First-up, I just want to say wow – The Diviners is nothing short of spectacular. Could you tell us a little about how the idea was born? I like the idea that you’re a time-travelling, smart-mouthed, super-powered ‘Sheba’, and it’s autobiographical, but my history teacher always told me to check my sources...
LB: You know what? I like you. I just decided. (And thanks for the lovely compliment.)
Ah, the, “Where did you get the idea for this?” question. Hmmmm... You know, Sarah, sometimes I read interviews with other authors where they tell the captivating stories of how their novels came to be born—dreams, a sentence written in sand, a sad clown glimpsed from a bus window (Why does he cry? Is he French? Does he own a dogwho hates him?) I read these accounts in awe and jealousy as I shake my tiny fists to the indifferent novel gods who never grant me clowns glimpsed from bus windows, and I shed a single tear and seethe with novel-idea-origin envy.
The boring truth is that the idea for this came to me, as is usually the case at my house, over a longer stretch of time—no thunderclap moment. I have long been a fan of all things supernatural and horror (see my answer to your brilliant #3 question) as well as long-form storytelling: comics, twisty TV series, book series. And I am particularly a fan of TV shows like “X-Files,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dr. Who,” and “Firefly” in which there are spooky episodes atop longer, more political/existential story arcs. I really wanted to play in that sandbox. And so, about four years ago or so, I started thinking about all of the things I enjoy reading/watching and thought, well, hell’s bells, why not have fun and try my hand at that myself? Essentially, Sarah, I am being incredibly selfish by making a big Cobb Salad of all of the things which interest me: history, politics, serial killers, New York City, religious/ethical quandaries, the American mythos, identity, class and race politics, the XL Creepy, literature, music, dancing, witty banter, and people wearing outrageous clothes, possibly adorned with feathers. But with ritual murder and ghosts and cornfields. You know, like you do.
So, #1 is that I’m selfish. #2 is that, apparently, there is a lot thatinterests me, most of it creepy. #3 is that I have always been fascinated by the 1920s—I started reading Dorothy Parker at an impressionable age and The Great Gatsby also made quite the impression on me as a teenager. And #4 is that I really wanted to find a way to write about post-9/11 America, and I wasn’t sure how to go about that, how to explore all of the disquiet I felt about the nation we seemed to have become in pursuit of “justice” and “homeland security.” I started doing some preliminary research and I began to see some rather uncomfortable parallels between the America of the 1920s and post-9/11 America, and that was when the idea really started taking shape in my head.
That’s the origin story of The Diviners. Which is not nearly as captivating as saying, Oh, well, Margo Lanagan asked me, “Hey, Libba, how well can you take a punch?” and when I came to five days later, I had all four books sketched out in my head.
You know, I think I kind of like the Fact version every bit as much the fiction.
The extraordinary amount of research it must have taken aside, The Diviners doesn't seem like the kind of book that just 'happened'. It’s a Big Book, and not just in size – we're talking a sprawling sumptuous feast of a thing with Big Ideas and characters and vision. Was ‘Big’ the goal, or did it grow kind of organically?
LB: Well, Sarah, I do hail originally from Texas, the “Bigger” state. Really, you should’ve seen my hair in the ‘80s. It has been noted by many, many exhausted readers that I tend to, um, run on a bit. Seriously, how much
space have you allotted to this interview? You could be posting this in installments is what I’m saying here.
I knew it would be a sprawling thing as there was so much I wanted to explore. And of course, the story always changes in the writing of it. Story is a slippery fish—or at least, it is for me. But yeah, I knew going in that I was making a big, big commitment. The only thing to do was to tell my editor, Alvina Ling, that I was sorry and bake her cake. Lots and lots of cake.
Talking of big books, I’ve been seeing a few comparisons to Stephen King. I can see why: The Diviners is seriously creepy. I’m not quite sure whether to call it Horror, but there are certainly touches – what drew you to ‘horror’ and a ghost story?
LB: I have always been a horror reader. In fact, other than cute talking animals, that was my first love and my genre of choice. I read horror comics, watched Hammer horror films, “Dark Shadows,” “Kolchak the Night Stalker,” read Poe, Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t interested in scary things. Wait…why are you moving away from me? * pats bench * Sit here, Sarah. Let’s be friends. I got you a heart in a box. Look, it’s still beating…
I think I was drawn to horror at a young age because I was an anxious kid. A Kid Who Asks Lots of Questions. A Kid Who Wonders About Everything. I think I was a kid who was tuned in to the repressed and unspoken of the adult world; hence, the anxiety. I think that for a lot of anxious kids, being told that everything’s fine when they can sense that it absolutely is NOT fine only intensifies their anxiety because then they learn not to trust their inner compasses. Those feelings need an outlet. Enter horror, which is, curiously, reassuring: Oh, there really IS bad shit
out there. I’m NOT crazy. Whew! But rather than the free-form, ill-defined ennui and angst of the human condition, the fear that no one’s in charge, everything we believe might turn out to be advertising slogans, and we’re all one food shortage away from tearing each other apart, there’s a freaking monster or ghost or beastie that you can see and fight—a defined BAD THING. You can find the spell that banishes the evil spirit, drive the stake into the vampire’s heart, shoot a silver bullet at the werewolf, and perform the various exorcisms to rid you of whatever that monster-as- metaphor is. (Note: This is not true of all horror. There is plenty of Ill-Defined Bad Thing Horror. I’m saying that as a kid, I found reading about/watching monsters to be comforting in some sense.)
But I also found certain things that my country was doing in the name of “freedom” and “security” to be a sort of horror story, to be honest. The illegal wiretapping, the appeal to nationalism and nativism, the endless wars, the pictures and stories out of Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, taking a national tragedy and turning it into t-shirts and commemorative cups and key chains... I mean, Jesus. That’s pretty horrific to me.
You’re known for genre hopping, and wildly different eras, but why the 1920’s? (Also: 1920’s! I have a new number one time travel destination).
LB: The 1920s are so theatrical, aren’t they? At times as I did the research, I had the feeling that I was watching a play: the slang, the fashion, the parties, the corruption, the organized crime, jazz and bathtub gin, the ambition and greed, Gershwin, Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, the New Yorker, flappers, chorus girls, the Harlem Renaissance and some of the best American writing/art/music, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, Rudolph Valentino, the movie palaces... It was wild! They don’t call ‘em the “roaring 20s” for nothin’. And, of course, inherent in this wild party is the knowledge that it’s all running up to a huge fall. When the party ends in 1929, it ends very badly. So there’s a ticking clock on it all.
If you do decide to time travel to the 1920s, just be sure to pack your own gin.
(*Cuddles pretty blue bottle* I knew I'd been saving this for something...)
It’s hard not to call Evie the star of the show, but I felt the book had two ‘main’ characters, Memphis Johnson being the second. He’s a ‘number runner’, essentially carrying illegal lottery numbers across the city for his boss. Could you tell us a little about this? Was this a real thing in 1920’s era New York?
LB: I’d love to tell you about that—especially because the book I used on numbers running was written by Aussies! The book is called PLAYING THE NUMBERS: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Dr. Stephen Robertson, and Graham White.
I found out about the book because I was reading a history blog called Digital Harlem, which is run by Dr. Robertson. It turned out that he was coming to New York City to give a lecture on the book at Columbia University. I trundled uptown to hear him talk (and to buy his book, of course), and he was great. He said that since most financial institutions were closed to African-Americans and it was hard to get loans, etc., many in the Harlem community saw numbers running not as gambling but as playing their own version of the stock market. It was also a black-owned, black-run business venture, and many of the runners and bankers were women. My favorite stories were about one of the bankers, or “Queens”—a woman named Stephanie St. Clair.
Can you give us any hints on what to expect from book two? I, for one, am dying to find out more about the Man in the Stovepipe Hat (
LB: You can expect more pages. Probably odd punctuation. And “Diviners 2” somewhere on the title page. ;-) I kid. I can tell you that there is a character, a Diviner, who makes a brief appearance in the first DIVINERS, and she takes a much more central role in the second book as does Henry. We learn a bit more about Project Buffalo and The Man in the Stovepipe Hat, or Mr. Fun Times, as I call him. Of course, this could all change and I could end up giving you an armadillo musical in the middle of the book. It could happen. Don’t get too comfortable, Sarah.
Last one: Congratulations! You’re a Diviner. You should be proud. Just... don’t tell anyone (except us). What’s your special talent?