Diane Zinna’s mesmerizing debut novel, The All-Night Sun, invites readers on a journey that is not dictated by time or fact. It is a story about mythology, loss, the healing power of friendship, and the fabrication that tempts those who must rekindle their lives from the ashes of grief. When the main character, Lauren Cress, accompanies her student Siri on a trip to Sweden, readers happily follow, curious about what she shall find there. But more so than The All-Night Sun is an expedition of place, it is an expedition of the self. Readers must prepare themselves for a novel that is not afraid of its reflection. In this interview, Zinna analyzes the novel’s path to publication, her creative choices, and her connection to the main character.
Marah Hoffman: The All-Night Sun takes place somewhere readers may not be familiar with, the folkloric land of Sweden. If you felt pressure to convey Sweden to those who have not visited, you certainly flourished under it. What strategies did you use for transporting your readers?
Diane Zinna: I first traveled to Sweden when I was in a similar situation to Lauren, my main character. I was seeking a respite from grief, and the invitation to travel to an unfamiliar place where the sun would be out all night and everything would be, as my friend said, “green, fresh, and new—just thawing out,” was impossible to resist.
I was changed by my travel there. Something about my grief did fall away that summer. Everything glowed. Everything felt alive. I wanted to show that in my book for sure. After I had finished the draft, I had the opportunity to travel back to Sweden because my friend, who served as the beautiful inspiration for Siri, was getting married there. I returned with the draft of The All-Night Sun under my arm and a list of the places I needed to visit for my research. For example, I wanted to visit every single subway station in Stockholm because I had fallen in love with the art painted onto their cavernous walls when I was there the first time. I went back believing I needed to make careful notes about the artists and their works so that I could bring that “right” information to the book. I made arrangements to go on an official tour of the Tunnelbana on my last day in Sweden, but they wound up canceling the tour at the last minute. I thought I was ruined. But when I rode those trains again, myself, and got off in the stations I’d loved years before, I realized that it was my original sense of wonder that I needed in the book, not new research that might flatten the emotion of a lost soul stepping into a cavernous womb of paint, color, and shadow. I found that the closer I got to the truth of my original state of being when I was there, still lost in grief in a place like that, the closer I got to the story I was meant to tell.
MH: For a journey largely about overcoming loss, The All-Night Sun is luminous. Your prose gives the impression of a kaleidoscope. Can you speak to the focus on color? Are there personal and/or thematic reasons?
DZ: I don’t know how much of that was intentional and how much it was, again, simply close to the truth of my time as a person in deep grief. Back then, when friends visited my apartment, no matter who they were, the first thing they would do was turn on a lamp or open the shades. I wasn’t always aware how in the dark I was. When I went to Sweden that summer, everything felt Technicolor. It was like landing in Oz in a way, and Dorothy’s farm was that sepia sadness I’d been in for so much of my twenties. I spend a lot of time thinking about the color green in the book because it really does relate to new, verdant life, like a wet spring. But it was also how those green fields around my friend’s house seemed like an ocean tipping with the wind like liquid. How a meadow of purple and pink lupines jutting up out of the earth seemed to draw their color from underground wells of ink. Sunsets that were also sunrises, gold and pink. Yes, my memories of that time do feel like I’m turning a kaleidoscope, and that move from Lauren’s gray apartment to color is itself a story.
MH: Swedish mythology interacts with and influences characters throughout the book. The All-Night Sun’s cover art depicting Siri’s Midsommar crown underscores the importance and power of magic. How does the presence of mythology advance the text in your view?
DZ: I think part of this was me trying to show that for Lauren, this was a time of magic, yes, but also distrust. Her time traveling through Sweden felt like a fantasy. So the stories she hears from Siri and Siri’s friends about mythological creatures like Näcken and the Brook Horse intertwine with her own grief stories and make her wonder how she fits into this place. It adds a sense of magic—unreality—which allows for Lauren to not take enough seriously. And when she is shocked back into reality in her last days there, and she comes to terms with the beach being just a beach and strange men just being, probably, bad men, the magic falls away fast, every object shuddering into just itself and not something of deeper or layered meaning. I think we see Lauren questioning how special anything was at the end, wondering about the value of her friendship and even of her own life. So when she finds that love at the end, it feels better than magic.
MH: The structure of The All-Night Sun is not linear, much like grief—one of the novel’s major themes. What do you think this structure does for the narrative? Did you always know this is the form the novel would take?
DZ: The editor who first purchased my book loved its structure, how I moved the narration back and forth in time to show how memories were overtaking Lauren. As the story goes on, the switches in time come more frequently, the passages grow shorter, and we both felt the rub of Lauren’s past and present sparking and catching flame.
So naturally, I worried when that editor called to say she was taking a job at another publishing house. I was assigned a new editor, one who didn’t like the back-and-forth and asked me to rewrite it in a linear way.
When I think about it now, the way I was told to fix my book was similar to the way people told me to grieve. One step at a time, and there’s a name for every step. First this, then that, then you’ve got it behind you. One foot in front of the other and soon you are walking out the door. Why are you not able to come to my Thanksgiving dinner? It was nice of me to even ask you. Why is your apartment so dark? Why don’t you turn on your lights? Aren’t you afraid all your stories sound the same? Other people have lost loved ones, you’re not the only one. You should be over this by now. First this denial, then that anger, then bargaining, depression, acceptance. Climb the ladder, squeeze the rubber chicken at the top, then you win!
I knew that moving back and forth in time was part of what gave my book energy. I found joy in showing overlapping sensations, in showing how a place or a color could trigger Lauren back to a memory. But making the story linear rendered those energetic connectors unnecessary.
But I wanted to please that editor, so I reordered the telling and made the cuts. And when the finished product didn’t work the way she imagined, the editor canceled the book.
I didn’t know if the book would sell again. But I knew that if I was going to lay it to rest, I was going to lay it to rest whole, with my true-true-true understanding of grief binding it together. More and more I realized those synesthetic ties were part of the story I needed to tell, a story about how grief doesn’t move in one direction. It took me over a year to reclaim the story that way, but it’s so beautiful to me that today it’s the structure, the non-linear narrative, that so many readers respond to. They too feel like it has something of truth in it.
MH: The sense of invented memory is strong. Why did you decide to weave this very real part of reflection into Lauren’s story?
DZ: Lauren explains a few times throughout the book how she guards other people’s feelings. She can see them physically shrink from her when she tells them of her parents’ accident, and she comes to believe that the politest thing to do is to spare them the details. So she lies: That her parents are still alive in Michigan. That Christmas with them was great. And soon the lies intermingle with her truth. Without her real story’s starting places, she invents memories that feel real, ones interwoven with narratives that mean something to her—with Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, for example, that her parents are astronauts on another planet, but coming back. I think that this aspect of Lauren’s life feels familiar to a lot of people who try to preserve other people’s feelings at the expense of sharing their own.
MH: The All-Night Sun breathes like non-fiction, especially in the early chapters. I know you struggled with the decision of whether to write a memoir or a novel. Can you describe The All-Night Sun’s journey to its current genre of fiction? How much do you identify with the novel’s protagonist, Lauren Cress?
DZ: I think I was always planning it to be fiction because I had always only seen myself as a fiction writer up until that point. What I struggled with was how much of my twenty-something-year-old self I was hiding in the book. I did lose myself in libraries, keep HGTV on all the time because I was scared of silence, own a pretty black dress that felt like a shroud, think of my bedroom closet as a mouth. I worried that giving Lauren these same issues made me less of a writer. But the truth is that, very quickly, the book does veer into fiction. In reality, my trip was healing for me. But what if I had lost this friend, or if I had lost the job that had been like a lifeline for me? The story asks what someone like me might have done if the bubble had burst when they were in such a fragile psychological state.
MH: To piggyback off the last question, would you mind illuminating your writing process? Are you the type of writer who plans or plunges?
DZ: I have a writer friend who is really methodical about this. She will freewrite the first three chapters, and then, if she is still in love with the story, she will outline it from that point forward.
I love that advice, but it feels more appropriate for a writer who is trying to choose what to write next. For me, by the time I’m writing the first lines, I have usually been carrying the story around in my head for a while and know that I’m going to do everything I can to see it through. I outline as soon as I can so that I have a ready-made starting place the next time I sit down to write. But I allow myself to move dramatically away from that outline whenever I like to allow for a lot of play and surprises along the way. I have cultivated a sense of trust in myself. I don’t usually know what’s coming next, but I know it will always be better than what’s on my bullet-pointed list—because it will have organically risen up from all the choices and sentences and images along the way. No line is possible without what’s come before it. No feeling exists without all the layers of complicated context.
MH: Finally, how do you feel about The All-Night Sun? How did writing it shape your own story? Have your emotions regarding the novel evolved?
DZ: This book was a long journey, one that made me question my own instincts many times. I worried over the ending for so long, thinking I myself needed to be more healed, more grown, more distant from my own grief to know how to write an ending for Lauren.
I think the biggest lesson I learned was that we don’t have to have all the answers—for our characters or for ourselves. Sometimes we are not writing toward a grand ending but to a beautiful, unanswerable question. Sometimes the goal is not a movement ever-forward, but down and deeper.
Some days my daughter will ask about the book. She’s almost 10 now. She wants to know about the friends, Lauren and Siri. She wants to know what drew them together, what their adventures were, and if they’re still friends. But someday, when she is older, I know she is going to have questions about loss. I hope that if she reads The All-Night Sun then, she’ll experience something that was real of me. She’ll see Lauren’s sensitivity as beautiful. She’ll marvel at how Lauren was able to get through it all. And she’ll hear her mom coming to the ending that eluded her for so long…a perfect ending, one that shows simply how long grief can put us underwater. And how starting to come out of that is like breaking the surface and taking a first, deep, breath. And knowing there will be another and another. And that someday you’ll be okay.
Marah Hoffman is a senior double major in English and creative writing at Lebanon Valley College in rural Pennsylvania. Within her campus’s lively literary community, she is a writing tutor, mentor for prospective and new students, co-poetry editor for their literary magazine, and president of her college’s International English Honors Society chapter. Marah enjoys reading classic and contemporary literature. She has written poetry since she was twelve but has lately found herself wandering the realm of creative nonfiction, particularly personal essays. Besides being a bookworm, Marah is an avid runner. She is a member of LVC’s cross country and track teams. When Marah graduates, she hopes to find a position that allows her to continue pursuing her passion for books.
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