“Unbury What Has Been Hidden”: An Interview with Dana Diehl

12 mins read
Credit: Jellyfish Highway

Recently, Sonora Review’s Web Editor, Eshani Surya, had the pleasure of talking with Dana Diehl, a former Sonora contributor whose short story collection Our Dreams Might Align debuted December 2016 from Jellyfish Highway. Diehl’s collection moves between spaces: locations, dreamscapes, wild worlds. Together, the stories create a collection that explores humanity, intimacy, and the natural world.

So many stories in Our Dreams Might Align deal with humans and animals encountering each other (and I phrase it this way because I believe the animals in your story often have as much agency as the humans do). How do you view the animal/human relationship? Are animals and humans alike or do they only intersect at times? 

I grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, my neighborhood surrounded by deciduous forest. Animals would come and go through our yard: groundhogs, rabbits, birds, squirrels, frogs, garden snakes, deer, foxes, and occasionally a bear. I spent a lot of my childhood watching these animals. My family taught me through example that encounters with animals are special and that we should be kind to the animals that share our space. If a bird laid eggs in the hanging basket on our front porch, my parents insisted that we use the backdoor for the rest of the season. If a herd of deer paused in our yard to eat from our apple trees, my parents would call me and my brother from whatever we were doing, we’d turn off the lights, and we’d press our noses to the window to watch until the deer moved on. This way of seeing has carried into my stories, and I absolutely consider animals as beings with agency, beings that take up space and have value.

I think animals and humans are alike, but that many of our non-physical similarities are subjective. Humans have historically anthropomorphized animals and turned them into symbols that reveal more about the symbol-maker than the animal itself. While writing this collection, I read a lot of ancient mythology and was struck by how attitudes towards animals varied wildly culture by culture. At one point in history, whales were seen as ferocious, peaceful, monstrous, or harmonious depending on who you asked. Animals become reflections of ourselves. In my stories, I wanted to use my characters’ evolving perceptions of animals to track how they see themselves and their relationships.

What lessons do your characters gain from the natural world, if any? Are these lessons tapping into an inherent knowledge that humans already have, or are they teaching humans something completely new? 

I think the natural world has an ability to unbury what has been hidden or ignored. Nature won’t give you answers, but it will guide you to them. In my stories, nature reminds my characters of who they are. It reminds them that they can’t hide their true natures and that they are capable of adapting to their situations.

This book takes us from place to place–Arizona, Scotland, outer space–which is unlike some collections that focus on one area. Can you speak to your interest in diversifying spaces in the collection? How does changing locale alter what a story’s parameters can be?

Over the years I wrote this book, I traveled often and became used to the feeling of displacement many of my characters experience. As I started to write about some of these places I visited, I realized the unfamiliarity I had with these settings made them more fun to write about. These places still had an element of mystery and magic to me.

Every setting comes with its own set of possibilities, its own dangers. I love taking an idea or character I have and dropping it into an interesting locale. It makes writing so much fun to ask myself questions such as: What if this girl’s dealing with the death of her mother, and also she is in the-middle-of-no-where in the Sonoran Desert with her dad’s snake collection? or So what if you were having issues with your sibling, and also you were in the belly of a whale?

Our Dreams May Align has some characters that are scientists or keen observers of the natural world. However, much of the book also deals with magic. How do science and magic operate in the same sphere? Are they complementary or incongruent? If the latter, what interests you about that tension? 

My parents and many of their friends were geologists, so I grew up around science. When my brother and I were kids, my mom and dad would take us on drives through the Pennsylvania countryside and point out how valleys or hillsides were formed. They’d explain why moss grew on the north side of trees or why the river currents moved the way they did. I loved how science could help me to see beyond my own senses. Science could give me x-ray vision and let me see back in time and take me to the bottom of the ocean. Science was magic. In my stories today, I think I’m trying to capture that joy and wonder I still feel as an adult when confronted with the science of the natural world.

I love the title of this collection (as well as the cover!). My first instinct was to say it indicates uncertainty, a thread that does seem to show up in your work as characters try to discover their place in the world. Could you talk about where it came from? 

The phrase, “our dreams might align,” came from my story, “Burn.” It was actually my partner, Will Hoffacker’s, idea to use it as the title. He was editing my manuscript for me, and I asked him to share any phrases he came across that sounded like titles. When he suggested “Our Dreams Might Align,” it felt just right. I think you’re right that it captures my characters’ uncertainties. It also points to my theme of dreams and my characters’ struggle to connect with the people they care about.

Intimacy or lack of intimacy seems to be an issue in a lot of these stories, and maybe a push for a lot of these characters to move out of the home space and into the natural world. Is there then a contrast between the domestic/home and the natural world/wild? Is it possible for those spaces to meet? 

This is a complicated question for me. Symbolically, there is a contrast between the domestic and the natural world. In my stories, I use the forest and the ocean as a metaphor for characters letting go of the social constraints that make them unhappy. In our culture, the natural world is a universal metaphor for “wildness” and “freedom,” which is why we see so many narratives about people retreating into nature to fix or clarify their lives. And though I am definitely restored by nature and think there’s endless value to experiencing it, I think that in our real, actual lives, it’s unfair to think of nature as the only place we can be wild. To me wildness is living and acting honestly. The home is the place where you can do what you like without worrying about what your friends and coworkers think, a place where you can be sad and show your sadness. When I imagine these two spaces (the domestic and natural world) meeting, I imagine a place very different my current home in central Tucson. I imagine a home with a big backyard where you can transition from domestic to wild by opening the door, a home that coyote and javelina pass by in the night.

Credit: Melissa Goodrich

Dana earned her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Dana has served as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Susquehanna Review. She is a Blog Interviewer for The Collagist. She has taught Composition, Creative Writing, and Humanities at Arizona State University, Florence Prison, the National University of Singapore, and BASIS Tucson Central.Her honors and awards include a Completion Fellowship from Arizona State University, as well as Piper Enrichment Grants to attend the Port Townshend Writers Conference and the Rutgers Camden Summer Writers’ Conference. In 2014, she received a Piper Global Fellowship to teach Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore. She has been awarded a Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout Prize in Fiction.

Are you a former Sonora contributor with a recent or forthcoming book? Interested in getting a review or interview on this page? Email us at sonorareview2@gmail.com!