Laura Nicole Diamond, SHELTER US

Laura Nicole Diamond, SHELTER US

Laura Nicole Diamond joins to discuss her 2015 bestselling novel, Shelter Us, and how it changed her life. Laura tells Zibby about how she made the jump from working as a civil rights lawyer who wrote in private to a novelist, as well as what she did to hold herself to the commitment of writing a novel. Laura also shares how the inclusion of a Guatemalan character in the novel led her family to foster a young Guatemalan refugee seeking asylum, what she learned from her experience volunteering with the houseless community in LA, and why she’s currently working on a memoir.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laura. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Shelter Us.

Laura Nicole Diamond: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited.

Zibby: My pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners what this beautiful novel is about?

Laura: In the big sense, I’d say it is about longing for meaning and connection. It is about survival and resilience and love and hope and all those things that grab the human heart. That’s certainly what I think was trying to come out of me. The story is about two women, Sarah and Josie. Sarah, she is a former lawyer. Now she’s a suburban stay-at-home mom. She is grappling with grief and looking for meaning in those ways that I described. Josie is a young homeless mother down on her luck unexpectedly. The two of them have an encounter, a fender-bender, in Downtown Los Angeles. Sarah becomes fixated on this young mother and her toddler. The story is about their burgeoning relationship and how they challenge each other and help each other find some kind of healing.

Zibby: I feel like there was so much healing to be done for Sarah. The novel begins with the loss of her infant daughter, which you wrote in such — my whole mood changed when I read it. It’s very immersive and poignant. The guilt that she feels because she finally got her two kids to go to sleep in their own room and then her daughter doesn’t make it through the night — then the grief counseling, oh, my gosh. Then all of her grief from losing her mother so young, this is a lot. It’s a lot on her shoulders.

Laura: I kind of wanted to front-load it so that we know at the beginning what we’re dealing with as she’s trying to cope with being present for the two children that she has and for herself and for her husband and just how overwhelming it all feels. Then this young woman comes in, and it pulls her out of herself in some way. When I started writing it, what I knew was, I had these two women I wanted to write about. I did not know how they were going to meet. When I started it, Sarah had not suffered that loss. That came up as I was writing because I was trying to figure out, what would make somebody do this? Why is she so willing to go back, search for this young woman she saw? What’s causing this fixation? It’s one of the questions that comes up that’s just in a bigger sense in the world. What does make people sometimes act out of character or to breach their safe bubble, their comfort, their small world, and to do something that seems extraordinary, but to her, seemed so compelling? It was the only thing she could do. It does start with that heaviness.

I think what it came out of was just this parenting fear. I never had that particular loss. I was very lucky. I have two sons. They definitely were a lot of the inspiration for Oliver and Izzy in the book. I stole some direct quotes from them. That fear that you don’t get warned about before you become a parent, at least I didn’t, I hope it’s universal because it hit me. I mean, I don’t hope it’s universal, but I believe it is. Once that switch is flipped and you’re taking care of another life, you see danger everywhere. There’s the whole maternal safety industrial complex that’s selling you all the things to keep your toilet seat closed and your electric sockets plugged so that you are always aware that there’s danger everywhere. You’ve got to keep this precious thing safe. That part of the story came out of those feelings as a mother that I think all mothers feel, which is just, oh, my god, my heart is now walking out in the world outside of me. I cannot control everything as much as I want to.

Zibby: It’s complicated, too, because as a mother, you actually are in charge of making sure they are okay. It’s not like, I feel like I am, but really, I’m not. For a while, they are completely dependent on you. It is your job to make sure they’re okay. Obviously, things happen beyond your control, like this loss in the book and SIDS and all sort of things that you can’t control, but you do actually have to do it. That is the mantle you have to — how do you recover from that? How do you transition to, oh, no, they’re okay by themselves? I don’t know when that happens.

Laura: I don’t know if you ever do.

Zibby: I was going to say, it’s not loosening up quite yet for me.

Laura: No. My boys are now twenty-one and seventeen. That means they drive. The twenty-one-year-old lives in another state in college. There are different kind of coping mechanisms that, most of time, we use to not think about the worst things. It helps inform the joy and the appreciation for the day. This day is a gift because we do not know what’s going to happen. I’m going to hug you despite your tantruming at me or whatever it might be.

Zibby: It’s true, oh, my gosh. Laura, how did you get into writing? Tell me your life story. Where did you grow up? How did we get here? The brief version.

Laura: The brief version, I never envisioned being a novelist or a professional writer. I was almost always, since my childhood, a journal-keeper, a diary-keeper. I remember my first Hello Kitty diary that my mom got me. The fact that it was Hello Kitty was the main draw. Then writing in it, it carried me through, through high school and trauma and all the bad poems about heartbreak. I went to law school because I was really interested in being a public rights, public interests, civil rights lawyer. It carried me through that too. Keeping a journal kept my humanity going while I was reading about contracts and torts. It allowed me to keep in touch with that just to observe — in fact, there was a scene in Shelter Us that came from just a small moment that I remember writing about. I was in Berkeley. I was walking on the sidewalk behind this old couple that was holding hands as they went down the curb ever so tenderly and gently to make sure they made it. I wrote about that in my journal. I think writing a journal, it’s like doing scales, in a way. It keeps you noticing things. It keeps you alive to details.

When my first son was about two and a half, I was practicing law. I had gone part time. Even that was not working for me, so I decided after a lot of — it took a long time to let go of it, but I decided, you know what, I’m going to press pause on this law stuff. I just want to be home with him. I’m so surprised by this. I didn’t expect that. I want to be home. The moment I made that decision, it was like, I have to more time to write. It was still just journal. Then it became personal narrative. I took a class right before my second son was born. When he was napping finally, I self-published an anthology about motherhood. One day when I was writing one of those personal story — I started making things up. I remember it was about a day at the beach or some moment we had. I started writing about this woman in the third person. She started doing things that I hadn’t done. For a little while, I followed that. Soon enough, I decided, you know what, I’m writing a novel because I want to explore some of these things that I have not been through. My life’s kind of dull. I want to be able to say some other things and explore this grief and explore this connection with these two characters. I announced to everybody that I knew, “I’m writing a novel,” so that I would hold myself to it and not stop because I knew I’d be too embarrassed if I never finished it. It took a long time. My announcement of the year of the novel was 2008. It was published in 2015.

Zibby: That’s not bad.

Laura: It is what it is. You keep going until it’s ready. I felt that it was ready. That’s my story. That’s my writing journey.

Zibby: You also do the Palisades book club for the library.

Laura: Right. I live in a town in Los Angeles called Pacific Palisades. It is where I grew up. I did not expect to end up here. I always tell people, I did leave. I did not just stay put for the whole time.

Zibby: That’s how I feel about New York. I’m like, I did escape for a while, but here I am.

Laura: You want to make sure you’ve seen the world a little bit. To my surprise, I ended up living back in my hometown, which is a wonderful place. It has its ups and downs, its pros and cons, which I’m writing about in a memoir now.

Zibby: No way. Oh, my gosh, wait, tell me about the memoir.

Laura: This is weird. Life is very strange. The memoir is almost a case of life imitating art. After I wrote this book where Sarah, who is — her mother is Guatemalan. Her father is Jewish. Her grandmother came from Guatemala as an eighteen-year-old, pregnant. The grandmother character, I love. Then Sarah spends all this emotional energy trying to decide how to help this young woman who needs a place to live. What should she do? Should she bring her in her home? No, that’s crazy. That would never work. All of that. After it was contracted to be published but before it came out, I got an email from my mother that was forward twice from friend of a friend. The initial writer was an immigration lawyer for a pro bono nonprofit in Los Angeles. She said, “I have a client, a teenager girl from Guatemala. She is this wonderful person. She’s seeking asylum. She had to leave home. Her parents sent her to the United States because of horrible things that happened to her back in Guatemala. What she really needs is a place to live. I’ve never done this before,” the email said, “but she’s special. We’re just wondering if maybe there’s someone out there who has time in their life now to foster her for a year or so.” I was reading this email thinking, what?

Zibby: That’s crazy. Crazy.

Laura: I showed it to my husband without saying a word because I just wanted him to have a reaction devoid of my influence. We were not looking to do that. We were not looking to be foster parents to a traumatized teenager from Guatemala, but I could not get this idea out of my head. What if I were born in that country and not here? What if I was that mom and I had to send my son across the world? All I could think about was, god, just please let there be some mother over there who will find him and say, I’ve got him. I could see the silhouette of a woman. We couldn’t delete it. We just couldn’t forward it and delete it, but we didn’t know what to do. We replied to the original attorney sending it. “Maybe we can help.” Two months later, Maria moved into our home.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Laura: It was one of those things. I learned about the power of maybe. You take one step, and you take another. Then there you are. The memoir really explores her journey and our journey with her as a family. It explores some of the same themes, frankly, as the novel with survival and resilience and love. I wanted to write about her because I’m just such a fan. She ended up living with us for five and a half years until she was ready to spread her wings.

Zibby: Did you ever meet her parents?

Laura: She has not been able to go back to Guatemala to see them. They’re not able to come here. For her, it’s been almost eight years since she’s seen them. She got asylum. She became a legal permanent resident, which is a green-card holder. She is now eligible to become a citizen. She’s just waiting in line. Once she’s a citizen, she will be able to safely go back and return. That’s the risk. If you go back to the country that you say was not safe for you, then that could jeopardize your status. She’s got a lot of longing there too. She changed all of our lives. In fact, I went back to law part time doing asylum law, which I had never done before. It’s amazing what she brought to us. There you go. Now you don’t have to read the book. But you should because it’s really great. Both with Shelter Us and with this memoir, this inclination you have when you know somebody so special and they are portrayed in media as numbers or statistics, you feel like maybe storytelling is a way to humanize that statistic.

Zibby: It is, yes. That’s how we process information, is through story, not through data and numbers and percentages and all of that.

Laura: Right. Let me tell you about this person I know. That’s where Josie came from, too, also, the character in Shelter Us who was the homeless mother. I had been volunteering with a homelessness organization here in LA that focused exclusively on homeless families. By that, ultimately, that really ended up meaning young mothers and children, girls who had grown up in foster care, didn’t have the support network. Once they were out, they didn’t have a couch to land on if things didn’t go well, if they didn’t get that first job right after high school or couldn’t pay the rent. By the time I met them, they were already formerly homeless. They were moving into apartments. They were having job training and counseling with this organization. I spent time just getting to know them and helping them move in. One of the young women especially — I was ten years older than her, but we had kids the same age. We were talking about, what do you do when your fourteen-month-old throws the sippy cup on the floor? Yeah, that’s really hard. I just thought, these women are so resilient, so resourceful, and they’re not really the story of homelessness. I think people should know about, this is another side of homelessness too, people, just people.

Zibby: It’s true. There was — oh, gosh, I’m going to forget the name of it. There was this really powerful memoir that I read by a man who had formerly been homeless in Canada. It’s the number-one best-seller in Canada or something. Anyway, in our interview — it’ll come to me. My brain is working so slowly today. This is terrible. Brandon, maybe. He said that the number-one thing with homeless people is, you should always ask them their names because they feel so invisible. It’s just a reminder to them that they are human and they are seen. Right after I did this — this was not that long ago, maybe two, three, four months, I think. I was giving money to a homeless person on my way in New York, as one does, just stopping. I gave it to this man on the street. Then I stopped. I was like, “What’s your name?” He told me his name. He looked me in the eye. I was like, okay. He was like, “Thanks.” I was just like, okay.

Laura: How did that make you feel?

Zibby: It made me feel great. I mean, I felt terrible for him. I’m like, okay, bye. Now I’m going to go out to dinner. It’s terrible.

Laura: There’s a connection. You’re acknowledging his humanity.

Zibby: It’s so easy to just keep walking.

Laura: Nobody’s perfect. Nobody knows exactly what to do. Sarah’s always wondering, what should I do? What’s the right thing? She has moments where she passes homeless people and feels — it’s complicated. I think that’s important too, to acknowledge that these are big, messy, human issues. It’s okay to not be perfect and to just try and try again.

Zibby: Even in Brentwood, there’s a homeless encampment now that’s set up by San Vicente, that whole area by that park.

Laura: The tragedy is, that is right outside the veterans’ administration building. Those are veterans.

Zibby: Oh, is that what’s going on? Okay.

Laura: Yes.

Zibby: That’s terrible.

Laura: Don’t get us started on talking about homelessness in LA. We will not have enough time to complete it.

Zibby: We’ll take this up another time.

Laura: We’ll solve that. We’ll solve that in the next hour. It is a really intractable problem. When I was writing Shelter Us, I had Sarah meet Josie downtown. There weren’t really people in Pacific Palisades at that time who were homeless on the street that you would see. That’s changed now. If I wrote it now, I would have Sarah walk down the block and have a conversation with Ruby in the front of the library. One of the great things in this I have to tout here, there’s the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness, which I’ve not really been a part of. They’re just tremendous volunteers. They’ve piloted and modeled a project where, rather than trying to, let’s clear everybody off, let’s get them on a bus, they raised money to hire outreach workers from a Santa Monica agency to engage people and find out, what do you need? More than seventy people have been housed.

Zibby: Oh, good.

Laura: Yeah, it’s really fantastic. It’s very compassionate. I think that people come to it for different reasons. Some people are coming from the, I don’t want to see this. I don’t want my kids to see this. Others are coming from, this is a human tragedy, the uber compassionate. The end goal is the same.

Zibby: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Laura: I give myself this advice all the time. It is, things take the time they take. I started out talking, oh, I felt like my novel was taking so long. Now I feel like, with my memoir, ugh, it’s taking so long. Compared to what? Another bit of advice might be, try not to compare yourself to other people. I do it all the time. How does that person write a novel a year? You just have to accept that your pace is your pace. I have this Mary Oliver poem, which is where that came from. It’s taped to my wall. I think it’s called “Don’t Worry.” Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. It’s a very brief poem. It goes on to just be like, cut yourself a break. That would be my advice. If you’re a writer, you’re a writer. You always come back to it, you’re a writer. That was actually advice my friend gave me. I still think of her — she’s a real writer. I published a novel, but the imposter syndrome is strong. We were talking about, what do you think makes you a writer? She said, “I think even if you didn’t write for a long time, you feel compelled to come back to it.” Even if you’re still that person just writing in the journal because it satisfies your soul or fills you in some way, it’s how you engage with the world and process your emotions and maybe put it right back out to the world, whether that’s on a large stage or not at all. You’re a writer if that’s how you engage with your spirit and others.

Zibby: I love that. I learned that things take the time they take when I was pumping in a trailer bathroom at a wedding for my twins who are now almost fifteen. I was in there. Everybody was pounding on the door at this wedding. I was like, I can’t rush ten minutes. I have to do ten minutes or I’m not going to be able to survive. There’s no amount of stress — I couldn’t speed up the time. I came to this whole new place of acceptance. Okay, time, it is what it is.

Laura: I’m so glad you did. I can just as easily picture the opposite being like, I’m trying, and then slow down and stop.

Zibby: At first, that was me. Then that’s when I came to this. I was like, no. There’s nothing I can do. First of many times when there was nothing I could do about it.

Laura: I think that parenting, especially of the young ones when it’s so intense, and writing have a lot in common. One of those things is that lesson of, you’re just in the moment when you’re doing it. It may procrastinate a lot to get to the page, but once you’re on it, boy, time can just fall away. The same with following a toddler around to make sure they don’t fall in an abyss or something. You’re just there. Those are some pretty powerful moments.

Zibby: Yes. Laura, thank you. This was so nice. Thank you for the immersion in your book and the feelings it evoked in me and the sense of place and all of it. You’re a really good writer. It was really a joy to read. Thank you.

Laura: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: No problem. Hope to see you soon. Buh-bye.

Laura: Bye.

Laura Nicole Diamond, SHELTER US

SHELTER US by Laura Nicole Diamond

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