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An Interview with Diane Lefer, author of Out of Place

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Diane Lefer is the award-winning author of five published novels, three story collections, and more than 100 stories. Learn more about her fiction, plays, essays and journalism at her website,

After dropping out of college and running away to Mexico decades ago, Diane returned to the US and used her knowledge of Spanish to interpret for immigrants held in detention centers and at the border in Tijuana. She has facilitated arts-based workshops for social justice throughout the US and abroad in Bolivia, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Senegal.

A highlight of her 15-year collaboration with actor/director/psychologist and torture survivor Hector Aristizabal is the play Nightwind, which toured the US and internationally as part of the global effort to end the practice of torture.

When human misery becomes too much to bear, Diane turns for relief to other-than-human animals, to her cat companion and to the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo. As a member of the Research Department, Diane’s observations are used to help promote natural behavior and overall wellbeing.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

As a little girl, I wanted to be an actress. Part of the appeal was—and I thought this without ever having heard of feminism—actresses seemed to be the only women who didn’t have to use their husbands’ last name. I was very attached to my name. It was integral then to my identity and I didn’t want to give it up.

My parents—for reasons that will be obvious at least to some—were horrified at the thought of my pursuing acting as a career. They encouraged me to write and assured me if I ever published a book, I could use whatever name I chose.

As for my influences: though a New York City native, I never came in contact with the glamourous sophisticates that were so often portrayed in fiction and the movies. Grace Paley and James Baldwin gave me the assurance that it was OK to write from my own perspective.

When I started writing seriously, I was in a hurry to get the story down on paper. Two extraordinary writers—Oscar Hijuelos and Sharon Sheehe Stark—through their friendship and their example, made me start paying attention to language itself, to the words and the rhythms on the page. They are both gone now. I feel the loss both of their presence in my life and of the books they won’t get to write and we won’t get to read.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

Right after 9/11, I was at dinner with a group of research scientists. They were very worried about their foreign-born collaborators. Would they lose their visas? If they didn’t have security clearances, what would happen to international collaborations? There was so much horror and grief and fear after the terror attack, but it struck me that people were affected in many different ways – often in ways most of us never knew. I had the idea right then—scientists falling under suspicion—but it took me almost 20 years to finish writing it.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Out of Place—it grabbed me by the throat. The War on Terror got underway and I heard the phrase “out-of-place Muslim.” This referred to any Muslim man found traveling in a country other than his own. I’d lived in Mexico. I’d often traveled in countries other than my own. But for a Muslim man, it was grounds for detaining him as a terrorism suspect.

I do think at one time or another, just about everyone has had the experience of feeling out of place. You feel uncertain. When you feel you don’t belong, you also feel (or imagine) you are looked at and judged.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I worked in a factory that made electronic components that no longer exist. I’ve picked potatoes, peeled and sliced apples for pie-filling on an assembly line, typed autopsy reports, laid out grocery ads, been a short-order cook, and done more secretarial work than I care to remember. As a bilingual interviewer, I worked with drug addicts and parolees in an HIV/AIDS education and prevention program. I did a couple of years as Special Assistant to the Inspector General of the New York City Transit Authority which gave me the chance to meet former FBI agents and forensic accountants.

It was only later in life that I was able to make ends meet solely through work that was meaningful to me. In spite of being a dropout, I taught for 20 years in an MFA program (Vermont College of Fine Arts). I got to use the arts in social service contexts with torture survivors, emotionally troubled kids in foster care, youth in the juvenile in/justice system, men out of parole. And sorry, Mom and Dad, after I moved to Los Angeles almost 26 years ago, I finally got to work in theater.

Readers wouldn’t guess I’m an Angeleno without a car and my only phone is a landline.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

Let me express my gratitude to Katherine Verdery and her memoir, My Life as a Spy. I picked it up just for fun at just the right time when Out of Place was accepted by Fomite Press. The editor was willing to publish my novel as written but suggested I think about making the structure easier to follow. What I’d wanted was to put the book together like the files the CIA and FBI had compiled before 9/11. All those disparate pieces of intelligence, filed with no chronology or organization, meant no one was able to connect the dots and come up with an accurate picture. That’s what I wanted to replicate. Then I opened Verdery’s book.

It turned out she was never a spy but an anthropologist doing fieldwork in Romania. The Securitate (secret police) opened an investigation of her and had her under surveillance. After the fall of the Ceausescu regime, she was able to obtain her dossier and I felt very smart because the file they had on her was just as disorganized as what I’d written. Turns out I wasn’t that smart. Verdery goes on to write that even though it was her own life and her own experiences, she couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was reading. She could only understand it after she’d arranged everything in chronological order and grouped material in logical ways. Wow! So that’s what I ended up doing before the manuscript went into final form.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

My “perfect reader”? Hey, no one’s perfect!

I hope readers find the book intriguing, that it makes them stop and think even after closing the cover. I do have my own strong political opinions, but in fiction, my concern is with the characters who go about their lives though the political context comes into play.

These days, it seems everyone thinks America changed because of Trump. With this novel, I hope readers remember what went on during the Bush administration—the lies and disregard of norms and violations of due process and human rights. One of these days, I’ll take on the Reagan years. Because before he dismantled regulations, monitoring, and enforcement, we thought it only happened in other countries that airplane parts could fall off during flight and grocery produce was contaminated with listeria and young children worked the night shift in dangerous factories and you would find streets lined with beggars and the unhoused. Now you don’t have to travel to experience all that!

But what do readers take away? I know that’s entirely out of my control. I have an old friend who’s a rather militant leftist. When someone asked her what Diane’s book is about, she sniffed and said, “Relationships.” A male cousin said, “Diane writes about women and their cats.”

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