How German art helped Heidi Diehl craft ‘Lifelines’

Heidi Diehl spent most of her 20s as a musician touring on the road. Artistry has always been apart of her life and as she turned to writing, music would obviously play a big role in her work.

Lifelines, her debut novel, takes place in Germany during the 1970s and Oregon during the 2008 Presidential Election, connected largely in part by a woman named Louise. In 1971, she left her Oregon home for Düsseldorf where she meets an enigmatic musician. There an unplanned pregnancy sidetracks their creative endeavors.

Decades later, Louise is back in Oregon, married to another man, and has another child in a completely different life than the one she had in Germany. However, when a death brings her back to Germany in 2008, she must grapple with her choices and the life she has made.

The story is equally expansive and cozy. As readers jump in place and time, Diehl focuses is on the humanity of those moments. She allows readers to be tethered to a cohesive story even though it is told in a very nonlinear way.

I spoke with Deihl about German art and how she crafted her debut novel.

What was the inspirational moment that kicked off this book?

The time period in Germany was the initial spark. That overlapped with the music. My grandparents were German immigrants to the U.S. so I have that German heritage. Which is a complicated one. The history of German was something I grappled with. I was thinking about this moment in West Germany that was a culture of silence that came after World War II. There were these decades of unspoken guilt and shame that the nation wasn’t talking about. The Post-War generation coming of age while demanding change.

I was already interested in the music coming out of Germany during the 1970s; the krautrock and the visual art as well. I was learning more about how the art and politics were overlapping at that time. It all felt psychologically complicated and inspiring that this art was coming out.

When did the idea of a novel actually come about?

I was thinking about it in grad school, but definitely not writing about it. I was writing stories, but people were always telling me my stories felt like novels and there was too much in them to be stories.

I learned to reign it in during grad school. But when I left grad school, there was something liberating to have all that space. I decided to pull a lot in to write about German, the 1970s, Oregon, and now, painting, and guilt. More and more I realized I had to write something.

What artists and musicians would be a good example of what represented Germany during that time period?

It’s a tricky question because I don’t know if we call these bands krautrock now, which is sort of a derogatory term. I don’t know if they were super popular in West Germany during the time. They were more experimental at the time, but now they are so iconic for musicians now. A band like Can. Members of those bands have reflected on being a part of the Post-War generation who had fathers who were involved in really reprehensible things. These young men had to stake out a different way of being, which came out through creative work.

As writing the novel progressed, how did you land on these decades?

I guess I knew from the beginning I wanted the story to be nonlinear. It made sense to me the structure would move back and forth. I knew the 1970s were always going to be there. I needed a contemporary vantage point. The book is so much about time and the way things change and don’t change.

I chose 2008 because of what was happening in this country and around the world with the financial crisis. Obama was running for president and became elected. Now 2008 feels so far in the past, but when I started in 2012, it felt very fresh.

When I was writing the first draft, there was a lot more. There was a chapter in the 90s. I just had to write more to see what worked and was necessary. 

So there is a sense of coming up with as much as you can to throw at the wall to see what sticks?

I like bringing different ideas together to see if there is resonance. I like to see if there is friction between the ideas. Oregon and Germany weren’t necessarily planned, but as I got into researching, there seemed to be all this overlap. Like the runner Steve Prefontaine was an athlete from Oregon but he competed in the Munich Olympics in 1972. Something like that just clicked and made sense.

With all of these moving pieces, how did you track them as the process unfolded?

It was messy, in retrospect. I had a different word file for every chapter. So I had 20 documents open on my computer at all times. I didn’t write an outline in advance. I did what teachers call a reverse outline, which is just tracking what is there. I printed that out to visually refer to. I tend to work on things out of order. It was maddening at times to be writing a nonlinear project in a nonlinear way.

Was there a lot of moving these chapters around, or did you have a sense of how you wanted the nonlinear parts to work?

A little bit of both. I knew how I wanted it to work, but as I was writing there were always surprises. If someone mentioned something in the 1970s, it was good to tweak the following scenes to make more sense and have clearer rhythm.

Now that this novel gave you space to explore a lot, which is what people said you needed to do in grad school, do you ever go back to shorter pieces?

I still write stories. When I was writing this book, there were times when I needed a break or psychologically needed to get my arms around something. The big was so big and crazy, it was good to write a story. I mean, when is a story ever finished, but it was good for me to write them.

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