A few novels cross genres with perfection. Diane Frank, however, weaves multiple genres to create a tapestry of writing that could almost become a new category of its own. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, is described as magical realism, yet some could argue that it is a form of poetry, erotic romance, mystical and or spiritual fiction, new age, historical/cultural, pseudo-paranormal romance or romantic fantasy. You get the idea. I am fascinated when an author boldly crosses boundaries within genres, as well as cultures and periods of history, with such precision that it is barely noticed. It’s much like watching a prima ballerina who makes strenuous work appear elegant and effortless.
I met Diane Frank Valentine’s week at the San Francisco Writers Conference(SFWC) where we spoke at length, like old friends, touching on a variety of subjects. We are both writers who are meditators and yogis. We are both fascinated by Japanese and Buddhist culture and art. We both love music and dancing. We have a little in common. Diane’s first book was a bit of risk, in terms of publishing in the 21st century, as her main character is a Japanese geisha from 150 years ago. The writing is poetic, erotic, spiritual and infused with musical, historical and Buddhist overtones. Each chapter is short, and could read like an individual poem or a recounting of a lyrical dream. Some agents today might consider this novel daunting to represent—as agents at the SFWC admitted trepidation over representing first-time novelists who write within differing cultures or gender viewpoints. (To read more, see Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write.).
With that said, I strongly believe readers will always resonate with powerfully artistic writing that transcends such constricted boundaries. Which is likely one reason why Blackberries in the Dream House was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Diane has published nine books and is currently writing another, while also teaching creative writing and poetry in San Francisco and Iowa. I interviewed Diane recently about Blackberries in the Dream House: her process when writing it and her advice to other budding authors willing to tackle subjects and characters outside of today’s defined publishing norms.
Q. What first inspired you to write about a geisha and a Buddhist monk in Japan? Can you pin point your first ah ha moment that sparked your journey toward creating Blackberries in the Dream House?
A. I’d like to begin by telling you how this book came into being. While I was still living in Iowa, The Winter Life of Shooting Stars, my fourth book of poems, was published. When I called my Grandma Helen to share the good news, she said to me, “Diane, I don’t understand poetry. Could you write a novel?” I said, “Sure, Grandma, I’ll write you a novel,” even thought at the time I didn’t know what the book would be about.
I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I feel that the story I tell in Blackberries in the Dream House chose me. It began with a deja vu in my bathtub. The tiles turned deep blue, and I felt like I was in Kyoto in a public bath during the late Edo period. The geisha and the monk were there, and the story started telling itself to me until it was told.
Blackberries is a forbidden love story about a geisha and a Buddhist monk in Kyoto 150 years ago. It’s written in the genre of magical realism which means that extraordinary things can happen in the waking state. The story is told from inside the soul of the geisha, and it begins with an epigram from Rumi…
“Lovers don’t meet along the road somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”
Blackberries in the Dream House comes from a deep place in my soul. My strong intention is that this book will have a gift for everyone who reads it.
2. Are you a Buddhist?
I’m not a practicing Buddhist but am strongly influenced by Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy – especially Tibetan Buddhism but also Zen. I learned to meditate when I was twenty years old and continue to meditate twice a day. My spiritual practice takes me to a place of deep peace and provides a grounding I maintain as I live in the world.
Traveling in Japan and Nepal strongly influenced this book. I loved living among the Buddhist people. I deeply admire the Dalai Lama and have been strongly influenced by his teachings. When I was trekking in Nepal, I had the opportunity to ask the Tengboche Rinpoche (the High Lama at Tengboche Monastery) a question that was important to my spiritual growth, and his answer has guided me for many years.
When I was in Japan researching Blackberries in the Dream House, all of the people I met believe in reincarnation and felt that I was returning to Japan from a previous life. The Noh Sensei (Master teacher of Noh drama and singing) asked me, “How does it feel to be back in Japan?” The geisha from Kyoto who mentored me had me walk in her maiko (young geisha in training) sandals to see what I would remember when I wore them. Walking the streets of Pontocho, the geisha district where my novel takes place, was non-stop deja vu.
My 400 mile trek in the Nepal Himalayas was a spiritual quest. I write about this in Letters from a Sacred Mountain Place: A Journey through the Nepal Himalayas, which was published two weeks ago. My new book takes you into the mountains, with stories, poems and 53 color photographs. My early readers have told me that my new book has a similar feel to Blackberries, especially with my “Buddhist friend,” who is like the inner lover in Rumi’s poetry.
3. There has been much dialogue about the risks authors take when writing outside of their nationality, gender, sex, or even period of history. Yet Yukiko’s and Kenji’s voices are authentic and every scene within this book is believable. How much research went into crafting the elements within the dialogue to create believability? For instance, knowing the various Japanese musical instruments and art techniques of the day, or describing the temples.
I believe that as human souls, we have lived in many times and places. But yes, I did a tremendous amount of research. Years ago, I was drawn to a book by Liza Dalby called Geisha. It’s the definitive anthropological study of the geisha community of Kyoto. I’ve also written several scripts for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, multi-image presentations to introduce their traveling exhibits. These included “Footsteps of the Buddha,” to introduce an exhibit of Buddhist art and sculpture, and “Japanese Ink Painting,” an exhibit of the Japanese Sumi-e artists through the centuries. Yukiko, the geisha in my novel, is a Sumi-e artist, and this is how she meets the young monk, as part of her training. My research for LACMA educated me in the subtle aspects and techniques of Japanese ink painting. My book also has a subtle layering of Tibetan Buddhism and Kabbalah, which I have studied.
After I began writing my novel, I had a hunger to read everything I could find about Japan, Japanese art, Zen Buddhism, and the geisha community. I also had guidebooks and maps so I knew the shrines, the streets, the rivers, the mountains. I worked with two Japanese advisors, who were students at the university in Iowa where I was teaching. Izumi Nakamura made lists for me of names appropriate for my characters in the late Edo period. I would give her the sound I wanted, and she would give me a choice of names with those sounds. She also made lists of flowers and trees that grow in Japan. Paul Shimura shared his experience growing up in Japan and saved me from a few cultural mistakes. In the late Edo period, there were no mirrors. People used water to see their reflection. No clocks – people told time by the ringing of the temple bells. No mangos in Japan – use a persimmon. He never gave me praise – which is the opposite of the way I teach – but made sure I stayed within the Japanese culture as I wrote. Later, when I went to Japan, Izumi hosted me and translated.
Before completing the novel, I knew I had to go to Japan and spend time in the geisha community. When I wrote to Izumi, I did not know that the Japanese people revere their teachers or that I was her favorite teacher. Izumi invited me to stay with her family, and she offered to travel with me to Kyoto, introduce me to the people she felt I should meet, and translate, since I don’t speak Japanese. She offered to plan my whole visit, and as an art-centered person, she wanted every day to be beautiful. At that time, she was studying music with a Noh Sensei who lived in Kyoto. Her Sensei arranged for me to be mentored by a famous geisha in Kyoto – you can find photographs of Masukiyo on my website, If you enter the pages that feature Blackberries in the Dream House, I share a lot of information.
It is almost unheard of for a Western woman to be allowed into the geisha community, but as a gift from the Noh Sensei, that door opened for me. Izumi asked three of her friends to come with us and help her with the translation, as she had never become completely fluent in English. Masukiyu, the geisha who mentored me, shared many things about her life and answered provocative questions. She has a beautiful singing voice and has entertained visiting dignitaries and the Prime Minister of Japan. Everything about her is deeply feminine and artistic – her lovely voice, the way she moved in her green silk kimono, and her skill in making everyone feel comfortable around her. Even the simple act of watching her serve green tea and mochi was deeply pleasing. Before I left, she asked me to try on her maiko sandals to see if I would remember anything. They fit my feet perfectly.
Geishas take the mystery of being a woman and push it all the way to the edge. They are artists and feisty independent women. If they have a lover, it is their choice. Blackberries in the Dream House is narrated from the soul of the geisha, but what surprised me most when I was in Kyoto was how well I knew the monk. I went to Buddhist and Shinto temples every day, but as I approached Ryoanji, which in older times was called Oshidoridera, I immediately knew that the monk lived there.
And about the musical instruments . . . When I was writing about Japanese ink painting (sumi-e) for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I listened to every recording of Japanese music available in San Francisco at that time. I know the instruments; I know the way they sound. Also, because I am a cellist, I know the discipline it takes to learn and master a musical instrument.
My book has been praised as having an authentic Japanese voice. I think you have to love Japan to do this, but I don’t think you have to be Japanese. I think the novel feels authentic to you because it comes from such a deep place inside my soul.
4. The eroticism and spirituality weave together flawlessly. Did you intend to write such an erotic love story?
The whole process of writing a novel is mysterious to me, but the weave of eroticism and spirituality is at the center of the way I view the world. I believe that sexuality is sacred and can open the way to the spiritual. As you can tell from reading my novel, I don’t believe in a separation of the erotic and the spiritual.
One more thing … I was living in a spiritual community when I wrote this book. Many of the men in the community thought they were monks or tried to be monks, even though they were not this way by nature. It gave me a lot of material for this book. I think many people who are deeply involved with a spiritual path get confused about their sexuality. When Blackberries was featured in Tricycle magazine, a popular Buddhist journal, their topic was “Where is the Edge?” They used a chapter of my novel to explore this.
5. What/ who are your influences?
As a poet, my major influences are my teachers – Stephen Dunn, Kathleen Fraser, Robert Bly, and Daniel J. Langton – and the poets I love – Rainer Maria Rilke, Mirabai, Rumi, Kabir, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Centolella, William Carlos Williams, Yehuda Amichai and too many others to list here. Because of Robert Bly’s teaching and his translations, the Spanish language surrealist poets have been a powerful influence – Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Cezar Vallejo, and Juan Ramon Jimenez. My life is filled with poetry.
With fiction, I’ve been strongly influenced by magical realism, the Spanish language poets and novelists, and authors who do similar things in English: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; and anything by Tom Robbins, but especially, Jitterbug Perfume. While writing my novel, I also read Damage, by Josephine Hart, as a model for writing with short chapters; and novels that gave me permission to go way out there, like Hard‑Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami.
Pierre DeLattre, author of Walking on Air and Tales of a Dalai Lama, was a major influence. This is what he wrote about my book: “What would happen to us if we were to undertake the discipline of turning our life entirely and self‑consciously, into a poem? Through Yukiko, who becomes both a contemplative Buddhist and a geisha skilled in the refinements of sensuous pleasure, Diane Frank allows us to live within the soul of a young woman who has undertaken to create a life imagined and expressed as a poem, in every moment, waking and sleeping, making love or meditating. With its power of language, Blackberries in the Dream House will seduce many readers into considering whether a prosaic life is the only choice we have.”
6. Do you have advice for other poets who want to make the leap into lyrical fiction?
My huge breakthrough came when I realized that to write beautiful prose, you need to work the language the same way you work every line of a poem. Sentence by sentence, I did this. Since I am primarily trained as a poet, I had two rules while I was writing – one extended metaphor per chapter and every sentence has to be beautiful. I worked the language line by line, the same way I work the language of a poem.
I feel that a novel, like a poem, is a magic spell. As an author, I feel a responsibility to take the reader to a positive place by the end of the book – regardless of where I’ve taken them during the journey. Most of my books have a long dip into shadow material at some point in the narrative, but I like the bring the reader back up transformed.
I use an intuitive writing process instead of planning the whole book in advance. In that way, the book surprises me and delights me as I am writing it. There are times when I finish a chapter and start weeping about what just happened. And times I am filled with gratitude. When I start writing, I fine-tune the previous chapter, and then ask myself, “What comes next?” Then the soul of the novel starts speaking to me again. It’s a mysterious and wonderful process. The other thing – since novels take more time than poems, you need to put yourself on a writing schedule.
When I began writing Blackberries in the Dream House, it felt like remembering something. But early into the book, the characters took over and created their own lives. They did unexpected things and frequently surprised me. The inner world of each character flooded through me day by day until my life became transparent. My visions, conversations, and dreams poured into the novel. I felt like I was Japanese as I was writing, and over time the novel became large enough to embody every important image and insight I have ever known.
My major advice to all writers … Make your writing a messenger for what is in your soul. Work your language so that it is powerful and beautiful. Work each line until every line sings.
I hope you enjoy my novel, and I would love to hear from you. I’m available to come to your book club, your favorite book store, your writers group, your library, or a university where you live. To schedule readings and workshops in your area, please get in touch with me!