.com/nobody-wakes-up-pretty.html
or it’s available, of course, at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias=stripbooks&field-keywords=Diane+Lefer
There’s lots more information about my work and about me at my website: http://www.dianelefer.weebly.com and at my blog, http://www.dianelefer.wordpress.com