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