Posted on July 17, 2018 at 8:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

Diana Marcum’s introduction pretty much writes itself.

Despite long odds, she fulfilled her youthful dream of becoming a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times ... and won a Pulitzer Prize in the process.

Along the way, she took time away from journalism to follow a group of immigrants back to their home in the Azorean Islands ... and then found herself called back there, a trip that turned into a bestselling memoir.

The Tenth Island — a tale of loss, longing, and connections — is the top-selling book in Amazon’s adventure/explorer biographies category now, and Marcum isn’t stopping.

She recently returned to the Times after completing a Nieman Foundation journalism fellowship at Harvard and was gracious enough to find time to share more insight into these journeys.

SADYE: You’d wanted to work for the LA Times since you were in fourth grade. What inspired such a specific goal for that age, and what did people think of it?

DIANA: Back then (and hopefully soon again), the Los Angeles Times was a shared common thing in California, across social classes, across regions.

We read it and discussed it at school. We had it at home, and my dad, a mechanic, was proud that he subscribed.

My parents steered me away from hard news, but I was encouraged to read feature writing that covered life in far-flung places and at home, such as a regular series called Column One.  

As far as I can remember, everyone thought me becoming a reporter was a pretty good idea since I was really nosy and always writing stuff.

And in California at that time, “I want to grow up to be a journalist” meant “I want to be at the LA Times.”

SADYE: In your own words, you didn’t make it through college and didn’t have the “right” credentials to win a Pulitzer. So what was your reaction when, somehow, you did it?

DIANA: Oh, this is funny to me even now.

After the shock, after the initial hooplah, when I was finally back in my hotel room and could hear myself think, I closed the door and thought, “I won a Pulitzer,” and then I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.”

And THEN I thought, “Wait, you’re a Pulitzer winner, and the most eloquent thing you can come up with is, ‘Wow that’s cool’?”

But I also remember, even in the midst of the announcement, when I was still mostly stunned, thinking “I wish my mom and dad could know this.”

And there was something sad and beautiful that after so many years without them they were the first ones I thought about.

SADYE: What ultimately led you to write The Tenth Island, and what do you hope someone takes away from it?

DIANA: I’ve always had a thing for books I call FBNS — fun but not stupid.  

I love popcorn books, but not when I’m too busy for real literary calories. And I love literature, but after a long day, I sometimes can’t face a “searing indictment of humanity’s darkest impulses,” etc.

So I turn to the books that put me back together a bit. The ones that celebrate the natural world and human connection — and that, without being blind or overly light, remind me of the good stuff.

As I write about in the book, it was saudade (an untranslatable longing) and my fascination with immigration and returning that led me to the Azores.

The reason it turned into a memoir is that I was running early drafts by my friend and former Column One editor Kari Howard, and I’d slip personal things in just to make her laugh.

I wasn’t thinking of it as a first-person book, (but) she said, “This is your book — do more of this.” Little by little, The Tenth Island emerged as a more lighthearted, personal book than I had originally planned.

I hope it introduces people to a culture they might not know about, and I hope it offers joy and connection. I hope it’s FBNS.

SADYE: What was it like going from journalistic writing to memoir writing?

DIANA: It was easier.

Journalism is hard. You triple-source and second-guess, and there probably isn’t such a thing as objective — but you try to play fair and present all sides.

This was like writing a letter to a friend — you tell it the way you see it, and it’s your story alone to tell.

Once I cut loose and let go of the idea that it should be straight journalism, I was just having fun and trying to make sense of things with the gift of retrospect.

The tough part is now that people are reading it. Because it’s personal.

As a journalist, I have a pretty thick skin. You have to. But with this, all the good reviews I take to heart, but also the bad ones.

Someone will write a comment and say something like they thought the plot was predictable, and I’m like, “Hey! That’s my life we’re talking about!”

SADYE: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

DIANA: For years and years, I have kept this Peter Mayle (A Year In Provence) quote above my desk: “Best advice on writing I have ever received — Finish.”

SADYE: What’s going on now and coming up for you?

DIANA: I’m back in California. The Los Angeles Times is under new ownership, and I’m excited to be part of a fresh start.

I’ll be pitching some ideas I explored while I was at Harvard about combining live theater and journalism.

And, yes, of course, I’m working on finishing a second book proposal.

* * *

Learn more about Diana Marcum on the LA Times website, purchase her book on Amazon, and follow her on Twitter.

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Categories: Author Interview

A very enjoyable read but I do have a major complaint: With all the Portuguese people surrounding the author, how is it possible that so many Portuguese words are misspelled? For instance, chamarrita appears as chamarita; ao forno appears as o forno (which changes the meaning to "the oven" from "in the oven"); and, maddeningly, señor is Spanish, not Portuguese. Senhor is Portuguese. That obvious errors such as these made it through struck me as lazy research and editing.
Pedro | 6/20/19 at 10:40 AM
I have not yet read the book, I will! But I could help you write the sequel! I can now see Monte Brasil from my window. This is my second visit to Ilha Terceira. My first was 2 weeks, this one 6 weeks and in May 3 months. Afterwards perhaps a one way ticket here. My late Portuguesa wife's grandmother was from here. I am an american from a predominately Portuguese town in Massachusetts but now live in Nevada. During this trip an amazing story on how I met now Maria Emilia, meu querida. Foi magica! Obrigado
Rick Reynolds | 3/3/19 at 5:48 AM
Diana, I met you briefly on Pico Island by the sea in September 2018. It was a beautiful bluebird day. Your companion told us of your book and I wrote it down. Have just finished reading it. Loved your descriptions of the islands, the Azoreans, the culture, and everything beautiful that we found there as well. Thanks for this gem!! I’m going to share it with some of the greater Boston Azoreans I know!!
Ellen Scopa | 2/9/19 at 7:57 PM
Diana - you hit your mark with this book. Definitely fun to read and far from stupid! My husband and I discovered "your" island in 2017 and talk about spending time in retirement there. This book made me want to speed up that process. Thanks for sharing that story Kathleen
Kathleen Turner | 1/22/19 at 4:29 PM
FBNS- a great antidote to the overpowering meanness swirling around us these days. Thank you!
alex sherriffs | 1/17/19 at 5:17 PM
Diana - Please take me with you to the Azores! Loved your book it literally made me LOL. How's your Dog?
Mary G | 8/15/18 at 12:58 PM
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