I’ve known Diana Lamphiere for a long time. Over two decades and counting. She’s always there for me with legal advice, personal advice, and encouragement. In fact, we are talking about starting up our own publishing imprint, just as soon as Life stops getting in our damn way.
We talk about books a lot, and was excited to have the chance for us to “formally” discuss them for the La legado vivo! series.
So, without further ado… enjoy!
Ryan Lieske: Thank you for doing this interview. Why don’t we start by having you introduce yourself to the readers.
Diana Lamphiere: I’m an attorney, law professor, and writer. I teach undergraduate law classes at Davenport University and Grand Valley State University, and I write for a major online legal research website, as well as at my legal blog. I’m also on Twitter. I do some fiction writing as well, none of it really ready for outside consumption (yet). I’ve been a book lover for as long as I can remember.
RL: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
DL: The Giving Tree stands out as a favorite childhood book, though I don’t remember exactly when I stopped having it read to me and started reading it myself. But I read it over and over, and have often given it as a gift. It took me years and years to see the allegory of parent (tree) and child (boy) in it, but it was very striking once I finally realized it was there. (There’s a parody called The Taking Tree that plays off of that.)
I also remember reading T. A. for Tots over and over (hi, hippie parents!). And see how well-adjusted I am now? 😉
RL: I’ve actually never heard of that book. Talk to me a little more about it? Do you recall what made you want to read it over and over?
DL: Mostly because I read every book I had over and over. T. A. for Tots is a book that helps kids recognize what their feelings mean and how to handle them, in very simple language. When you feel good, those feelings are warm fuzzies (yes, this is where that phrase originated), when you feel bad, those feelings are cold pricklies. It’s about talking directly about those things with parents/friends/etc. It introduces Pysch 101 stuff to kids. The book gets a lot of flak online now (it’s condescending, it’s silly, etc.), but it’s for very young kids (there are other versions for older kids, teens, and so on), not adults looking back. I think there are some solid ideas about communicating emotions in it. But I read it over and over because I read everything over and over.
RL: What is the book that sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?
DL: I don’t think there are specific books that sealed my fate (though I have plenty of favorites/comfort reads). It was being encouraged to read and being allowed to read pretty much anything that did it for me. My paternal grandmother was a major bookworm and influence on me. I was reading before it was taught in school, largely because of her. As a child, she took me to the library near wherever she lived to sign me up for summer reading programs every summer. She checked out books for me every time I was with her (which was often). I don’t remember her ever telling me that something wasn’t appropriate or beyond my comprehension. She let me figure those things out myself. My parents never censored my reading, either, that I remember. My grandmother also took me to the used bookstore a lot (shout out to the Book Corral—still there after all these years). We always got paperbacks there, which I think added to my love of them. I love pretty books, but give me a mass market paperback to carry around any day. I’m eternally grateful to my grandmother and my parents for letting me explore reading this way.
RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
DL: I think it is true, in some ways. But I should also note that I always read way beyond my grade level—so I was reading middle school/high school books before I was the target age for them. I really started getting into ghost stories, scary stories, and horror (and fantasy and sci-fi) in my intermediate years. My favorite stories were always spooky ones. When I was pretty young, I remember reading Ghost in the Garden by Carol H. Behrman, The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright, The Dark Behind the Curtain by Gillian Cross, and being fascinated, not frightened. I also spent plenty of time with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden (my grandmother’s love of mysteries rubbing off on me), the Narnia series, the Wrinkle in Time series, Encyclopedia Brown, and Choose Your Own Adventure. And I loved all of those Paula Danziger and Paul Zindel novels, not to mention Judy Blume. Remember when kids/YA books were about awkward misfits instead of perfect kids? I read a fair amount of Newbery winners—I always got those book sets as gifts.
I also had a bit of an obsession with girl-gone-mad books in middle/high school. Lisa, Bright & Dark, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Go Ask Alice (though this is more about madness from drugs). I think I was sort of fascinated with madness.
Notice some patterns? Escapist fiction, female-centric stories, many women writers.
RL: You say you think were fascinated with madness? Are you still? Do you find you’re still drawn to books dealing with madness? If so, can you talk about some more recent ones you’ve enjoyed and why?
DL: Gee, how did I know this was the part you’d follow up on?
RL: I mean, duh. How long have you known me?
DL: I still am somewhat fascinated, but in a different way. As a child/teen, I didn’t have knowledge of things like chemical imbalances or hereditary mental illness, so I think I was fascinated that the girls in those books had let go of reality and wondered how anyone did that. Now I know that the idea of letting go isn’t correct in that they didn’t choose to let go. I don’t read so much fiction dealing with madness anymore, but I’ve read a fair amount of nonfiction about various mental illnesses, most notably by Kay Redfield Jamison (Touched with Fire and An Unquiet Mind). Now I read to try to understand mental illness better, to be able to support those I know with mental illnesses.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
DL: I read everything assigned, but I read faster than everyone else, so I was finished with books before class discussions even started, much of the time. And, as noted above, I read whatever I wanted on top of that. Happily, in high school, I was in AP English, so the reading was usually pretty good. I discovered classics I still love today: The Once and Future King, The Catcher in the Rye, Night. I got into Austen and the Bronte sisters later, as well as Dickens. I also discovered classics I hate: books by Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad.
RL: Interesting. You might be the first person I’ve interviewed that doesn’t like Conrad. So that begs the question, what is it you still love about the ones you love, and hate about the ones you hate?
DL: The ones I love were stories that were fascinating in some way, and written well. The Once and Future King tapped into my love of history and mythology. The Catcher in the Rye was written conversationally, and there are parts of Holden Caulfield that are relatable to any teenager. Night was one of my first forays into Holocaust history; I read it before I read Anne Frank. I found Thomas Hardy frustrating because his heroines never seemed to do anything to help themselves. As I got older and learned more about the era that, for example, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, was set in, I sort of understood the limitations on women of the time, but also understood less, in light of Austen and Bronte heroines who helped themselves in far more restricted times. Joseph Conrad is someone whose writing I just find incredibly dense. I read Heart of Darkness, and never wanted to read anything else he wrote. It didn’t grab me the way other classics did.
RL: Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up?
DL: It is solitary, but I think it’s a bit of a small miracle when you find someone you can sit quietly and read with. I do remember recommending a book to a classmate in late elementary school, and her telling me how boring it was. It was Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt, still a favorite of mine, but I guess the classmate was expecting more of a Sweet Valley High thing. (Yes, I read those, too. Did you know there’s a Sweet Valley book about the grown-up twins? Sweet Valley Confidential. It’s deliciously ridiculous.)
RL: Ha! I had no idea!
DL: Sweet Valley Confidential would be a guilty pleasure if I felt guilty about pleasures, which I don’t. Without spoiling it for anyone who might want to read it, the “bad” twin betrays the “good” twin in a huge, adult way (much worse than the constant high school betrayals), and it follows the fallout of that. Very soap opera.
RL: Talk to me a bit about Up a Road Slowly. I’m not familiar with that one.
DL: Up a Road Slowly is about a little girl whose mother dies, and she’s sent away to live with her strict, spinster aunt. It follows her from grade school to college, and goes into all of her issues with family and friends. The heroine is smart and literary (I discovered some classic poets in this book that became lifetime favorites: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale), but flawed. It takes time and life lessons for her to become a better person, and she discovers that the adults in her life are imperfect humans like everyone else, which was kind of rare in books for kids until pretty recently.
By junior high and high school, though, I think I was able to balance social life & reading. I did always get in trouble for reading at home during meals. “Put the book down!” was something I heard a lot at dinner. I’d respond with, “What? You guys aren’t saying anything!” Not a popular response. But it shows a pretty common thing about me: I hate having an unoccupied mind. I wonder if this adds to my chronic insomnia? Probably.
RL: It certainly does mine. No regrets. I think?
What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
DL: I finally got into Tolkein in college, and started to discover feminist lit then, too. Margaret Atwood is still one of my top authors. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale, but my favorite Atwood is The Robber Bride, which is lesser known. I’ve read almost everything else she’s done, too.
I think becoming an Atwood fan led me to more classic women writers, like Marilyn French (The Women’s Room), Rona Jaffe (The Best of Everything), Mary McCarthy (The Group), Grace Metalious (Peyton Place), and of course, Jacqueline Suzanne (Valley of the Dolls). My classic film fandom (which started with watching classics with my mum) led me to those classic novels, too—their adaptations are all good. But these were discoveries I made on my own, mostly. I was doing a lot of history and politics for school. And of course, for law school, I was immersed in reading cases and legal developments.
RL: I discovered Atwood in college, as well. We studied one of her short stories, “Rape Fantasies,” in a creative writing course, and I fell in love. What is it about Atwood’s work that resonates with you so much?
DL: For me, Atwood was the first writer I read who articulated things I felt and feared in a straightforward way. Any woman growing up in this world starts dealing with sexism and rape culture from a very young age, but we don’t always know that those things are what we’re dealing with. As children, we hear things like “boys will be boys” and “he’s just teasing you/hitting you/etc. because he likes you” without realizing the inherent sexism there. Later, we’re told to watch how we dress/walk/dance/speak/everything to keep from becoming a target without fully understanding that that’s rape culture at work. Atwood is amazing at articulating these things simply and directly, as in her famous quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
RL: The other female authors you mentioned—what is it about their work that struck a chord with you?
DL: As for the other authors, what drew me to them was that they were writing women’s stories, from the points of view of women. Ever notice how many of the classics we read in high school are by and about men? And how history is so often told in terms of men’s accomplishments and stories? I craved stories by and about women, that dealt with the issues we face head on. Those books have those stories. And because they’re from past eras, they fill in some women’s history gaps as well. I’ll go deeper into The Women’s Room below, but it, as well as The Group, The Best of Everything, Valley of the Dolls, and Peyton Place all featured women making their way in the world (a man’s world, as they say), and also focused on women’s friendships. Those were things I wanted to read about, and hadn’t read much about before in adult fiction.
RL: What were your first bookstore experiences like?
DL: The first was probably the used bookstore I mentioned above, The Book Corral, which I haven’t been to in years but is still there. In Grand Rapids, Schuler Books is an institution. I would go to mall stores as a teen (Waldenbooks, etc.). Once I moved to Chicago, I would go to Borders quite a bit, as well as Books A Million (there was one near my office, it was my lunchtime escape). My favorite Chicago bookstore was and is Unabridged Bookstore. And I went to Chicago Comics pretty often. I’m happy we have a Vault of Midnight here in GR now for comic shopping. I still check out Barnes & Noble, too. And any store with books (Target, Meijer, airport shops). If there are books in a store, I will find them and browse. And when I do go to a bookstore, it’s often after I’ve had a hard day/week, etc. Browsing quietly in a bookstore is restorative therapy for me.
RL: Same here. If I have a really bad week, one of the only things I can do to decompress on the weekend is go book shopping. My bank account suffers, but it’s probably still cheaper than seeing a therapist.
DL: Oh hey, that’s a justification I use, too. See also: At least it’s not booze, cigarettes, or illegal drugs.
RL: Haha! Indeed!
Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
DL: I think a lot of the books I read when I was younger mean more now, and I do still enjoy the same types of books. Some are comfort reading (Narnia books, Wrinkle in Time books, newer YA series that feel similar). I don’t think I’ve ever felt too cringey about my reading, even when I was reading teen romance type stuff, because, as Jacqueline Carey writes in her Kushiel series (which I love), “All knowledge is worth having.” You can learn from any book (even if what you learn is not to write like that).
RL: I agree. If I were to ever teach a class on literature, I would insist on teaching a couple of “bad novels.” I think you can sometimes actually learn more from those (about the craft of writing, anyway) than you can from “great” literature. Trust me, I once binge-read all of Robin Cook’s novels. Do you have any similar authors you’ve done that with?
DL: When I was preteen/teen, I would read tons of Mary Higgins Clark—her murder mysteries and stalker/killer books, probably because my grandmother had so many of them. I don’t read them now because I find them pretty repetitive, but as a kid, I think that was almost reassuring.
RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood?
DL: I’ve always made it a priority. In law school and during my first years practicing law, a lot of my classmates/colleagues would marvel that I had time to read outside of our assigned reading or reading for work. But I needed that break, and I think I did well because of it, not in spite of it. Time away from work/study meant I was less likely to burn out. Also, when I lived in Chicago, I took public transportation, which meant reading time. On public transport, if you don’t want to be drawn into some random, weird thing (no, I can’t be more specific, because the gamut of random, weird things that happen on public transport is so massive), you’d better have a book on which to focus.
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
DL: I still go for escapist fiction, female-centric stories, and a lot of women writers. I read fantasy & sci fi (including YA), historical, literary, horror fiction. I also love comics/graphic novels. I’ve been working my way through the GR library’s classic Hollywood biographies for a few years now (last ones: Louise Brooks, Sal Mineo, now: Alfred Hitchcock). I also read history, classics, and even work some poetry in now and then.
RL: I love an eclectic reader. I’m the same. Could you throw a couple of titles out that have particularly struck you lately, and why?
DL: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara just wrecked me. Just a devastatingly emotional book. On the one hand, I want to recommend it to everyone because it’s so good, on the other, I know it will be too much of an emotional wringer for some, and want to warn them away. I also just finished The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, which I adored. For fans of supernatural YA (& shows like Buffy), it’s a must read. It’s not about the kids who save the world (their story is the peripheral one), it’s about the other kids who have to live in that world and deal with everyday issues. Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson was a lovely story, tying multiple generations of independent women together, from the years 1919, 1934, and 2065. All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is smart, funny, and original. I think Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook is great fun (I still need to read the sequel).
Favorite comics right now are The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (they also did Phonogram, which is also awesome) and Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, which are both highly original, well written, and beautifully drawn, but are completely different types of stories.
RL: How do you share your love of books with others?
DL: I do buy books for people a lot. One year for Christmas, almost every woman on my list got The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. It was so revelatory for me, I had to share it. Another year, almost every person on my list got The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel by Dan Sinker because it is hilarious and amazing (especially for followers of Chicago politics). I keep a running gift list on Amazon for gift books, and in the years when I have the money, people will pretty much all get books for holidays. I also loan books out a lot. I was in an online book club once, but it kind of fizzled out (but not before I got to make everyone read The Robber Bride). When I love something, I like to share it.
RL: You’ve mentioned it a lot, so I’m curious to know what was revelatory to you about The Women’s Room?
DL: The Women’s Room goes deep into what most/many women’s lives were like before second wave feminism (1960s-1980s) really took off. It was published in the thick of it, in 1977, and really dives into how most/many women were raised to deny their own power, emotions, and intellect, and how the standard course of life (school, marriage, children) for most women reinforced and built up that denial. But it also talks about how hard it could be for women to throw that yoke off later on, and how many men who saw themselves as progressive still had the same expectations of women that they’d always had. It’s a book I find myself nodding my head at when I read certain sentences, and often having to look up and ponder what I just read. There are a lot of passages underlined in my copy.
RL: Would you say that this book make you a bit envious of people who are about to read them for the first time? I have similar books that, when I recommend them to someone and they tell me they’re reading them, I’m envious that I don’t get that “first read” experience again. (Geek Love, Imajica, and The Dark Tower series are a few examples, although there are several others.)
DL: A first read can be amazing—there’s nothing like discovering a new favorite. But I also really love revisiting something I know I adore—I’m a big fan of comfort reads and rereading to discover new things in books. Here’s a thing I do when I give/lend a book that’s probably annoying: I keep asking if the person read it yet and what they thought. Because I want to discuss the things I love with the people I care about.
RL: I always have several books going at once, and I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Or are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?
DL: I generally have at least 2 books going at all times—one take-with-me-everywhere, and one bedside. Right now, I’ve got 4(!) going.
RL: Nice! But I got you beat. As of this writing, I’m in the midst of 8 books. It’s a sickness, I think. Gotta make that Goodreads reading goal!
DL: It’s just, life is short, right? You have to go for it and read all you can.
RL: Agreed. Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
DL: I don’t feel guilty about my pleasures. 🙂 If I like it, I like it. I have an entire bookcase of just vampire books (from scary to cheesy and everything in between) and I’m proud of it! As Jillian Venters says, embrace your clichés.
RL: I embrace them wholeheartedly!
Now, this could apply to all art, really, but in terms of literature, what are your thoughts on “genre?”
DL: I mean, I know what parts of the bookstore/library I go to first: YA, sci-fi/fantasy, graphic novels. But there’s stuff on the literary shelves that’s more fantasy, and stuff in YA that I think is more adult. So, it sometimes seems pretty arbitrary. Best to just browse them all so you don’t miss anything.
RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as Stephen King calls it, matter to you?
DL: I get my fix any way I can. 😉 I own and borrow hard copies, and own and borrow ebooks. I don’t really do audio (I have a tendency to get lost in what I read, and would likely listen to audio books while driving, and that seems like a dangerous combination that could end with me in a ditch), but I do think listening to an audio book counts as reading it. I do think (hope) physical books will always be available, at the very least because people collect them. And I don’t know any reader who’s made the switch to ebooks entirely – we’ve just added them to our ways of consumption, not substituted them for hard copies. However, I do think the prices for hardcovers are kind of ridiculous (don’t even get me started on textbook prices), and I can see hardcovers only being for collectors someday, with the majority of hard copies becoming paperbacks. I do think audio books will soon be all digital, with no more hard CDs.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
DL: I am definitely the always-bring-a-book-with-you type. More than one, often (thanks, ebooks).
RL: What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be All-time favorites―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
DL: Do we have all day? 😉 I mean, I have, no joke, about a dozen full bookcases in my 1-bedroom apartment. It’s hard to pick even a few, but I’ll try. I think I’ll have to go with favorite authors (some all-time, some new and current): Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Jacqueline Carey, Holly Black, Melissa Marr, Stephen King, Clive Barker, N.K. Jemison, Sarah Addison Allen, Charlie Jane Anders, Chuck Wendig, Kate Morton, Jennifer Donnelly, Charles De Lint, Daniel Handler.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read it multiple times over the years, and again just recently. It’s chilling to me how possible it is.
The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. Revelatory. So many truths about women and their relations with men. See above. I’m rereading it right now.
RL: Have you ever read a book, or short story, that you felt “went too far?” If so, did you finish it (because its “going too far” was important to the story), or did you have to stop reading it? I’ll admit, I never have, but with Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, Matthew Stokoe’s Cows, and A. M. Homes’ The End of Alice made me feel as though I shouldn’t be reading them, like I was experiencing something beyond all scope of what constitutes “decency,” and I might not ever get the stories out of my head. However, with each of those, I feel as though everything legitimately served the story and therefore I continued reading because then I became a witness to the atrocities and debasement within, and needed to witness it so I would know better what “goodness” means. If that makes any sense. Although, with Cows, I feel that novel was satirical, and that softened some of the repugnance, or at least made it less real, similar to American Psycho or some of Chuck Palahniuk’s work. But those other two…damn. I felt like curling into a ball beneath my sheets and never coming back out.
DL: This brings me back to A Little Life again—it’s such a gut-wrenching book. It goes quite far, indeed, in various character actions and descriptions. But I don’t think it went too far, and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped reading anything for that reason. I stop reading things that don’t grab me or bore me, or if the writing is bad, or if I’m just not feeling it for whatever reason. (Aside: I think Goodreads should have an option for not finishing a book.) But like you say, as long as it serves the story, I don’t usually think in terms of books going too far. I’m sometimes more likely to think a story didn’t go far enough. Example: The 2002 film The Good Girl. I wanted Jennifer Aniston’s character to feed Jake Gyllenhall’s character all the blackberries (which will not spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, but if you have, you know what I mean). It would have served the story better.
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
DL: Do we have all day for this one, too? I have a few that stand out.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I tried twice to read this, because it seemed like it would be right up my alley, but the whininess of the heroine annoyed me so much I stopped both times. (I’m not a fan of the oh-poor-me-I-have-special-powers/qualities kind of hero/heroine.)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I guess I should be grateful for this, because Apocalypse Now, but ugh, as mentioned above, it’s so dense.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Bad writing. No one’s eyes really flash, and certainly not THAT many times, Dan.
RL: In keeping with the spirit of Mr. Brown, I will say, “And then suddenly the interview was over!” Thank you so much for playing! ‘Twas a pleasure.
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