Leah Dieterich is the author of two books. Her latest, a memoir titled The Vanishing Twin: A Marriage, questions how individuality is preserved and defined. She deftly explores subtle relational parameters through the lens of marriage, sexuality, and career. Leah lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter.
photography by Nancy Neil
Girls at Library: What’s the name of the first book you fell in love with that made you a life-long reader?
Leah Dieterich: I would say the Choose Your Own Adventure Series is the first thing that's coming to mind. I absolutely loved those when I was a kid, and I don't think they have a singular author. I love the idea of having multiple realities. You could take a story in a different direction just by going to a certain page in those books. I hadn't thought about it until now. But I think the discovery and discussion of possible alternate futures is something that I'm kind of interested in.
GAL: You talk about that a bit in your book, correct?
LD: I think so, yeah. Not exactly in those words, but there's a moment towards the end when my husband and I have an open relationship, and he starts seeing a woman who, I never see a photo of her, but she feels very similar to me biographically as well as very similar to a woman that I had been having a relationship with. I question if they are actually real. Are they alternate versions of each other or me? I think I've just been interested in the idea of alternate possibilities for a long time.
GAL: Do those lost possibilities gnaw at you? Or are you interested in alternate possibilities because it's fascinating to think about story in general, and the directions in which narrative can go?
LD: I think it used to gnaw at me until I had the opportunity to experience trying on different versions of myself. Both in the context of this book and just over the course of my life, you know? The different parts of myself that I've given a little bit more time to throughout the years. Like the dancer, the artist, the writer, me in a relationship with a woman, me in a relationship with a man. At this point in my life, it's not a gnawing sensation anymore. It's more dictated by my interest in the narrative possibilities, like you said.
GAL: Why do you read?
LD: I read to learn. I definitely don't read as an escape. Although the physical practice of reading a real book, like a paperback or hardcover, with the way that technology is these days, does feel like an escape. It’s an escape from the monotony of obsessive phone and email checking. So, I read to ground and center myself at this point in my life, as well as to learn about a topic, or to find empathy with a character, or an experience that someone has.
GAL: Do you think it’s difficult to read for an escape if you're a writer?
LD: No, I don't think so. Maybe I'll retrace my steps a little bit on the escapism thing, because sometimes when I read things, I'll become engrossed in a book that is so different, whose characters are so different from my life or their experiences are just so different. I really love that feeling. I write in a non-fiction vein, exploring phenomenon around me and in my own life. So when I do have the experience of meeting fiction that takes me to a totally different place, I find that really inspiring just because it's so different from what I do as a writer. I think, as a writer, it's always inspiring when you really lose yourself in something you're reading, because it makes you want to be able to both do that in writing for yourself but also ideally provide someone else that opportunity with something that you’ve written.
GAL: Can you share something new that you learned about through recent reading? Or, something particular that stuck with you after you finished a book?
LD: I just read Thomas Page McBee’s novel Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man, which is about his experience of learning to box for an amateur exhibition fight to write an article about it and then writing basically about how boxing and masculinity are related. More succinctly, the book is about masculinity in America and the author’s relationship to it as a trans man. I didn't know anything about boxing at all, and I'm not particularly interested in it nor have I ever watched a match, but I really love the way that he wrote about it. There’s an amazing quote about how the men in America are all hungry for physical touch with each other, but violence is the only way that its sort of seen as acceptable.
GAL: What does that tell us about men in America?
LD: Isn't that so terrible and sort of so true? At least from some of the men that I know in my own life who talk about their own experiences, it rings true.
GAL: Did you enjoy the book? Why?
LD: Yeah. I really, really love that book. It definitely taught me a lot about what the pressures of trying to be a man in America are right now. And how to be a good empathic, feeling person who’s able to make real connections with people.
GAL: Who’s your favorite author?
LD: I go back to Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso again and again. It’s easy to do so because their books are so brief, concise, and have such a way to them. I like the fact that I could read Bluets a million times and it doesn't take that long to do it. I also have a deep love for the fact that they both have backgrounds as poets. Both writers bring real concern with the individual sentence to the form of personal narrative and essay. And I just love that.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
LD: I've been reading at the dining room table in the morning and I like to have as little light as possible. I predominantly read on the Kindle. The nice thing is you can read anywhere because the Kindle lights itself up. But there's nothing better then just reading on the sofa in the living room. If I get in bed, I'm pretty much going to close my eyes.
GAL: Do you read on your phone through the Kindle app? Or just on a Kindle itself?
LD: I have the Kindle app on my phone so that if I'm somewhere and I want to pick up what I was reading on my regular Kindle I'll do that. I find that you have to read on something that doesn't have all the bells and whistles of a smartphone. I will just get too distracted.
GAL: We have a friend who has a Sanity Shelf, which is dedicated to books that she returns to again and again to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
LD: Bluets by Maggie Nelson, for sure. We The Animals by Justin Torres. I love the graphic novelist, Alison Bechdel, and I have her book, Are You My Mother? I love it so much. Sarah Manguso's book, The Two Kinds of Decay, which is her first memoir about an autoimmune disease that she dealt with from age 16 onwards.
GAL: What are some of your favorite books to read to your daughter?
LD: Right now, there's a series of books about a mouse named Maisy that we’re reading. I love reading her all the Maisy books. She’s in a French immersion daycare, so we've been introducing some French books during reading time. I found one book at Powell's about a bear whose name is Ploum. I think it's a series from the 80’s or 90’s. The back of the book lists tons of different ones but I can't find any of them online. The one we have is called Ploum aime la fête, which translates to Ploum likes parties.
GAL: So cute. Tell us about it.
LD: It really is so cute. It’s about why Ploum likes his birthday for one reason, and why he likes Christmas and Easter for other reasons. And then it ends with Mother's day, and he gives his mom a hug. My daughter will give me a hug at the end, which is so adorable. It's one of her favorites.
GAL: Oh, that's so nice.
LD: Yeah, it's great. My French is also getting better ever since she's been in this immersion school because I make an effort to use it more often. I always thought that my French was probably at a preschool level anyway, so we kind of have the same level of reading comprehension at this point.
GAL: That's nice though. You can grow together. She learns, you learn. How do you choose the books that you read?
LD: I rely on social media now. You know, when people post about books that they like, people who I follow. I think I used to rely a lot on Amazon recommendations and the staff at bookstores. I suppose it’s an evolution of the personal recommendation for the digital age, I guess. You know what I mean?
GAL: I do. That makes complete sense.
LD: Yeah. I think that's the best way, for me at least. And now there's also so many opportunities to listen to authors talk. I'll listen to a podcast with an author. And if I find them really interesting, I'll totally pick up their book. Whereas if I had just seen that book in the store, I might not have thought it was something I would be interested in or whatever, so I think it's been great. There's so many ways to find out about books now.
GAL: It's really remarkable. Even in the past three years of doing GAL, we've seen many similar companies follow our lead, plus tons of other women inspired to chronicle their reading habits on Instagram. It's been really interesting to watch this grow into a social media tendency, and it's fabulous in many ways.
LD: It's really cool. You guys are a great example of something that's only been around for a couple of years. Hopefully more and more people are looking to you to be like, "What should I read?" And that's great. It's really cool.
GAL: Yes, it makes GAL so happy. We like making it easy and fun to find great recommendations. But let’s go back to things that exist off the screen. Do you have any favorite bookstores?
LD: I love Skylight Books in LA. I love Powell's in Portland, where I'm living right now. McNally Jackson in SoHo is another favorite. There’s a bookstore in Denver called Tattered Cover, which is one of those labyrinth-like, old places. I loved going there when I lived in Colorado.
GAL: How do you like living in Portland? Is it a bookish town?
LD: I like it a lot. We always wanted to try and live in both LA and Portland, because there are things that we like so much about both places. Our families have all relocated to Portland. I grew up in Connecticut, so my parents just retired from there to the West Coast. I talked them into moving to Portland because it's just a great place to retire. At first, we moved to Portland and didn’t really think it would be right for us right now in our careers. Both of us are in creative fields. My husband's an artist and really feels a pull to cities like New York or LA.
It remains to be seen, but we're contemplating moving back to LA in a year and giving it another try. Having a kid changes everything about how you're living. So yeah, we’re going to figure it out. But I think it's going to be one or the other of those places. Or some form of both of them, hopefully, moving forward.
GAL: What is the power of story?
LD: I think that it has a lot to do with empathy. Story is a great way to understand someone else's experience in a palatable way. A story is what happens when you sit down and have a conversation with a friend, you know? So, there are all these people who have experiences that you can't just sit down and have a conversation with, thus I really see literature as that conversation that hopefully will allow for greater empathy. That’s a big part of my own goal as a writer. It's trying to have that conversation, whatever the topic I'm interested in is, with a greater number of people than you might have had that conversation with in person. It’s about connection. David Foster Wallace also has this great quote that says something along the lines of “literature’s purpose is to make you feel less alone.” It’s simple, but that’s really what makes it powerful.
GAL: When did you know you were a writer?
LD: I think I knew early on that I really enjoyed it. I remember once, in second or third grade, I stayed in from recess to write a story on the class typewriter. I don't remember if I was co-writing it with a friend or on my own, but I remember enjoying writing. Although I pursued a career as a professional dancer for a long time, once I decided that that wasn't the career that I wanted to continue with, writing was there as the other thing I knew I wanted to do. Without really thinking about it, I turned to it. It’s an unconscious thing in a certain way.
GAL: What's your writing process like? Do you write every day?
LD: I haven't written much lately. Although for the publicity of the book, I have been writing essays and things like that every day. When I'm at my best, I do write every day for myself. I feel accomplished when I do, which allows me to feel a kind of strong momentum. Sometimes when you neglect something for too long, at least when I neglect something for too long, I tend to become slightly afraid of it. Even if I don't have anything to write seriously about, keeping a journal is really helpful for me. Even if I'm chronicling mundane worries or whatever smaller things are happening in my life, somehow, if I stay at it longer than 25 or 30 minutes, something more interesting pops out that I can then use as a jumping off point.
GAL: A part of me hates asking that question because I feel like there's such an unending burden on all of us to be so productive all the time. Agree or disagree?
LD: I agree, yeah. I agree. I think when you say that, it also makes me realize that I need to be easier on myself too because sometimes it's those moments of inaction or rest that actually do allow you to recharge and have ideas.
GAL: I find the busyness to be antithetical to the creative process a lot of the time.
LD: It's really fragmented as a result of the busyness. I think that when you are in a focused flow is when the best work is done, and that is becoming increasingly more difficult to find ways to achieve.
GAL: But if we can continue conversing about it, perhaps there's a way to mindfully address our actions and inactions to better solve that issue.
LD: Yeah. I think that talking about reading, an activity that you really have to set aside time for, like most people do, it helps to slow you down. I think that's why your project is great because it's placing an importance on that kind of inaction.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it and why?
LD: Well it's hard to say since the book that I have written is a memoir.
GAL: Oh! I didn’t see it chronicled as one. Or perhaps I glossed over the classification.
LD: Yeah. It actually doesn't say so, which I liked and was important to me. For a while I wanted to call it an autobiographical novel. I like the mystery of not knowing whether it was fiction or not, but the powers that be wanted to call it a memoir because like it or not, people are really attracted to that in the marketplace. One of my friends used to joke, when we would talk about our worst impulses self-obsession, that my memoir should be called “You. It's Me Too” or something like that. It's ‘All About Me’ essentially. Although it was meant to be a joke, I think that it really is what the power of literature is. Trying to find this common ground or empathy or understanding someone else's story and putting yourself in their shoes.
So although I think she was poking fun at me, I think it isn't a bad title.
GAL: Do you read non-fiction?
LD: I do. I tend to read the kind of non-fiction that I like to write, which is less purely research-based work and more non-fiction that has the author's personal story intertwined with outside concerns or outside texts or sources. I find myself drawn to the lyrical essay and those kinds of memoirs.
GAL: Do you read a lot of fiction as well?
LD: Yeah. I go back and forth. Oddly, the type of fiction that I also predominately seem to like are books that could be classified as autobiographical works. There’s a book I love called What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell. In the book, the protagonist is very similar to the author. The protagonist is a gay man teaching English at a college in Sophia, Bulgaria, which Garth Greenwell did. I’m fascinated by what you can make out of your own life stories. I really like Jenny Offil's book, The Department Of Speculation, for the same reasons. The protagonist is a writer who's a mother, and Jenny is one as well.
GAL: Is there a particular book, or one particular female writer, besides Maggie Nelson, who you suggest aspiring female writers should read?
LD: Not like it is any great secret, but I would suggest Margret Atwood right now in particular. Her work is so important. Especially The Handmaid's Tale. Obviously, it has now become a TV show, but that book was so formative for my work. Seeing women protesting while wearing Handmaid's Tale outfits is a powerful reminder. Writing and telling personal stories is a political thing. I also think it’s one of the things that we can do to try to prevent the world from going to hell. Margaret Atwood's prose is so beautiful and someone you think every aspiring author should read.
GAL: Please list three books everyone should read and the reasons for your choices.
LD: I really recommend Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. The idea of coming to terms with your parents as humans and yourself as a writer, and how you have to stop caring so deeply about what your parents think of you in order to make your best work.
It seems like a cliché, but David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is such an incredible book, which also happens to be the exact opposite of books that I say I like. But I adored it so much, and putting the amount of work reading it that I had to put in only made it pay off that much more. So I really recommend people try that book, even though it seems daunting. However, I would add the caveat that I read it as a part of an online book club, which was really helpful. It felt less daunting because there were all these forums and posts by guests to follow along with. A guy from The Decemberists was one. Infinite Jest is the kind of book that when you're out of college without a bunch of people to help you figure out what you're reading means, so you just don't bother. The group was really valuable.
I really love Don Delillo's White Noise, which is really relatable right now with the climate-change apocalypse feeling more and more imminent. It’s great book, much shorter than the other two, and pretty amazing.