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Heidi Diehl on How History and Krautrock Shaped Her Beautiful New Novel

by Brendan Dowling on June 21, 2019

Heidi Diehl’s Lifelines tells the story of the brilliant Louise, bouncing between her life as a burgeoning art student fresh out of college to 2008, when she is in her late fifties with two grown children. In 1971, Louise moved to Germany to pursue her career as an artist. In short order, she fell in love with Dieter, a brooding musician, and had a baby with him. In 2008, Louise lives in Oregon, married to an unassuming professor of urban design, and has been unexpectedly retired from her job as an art teacher. When Dieter’s mother dies, Louise’s now-grown daughter, Elke, asks her to return to Germany for the funeral. Louise reluctantly agrees, reasoning that it will give her a chance to see her other daughter, Elke’s half-sister Margot, who’s touring Europe with her band. From there, Diehl orchestrates a marvelous family comedy as the different members are forced to confront long-buried secrets and unexamined facets of their relationships. Lifelines was selected as a Book of the Summer by O Magazine and Nylon, and no less than George Saunders hailed it as “a graceful, attentive, and beautiful debut [that] thrums with the sadness of life.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Diehl via telephone on June 5th, 2019.

The book deals with a lot of seemingly disparate themes—city planning, history, and the Krautrock scene of the seventies—and weaves them together so seamlessly. Was there any particular topic that was the starting point for the novel?

The German history piece was the starting point, although the other things were cooking along at the same time. I had this idea for a while that I wanted to write about the time period of the early seventies in West Germany. I was really drawn to the music and the art that was happening there, particularly the political response to the post-World War II culture of silence about Germany’s crimes in the Holocaust. That culture was swinging the other way in the sixties and early seventies. I was fascinated by how that was coming out through creative impulses.

So that was the starting point, but then of course as you’ve noticed there are other things that are very far from German music that are in there too. I had been writing stories before this. This was first time I had tried to write a novel. In writing stories, my teachers and my friends would always say, “This story feels too big. It feels like a novel.” So I was like, “Finally, I’m writing a novel. I can just go to town! I can put everything I want into it.” (laughs) At times I would question the logic of my thinking, as I grappled with all these different things, but over time it worked and made sense.

The book bounces back between Germany and Oregon in the seventies and 2008. What about those two places and time periods were compelling to you?

With 2008, I wanted to write about the financial crisis and Obama’s candidacy and election. It was just a really rich time in this country. The financial crisis brought so much pressure to these characters and it certainly brought a lot of pressure in my own life.

I spent time in Germany in 2008— and this doesn’t come across in the book so much—but it was quite interesting how much in Europe people were so enchanted and really excited by Obama. It seemed like this really interesting moment. I started the book in 2012 and 2008 felt a lot closer; it was more recent history. Now it seems pretty far away.

The Oregon side of things came about more organically. I was interested in that time and place; the west coast of the seventies is a very fertile and interesting period. There were these serendipitous overlaps and connections between Germany and Oregon, which I wasn’t thinking about consciously. In doing research, I found out about Prefontaine in the Munich Olympics. I discovered that piece as I was doing research and that felt like this great organic connection between the two places, so that was fun how those connections came up.

The book immerses you in the music scene of Germany in both the seventies and in 2008. What was your research process like to get all the details right?

I love doing research and to delve into the time period. My public library has a Kanopy subscription so I was watching all these great films from the time period—Fassbinder, Herzog, this Wim Wenders movie, Alice in the Cities, where this German guy comes to New York City in the seventies, encountering America. All of those gave me the texture of time and place.

The book also gives us such a specific look at the life of a musician. What was your research for that like?

I was a musician myself for a long time. I guess I’m on a long hiatus from music right now. (laughs) The 2008 music portions and Margo’s character were inspired by my own experience. I toured Europe when I was in my twenties, so that was pulled from my memory. The seventies stuff was listening to a lot of albums. There are a lot of great books about Krautrock and the Krautrock scene. Also Youtube is such an amazing resource for a writer to be able to actually see, “What did it look like when Can was playing a concert in 1972? What was the crowd doing?”

Can on German television in 1972

I didn’t realize you were a musician. How has being a musician affected your approach to writing?

I’m really not an active musician these days, but I do think musically. I listen to a ton of music and I listen to music when I’m writing. On the sentence level, I think about rhythm and structure. On a larger scale, I think about structure and repetition and how all of those things unconsciously come into the mix. I miss playing music. It’s so collaborative and writing is so solitary. I’ve been lucky in that I have great writer friends who I swap work with and talk about writing, so that gets at the collaboration that I miss. It’s so necessary for a writer to have feedback.

Many of the characters are artists—musicians, painters, photographers. What was appealing to you about telling a story where all of these characters have these very different forms of self-expression?

That too was sort of unconscious. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a story about a painter and all her creative family members,” but they just organically became that. It just felt natural to who they are.

That moment where Louise recognizes that her mother’s approach to gardening is artistic is so poignant.

With many humans, we have these creative impulses and we express them in so many different ways that might not be traditionally classified as, “Oh, that’s an artist.” It’s this desire to make sense of the world.

Louise experiments with the concept of zeitgleich, or experiencing conflicting emotions simultaneously, in her artwork. Throughout the book we see characters dealing with diametrically opposed emotions. How did that concept make its way into your novel?

I don’t know if I can point to a particular moment. I started noticing over time these recurring ideas or patterns that were connecting these characters. I think characters are more interesting when they have to deal with these conflicting emotions. I think that’s the way life is, for better or worse. These ideas were sort of cooking in some way, but then I came across that word [zeitgleich] and I was just enchanted by it. Writing the book was really circling and circling over the story, jumping back and forth, and connecting these thoughts.

With so much attention paid to the seventies and 2008, were you conscious of the moments in people’s lives that you were leaving out?

It covers so much time, but we’re only zoomed in on two time periods and there are decades that are left out. That was hard. I had to think about what was happening to the characters in the intervening years. There was a chapter in the nineties when Dieter comes to Elke’s graduation in Oregon. I eventually had to let go of that and just cut it out, but it was helpful to figure out what that looked like. I sometimes felt like, “What about 1985?” (laughs) I’m sure that was a really interesting period for them, but you have to let it go.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.