Diane Zinna‘s The All-Night Sun is a luminous story about love, grief, desire, and truth. Set at a small college in Washington, D.C. and during midsummer in Sweden, the novel follows a professor entangled with an enigmatic student and her brooding brother. As the teacher lets her inhibitions go, she must also grapple with tragedy that has engulfed her in the past.
The book is a beautifully tangled web and Zinna’s journey to publishing was just as tangled. I interviewed the author about how her students inspire her to write, what it’s like to switch editors – and publishers – after selling a book, and how 2020 has affected her and her writing.
You have been involved in a lot of different aspects of the writing and literary world. Like the character in your book, you also taught for quite a while.
Always as an adjunct. I was teaching at three different schools at once and eating a lot of meals in my car. I loved teaching and always hoped one of those jobs would turn into a full-time position for me. I did it for ten years and long to return to the classroom.
Through that decade of teaching, what excited you about student work?
So much. A lot of my most memorable teaching experiences were spent in community college classrooms. Those classes are filled with people who have full-time jobs, some coming straight from their jobs or on the weekends. I taught in the Northern Virginia area where it is super diverse. There were a lot of immigrants coming in and sharing their stories. It was great to see how people could connect so deeply with one another’s stories.
I had one student who was going through cancer treatments while she was a student in my class. Every class on the first meeting, I had them write something about themselves for a free write. This student told me everything she was going through and told me how much creative writing meant to her and told me about her treatments for pancreatic cancer.
I remember one day I was teaching, and I just felt like things were going well, and I so hoped the students were feeling it too. I saw her hold up a piece of paper from the back of the class that said, “I love you.” It was just so memorable to me. One thing I want to do to honor her and those classrooms is to set up a creative writing prize for people at that community college who need affirmation in their writing.
She had written to me after the class had ended to invite me to a celebration of life party. When I wrote to tell her I couldn’t attend, I received a response from her sister who said she had passed away. At her funeral, a family member read aloud an autobiographical assignment she had completed for my class. It was so moving to witness the people who loved her getting to hear about her life and her writing.
Was that idea of a student-teacher friendship something you were going to spend 300 pages on?
Not at first. The idea for the book came to me in a dream. I woke up and wrote out what would happen over twenty chapters. I dreamed of two women traveling by train through Europe, and during a stop in Paris, the main character went down to a basement restroom where she encountered a past lover. In the dream she had to decide if she was going to board the train again with her friend or stay with this lover. My book today is very different from the dream I had, but the feeling that remained was that choice, and a decision my character has to make between two sides of herself.
Since the end product is vastly different, how did you allow yourself to go down different paths from what you thought the novel was going to be?
I think that as soon as I changed the location from Paris to Sweden, the new path became very clear to me. I had been there during a period of grief in my life, and all of my experiences there rushed back to me. It was clear that I could tell a lot about Lauren by revisiting some of those places I had been.
The All-Night Sun references midsummer, which maybe a lot of people relate back to Midsommar, the film. I know you wrote a piece about your experience with that film being released, but very briefly, what was your reaction?
It was total and sheer panic. I thought my book was going to be canceled. That feeling came from the fact that my book had been canceled a few years prior. I was always afraid that was going to happen again.
It was also a sense of panic that the film director was going to own the idea of midsummer in everyone’s minds. I thought whenever people thought about it, they were going to think about hammers and cliffs. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get my vision of this beautiful place across to the reader.
The book was canceled at one point?
Yes. I was actually with another publisher a couple of years ago. My original editor really loved and championed it, but she took a job with another publishing house while we were doing edits. When she left, my book was assigned to a new and very respected editor who asked me to rewrite the book in a linear fashion. I wanted to show her that I was willing to put in the hard work, but it wasn’t the same book anymore. I felt the book needed to go back and forth in time the way grief does. Still, I did it to see if I could learn anything from that kind of rewrite. She wasn’t able to see a way forward. The book got dropped. It was a traumatic experience because at that point it had been nine or ten years that I was working on it, and I had come so close to publication. I didn’t know if the book would ever get picked up again.
I went to a summer writing workshop right after that happened. On the last day that I was there, I had a one-on-one meeting with my teacher, Alice McDermott, and she was looking at some of my new work and giving me feedback. During that meeting, it all burst out of me. I told her everything that had happened. I didn’t plan to do that, but it all came out and she started cursing like a sailor on my behalf.
She really felt for me and gave me advice. She told me to take all of the time I needed to make this book my own again. I went back to my laptop to start again. The first thing I touched when I touched my laptop case was this stack of notes from the editor who canceled the book. I realized I was carrying those around for me like a punishment. I took those papers and wet them in the sink before balling them up and throwing them off a cliff. It took fourteen more months before I had the nerve to ask my agent if we should sell it again.
Was there a period given to you that you had to wait to resell the book?
I believe we could have gone out again right away, but my agent and I knew that it needed to be put back together again in a way that felt right to me. It took a while to make it mine again. I wanted someone who believed in the story in the way that I needed to tell it. Eventually I found just the right match.
So your book has had a journey. It’s now being published in 2020, which is the weirdest year to be publishing a book.
No, it’s perfect!
Even in this year alone, your book was bumped up from August to a July pub date. Did that happen after the pandemic started?
Yes. I’ve had a lot of fellow debut writers get their book release dates changed, and even some pushed back to 2021. I thought that might happen to me, too. It seemed like everyone was falling like dominoes. But I was grateful they pushed my date up to July—I had always dreamed of it coming out closer to midsummer.
What was that initial thought process like when you started seeing books get pushed back to a different year?
I think because I had been through so much with the book, I was able to take it in stride. One thing I didn’t mention was the same week I sold the book, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was editing and revising the book through surgeries and treatments. I feel like the book coming out in the pandemic of 2020 is just the icing on the cake.
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