Q&A with Diana O'Hehir
1) Dr. Day's study of Egyptology figures
prominently in both MURDER NEVER FORGETS and ERASED FROM
MEMORY. Tell us about how your fascination with the study
of Ancient Egypt originated and what continues to draw you
O'HEHIR: My interest in Ancient Egypt: When I
was eight years old my grandfather sent me two volumes of
an educational series called WONDERS OF THE PAST.
These were fat green books with tons of pictures. Anything
the editors considered to be a WONDER got dealt with, but
they seemed really interested in Egypt Egyptian
pyramids, tombs, papyri, statues the whole marvelous
display. And I was immediately captivated. I took the
volume that told about Tutankhamen's tomb to bed with me
and read it at night with a flashlight. Which took some
doing the book was ledger-size.
Yes, I wanted to be an archeologist, but I was
much too unscientific and dreamy. Measuring things and
keeping track of them were not on my list of talents.
So now I write about Egypt. And read about it. And
continue to love the idea. That interest in Egypt gets into
my mystery novels. My most recent one, ERASED FROM
MEMORY is set in an Egyptian museum and contains a
murder based on an Egyptian puzzle.
Did you know that of all the ancient cultures
Egypt treated women the best? Marriage contracts specified
that women had equal rights with men to own, manage and
receive property. Many jobs were open to women, including
those of musicians, florists, and doctors.
2) You've written six books of poetry. Do you find
that your love of poetry influences your prose writing? How
do your preparations and research differ when writing
poetry as opposed to writing a novel?
O'HEHIR: Writing poetry has made me
interested in rhythm and in the selection of the exact
word. Sometimes this speeds up my prose-writing and
sometimes it slows me down.
Dr. Day, in this mystery series, is especially
interested in Egyptian poetry. And I am too it's
wonderful, fierce, lively mysterious stuff. I once wrote a
book of poems based entirely on THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, the
magic scroll which guides the spirit through the afterlife.
I was reawakened to the power of this strange work when I
visited the British Museum shortly after the death of my ex-
husband. Somehow the exhibition of papyri of THE BOOK OF
THE DEAD helped me understand my complicated feelings about
someone I mourned although he was no longer close to me.
As to my own method preparations for
writing poetry and for writing prose are different. For
prose-writing you sit down and grit your teeth and simply
write. Poetry doesn't work that way. Sometimes no amount of
determination will produce a poem.
I love both kinds of writing and always feel good
at the end of a session. Well correction I
usually feel good.
3) The father-daughter relationship between
Carla and her dad, Edward is a vital element in both books.
How did you decide that they should work together to solve
mysteries? What inspires you to explore their father-
daughter dynamic on the page?
4) Dr. Day is a fascinating character. His
struggles with Alzheimer's are poignantly portrayed
throughout MURDER NEVER FORGETS and ERASED FROM MEMORY. How
did you go about you research on this topic? What made you
decide to feature this disease in your work?
O'HEHIR: (I'm answering these two questions
together, since my responses to them are closely linked.)
My own father, whom I loved a lot, had Alzheimer's
and is a model for Dr. Edward Day. Like Dr. Day, my father
was a scholar (a retired, and distinguished, Shakespearean
specialist). And like Ed in my book, he was gentle, sweet,
loving, funny, and for most of his decline, only minimally
sick. But he certainly did forget, and there were many
moments that were both funny and heart-wrenching. It is
very sad to see a loved someone who has lived by his brains
lose part of them.
I visited my dad often during his decline (he
lived in a retirement facility less elegant than the Green
Beach Manor of my books). Sometimes he stayed with me and
my then-husband. I read everything I could about his
disease, which was just becoming generally recognized. And
my stories about Dr. Edward Day, his mistakes, his mental
wanderings, and his occasional brilliances are all drawn
from memories of my own father.
One of my fantasies was that my dad would recover
sufficiently for us to do something useful or exciting
together. I was completely vague on what but with my
novels and their Egyptian-based puzzles I finally got the
chance to imagine further. It happened gradually, during
the writing of MEMORY NEVER FORGETS, that Edward Day
began to give Carla ideas, and sometimes answers. And by
the time I had finished the book he was participating fully
in the solution.
Writing about Dr. Edward Day became my chance to
re-imagine my father. He seemed close and helpful to me
while I was working on these books.
5) Have you always wanted to be a writer? Were
there ever any other careers you considered?
O'HEHIR: I have "written" all my
life since before I was actually able to write. My
devoted dad took down my dictated works of genius when I
was four, and some of these actually survive.
But I certainly have had other jobs, principally
teaching. I taught English literature and creative writing
at Mills College in Oakland, California, for thirty-two
years. And I loved teaching. I delighted in the constant
challenge, the discovery of new aspects of literature. Most
of all I enjoyed the students themselves and their animated
discussions and inquiries, the free-for-all of the
classroom, the occasional disputes. Mills was a lively
campus and the years I was there were vigorous ones.
I wrote during that time, reams and reams, stacks
of paper which are probably now somewhere in my basement.
But I didn't get work published until ten years into my
teaching career. Then I had a burst of love and luck with
the publication of several books of poetry which won
national prizes and with the advent of my first novel, I
WISH THIS WAR WERE OVER, which became runner-up for the
After that I suppose writing became my career and
teaching my avocation. Or maybe not. I'm retired now, and I
miss my students ferociously. I have dreams where I'm back
in the classroom telling a roomful of people to calm down
and quit fighting, and LISTEN. Maybe together, I tell them,
we can make sense out of this babble of learning.
But I also have dreams where I'm at my computer
writing very fast at a work which I know will be elegant,
perceptive, and exciting.
6) What kinds of books do you like to read? Who
are your favorite authors?
O'HEHIR: This is the question that always
stops me at readings, when I suddenly can't remember the
name of a single author, favorite or not.
Actually, I like different kinds of writers at
different times. Sometime I yearn for a dose of what George
Orwell called "good bad" literature light,
bright and unrequiring. Other times I really want to be
asked to think.
So I'll divide my listings now into Writers that
Make You Think and Writers That Let You Drift. (But you'll
notice that the categories cross. Most of my Drifters are
Those Who Make You Think:
Recent: Iris Murdock, A. S. Byatt, Alice
Munro, a lot of poets including Plath, Hughes, Rich,
Komunyaakaa, Eliot, Olds, Neruda
Fairly recent: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf,
Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte,
and again a lot of poets: Tennyson, Blake, Shelley, Yeats,
and on and on.
Old: I come back to Shakespeare often. I
try to see the plays often. The same for Sophocles and
Euripides. And Robert Fagel's marvelous translations of
Homer are eye-openers.
I know I have left out everyone I love.
Those who let you drift include
Many mystery writers; among them Malcolm Cruz
Smith, Sara Paretzky, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin, John
Grishim, Carl Hiaasen, John Le Carre, Tony Hillerman,
Marcia Muller this list varies and can get very long.
All these writers make you think. Take one of the
lightest of the lot Carl Hiaasen. Funny, funny. And
searing. And a preacher for ecology. Try going to Florida
after reading him and NOT thinking about the