Q&A with Diana O'Hehir

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 to it.

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 Pulitzer Prize.

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 Thinkers too.)

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 environment.

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