Diana Joseph Derek Alger One on One

portrait Diana Joseph

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 96 ~ May, 2005

Diana Joseph, who was born and raised in western Pennsylvania, is the author of
the highly acclaimed collection of stories, Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie
Mellon University Press, 2003. She is currently at work on her second collection,
tentatively titled Love in the Land of Sweet Tomorrow.

A graduate of Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, with a

in English, like many young, aspiring writers, Joseph has held a variety of jobs
over the years, including working at a pizza parlor, in a strawberry field,

in a pallet shop, a public library, and as a waitress and a short order

Joseph graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University

where she
studied with Tobias Wolff and Michael Martone, who described the stories in
Happy or Otherwise as “ripe with nuance” and a case where “a minute
gesture of
separation reads
as vibrant as the most dramatic continental divide.”

Her stories have appeared in Threepenny Review, Puerto del Sol, Cimarron

Review, Indiana Review, and Beloit Fiction Review, among several other

Joseph lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where she edits Pinyon Press

and teaches creative writing at Mesa State College.

Derek Alger: In your story collection Happy or Otherwise you
capture quite a

variety of different voices in your main characters covering a wide range of


Diana Joseph: Thanks for saying so. I always like when the stories in a
collection are different from one another and don’t all blur together. That’s

what I’d hoped I could pull
off in my collection. The stories are linked thematically — stories about
intense family situations, about surprise pregnancies and the darker side of

parent/children relationships, about people who are searching for love. But I

wanted to avoid striking the same note
over and over. Some of the stories are (I hope) humorous; some are lyrical;

some are

DA: Any one story in the collection you consider particularly special?

DJ: Probably my favorite piece in the collection is “Sick Child.” It was

of those stories that comes as a gift: three days to write and hardly any
revision. I was a single parent then,
and on occasion, I thought I might lose my mind from those little day-to-day

frustrations — the kid needs supper and a haircut, he’s wearing flood pants,

he wants to play Monopoly and I’ve got 54 freshman comp to grade. I was
exhausted and feeling claustrophobic, and yes, even resentful; then I’d look at

his little face and feel guilty about feeling exhausted, claustrophobic and

“Sick Child” came out of that, and in the process of writing it, I learned

it’s okay to have these complicated and mixed feelings about motherhood. Though
I’m not the mother in
the story, I get where she’s coming from. A moment I like is when she slips

her kid a Mickey, she dopes him up with cough syrup, hoping it’ll get him to

sleep a little early. (People have asked me about that, and I swear, I never

did that to my son.) You have
to feel for the mother in the story: the trick backfires on her. Instead of

making him drowsy, the cough syrup makes him hyper. I think it’s funny and sad

— which is usually how I see
just about everything.

DA: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you raised and how much
influence did that have on your writing?

DJ: I grew up in New Castle, Pennsylvania. This is in western

the Rust Belt, land of Steeler fans and Terrible Towels. When I was a kid, I

even had a tee-shirt with Mean Joe Green on it. His face is huge and he’s holding
out his fist and he’s wearing his
four Super Bowl rings. The tee-shirt reads, “One for the Thumb in `81.” I know
people who still rave about the Immaculate Reception.

DA: I remember it well, Franco Harris wining the AFC Divisional

against Oakland by making a shoestring catch, after Terry Bradshaw’s pass bounced
off a receiver colliding with a defensive back, and running 42 yards to

score with five seconds left in the game. So, what did you think of growing up

in the heart of Steeler country?

DJ: When I was growing up I thought I hated my hometown. I thought it

sophistication. People said “buggy” instead of “grocery cart.” They
it “Stillers” instead of Steelers. They said “yinz” rather than “you” and then

these words, “Hey, yinz guys, it’s almost time for the Stillers!” There’s that

in Madam Bovary where Emma, trapped in the boring countryside, traces a map of

Paris with her finger. I thought I understood the impulse.

DA: We’re glad you didn’t share the same fate as Emma.

DJ: What I’ve come to understand is that I lack sophistication. I push a
buggy up and down the aisles at City Market. There’s a Terrible Towel hanging

on the wall in my office. Though I don’t say “yinz” — my mother never allowed

us to say “yinz” — I am the small town daughter of blue collar parents. Small

town and rural western Pennsylvania is the setting of a lot of my work.

DA:: Did you always want to be a writer?

DJ: I wanted to be, well, something, but I didn’t know exactly what, only

I wanted it to pay a whole lot for doing next to nothing. (One phrase I
remember hearing the adults from my childhood say over and over is “Good work

if you can get it.”) Money for nothing and being a writer and a teacher aren’t

exactly synonymous.

But I’ve always been a ferocious reader. My parents used to take books

away from me and tell me to go play outside; I can walk down the street and read
at the same time. When I was in college, I thought I might want to be a

social worker — that remains the profession I most respect and admire — but

after some volunteer service at a battered women’s shelter, I realized I didn’t

have the guts for the work.

DA: I’m sure that experience gave you new insight into the unseemly side


DJ: It made me want to kidnap children. I wanted to rescue all these

kids I saw who were in such shitty situations. I wanted to take them home. It

was emotional work, and that’s why I couldn’t do it. But it taught me about


I thought I was already pretty empathetic. My Dad used to make my
brothers and
me watch the Labor Day Jerry Lewis Telethon. He’d pledge some money to the
handicapped children on our behalf, and he’d ask us if we knew how lucky we were
we could talk and walk and sit up straight. This parenting strategy might have

backfired on some other girl, making her scoff and filling her with scorn, but

for me, it was magic. it never failed to make me feel guilty. Because I would

try to imagine how terrible it would feel to be in a wheelchair or on crutches,

and I’d feel happy that I wasn’t.

But that’s not what I’ve come to think empathy means. Empathy is not about
feeling guilt and pity. It’s about understanding where the gray areas

are; that’s where the marginalized live. Empathy doesn’t reside in a world of

black and white because people
are too complex, filled with contradictions, humor, love, dysfunction. That’s

the world my characters live in, and to me, it’s the reality of their
situations that makes them real and believable and empathetic.

DA: You then entered the MFA program at Syracuse University. Did you know
what you were getting into?

DJ: I had no idea. I knew nothing. I figured an MFA was a way to put off
looking for a job. I picked the MFA program at Syracuse blindly — there was a

poster for it hanging on a wall in the English Department of my college; there

was a postcard you could send in and in return receive an application. That’s

how I chose a program. It’s not the strategy I suggest to my students now.

Looking back, I can see how lucky lucky lucky I was to end up in a good place

with excellent teachers.

DA: As a developing writer did you find the MFA program useful?

DJ: Extremely. The time, of course, was invaluable. I can only wish I

those blocks of uninterrupted time to write. I liked the community part of it,

sitting around a conference table in workshop and listening to other writers

talk about reading and writing like it was something important. I made some

great friends.

DA: Did you study with anyone you considered special?

DJ: I took a workshop with the marvelous Michael Martone who is a smart

funny and kind man and a terrific writer. He wrote this hilarious little
brochure called “Rx,” which was a list of “rules” for writing. I remember one

rule was “You can never say too little about the color of a character’s eyes.”

Another was “Always use odd numbers; they’re more believable,” which is good

advice, I guess, unless you’re writing a more conventional sex scene.

The teacher who helped me the most, though, is Melanie Rae Thon. She

was so patient. She’d put her time and her energy into reading your work —

she is incredibly generous that way. She’s been my best teacher, and not only

in workshop. Melanie is also a writer whose books I return to again and again.

She’s written some of the most beautiful, lyrical stories I’ve ever read.

DA: So, after Syracuse you shot out into world. Did you have any specific

DJ: Not really. I was slow to catch on to the idea that life could be
planned. (I recently watched some television show where there was this woman

whose job title is “Life Planner.” Good work if you can get it.) When I
finished up at Syracuse, I had three
or four stories published. I wanted to write some more.

DA: How did you end up teaching in Grand Junction, Colorado?

DJ: Pretty randomly. My then-husband had these romantic ideas about

in Colorado. He and I got out the Rand-McNally map of Colorado and picked Grand
Junction because it had a college — Mesa State — and not too many red

population dots. I wandered into the English Department and asked for work.

Luckily they needed bodies to teach composition. I like teaching– I even like

teaching composition. (I know there’s more to teaching than playing mind games

with students but I have to say there’s not a mind more fun to mess with than

that of a first semester freshman.)

Teaching creative writing can be aggravating at times — I finally

came up with a list of stories my students aren’t allowed to write: the one

about the serial killer; the one that ends with “it was all a dream”, the one

about the evil banker who’s about to foreclose on the god-fearing farmer, etc.

I really try to push students to use their imaginations. Imagination is such a

gift and we all have it. I think it’s sometimes squashed by school or nervous

parents. But imagination is so important: it’s what’s behind intellectual
curiosity, what causes you to ask what is that? Why is that? How is that?

And imagination is also the source of empathy, letting you imagine those gray


But writing also involves learning the craft. A lot of students come

to creative writing convinced that the word “creative” is synonymous with “easy”
or “anything goes” or “I’m just here to express myself.” Many haven’t

read much, and don’t know what makes a story “literary.” I make them read and

read some more. I emphasize the writing part of creative writing to show that

this is really an academic discipline, and you have to understand how language

works. Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of imitation exercises. One kid
complained I was stifling his creativity by putting him in a box. I told him

that when he was two years old, there was nothing he liked better than a box.

He turned it into a pirate ship, a rocket, a race car. Eventually, he came
around to how imitation can actually take you places you wouldn’t have gone on

your own.

DA: Can’t say it much better than a young reviewer who once took a

writing course from you and declared, “Miss Joseph, You rock!”

DJ: Thanks, Derek, for talking to me. I appreciate it!