An Interview With Alicia Oltuski 

Interview conducted by Jessica Hindman 

Alicia Oltuski’s debut, Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life, (Scribner, 2011) received glowing reviews from Jonathan Yardley and Gary Shteyngart. As part of ALR’s efforts to provide a literary platform for emerging Creative Nonfiction writers, Oltuski recently spoke with fellow Columbia University MFA colleague and ALR’s Creative Nonfiction Contest Coordinator, Jessica Hindman, about the craft of nonfiction writing.

Jessica Hindman: You only get one first book. Why did you choose this particular topic for a debut?Alicia Oltuski: The topic of diamonds was at once incredibly personal for me [Oltuski’s father is a diamond dealer in the Diamond District of Manhattan] but also, every writer seeks to uncover some hidden world. The diamond industry, with all its secrecy, seemed a natural place for that endeavor, to uncover its mysteries. The book was also about uncovering the mystery that was my father. I mean, I obviously knew him, but there were so many things about him that were a mystery to me. The book was an attempt to uncover both of these mysteries.

JH: One of the things I love about Precious Objects is how fearless you are in fusing different Creative Nonfiction techniques. The chapters alternate between intimate family portraits and journalistic reportage and research that is academic in its thoroughness, if not in its style. Why did you choose this particular organizational structure for the book?

AO: Structure is something I thought about a lot. And it’s something I really changed as I went; it’s probably the aspect of the book that I spent the most time thinking about…To me, structure in both fiction and nonfiction is incredibly important because it not only shapes the narrative arc but the reader’s impression of the characters. I say characters even when the “characters” are real people; I think it’s useful to think about them that way when you’re interviewing them and writing about them. So structure is the single-most influential part of the writing process in how you make a reader think about your topic and your characters.

When I was writing, it was very important to me to not write a “subject” but to write a “story” even though I was writing about a subject that I think a lot of people have some sort of inherent fascination with—diamonds—which is completely unrelated to me and my family and how I wrote the book. What I tried to do is excavate the history of the diamond industry and the diamond district but at the same time to attach all of this to characters. One of the reasons it was so important for me to let the characters emerge in shapely ways was that the diamond industry, from its inception, has really been an industry full of characters, and not just the ones that I happen to know but also this entire cast of historical characters that all seemed oddly larger than life—even before diamonds emerged as a major commodity. So what I really wanted to do was have this emerge as a story of people. I tried, even in the parts that were history-oriented or journalistically-minded, to show these people and what they were about and what made them so perfectly suited to this business. To a large extent, the reason the diamond industry has come to mean so much to so many people is because of these odd characters who almost forge a sense of importance upon this one mineral. And I think the reason for that is because the people who were involved in shaping diamond history were such idiosyncratic people, and I think that’s one thing that hasn’t really changed.

Getting back to structure, I wanted to capture this one moment in diamond history, because I do think the industry is on the cusp of transformation. Obviously, the topic of “diamonds” is overwhelmingly large, but I think we find ourselves in this strange time in this larger history where everything is about to change. I looked back at the creation of DeBeers and the whole advertising campaign that shaped the industry [i.e. the idea that diamonds are a staple for engagements] and in a weird way I felt that we are at another similar threshold of sorts. I wanted to tell the story of how we had gotten from there to here, and where we were headed in the future. And of course it was also a family story—how I came to see my father and the occupation he had chosen in a different way.

JH: What are the challenges of writing a book that is both memoir and reportage? Was the structure obvious to you at first? Did you ever get confused as to what “belonged” in the book and what didn’t?

AO: My views really changed, my assumptions changed while writing it. It was not obvious to me [at first] that it was a story about people. It was obvious to me that I wanted it to be a story about people. I would say the reason I was originally interested [in the subject] was because of my father’s affiliation with the business, so it was a story about people from the beginning, but I hadn’t realized how much it had been that way since the actual launch of the diamond. Many civilizations have held diamonds in high regard, and they realized, from the beginning, that diamonds—physically and chemically—held special properties that were different from other stones. But it really was in South Africa in the 1860s that you see this leap from ‘everyone loves diamonds’, ‘diamonds are godly’, to where a few key characters step up to take hold of the industry and make something of it that went beyond lure and became a business that affected millions of lives.

And of course, later on, after the historical research portion of the project, as I began talking to dealers within the industry and big players in the diamond world, beyond my family, I realized that it was still very much a world of big characters, Martin Rapaport being the perfect example of that. He is an extraordinary character.

JH: Many of the diamond industry insiders—like Rapaport—who you encounter or interview in the book seem like they would be intimidating people to pepper with questions, or at least reluctant to spill industry secrets. Do you have specific strategies for winning trust from your subjects when you conduct interviews?

AO: There’s that great line in Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which I always loved and I always found extremely heartening. [Oltuski grabs Didion’s book off the shelf to quote it]. Didion writes, “I’m bad at interviewing people…my only advantage as a reporter is that I’m so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” [Laughing] I wouldn’t say I entirely relate to that, first of all, I think she’s actually a lot physically smaller than me, and also I did have, in 99.9% of my encounters, a recorder with a red light on the table. So in some sense I was surprised by the candor with which some people spoke—even people who were initially reluctant to speak to me. And I’ve thought a lot about why that happened. I think that to some extent I owe that access to my family being a part of the industry. As a dealer, when you’re first starting in the industry, if you have family members who are respected in the industry then you too are welcomed as part of this family—this economic family. The way I came to think of it was that the method in which I met people and got access to their opinions was the same method as a new dealer would get inventories. In that way [my journalistic access] mimicked the way a dealer enters the business.

That said, I like to think that because the industry found itself at such a juncture people thought there was a story to be told, a story which might not be accessible for much longer. So I think that also motivated people to talk. Also, I think I’m a friendly person [laughing] and that they felt comfortable with me. And then in terms of peppering them with questions, I guess I was a little bit relentless…in following up and trying to get to the bottom of issues. I would never do in any other circumstance—asking questions more than once, probing on a topic that someone might not really want to talk about—I would never do that in regular interactions. But in journalism that’s your job, and of course you always do it respectfully. And I don’t think anyone felt disrespected.

JH: For many writers one of the most challenging aspects of writing memoir is determining how to portray family members. If you paint them as perfect then the writing seems false, if you paint them as flawed you could damage your most important relationships. I love the portrayal of your dad – which seems both honest and kind—and I’m wondering how you approached writing about him. Did you talk about your portrayals of him? Did you let him read your drafts?

AO: When I first started working for my dad the summer after I graduated from college, knowing I wanted to write about him (I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but I knew I was there for writing purposes, not to become a diamond dealer) I hung around the office and worked there. One of the first things he said when I worked there—I walked into his office with all of these security cameras and a panic button underneath the desk, the diamonds exposed—one of the first things he said to me was, “You can look and listen and learn about everything that’s going on here, just don’t write about anything you see or hear.” [Laughing]. Obviously he graciously came around. I think that he was reluctant at first when I first told him not only that I was writing a book but that I had been writing about him. But I think what made him come around—and this was before I showed him the book (because I really only showed him [the work] for fact-checking purposes, because it was really important for me to get everything right, and he was of course a very knowledgeable source on the details of his life, in addition to details about the industry)—one of the things that encouraged him was the recognition that I was writing about a world that might not be around very much longer, at least not the way it was at that time. And that this was a story that needed to be told. And I think he found that heartening and he was very supportive.

JH: Did you have any agreements with him that he could refuse his portrayals if he didn’t like them?

AO: No, there were no real agreements. Periodically, toward the end of the project, I would show him parts, and then the whole thing. But again, mainly for fact-checking purposes. I’m kind of a stickler for getting everything right and I think you owe it to whomever you’re writing about to get it right. He was very supportive of the project—I was really fortunate.

JH: What were your fears about writing about him? What surprised you? What surprised him?

AO: I guess that I was lucky that he was supportive but also because my interior portrait of him evolved. The way in which I saw him that most changed was that I always playfully thought of him, to put it bluntly, as somewhat paranoid. It was just one of those things that was a family joke and extended beyond the family. And clearly there were some aspects—hypochondrial tidbits—that were in line with that. But the thing that most changed was that I realized that his vigilance was not unique to him, that in fact it is ubiquitous amongst all diamond dealers, that it was a necessary part of the industry. I hadn’t known how many dangerous situations he found himself in, how many close brushes with menace. So I think that was one of the things that really changed for me—it really gave me a deeper perspective of what it was like to be him. And in that way it was rather fortunate, because it could have just as easily have gone the other way and I would have had to truthfully report that—you know, I could have started out thinking he was a relatively normal individual and have realized that he was actually batshit crazy—such was not the case. [Laughing]

Personally, the most difficult part of the writing process was writing about my Uncle Steve [Steve, also a diamond dealer, died of cancer in 2003] simply because I missed him so much. And I hadn’t really explored his lifetime in that scope—I spoke to many of his friends in Canada, and I also got a new perspective on his experience. And so in a weird way that was actually one of the more difficult sections to write.

JH: The idea of Creative Nonfiction as a literary genre is still a new concept to many people, even within literary circles. Your writing exemplifies how conveying factual information can transcend into art. Do you have any particular CNF authors that you turn to for inspiration on how to achieve this?

AO: I do have to say that my favorite nonfiction is nonfiction that reads like fiction but just happens to be true, and I think I’ve always felt that way. And so, in that sense, the people I turn to for inspiration are both fiction and nonfiction writers. I read mostly fiction, but there are so many nonfiction writers who are transcendental in what they accomplish. In terms of memoir, I’ve always loved Amos Oz’s book, A Tale of Love and Darkness. I tell everyone everywhere to read it…it’s an example of a book that deals with an incredibly important and turbulent moment in history, but is driven by characters and story. It’s incredible. But again, I read a ton of fiction.

JH: And how does the fiction you read inspire how you write?

AO: Sometimes it comes down to sentence and cadence and things like that. Even though I so enjoyed studying craft, it’s almost like you let something wonderful wash over you and hope that aspect seeps into your own craft, is the way I think of it. I think anything more than that would almost be presumptuous. But I think so much good writing has been coming out in the past few years, and so much great writing already exists. I think it’s actually a really exciting time in publishing – I think that so many people are doing so many amazing things that I can’t wait to read and fall in love with the next big thing. I almost think that finishing a book—a book you really love— is like going through a really bad breakup. You finish it and then you’re at this empty loss, continually searching for the next thing to satisfy that need, sometimes rebounding. [Laughing] But it’s so satisfying when you find something. I feel that readers in general, no matter what medium, are looking for something to fall in love with, and so as long as you have that, the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere. I try to read all kinds of things—short form, long form, and listen to a lot of music—depending on what I’m writing.

JH: What’s next for Alicia Oltuski?

AO: I always answer this question rather coyly [laughing] –I hope that’s not annoying! I am working on a variety of projects…I’ve been doing some freelancing—I’m working on an article about the Diamond Detectives. I’m also working on an article about Jewish poker players. So a little bit of everything. I’ve been doing some fiction and nonfiction. And I recently recorded a Berlin Story at NPR for BerlinStories.org, which is this little nifty website that popped up a few years ago, and I really enjoyed doing it and listening to other people’s Berlin stories. There are these little snippets by artists and writers. I’ve always thought of Berlin as an evocative place—both personally and generally.

I also recorded the audiobook of Precious Objects over the summer which was a really interesting experience because I think you really hear things differently—I try to read my work aloud to myself, but I had never read it aloud straight through. I haven’t listened to the audiobook yet, I’m not sure if I will—it’s a weird, jarring experience to hear yourself on tape. I think it’s a wonderful way to look critically at your book, and also to see it as a whole. Because even when you read an entire manuscript straight through you rarely exact the same focus and holistic approach as reading an audiobook forces you to do. So it was a unique exercise, and enjoyable.

JH: It’s crazy because when you’re actually writing, you often don’t think about people actually reading (or listening to) your stuff out in the world.

AO: Yeah, it was sort of amazing because you don’t think about it. But at the same time it was one of my favorite experiences post-publishing. Because, post-publishing is so different. When you’re writing a book you’re sitting alone in isolation, deep within your head, writing this. Afterwards, you’re interacting with people who have read the product of those months or years of semi-isolation. I really relished the personal connections that people made to the writing itself. I’ve gotten so many emails and letters from people who reacted on a personal level to the writing, so that was gratifying. It’s resulted in both very poignant and hilarious situations, none of which I saw coming.