Diane Meier, featured author at She Writes' Extraordinary Heroines event this Wednesday, marketing guru, and author of The Season of Second Chances, answers five questions from Katherine Lanpher—an award-winning print and broadcast journalist, and host of "Upstairs at the Square,"—about tale-tellers, childhood, and the art of style.

1. This is your first novel in the midst of a full design career—what, finally, prompted you to sit down and write? Especially given that you knew just how dangerous that path could be?

The writing never felt dangerous. It was like a warm swimming pool. But the next step—letting it out into the world—THAT was terrifying.
For some reason, I had this cockamamie idea that I would write and it would be like weekend painting; perfectly fulfilling and something no one else would ever have to see.
But you can’t live with Frank and get away with that. Not if you have a shred of talent. Talent is his religion. You respect it. You honor it. And you spend every bit of your life trying to be worthy of it. So—there’s the dangerous path.
We had every possible kind of argument about letting it ‘out’. And I lost. Even when I thought I’d won, he never let up. And the next thing I knew, I had an agent who loved the book as much as Frank did—and the jig was up.

2. So many authors are asked what books and authors influenced them the most....I want to know what tale-tellers in your life influenced you the most, the storytellers from your nursery to your present day.


What a great question. Very Katherine! No short answer:
My very WASPy parents were, I realize now, against all cultural odds, great story tellers. They would, if they were here—and don’t I wish they were here to meet you—they would tell you that they had no choice; I was born asking questions. Tell me what it was like when you were a boy. Tell me about your mother. When you were my age, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My father was an engineer and a contractor whose work expanded to become international. And whether he was talking about energy conservation (he died in 1981) or American arrogance in negotiation (he worked with the UN on establishing international business practices), I think, in a way, he was always teaching. Funny thing though, it never felt heavy-handed. He told stories, always peppered with direction. They always had a point—even if it took you a while to figure out the fact that his very entertaining tale was designed to get you to see things another way. To laugh at yourself – or open up your head (or your heart) to a different way of looking at things.

At my mother’s memorial service a number of her friends came up to me and said things like, “She never had a bad word to say about anyone,” And I’d think, “Hmmmm. She didn’t trust you.” And there weren’t many she did trust. But if you were on the inside, she was terribly smart, wicked, funny, clever, full of insight and wit. But also, like her public image – she was forgiving and gentle and gracious and ever the lady. Few of us knew that her sharp insight made her kindness even more gracious, even more generous. And her stories suggested all of that.

My maternal great-grandmother and her son-in-law, my grandfather, were my day to day caretakers until I was about thirteen. My manners (and my manner), therefore, were learned from people born in 1878 and 1898, respectively. Their stories and lessons to me were full of Old New York and the codes of behavior of a world they didn’t really believe had passed. A lot of that world lives on in me.

My father’s father was the most important deep-sea diver in the world, who became an author and a media personality in the retelling of his adventures. He was bigger than life in every way; a kind of aggressively-mythical self-made-man, pushing at the edges of our more careful world of privilege. He died when I was five, but there seems to have been an active promotion of “fun” about him, that must have been appreciated for it to have survived so fully in our family stories. He was a character, not interested in conforming to a kind of behavior he saw as elitist, or, perhaps, he realized that his exaggerated persona was part of what made him valuable to his important friends and fans. He clearly was a marketer, and his greatest product was himself.
How could I not tell stories in one form or another?

3. Given that, how did your childhood and your present-day life wend their way into this book?

Bernadette, is in her seventies when we meet her—and she is not only vital—but, more than anyone else, the character we find ushering in The New.
Her wisdom is what moves Joy to her greatest insights. Her example paves the way, historically and every day, for the women (and – I’d suggest the men) who follow in her footsteps within the Amherst programs she creates, and the books she produced that define the role of women within our culture.

I’m sure this idea of vitality in age comes from being raised by people so much older than parents—and having their knowledge and wisdom so very respected.

My mother also worked with some of the greatest decorators and museums in the world, and taught legions of women (for the most part) how to create painted finishes and crafts. The industry of “domestic design”/and style was a part of our daily lives. I saw it treasured—and I saw it dismissed by men—until or unless the articles became “made valuable” by their interpretation through history or provenance.

The idea of how we determine what is valuable within the culture has been largely determined by men, and women continue to buy into it. Reframing the value of women’s work or insight was at the heart of this book. And I learned it at home.

4. What was the most delicious part of writing this book?

The fact that, in writing, one can return—so vividly, so completely—to places and people you miss or want to spend time with. In this book, I went back to Amherst, where Frank and I produced two BBC documentaries on Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I loved our time together there. It was a magical few days—for many reasons. Even more importantly—I brought back my beloved German Shorthaired Pointer. I saw her turn her head, in that distinctive, and dismissive way. I saw her stretch and heard her make the “Out” noise. And she was right there with me, in the form of the dog-character, Henry James. I so loved spending time with her again.

5. This is a tale about style—how does an author ensure that style is taken seriously as a subject?

The sad answer is, you don’t.

Last week, at the first Empire State Book Festival, in Albany, the moderator of our panel, a wonderful Lizzie Skurnick, gestured to my book, and suggested that the “flowers on the cover” alone would be likely to keep it from serious reviews and any options of prizes. Really? Flowers? I don’t doubt her—and that’s a terrible indictment of what’s going on in Women’s Fiction.

The heart of The Season of Second Chances presents a point that style—personal, authentic, unique, individual style—is a vital part of the texture of life, and the most visible expression of self. In the case of this book, the flowers are contextual, taken from William Morris, whose designs inform some of the restoration of an old house within the story. And the cover is beautiful, it’s not a cheap, cheesy cover designed to telegraph a cheap and cheesy tale. It presents, I think, a great test case for the diminishing of status on a book’s positioning as being of interest to women. In other words—of interest to women, and therefore, ’less than.'

The case for genre literature doesn’t need to be made by me. From Mysteries and Thrillers to the somewhat more difficult-to-peg category we used to call Beach Books, these are stories meant to be enjoyed – inhaled and let go. But what about the domestic Anne Tyler? Anna Quindlen? Ian McEwan? Willa Cather? Eudora Welty? Muriel Sparks?

John Colapinto, New Yorker writer and author of As Nature Made Him, was a real champion of my book. He came to it when the name of the book was Teddy Hennessy. And he cautioned me again and again not to allow the publishers to over feminize the name or the cover—because men, he said, wouldn’t read the book, and they’d be missing something. And because the industry, he warned, wouldn’t take it seriously.

I listened to Holt’s concerns about a book named Teddy Hennessy, when the audience didn’t know Teddy from Diane Meier. I could understand the point of avoiding confusion. And I actually think the cover art is terrific. We mined the V&A for references and books on Morris’ design, and the art department at Holt was more than cooperative. But I was left with a book that looked, I suppose, more feminine than masculine.

Can you imagine, I asked my staff, that men might not buy this book because of its flowers, when we know of so many men who have especially loved the content? They shook their heads. And what does it say about criticism that the look of a feminine cover might not be taken as seriously as the look of a masculine book? Or that we live in a moment when women writers would feel compelled to write dark, grim, violent stories to separate their work from anything that might be called “Women’s Fiction” (see The Orange Prize).

This is not about Chick-Lit. This is about the way Chick-Lit has been used to denigrate a wider swath of books about contemporary life, written by women. This is about the fact that issues of things domestic, if not presented with violence, are suspect as being “in the domain of women”, and therefore, by definition, of less value.

There is Women’s Literature—as opposed to what, Literature? There is the Orange Prize—well meaning, no doubt, in an attempt to offer appeasement for the short-change in status our culture allows women writers. But for god’s sake, a prize for a Woman Writer, as opposed to a real writer? Is this what we want to say?

And even the darling sisterhood of SheWrites, I love you. I really do. I know the intention. But I worry.

As one of the characters in my book says about social justice—“They’ll be very happy to give your team a bus, but don’t imagine it will be in the fast lane.”

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Comment by Diane Meier on May 25, 2010 at 8:13am
Available for discussion or counsel on line, in person -- or even in this little square space given for comments. Just let me (us) know!
x
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Comment by Kamy Wicoff on May 25, 2010 at 7:48am
Hi you two! I should have clicked "follow" for this discussion, as I just saw an email from Pauline alerting me to the fact that it had continued with such a lively and specific suggestion. We have generated lists at different times on She Writes, in response to PW's all-male Ten Best Books of 2009 list, and on International Women's Day. It has always been great fun and an empowering way to celebrate women writers, rather than complaining about their exclusion. I agree with Diane that producing a non-gendered list of Great Writers would require a lot of management and resources that are probably beyond our capabilities at this moment, particularly if we were to try to create one master list from the entire community's feedback. I wonder if we might, instead, want to plan something specific on the day that The New Yorker list comes out. I am going to do a little more research and give it some additional thought. I was planning for our next big push to be getting She Writers to gather together locally in celebration of our one-year anniversary (June 29th), and may focus on that first. As Diane has said, the face-to-face contact at the KGB event was so welcome, and I want to encourage more of it in places other than New York!
Comment by Diane Meier on May 15, 2010 at 9:03am
This statement of a non-gendered List of Great Writers, as suggested here by Pauline, is exactly the kind of banner that can run through a culture to position a “brand” like SheWrites, and speak to the very reasons why we are banding together in strength, not weakness. It’s a wonderful idea. An idea that could position SheWrites to a far larger audience, with an acute sense of authority instead of one of petitioning. I completely love it.

But it is also an idea, if done properly, and at the right scale, that could require serious resources and administration in developing the concept and the rules, ministering the collection of names, and then the management of the press. Do I think we could pull together teams/committees to attend to it all? I do. I even suspect we could raise money to fund it's launch. Does it work for the direction Kamy and Deborah see for their organization? Only they can answer that. Most of all, to be most effective, it needs to be looked at holistically, in terms of their greater vision.

I saw the Women's Movement, at least here in America, shatter into a thousand tiny shards, instead of harnessing simple, articulate power to achieve changes that were basic and equitable and human. It is very easy to get off track in the spirit of inclusiveness. How do you keep from being scattered across the landscape of your 'users' needs?

And I see that Kamy and Deborah have begun that conversation on-line fronted by WonderWoman. Good for you! That's exactly right. Listen to us all. Invite ideas. But hold to your own goals and counsel. I am delighted to be part of the conversation, as I can hear Pauline is, from across the great pond. And how great is this – your nascent ‘committee’ is already international!
Comment by Pauline Frederica Kiernan on May 15, 2010 at 3:05am
Thanks, Diane.
The reason I think a She Writes Great Writers List would get noticed is that there have been lots of women-only lists which so often provoke the 'Here go the feminists again, Yawn. Yawn.'

Instead, we show women don't need special pleading, we're interested in great books whoever's written them.

We can transcend the charge of 'women shrieking: 'What about us? What about us?' and show that we start out with the calm assumption that it's the quality of the writing we're first and foremost interested in, not the gender of the writer.

This Great Writers list is not going to change the world, I know. But I do think a first step has to be about addressing this question of 'special pleading'. We've got to find a way to end that 'Why don't these bloody feminists banging on about gender shut up?' attitude. Because perhaps the more we 'special plead' the more we'll get ignored - and ironically - get labelled. Under 'Boring'.

I think it's worth a go, don't you?
Comment by Diane Meier on May 14, 2010 at 6:58am
"WHY NOT HAVE A LIST OF CURRENT WRITERS WE THINK ARE GREAT? Not Women Writers. Just WRITERS. With no gender agenda. Just our honest, non gender-specific preferences." Completely LOVE it. The media likes lists and surveys and anything that they can publish that "looks" scientific or academic - but is actually easy to digest and means that they (the media) have to do no (NO) work pulling the story together. So - I think this is right up their alley - and serves our purposes! Yeay! I'm with you Pauline! Kamy? Deborah?
Comment by Pauline Frederica Kiernan on May 14, 2010 at 4:41am
How many women will be in the New Yorker's Best 20 under 40 fiction issue? (June 7th)

Bookgirl96 (Former Director (and VP) of Publicity of an S&S imprint) on Twitter is being got at for asking this, amongst other more general questions about the whole issue of 'Best Writers' Lists. One of her tweets said: 'This is the problem, I think: female writers are categorized into commercial fiction too easily'

This has thrown NY Observer's Leon Neyfakh into a hissy fit: In an article entitled:
'Lit Agent Ira Silverberg to Haters: Don't Throw "Buckets of Shit" On The New Yorker!' he berates Bookgirl96: 'How much more of this kind of stuff are we going to hear when the list is actually published on June 7th?'

Plenty, I hope!

Bookgirl96 was addressing a wider issue about 'best writers' lists, and her comments about women writers were a part of this. And I completely agree with Diane that gender parity is the not the most pressing problem we face with the publishing industry. But it does remain a pressing problem.

WHY NOT HAVE A LIST OF CURRENT WRITERS WE THINK ARE GREAT? Not Women Writers. Just WRITERS. With no gender agenda. Just our honest, non gender-specific preferences.

I realise that it could be objected that this can never be ideal (many talented women who should be published, don't get published) but I do think we have to address this problem from a different, inclusive perspective. And if there turns out to be more men on the list than women, that's OK,isn't it?

Just an idea...

Would love it if we could all come up with ideas for being a little militant out there in the real world.
I think my idea of the SHE WRITES LIST OF GREAT WRITERS would attract some publicity simple because here is a list of books voted by an all- women group - and it's got men in it!

So, Diane, Kamy, fellow She Writers, what do you think?
Cheers
Pauline
Comment by Diane Meier on May 13, 2010 at 12:41pm
I can tell without even laying eyes on you -- that you would have loved last night. Teri Coyle is a gutsy, smart heroine herself. What a special evening.

There are so many issues between publisher and author. And - in my opinion - v few of them are gender related. So much of this publishing culture is anti-author, or anti-talent. Is it jealousy? Or are they actually embarrassed because they know they are holding the proceeds of talent, the nature of civilized society -- and they have no clue in god's green earth, how to protect it and foster it and keep it growing?

This uncomfortable position --- and the general state of publishing today, are far bigger issues than the detail of gender/genre name-tags. BUT the changing of this 'tagging' might be something we can actually accomplish as women-authors, as women readers -- and as skilled and articulate women who are very well equipped to go out into the world and write and talk about this as a problem that must have a solution.

I love the idea of opening it up to ALL of you. And then we'll take it to the streets!
Comment by Pauline Frederica Kiernan on May 13, 2010 at 11:21am
Thank you Diane and Kamy for such thoughtful posts on a conundrum I find extremely difficult to untangle.

I do sometimes wonder, have we got that much further than Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Is there really much difference between adopting a male pseudonym to get your work published (and by extension, avoid your work being labelled 'women's fiction') and the situation we are now in, in this 21st century?

Yes, I exaggerate. We don't have to get a brother, as Fanny Burney did, to pretend to be the author of our novel, and, of course, once published, Burney was hugely praised by male authors - Johnson, Burke, and influenced Austen and Thackeray. But I question just how enlightened we've become. A recent article in UK The Guardian about the gender disparity in the arts starts:

'There's a special feeling I get when spring is in the air and my reawakened arty curiosity draws me into theatres, galleries and bookshops. That feeling is nausea. I felt it when I saw this week's edition of the London Review of Books. Twelve chaps and four lucky ladies have written in it. The previous edition had 11 men and three women. A fortnight before that there were 16 men and four women. But on 11 March there were 25 eunuchs and a perfectly rendered wooden Pinocchio puppet. Only joking, it was 15 men and four women.'

Full article by Bidisha, here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/22/bidisha" target="_blank">http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/22/bidisha
(I'm going to post this Guardian on the main page for everyone to see)

Diane - I love your idea of our guiding and molding the publishing industry.
Would it be a good idea for all of us on She Writes to have a good think about this, and perhaps pool ideas?

And for inspiration, we couldn't do better than having a look at the novelist and poet Charlotte Smith who's sense of autonomy and social and cultural worth as a writer is, well, inspirational. She was a complete and well-informed businesswoman who viewed her publishers as bankers and as guarantors for loans (!!) and wrote letter after letter to them chastising them for letting her down etc. I'm not sure I would advocate trying to treat publishers like this, but what is so extraordinary about Smith is her complete self-identification as a writer.

There's a terrific set of essays, Charlotte Smith in British Romanticism ed. Jacqueline Labbe, and the latest scholarly editions of her ground-breaking novels and poem: The Works of Charlotte Smith, General Editor: Stuart Curran.

Also, a really interesting collection of essays: Women and Literature in Britain, 1700-1800, ed Vivien Jones (CUP )Good essays on 'Women and the Business of Print' and 'Women and the Rise of the Novel'.

Maybe we could all learn something from these women? As I say, perhaps not in degree, but certainly in kind, we're also needing to change the landscape.

Now I really will shut up!

(I was so wishing I could have been there with you last night. I would love to move to New York!)

Thanks again for prompting so many thoughts on this topic.
Comment by Diane Meier on May 13, 2010 at 7:47am
Kamy -
Thank you for that response. Last night, as we all met together at KGB, in a night of sharing and insight and support, and surrounded by so much talent and achievement, I was struck again by the things that "women do" so naturally, to support one another. And the point of SheWrites was made in front of my eyes. I was proud to be a part of it.

With no question about the pride and necessity of declaring myself a feminist, I am, clearly, of two minds about how to succeed at integration and leadership, when segregation seems more practical, but self defeating, in the long run. There is no conflict, however, about the necessity of pulling the label off of "Women's Fiction" (as opposed the the legitimate genres of "Chick-Lit" or "Beach Book" or "Romance"), in favor of --- Fiction (duh).

The conversation is going on without us and we should be leading it. We are the readers and the writers; the consumers of fiction, and -- as artists -- the consumed. The enemy is not, at you would be led to believe, Marketing. Certainly not smart, informed, sophisticated Marketing. And the damage in dumbing down the messages that go out to our audiences, serve no one. Least of all the pockets of our publishers.

And here's a case for a segregated effort: Perhaps ---- if we band together (SheWrites compatriots?) we COULD guide and mold the publishing industry, to correct the things we know it is getting wrong -- to create better products, better business and a richer culture. If even a part of that were possible, we really would be fulfilling the model of last night's event -- not just creating heroines "between the pages", but out there in the wide, real world.
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on May 12, 2010 at 8:43am
Diane, and Katherine, thank you. What a smart and thought-provoking exchange. And thank you, too, for your thoughts on identifying as a "woman writer," or being labeled as one, and its dangers. It made me think about what might be worrisome about something like She Writes. Is it the implication that women need a refuge because they can't compete in the "real" world? (A "real" world where literary prizes and Top Ten Lists are dominated by men, sometimes to the total exclusion of women, which doesn't seem like a real world to me but a fixed one.) Or is it the concern that if women openly identify and organize as "women writers", rather than simply as writers, they are confirming rather than battling the notion that women are not qualified to speak for the human experience, but only for the female experience? The fact is that those assumptions about women exist (as illustrated by your book cover, as illustrated by so many things), and until that is no longer true women need not a refuge, but a powerhouse, and one that is owned and controlled by women, for women, as She Writes is. When women worry about organizing themselves along gender lines, they buy into the clever but hamstring-slicing logic that has co-opted many of my peers (daughters of baby-boomers): if you are really a strong woman, why would you "need" to be a feminist? I don't want anyone to give us a bus. And I am tired of trying to get on the one that won't give me a seat in the front row -- much less in the driver's seat. She Writes is an attempt to build our own damn bus, and by organizing our collective power and flexing our collective muscle, to equip women with the tools, knowledge and community they need to drive it straight to the finish line.

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