Interview with Diana Paul on Her New Book; Plus Free Book Giveaway

by Matilda Butler on October 6, 2015

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #218 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler

[UPDATE: The comments contest has now ended. Diana Paul has chosen Francine Fowler as the winner and has mailed her a copy of her new book, Things Unsaid. Congratulations Francine. And special thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway contest. Your comments were both interesting and insightful. --Matilda]

Welcome Diana Paul

Today I’m delighted to introduce Diana Paul, author of Things Unsaid.

In the interest of transparency, I need to mention that Diana is a friend of many years, probably more than 40. We first met at Stanford University when I was a lecturer and Diana was just beginning teaching as an Assistant Professor in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Buddhism. We shared lunches and dinners and stories about raising children in the early years. Later we shared stories of the difficulties and rewards of the life of a female professional.

As the years passed, we found new ways that our lives intersected. Now we talk about writing and marketing books. We’ve stayed in touch even though we are no longer even in the same state. I always look forward to seeing Diana when I return to the Monterey coast. She has a passion for life and for art that is infectious. That passion comes through in her new book, a tale of relationships that grabs you on the first page and stays with you long after you’ve read the last words.

Your Comment Just Might Win You a Free Copy of Diana Paul’s New Book

Diana Paul has graciously offered us a free copy of her debut novel for one of our lucky commenters. So leave your comment below about why you want to read Things Unsaid: A Novel or why her responses in this interview mean a lot to you by helping you think more clearly about the link and the line between memoir and fiction. Diana will choose one of these comments and send you an autographed copy of her book.

NOTE: The winner of Diana Paul’s Book Giveaway will be announced in early November. Until the winner is announced, you can continue to leave comments for Diana. — Matilda Butler

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Diana, welcome to Women’s Memoirs. My first question for you focuses on truth. So many writers worry about how much truth to put into their writing. The bargain a memoir writer makes with her audience is that the story is true. Some writers however feel the need to use fiction to tell a story that is too raw or might hurt too many people if told as memoir. Your book, Things Unsaid, is a novel yet seems to link to your own experiences. Did you consider writing this story as a memoir? In other words, what prompted you to write this particular story as a novel?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: I feel that all writing is intensely personal and renders the writer vulnerable and exposed, in sharing the emotional truth of a story, be it fiction, memoir, or autobiography. My debut novel Things Unsaid focuses on secrets and lies, what a family cannot or will not say to each other. Half-remembered events.

Every child may think she knows her parents, but that’s an illusion, a fiction. Each family member sees differently and remembers what they choose to or only what they can bear. The emotional truth in Things Unsaid has scenes originating from, but never exactly like, my own family’s and there are other scenes adapted from friends, favorite novels, movies, and anywhere else where I could find rich material of shared moments of a family’s life.

Everyone has a story to tell and I thought some of my friends’ stories as well as mine would make great scenes for a novel, so I started recording them and exploring my composite characters. I had the freedom to impose a narrative pattern on memories. But, when family and friends know you have written a novel, they try to see themselves in the novel. Ironically, the scenes they identify are often ones I completely imagined.

I never considered writing Things Unsaid as a memoir because readers of memoir usually find reassurance that they are not alone in facing the obstacles thrown in front of them. In novels and plays such as Olive Kitteridge, Maine, Mrs. Bridge, and “August: Osage County”, the story is not only raw and painful to read, but also not necessarily encouraging or hopeful. There is heart-pounding drama and conflict and I wanted to tell that type of family saga. I also needed multiple points of view to underscore the idiosyncratic nature of memory. How we remember memories of memories. “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember” as Harold Pinter famously said.

However, the emotional truth is personal, as I think it is for all authors. Things Unsaid is raising the questions: To what degree are we shaped by our childhood? And, can we redirect the influences from our past? If written truthfully, the reader will recognize his or her life and truth in the story, in what has been written, whether it be a memoir or a novel.

The inspiration for Things Unsaid was imagining the last words I would say to my dying mother, who was the picture of health at the time I started writing Things Unsaid. But, five months after I started writing, my mother was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Fiction does mirror fact.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Things Unsaid is your debut novel but certainly not your first book. You have previously published three books on Buddhism. To what extent do you think your in-depth knowledge of Buddhism influenced the way you wrote this book?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: Buddhism, particularly Zen, has affected my life and informed my philosophy ever since studying the subject in graduate school and then teaching courses on Buddhism at Stanford. Karma is a powerful concept—the complex chain of events for understanding who we were and who we become. In my debut novel, Things Unsaid, a multi-generational family saga unfolds in which the complicated private relationships we all share with our parents and our children take perilous detours and side-trips.

I wanted to step out of the boundaries of traditional storytelling and infuse the story with Buddhist values as well as the residue of Catholic guilt which the protagonist still experiences. By overlaying these two different belief systems in Things Unsaid, the characters became rooted in guilt, karma, obligation, duty and broken promises.

But the process of writing Things Unsaid was also influenced by my Zen Buddhist practice. For me, writing is a form of meditation. When unlocked, writing reveals what is real in my emotional life, my memory, my images. Just as a Zen practitioner experiences losing of “self”, I also felt the losing of self in writing. In writing, the characters had a life of their own, arising in scene after scene, like momentary thoughts arising in zazen meditation.

To overthink is to destroy. I trust what is intuitive, almost seamlessly and organically. And then I let it go and move on. The writing process itself is a letting go, to give myself the permission to speak my truth, to let go of the editor, critic, and censor within. Without my background in Buddhism, I doubt that I could have written Things Unsaid.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: I am intrigued by your discussion of how all writing, whether in the memoir or the fiction genre is, as you said, “intensely personal and renders the writer vulnerable and exposed, in sharing the emotional truth of a story.” Memoir writers understand your statement for life writing but you have helped us see that this applies to fiction as well.

Given your perspective, Diana, what advice do you have for memoir writers who decide to use fiction rather than non-fiction to tell their life story?

Diana Paul, authorDiana Paul: Memory is subjective. If you change the plot of your life to make it more interesting, then you are entering the realm of fiction. Maybe you feel torn because you want to tell the truth about what happened but you’re worried about embarrassing someone involved or yourself (perhaps both). Or you want to re-imagine the story as a novel to gain distance and another perspective on your own experience. The word “novel” means new—while “memoir” means “to remember” or “a memory”. Fiction can have both, but a memoir is essentially nonfiction and the reader is enticed by the fact that this really happened to the author. But, a novel is also truth-telling or the story won’t be authentic and satisfying.

I think the voice and point-of-view are critical for deciding if you want to tell your life-story as memoir or a novel. If there is one voice, it can be a memoir or a novel, but the voice is, in my opinion, always one person’s version of what happened in a memoir. Multiple voices, on the other hand, cannot be the structure of a memoir, because you can only be inside your own head as a writer of a memoir.

The choice is, ultimately, the author’s to make: to create a world from the imagination or to re-create the one you have lived in. Both are a type of truth-telling and a type of fiction. Buddhist phenomenology analyzes the psychology of mind as a net of mirrors—we are all reflected in each other’s mind but can never really know anyone else’s psyche. So, too, with point-of-view. Memoir is fundamentally the author’s point-of-view, his or her version of what happened. Fiction also incorporates memories– of place, time, and people—but some are more imagined and dramatic than others. In a novel, different points-of-view can be invented and are often necessary.

Memory and imagination hold hands, and a compelling story has both. The author will know which voice or voices convey the story’s emotional impact most effectively. And then she can choose how to tell her story.

Matilda Butler of Women's MemoirsMatilda Butler: Diana. You’ve given the readers of Women’s Memoirs a lot to think about and to consider as they write. Thank you for joining us today.

NOTE: Please leave Diana a comment below. I know she will appreciate hearing from you. By the way, give her enough intriguing comments that she has a hard time choosing the winner of the book giveaway.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

carlana October 6, 2015 at

Great interview. I’ve been reading widely on this topic and always looking to get my hands on new books. Would love to win her book.

Julia October 6, 2015 at

Quite interesting. I have parts of my story that might be better told as fiction. Maybe I’ll consider this approach.

Angela October 6, 2015 at

Diana, thanks for this article. Love your book cover!! You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’d love to read your book.

Diana Y, Paul October 7, 2015 at

Love your comments, Carlana, Julia, and Angela–your positive response to my book and interview are much appreciated. I look forward to giving away a signed copy of my novel to one of the commentators in November!

Matilda Butler October 7, 2015 at


It was great fun to interview you and I appreciate your offer of a GIVEAWAY copy of your exciting new book.


Ellen Berman October 8, 2015 at

There are so many things that Diana says that resonate with me. The idea of creating composite characters… the title of her book (exactly what memoir should reveal – things unsaid but felt and witnessed)… the image of memory and imagination “holding hands” (lovely)… disgarding the inner censor…. THANKS FOR SHARING.

Karen Lee October 9, 2015 at

I want to read “Things Unsaid.” As soon as I heard the title of this book I knew I wanted to read it. There are things left gratefully unsaid, little things, cruel things, and there are things left unsaid that you long to hear. Both are true of life. Life is not long enough, encounters too fleeting, to say all that should be said, needs to be said, and yet there are also those times when time stretches before us with the unspoken words dangling in the air, waiting to be voiced. The moments pass and the time seems wrong. We can’t go back, we tell ourselves. The title of this book is so evocative that I will relish the time spent reading about things unsaid.

Lene Fogelberg October 9, 2015 at

Wonderful interview Diana – and I agree: writing is a form of meditation! <3

Marianne Bohr October 10, 2015 at

Wonderful interview, Diana. I ordered the Kindle version of your book long ago and can’t wait ’til it ships this week so I can read it. I’m just back from my father-in-law’s funeral this week in FL, so I know much will resonate.

Michelle Cox October 11, 2015 at

Hi, Diana! I enjoyed reading your comments about where you drew stories and inspiration from. I found it interesting that some of the scenes your family and friends most identified with were your imagined ones. I, too, have based some characters and situations on real people, and have hoped, as they’re reading the final copy, that they don’t recognize themselves in any of the characters. So far, no one has! I find that amazing. Your book sounds very intriguing; can’t wait to start it! Best of luck!

Anne Randolph November 1, 2015 at

The title alone is reason to read this book. Bravo for approaching the “unsaid” subject. Anne Randolph

Francine Fowler November 1, 2015 at

I loved the comment “Each family member sees differently and remembers what they chose to or only what they can bear”. This rings so true to me. I have written much about my three experiences with cancer and depending on where I am in the journey, my perspective and memories of events are so different. You made me recognize that perhaps it is due to the fact that I could only write about memories that I could deal with at the time. Some of the darker memories I couldn’t write about until enough time had passed. It’s also refreshing to read about the fine line between truth and fiction (memoir and novels) because I’ve always shied away from memoir because I don’t know if some of my memories are true or are just semblances of stories my parents told me over and over. Thiese topic are igreat writing prompts. Thanks for such an intriguing interview!

Detra Delangel November 1, 2015 at

I want to write my memoirs and I have started. The problem is as you said, embarrassing or even hurting my love ones. I have a very interesting true life story to tell but it would hurt too many people. Some of the time I think of writing the story under another name and not letting my family know that I wrote the book. I was very young and newly married with a newborn baby when I discovered, quite by accident, that my husband slept with another woman. I wanted him to hurt like I was hurting so I, wanting to pay him back, chose to have an affair with his best friend. As the result of that, he was killed by his best friend. We were back together but I found out I was pregnant with our second son. We had our first child when the affair began and he was about a year old at this time. Right after he discovered the way I had betrayed him I discovered I was pregnant again. The affair had ended but the man I had the affair with antagonized him constantly by telling our friends I was carrying his baby. My husband lost his life in a fight with this man. He was stabbed to death and our baby was born 2 weeks after his funeral. They have never caught the man that killed him and that happened in 1992. I am now 46 and want to tell my story but my boys are grown and have never been told what happened. My life has been like a Life Time movie. I married again and had another son and he was kidnapped by his father to Guatemala when he was only 15 months old. Finally after almost 2 years I found out where he was and I went there and kidnapped him back. I grabbed him out of the yard where he was playing and ran. I had no car and no money. Many events happened that oddly were in my favor that helped us to make it back to the states. It is too much to go in to here. I know this post is long but I just wanted to express the fear I have of my adult children finding out about the past. If I had the money I would just purchase your book but right now I don’t have it. I would love to read it for maybe it would help me to figure all this out. Thank you for reading my post and I congratulate you on your book.

Janet Caplan November 1, 2015 at

Great interview. I will read this book.
I write both memoir and short fiction and I often find that my fiction picks up where my memoir leaves off – a sort of what if that happened this way situation. My brother and I are in the process of writing down some of our shared memories with the idea of collecting them for grown children and grandchildren. Very interesting to understand our different takes on the same situation or scene and to see how much or little we were impacted by someone (thing) at a given time. And it’s quite different to read his interpretation as opposed to talking about it. Subjective for sure and quite a wonderful exercise.
Thanks for this very interesting interview and best of luck with the book, Diana.

Karin McClain November 2, 2015 at

I consider myself a good communicator and even a peacemaker in our extended family so “Things Unsaid”
will be intriguing as well as helpful to me.

Diana Y. Paul November 13, 2015 at

Thank you, everyone, for such thoughtful comments. I selected randomly because it just was too difficult to choose from the amazing posts. I knew right away that you are all avid readers and writers!

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