'Red Tent' author finds safe harbor in the friendship of women
Anita Diamant has faith in one thing the connection between women. She explored and celebrated that connection, that powerful bond of sisterhood, in her 1997 novel The Red Tent.
In a world where "women's friendships are unspoken and undervalued," as Diamant says, her novel came as a gift to women, and women returned the favor. Though The Red Tent came out with virtually no fanfare or reviews, women bought the novel, recommended it and even started Red Tent reading groups. From its dead-in-the-water beginnings, Diamant's novel began inching up the New York Times bestseller list and has since sold over a million copies.
"You can't market to reading groups," says the author, speaking from her home in West Newton, Massachusetts. "They'll pick and choose what they like and that's a wonderful testament. They liked the book and recommended it to each other in a big way. It's such a women's phenomenon, it's almost entirely women's experience."
Women's experience also drives Diamant's new novel, Good Harbor, which intertwines the stories of two women. Joyce, a writer in her early 40s stuck in a lackluster marriage, buys a vacation home in the Massachusetts beach town of Cape Ann, where she meets Kathleen, 59. The two women discover, as Diamant writes, "an endless supply of things to talk about. Headlines, bathing suits, books, and story by story, themselves."
Like Diamant, who rented a cottage on Cape Ann while she wrote, Kathleen loves Good Harbor, a stretch of beach outside the town with its "straight line between the sea and the sky. . . . [T]he size of it all . . . does put things in perspective," as Kathleen says. Eventually, the bond of sisterhood the women find in each other becomes a good harbor in itself.
While the story of The Red Tent came from the pages of the Bible, the plot of Good Harbor, set in the present, comes from the pages of Diamant's life and the lives of the women she knows. "The issues of midlife are on my plate and on the plates of most of my friends," she says. The book examines one of the biggest issues when Kathleen is diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Breast cancer is one of the great fears of women of our time. We're all waiting for it to happen to us," says the author. "Almost every month, I hear of someone I know, a friend of a friend who's been diagnosed."
Diamant's portrayal of Kathleen's bravery, her terror and the awful, debilitating routine of radiation treatment comes not from first-hand experience, but as the result of research and a novelist's capacity to plumb the human heart. The author spoke to medical experts and listened to the stories of friends who were diagnosed. But to create a real physical sense of what Kathleen goes through, "I went to an oncology clinic. I got on the table. This is not something you want to do," says Diamant. "But it gives you a physical sense of what that's like, a little of that experience."
Oddly enough, life at the oncology clinic gave her hope. "Most women survive breast cancer. When I started writing, I thought Kathleen was going to die, but breast cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence -- and I liked her too much [to kill her off]," she says.
Although she likes Kathleen, the author identifies more closely with Joyce. "I share some of her sense of humor," a wry attitude covering up the fact that Joyce, at 40, is floundering for direction. The feeling came from Diamant's own experience. It's what drove her, after 20 years as a journalist and author of nonfiction, to change gears. "I wanted a new challenge, something I had not done before," Diamant says. As a result, she turned to fiction and created The Red Tent.
Fiction is indeed a challenge, she finds. "It's more open-ended. I have confidence in my nonfiction -- I've written six books. I know what that kind of book is shaped like. With novels, you don't know where they're going to go. All writing is a process of learning. I learned you have to cut and cut and cut. Big sections were in Good Harbor that died a healthy death, a good death, but it took me a long time to let go."
Diamant spent four years writing Good Harbor, years that would have been hectic even without taking on such a project. During this time, she also wrote How to Be a Jewish Parent, revised her book The New Jewish Wedding and toured extensively for The Red Tent. "I overdid it," admits the author, who hasn't let Red Tent fever go to her head. "My husband Jim and daughter Emilia rejoice in my success with me, but it's been a slow, steady change for us, no overnight stardom. It's been a process rather than an event, and I think that helps a lot."
Diamant is now pondering her next novel. "It's historical, set in the early 19th century in America," she says. And the protagonists are likely to be women. Diamant doesn't want to limit herself, though. She learned a lot in writing Good Harbor -- about fiction and about herself.
"There's some of me in every character, even Buddy and Frank [Kathleen and Joyce's husbands]. The women's experiences are closest to my life experiences -- they're married with children and I'd like to think I'm as good a friend as both of these women try to be with each other," she says.
One thing she doesn't share with Joyce and Kathleen is their rudderlessness, the isolation that draws them together in the first place. "Both of them were experiencing a lack of closeness, of friendship in their lives," says Diamant. "I'm lucky. I have a ton of friends. I feel very, very connected."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Maine