The disappearance of a college student. The vandalism of a famous poet’s residence. Throw in a frightful skiing accident and you’ve got the setup for Black Diamond Fall, a literary mystery by Joseph Olshan (Polis Books), best known for his works Clara’s Heart and Cloudland. The story takes place in wintry Vermont, where the author spends much of his time, and the book’s central themes are drawn from his own real-life experiences.
Olshan offered some insight into the book, the plot, the characters and his writing in this BookTrib interview:
BookTrib: Black Diamond Fall is based on two real events that happened in Vermont. Tell us about those events and how you tread the line between facts and literary fiction.
Joseph Olshan: My last two books have been based on true events that have happened in wintry Vermont. I am drawn to winter tragedies and each book deals with tragic death in an untimely and, sometimes, violent manner. Black Diamond Fall is based on the disappearance of a student at Middlebury College around 2010. The young man was from Arizona and was spending his winter break on campus. He disappeared, the town and the students searched high and low, and eventually months later, his body was found at the bottom of the turgid river than runs through Middlebury, VT.
Around two years later, the Robert Frost Farm, a museum open to the public, was vandalized by a bunch of rowdy high school students. When I began thinking about writing a novel based on the young man’s disappearance, I was drawn to the Robert Frost story and began to work my way toward a place where I thought/hoped/believed the two stories would intersect.
BT: Explain the title, Black Diamond Fall.
JO: In the skiing world, a Black Diamond trail is a trail marked for experts only. Often it’s a challenge, even for expert skiers. Adding “Fall” to the title gives the sense of danger, of falling, and indeed in the early part of the novel there is a skiing accident and a spectacular fall on an off-piste trail called Black Diamond Fall. The novel revolves around a middle-aged man, who, though very fit, is trying to stay vital and relevant to his potential lovers and to himself, and he takes on daunting physical activities in order to challenge himself.
BT: You have said you need to dip your pen into autobiography when you write. Is that the case with Black Diamond Fall?
JO: Absolutely. The novel, though invented, is fueled with an emotional undercurrent that comes from events that have occurred in my recent life.
BT: Much of the book interweaves very strong physical pain with emotional pain for many of the characters. As an author, how do you strike the right chord to balance those feelings and not overdo it?
JO: There is really only physical pain the early part of the novel, as the result of a skiing accident. The rest of the book is characterized by emotional pain felt by all the characters who are trying to understand and solve the disappearance of a male college student. I think to gain the reader’s sympathy, you often need to write with restraint and strike important notes but not too many notes—if that makes any sense.
BT: Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is a central theme in the book. Discuss some of the issues confronting the main character, Luc — how and why he behaves the ways he does, certainly relative to the other characters, and talk about his fears.
JO: Luc’s problem is that, as a soccer player, he is enmeshed in the sports patriarchy. He lives in the world of college athletes where being gay is generally less accepted. While many men his age might feel they need to hide their alternative sexuality, Luc feels this inclination to hide his sexual identity more keenly because all his close friends are elite performers. Also, he has had fairly successful relationships with women, so his sexuality is nuanced. And therefore it is easier for him to delude himself as to his true capacity for love.
BT: Sam is a love interest of Luc in the book. Why did you create the character of Sam to be almost twice Luc’s age?
JO: This wasn’t a choice. This is based on something that happened to me. I wanted to follow it closely in order to write about it faithfully and truthfully.
BT: Much of the mystery revolves around a series of emails sent from Luc to Sam after they had broken up that Sam says he never received. How is this device used to further the plot?
JO: This device creates a sense of misunderstanding between the two characters so that each of them thinks the other has lost the intensity of feeling that so characterized the love between them.
BT: Why, at the start of each chapter, did you decide to provide the location’s temperature and weather conditions?
JO: The novel jumps around a bit in time, especially toward the beginning. It was for this reason that I wanted to give the date—to help my reader stay located in time— but then an early reader of the novel suggested temperature and weather as a way of easily setting a scene with a few moody brushstrokes.
BT: You are the award-winning author of 10 novels including Clara’s Heart, which was made into a major motion picture featuring Whoopi Goldberg and a very young Neil Patrick Harris. Did having your first novel become a film change you in any way and was it a positive experience for you?
JO: Having my first novel made into a movie was neither a positive nor negative experience. But it certainly helped get the story of the novel far out into the world, and for this I always will be grateful to the medium of motion picture.
BT: Who are some of the authors that have had the greatest influence on your writing?
BT: What’s the best piece of advice you could give new writers?
JO: If you are serious and really want to be a writer, it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of talent, but rather dogged perseverance, a willingness to stick to working in order to get better and better, and an openness to good constructive criticism.
BT: What’s in the cards for you moving forward? Have you started working on a new writing project?
JO: I am writing a novel based on an experience I had during my first year of college. A professor who lived in my hometown and who was like a mentor to me was found hanging in his apartment. Although his death was ruled a suicide, there were certain eerie facts that led some people to wonder if he, in fact, was murdered.
Black Diamond Fall will be available to purchase September 18th, 2018.
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ABOUT JOSEPH OLSHAN:
Joseph Olshan is an award-winning American novelist. His first novel, Clara’s Heart, won the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and went on to be made into a feature film starring Whoopi Goldberg. He is the author of eight novels. He has written extensively for newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The Times (London), The Guardian (London), The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Harpers Bazaar, People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, among others. He currently is Editorial Director at Delphinium Books.