Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Emmy-Award winning journalist Diana Sperrazza, whose literary fiction debut, My Townie Heart, was released in June 2015 with Post Hill Press. Diana has spent nearly thirty years working in television news and production in Washington, D.C. and New York City. She is currently a Senior Executive Producer for the popular crime channel, Investigation Discovery, and holds an MFA from Bennington College.
Norm: Good day Diana and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Diana:: I started writing twenty years ago. I was working as a producer for the CBS Evening News and started to feel this urge to write about my own experiences rather than doing news all the time. I took a few classes at the Bethesda Writer’s Center and began writing personal essays. I was amazed at how hard writing actually was, and how deeply satisfying it was. I would say I continue to feel exactly the same way.
Norm: How did you feel when you won an Emmy Award and what work was it for?
Diana: It was for a series
I supervised for Discovery called Reporters at War that chronicled
the experiences of people who had covered wars – something I have
never done myself. I don’t think I have the nervous system for it,
frankly. There were tales told without a lot of interruptions from
reporters who had witnessed the best and worst in people as they
faced life and death situations. They also talked about their own
traumas and deliverances, in the face of that. Very moving material.
Of course, it’s very exciting to win an Emmy. But honestly, I think the reason it won had more to do with the tremendously candid stories those reporters told than anything I did.
Norm: Is investigative journalism ever dangerous?
Diana: Yes but I think covering war zones is much more dangerous. Far too many journalists have been killed in the last few years.
Norm: Why do we read fiction, and what in your opinion makes for good fiction?
Diana: I think there is a desire for story that is as old as we are as a species. I think we read fiction for sometimes very opposite reasons. There is a desire to experience what is foreign, to get away from ourselves and then there is a desire to connect with stuff that seems familiar to our own experience. Fiction is really capable of offering both opportunities. For a long time I was hooked on reading memoirs almost exclusively, until I realized fiction could offer me the same sorts of things. It stopped mattering to me if what I was reading was true, in the strict sense of the word.
Norm: What motivated you to write My Townie Heart, and could you tell our readers a little about the book?
Diana: My Townie Heart is really a coming of age novel about growing up blue collar in the Seventies as the counterculture began to infiltrate and change things. The story is about two sisters. One sister, Jane, survived a violent attack as a child and is a damaged but tough survivor who will never leave the town she is from. Laura, the sister who tells the story, has aspirations for a different life and is connected to the changes she sees going on around her in the wider world, but the pull to stay in a more familiar obit with her family and the blue collar neighborhood is very strong.
The book is fiction but is
influenced by my own experiences. I come from a blue-collar home and
had a rough coming of age myself. I started writing a book
originally thinking I would write a memoir, but I began to experiment
with writing fiction and realized it gave me more freedom to give
voice to the things I thought were important. I don’t think enough
consideration is given to people who have to overcome class barriers
to succeed in life.
Working in network news, I realized how rarely I encountered others who came from a blue-collar background. They had parents who had gone to college; they had grown up with more affluence, both fiscally and emotionally, than I had. I felt deficient in certain ways. All of that said, I eventually learned that there can be tremendous value is growing up working class. You don’t grow up feeling in any way entitled and you understand the value of hard work and doing things on your own initiative early on. You have to find your own way because you are doing things your parents had no way of preparing you for.
Norm: Are the experiences you write about based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Diana: I don’t have a sister, but I do have a relative who was attacked as a child and that experience influenced my writing. It was traumatic to live through it and to see how it played out with others. There was a lot of sweeping it under the rug and denial. That’s why the Jane character in the book is so defiant and tough: She is me speaking back to that stuff, I suppose. Although it’s never named as agoraphobia in the book, I had two bouts of the same anxiety that plagues the Laura character in my own young life. I was very conflicted and overwhelmed as a young woman trying to make my way in the world. I did move to New Mexico but I didn’t go to law school. I fell in love with journalism and worked as a student reporter in Albuquerque.
Norm: How did you go about creating the characters in your debut novel and is there much of you in any of the characters?
Diana: Some of the characters are composites of people I knew in those years. As I got involved with writing the book, memories of so many things returned. It’s like turning on a faucet to your subconscious. While the book is fiction, I would say that the story is emotionally true, in terms of who I am.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Diana: Well, I want people to appreciate how difficult crossing class barriers can be for young people. I also wanted to create a better understanding of the nature of trauma, and how one does or does not recover from it. I wanted the story told in the book to illuminate and hopefully inspire better understanding of both things.
Norm: What was the timeline between the time you decided to write your book and publication? What were the major events along the way?
Diana: I started writing this book about eleven years ago. I finished the bulk of the writing about four years before Post Hill Press accepted the book for publication. I can’t remember how many agents and publishers I contacted before I met Debra Englander, who agreed to help me pitch the book. And she succeeded! But it was a very long haul and not one for the faint-hearted.
Best moment: When I had finished a good draft of the book, I had a published writer I really respected look at it and it was enormous cause for celebration when she said, “I think you’ve got something good here.”
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Diana: My gynecologist, who is also an author, put it best. She congratulated me and said, “It’s like having a baby!” I’m not a mother, but that is kind of how I feel: “Wow. I birthed the book!
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing? Do you have a specific writing style?
Diana: My blue-collar background comes out very strongly in my writing. It’s almost like a dialect I know, that I can turn on at will. I just let it flow out of me for My Townie Heart.
Norm: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Diana: I work full time, which is both the best thing and the worse thing for writing. The worse thing is that you don’t have enough time to do it. The best thing is that you make the most of whatever time you do have. Sometimes having too much time creates its own set of problems; you start second guessing everything.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and My Townie Heart?
Diana: I have a WEB PAGE. There is also an author bio on Amazon.
Norm: What is next for Diana Sperrazza?
Diana: I am writing another novel, set on Martha’s Vineyard. This one is about a middle-aged man who begins to reexamine his life choices when a high school rival dies. He may even find love - I’m still working that out!
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Diana: My best advice for anyone tackling a book is to work with a writing partner. Janice Gary, author of the memoir Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance was mine. You need the spiritual companionship and the other set of engaged and kind eyes on your work.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors!