Author Q&A: Dana Diehl

Dana Diehl earned her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Dana has served as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Susquehanna Review. She is a blog interviewer for The Collagist. She has taught composition and creative writing at Arizona State University, Florence Prison, and the National University of Singapore. Her honors and awards include a Completion Fellowship from Arizona State University, as well as Piper Enrichment Grants to attend the Port Townshend Writers Conference and the Rutgers Camden Summer Writers’ Conference. In 2014, she received a Piper Global Fellowship to teach Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore. She has been awarded a Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout Prize in Fiction and was an Indiana Review Fiction Contest Honorable Mention.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Dana Diehl

This is the first in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

 How did you begin your writing career? 

When I was ten, I wrote a short story called “The Hanging Tree” that won my local library’s “Write and Illustrate Your Own Book” contest. The story was bound and placed in the children’s collection for a year. It had a number in the card catalog system and everything. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Yep. I’ve made it.”

Is there a particular style that interests you the most when writing?

I have stylistic obsessions that I can’t seem to shake in my writing. I love lists and fragments. I love parallelisms, and I love borrowing vocabulary from the sciences. These obsessions are an important part of my writing, but I’d like to learn to write without them. I worry that these obsessions have become or will become crutches. I admire writers who can confidently craft long, sprawling sentences with multiple movements. I want to be better at that.

What are some of your literary influences?

Lately, I’ve been feeling most inspired by my writer-friends and mentors. I feel lucky to have studied with some incredibly smart, funny, creative, and hardworking people, and often their influence on me feels more real and tangible than the influence of writers I’ve never met.

To name only a few of these influences, Matt Bell’s new novel, Scrapper, is beautiful and powerful. Adrienne Celt’s lovely book The Daughters just came out. Silas Zobal’s short story collection, The Inconvenience of the Wings is available now. And Sarah Gzemski’s poetry chapbook Centralia will be out with Porkbelly Press later this year. The energy of these writers is contagious and makes me want to work harder and better.

I’m also influenced by book arts. While in grad school for writing, I took printmaking classes with Dan Mayer, a talented printmaker and book artist who teaches at Arizona State. Working with ink and paper, having ink-stained hands and paper-cut fingers, gave my appreciation for stories and books a new dimension. I think more about font than I ever did before!

What is the most important element for crafting a good story?

The answer is whatever makes an author feel awake and electrified. For me, that means chasing the mystery. It means chasing the image or idea that feels just out reach. It’s like holding a still-live fish, slippery and freshly plucked from the river. You are always at the same time holding it and not holding it. That’s the feeling I chase. I’m trying to grab hold of that fish.

Is there anything you look for in a publication when you’re submitting your work?

When I first started submitting to journals, I’d go to Newpages’ “Big List of Lit Mags” and pick journals at random. That method helped me get to know the literary magazine world, but it did not guarantee a high rate of success.

I’ve gotten a lot better at submitting since then. Now, I spend a lot of time looking at the publication lists of writers I admire or feel I have things in common with. That gives me an idea of the publications that might be open to my kind of work. I also follow a lot of journals on Facebook and Twitter. I want to get to know the personality of a literary magazine before submitting. Certain journals give the impression of being like weird little families, and I love that.

Would you say that being the editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Do you think this  helped you flourish as a writer?

Yes! Writing is normally such a solitary activity, and working for HFR helped me to feel like I was part of a conversation, a community. It exposed me to writers that I might not have known otherwise. Editing HFR also taught me the goal isn’t just to write a “good” story. The goal is to write a great story that only you can write. We read a lot of “good” stories for HFR, but the ones we published were the ones that excited us, the ones that felt like they were taking risks.

It seems like you have traveled for work quite a bit. Would you say these experiences have shaped your writing?

It’s hard to say. I always expect travel to shape my writing in obvious ways—like one day, I’ll suddenly be writing flash fiction pieces in a Singaporean dialect—but it’s (maybe fortunately) way more subtle than that. I believe that travel makes me a better person, and I think that becoming a better person makes me a better writer. Travel helps me to be more open-minded, less judgmental. Travel reboots my senses.

What one piece of advice would you give a starting writer? 

Find that thing that is weird and unique about your writing, and then become the best at it.