The All-Night Sun
by Diane Zinna
Interview by Ellen Birkett Morris
Diane Zinna’s The All-Night Sun tells a story of grief, loss, and friendship between Lauren Cress, a 28-year-old English teacher from Washington, D.C., and Siri, an 18-year-old art student. Lauren’s life is upended when she travels with Siri to her home in Sweden. Both women lost parents, and are bonded by grief. Lauren’s attraction to Siri’s older artist brother, Magnus leads to a break in Lauren and Siri’s friendship and an emotional conclusion during the Midsommar celebration. Zinna brings a sensitivity and grace to the telling, creating a compelling read that will leave you moved.
Friendship and Grief in The All-Night Sun
AUTHORLINK: You created the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program for Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Talk to me about the importance of mentorship to creative writers.
“…I think many are also hoping they will meet someone who will see something special in their work…”
ZINNA: I think it’s something so many writers crave. And I think it’s probably a reason many people attend MFA programs. Yes, they are looking for community and to become better writers, but I think many are also hoping they will meet someone who will see something special in their work and say, “I believe in you, and I want to help you.” Back when I was reading applications, I would see so many from people who had already gone to MFA programs. We had accomplished writing professors applying to be mentees. It showed me that no matter how much you have accomplished, each stage comes with new questions. And you never lose that sense of longing for someone in your corner, someone who really sees you.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
ZINNA: I can’t say that I have ever had a mentor, but I have had different writers come into my life at important moments and make a lasting difference for me. There was a time I lost a book contract. This was years ago. I’d made a ton of changes to please an editor who didn’t see things the way I did. I was sitting with Alice McDermott at a summer writing conference, and she was offering such warm feedback on my work. I couldn’t help it—the whole story of the lost contract burst out of me. She told me to take all the time in the world to make it mine again and try again. I was so on fire after that conversation, I thought it would take me a couple of weeks. It wound up taking me 14 months to reclaim it, but once I did, it sold again, and fast. That book was The All-Night Sun.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
ZINNA: Oh, it’s definitely a first image for me—and the strong feeling that accompanies it. I wrote another novel before The All-Night Sun and never tried to publish it. The idea for it started with a famous image from the movie Titanic of two elderly people embracing in their small bed as their stateroom flooded. Actually, I’m not sure it was in the movie. It might have only been in the trailer for it? In any case, those five seconds of film gave me so much inspiration over the course of two years! Every time I sat down to write, I thought of them spooning and the old woman looking over her shoulder into her husband’s face. My story wasn’t about the Titanic or even two people holding on to each other at the end of their lives, but I was always trying to get at the feeling that scene gave me. I could never quite achieve it, and maybe that is why that first novel of mine sits snuggled up in a drawer now.
AUTHORLINK: Where did idea for The All-Night Sun come from?
“For this book, the idea was delivered to me in a dream.”
ZINNA: For this book, the idea was delivered to me in a dream. I dreamed of two young women on a train going through Europe. The train stops in Paris, and one woman goes into an underground bathroom full of art. Into the bathroom walks an ex-lover, and she has to make the decision whether to stay with this lover or get back on the train and continue her journey with her friend. Anyone who has read my book will be able to point to the friend, the lover, even the underground place with art on the walls. I think they’ll also be able to identify that feeling of having to make a decision between two parts of yourself, and the feeling of journey. The novel doesn’t have much more in common with the dream anymore, but the feeling of that dream, for me, is everywhere in its pages.
The morning I woke from that dream, I quickly sketched out an outline for 20 chapters of a story set in Paris, but immediately that city became the city of my heart, Stockholm. And once I took it there, I felt opened up to all the feelings of mourning I experienced when I first traveled there 20 years ago. I knew then it had to be a book where I spoke about grief as I had experienced it.
AUTHORLINK: You are teaching an upcoming class on writing grief. Tell me about grief as a theme in The All-Night Sun and the care you took in depicting it.
ZINNA: Whenever my main character of Lauren speaks of grief, she is speaking in my voice. I had a very difficult experience after the deaths of my parents. It was almost like a crossing over, where I felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone the same way again. I was on my own without any other family or close friends—and it happened on the day of my MFA graduation, when everyone was heading back to their hometowns. I was lost. I was young. I wanted to write grief as I had known it, which was extremely dark and, I know, an experience unfamiliar to many people.
I have come to believe that if you can write grief as you have really experienced it, you can write anything. It requires such deep vulnerability and patience. I’m hoping to spend time exploring these ideas when I teach this class in November for The Center for Fiction.
AUTHORLINK: This is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves and how they influence our perceptions. Was that hard to write? How did you find your way into it?
ZINNA: Recently someone commented that though Lauren lies in the book, she never lies emotionally. That was something I tried to communicate, and I am so grateful there are readers who are feeling that. I think I was able to find my way because I’d made the structure clear. I was moving back and forth in time. At first the shifts came in expected ways, everything very measured and even. But as the tension increased, the timeframes started to flip back and forth faster and faster, eventually, in one chapter, at the sentence level. I remember writing that chapter and feeling that I’d finally hit on what grief felt like to me. I had to trust that there would be other people out there who would read it and feel that yes.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the research you did. I know you traveled to Sweden. How did what you see there deepen the telling of this story?
“…research is a way to integrate those details inside of you for the little moments of magic…”
ZINNA: Well, I went to Sweden in 2001, and that was the trip that inspired a lot of the settings and emotion of The All-Night Sun. I was grateful to return there for a wedding in 2009 when my “Siri” was getting married, and by that time I had a rough draft of the novel complete. I returned to all the places I’d written about, including Gamla Stan, the island of Öland, Gothenburg—and Stockholm, with its subway stations filled with art. People call the Stockholm Tunnelbana the world’s longest art gallery, and they host official tours of the stations. But it was on my last day of the trip and I missed all the tour times. I had to rely on old photos I’d taken from years earlier, which I think was better. And I found natural entryways into research from the conversations I had with friends there. I remember them mentioning the Näcken monster story and my being completely intrigued with it. They shrugged because it was just a story they’d grown up with. I found myself reading more about the things said in passing, and paying attention to how people carried stories like that around with them. I researched things because I loved them. I loved them because I knew on some level that they spoke to what I was trying to convey about Lauren’s experience. But when you write, you don’t lead with research, no matter how interesting it is. You lead with character, with story, and sometimes a little of what you’ve read slips out at the right moment and in the right voice. I think research is a way to integrate those details inside of you for the little moments of magic when they are needed.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing the novel?
ZINNA: It was definitely my own self-doubt. Early on I had people telling me that Lauren was unlikeable, and that was hard because I loved her. I still love her.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make?
ZINNA: Those who have read the book might remember the man who pulls Lauren back from the high railing when she is thinking of jumping into the crowd during a student assembly. He doesn’t have a name anymore, but he used to be named Charlie and he was a love interest for Lauren all the way through. We get to spend a lot of time with Magnus, who is sexy and brooding, but Charlie…Charlie checked on her. Charlie brought her groceries. Charlie talked to the kids outside her apartment building and took them seriously. Charlie brought her seven flowers at the end of the book and she didn’t notice until it was almost too late. (The story of seven flowers is another little thing my friends talked about at Midsommar when I was on that trip 20 years ago!) I always intended for Lauren to end up with Charlie as a way to show she was going to be okay, but my editor was right when she asked me to remove him. Without Charlie, we were able to really see this as a story of Siri and Lauren’s friendship. And importantly, it allowed the ending to be one that belonged to Lauren alone.
AUTHORLINK: Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
“…when you are in the zone, it’s really important to keep moving forward and ride that energy.”
ZINNA: I think when you are in the zone, it’s really important to keep moving forward and ride that energy. There can be times when we get good ideas and want to go back or rework a paragraph over and over, and it can feel like we are having to choose between refining an idea and moving on. I got into the habit of using an Excel spreadsheet to list ideas and page numbers I wanted to go back and add later, and that was so helpful for me.
Later, when I had a ton of ideas from my editor to consider, I started listing her comments and numbering them in Excel. There was something about manipulating those ideas like data that for me, someone who is entirely an emotional and feeling person, that gave me a sense of control over the work. Organizing it, sorting it, adding color, checking items off, giving myself goals to complete a certain number of “issues” as I came to call them, became essential to my process.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
ZINNA: I had a 13-year journey with this book, and I thought I was done and ready to sell it after the first few months! There were so many bumps on my road to publication, but it was my decision to persevere that made it happen. And now this story of my heart is able to reach the people who were meant to read it. If you believe you are meant to do this, you are meant to do it.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
ZINNA: I am working on a memoir about meeting my cousin for the first time. She was deaf and lived on the streets for most of her life, and when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she listed me as next of kin. Without ever having seen her face to face before, I took over her medical guardianship and flew to meet her during a time I was also battling breast cancer. So many people warned me not to trust her and told me I’d regret getting involved. It was intense and frightening but also one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I hope the story of our connection and the ways we had to really work for it is one people will embrace.
About the Author
Diane Zinna is originally from Long Island, New York. She received her MFA from the University of Florida and went on to teach creative writing for ten years. She was formerly the executive co-director at AWP, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, which hosts the largest literary conference in North America each year. In 2014, Diane created the Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, helping to match more than six hundred writers over twelve seasons. The All-Night Sun, her first novel, was recently longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Diane lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband and daughter.