Upstate New Yorker Heidi Diehl Discusses Her Debut Novel ‘Lifelines’

An ambitious debut novel by Syracuse-born writer Heidi Diehl is creating quite a bit of buzz in literary circles. Slated to be released on Tuesday, June 18, Diehl’s highly anticipated debut novel, Lifelines, is set mostly in Germany between 1971 and 2008 and  chronicles the life of an American artist named Louise, who returns there to attend her former mother-in-law’s funeral. Once in Germany, however, Louise must also confront her complicated past and relationship to the country—as well as the father of her first child, a mercurial German musician named Dieter.

The book’s already drawing glowing reviews from critics and writers alike, even grabbing the attention of Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo), who called the book a “graceful, attentive, and beautiful debut.”

Born and raised in Syracuse, Diehl received her MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, where she’s worked as an adjunct lecturer since 2010. Her other writings have appeared in the Colorado Review, Crazyhorse and Indiana Review. Though currently getting ready for a book tour and a big book launch at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn on June 18, Diehl took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with saratoga living about Lifelines and what it was like growing up in Upstate New York.

This is your debut novel. Has the experience been what you thought it’d be like?
It’s been really exciting, definitely nerve-wracking. I started writing the book in 2012—I know novels take time, so it’s not that unusual—but there were moments when I really wondered, “Will I ever be able to finish this thing or make sense of it?” Now at this point in the process, when it’s about to come out, I’m in a state of disbelief almost. [Laughs]

It’s a very ambitious debut novel. What was the inspiration to write something so outside of your comfort zone?
I was really quite interested in that time period: the ’70s in West Germany. My grandparents were German immigrants to New York, and my mom’s had a lot of connections to Germany. It was a place that was really close to my parents, and I’ve been there a lot. But having this German heritage is, of course, quite troubling when you think of German history and the Holocaust. There had been this culture of denial after the war, this culture of silence, and in the late ’60s and ’70s, it began to swing the other way. People who were born in the postwar generation were really trying to find ways to come to terms with that history. Which, I guess, as a person of that heritage, I was also trying to grapple with so many years later. So I found a lot of inspiration in that time period. It just seemed so psychologically complicated.

The novel got an endorsement from George Saunders. What did that feel like?
It was such a generous take on the book from him. Actually, when George was a grad student at Syracuse, he took a class with my dad, who taught at the university, and the two developed this really wonderful connection. So they knew each other, and we all reconnected some years later when George came back to Syracuse to teach. I even wound up babysitting his kids when I was a teenager. George is really generous, and I was blown away by the kindness of that blurb.

Your book launch is just a few weeks away. Are you nervous?
I’m totally nervous. [Laughs] I’ll be in conversation with another writer [Lauren Belski], who’s a good friend of mine. We were in the same writing group while I was writing Lifelines, and so she really saw it in progress, in messy draft form. I think that’s pretty cool to have that perspective and have her [to talk with] at the event.

Any plans of doing a reading here in Saratoga in the near future?
I’m definitely setting something up in Syracuse. I would love to come to Saratoga, but I’m not sure yet. My dad taught at Skidmore College in the ’60s. But I have spent some time out there. I love the town—it’s beautiful.

Are you already working on book No.2, or will you be taking a little break between books?
I am working on another book. It’s very murky at this point, but the big difference [from Lifelines] is that it’s totally contemporary and really contained to one time and place. This one’s about a community that’s affected by climate change and sea level rise. If Lifelines is so much about grappling with the past, then this one is seeming like it’s more about grappling with the future.

Need to pick up some new titles at Northshire Bookstore? Check out our interview with another debut novelist Lauren Wilkinson here.

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