Scratching the subsurface

What if an oil reserve were discovered under Jenin?

Michael Diamond 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Diamond 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Skip ahead to 2012. After two years of intense negotiation, Israel and the Palestinians will finally sign the ultimate peace agreement on the White House lawn. As the historic moment approaches, David Dekel, a young geologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev makes an astonishing discovery. Fifty meters below Jenin territory about to be ceded to the Arabs lies an oil trap massive enough to meet Israel's energy needs for the next 100 years. The book? Subsurface, a hot new thriller. The author? LeCarre? DeMille? Clancey? None of them. It's Mike Diamond, a soft-spoken Scottish-born lawyer, who in his latest incarnation serves as Administrator for the Columbia Program at BGU's Medical School for International Health. In Subsurface, what lies under Jenin keeps readers flipping pages. But in real life, the author's own subsurface is equally riveting. In terms of "been there, done that," few people can top Mike Diamond. Diamond, 49, says his Israeli adventure began with a desire to get warm. "I grew up in Glasgow… All I knew was wind and cold and dull overcast days. I finished law school in Glasgow, but before doing my apprenticeship, I decided to visit Israel. I just wanted to warm up." Diamond ended up on a kibbutz. "I spent a year working with chickens and climbing utility poles to restore electricity. I loved it. It opened up a whole new world to me, both the warmth of the country and of the people. For me, aliya was never an ideological decision. I just liked living here. I went back to finish my law apprenticeship in Scotland, but I couldn't get back into it again. Having climbed those poles, fixed those electric cables, then worked all night to send 100,000 chickens to market in the morning, I couldn't revert to the framework of being a dull old Scottish lawyer on West George Street." "People ask me, 'Why did you come to Israel?' The simple answer is, in Scotland, I exist. But in Israel, I live. Life is more dramatic here, there's much more happening… I feel alive in Israel." The way Diamond tells it, his real love affair with Israel began in Dimona. "When I first came back for an extended period, I worked with Project Renew Dimona, which was essentially an urban renewal effort. My job was to keep the bandage on the wound - to make sure the money was going where it was intended to go. I also learned how things get done in Israel, how the Israeli mind functions. Some of it bothers me, the 'I don't have to do anything for myself' idea, closely followed by, 'It's somebody else's fault' when it fails. But the Israeli dynamic never fails to astonish me. Something happens and everyone instantly shifts gear to accommodate it. Israelis are uniquely able to stop and change direction in a heartbeat… There's an arrogance, too many other people may have decided that it can't be done, but to an Israeli, that means nothing. They just go ahead and do it." After four years, the Dimona project began to wind down. "I saw the handwriting on the wall - in 1990, the Jewish Agency began shifting their funding to immigrant absorption instead of urban renewal, but I wasn't quite done… I set out to work on my own to attract investment to the area, to revive the community. If I could bring investment, businesses could grow and the area would thrive. But then I realized that qualifying as a lawyer in Israel was necessary." Diamond's next two years would rival a Grisham thriller. "I passed the Israeli bar exam, and for my apprenticeship, I served two years in the State Prosecutor's Office in Beersheba. An unbelievable array of stories came out of that… Some courtroom scenes stick in my mind - like the burglar who told the judge that the reason he got caught stealing again was because he had to pay off an earlier fine for stealing. 'Where else am I going to get a thousand shekels to pay the fine?' he told the judge." After those two years, Diamond didn't go back to Dimona, but charged off in a different direction."I'd already decided I didn't want to live in the center of the country I don't like the noise, the traffic or the humidity. I like the Negev, but in Beersheba, there aren't many law firms practicing international law. I found one, and spent the next three years writing international contracts. It was the most deadly, uninteresting job I ever had." Diamond's love/hate relationship with the law boils down to cultural differences."In Israel, I'm not culturally equipped to be a lawyer. I come from a different mentality," he says. Another life change came about when Diamond met then-BGU president Avishai Braverman."They were looking for someone to work in the Department of Donor Affairs, and there I was, fluent in English and Hebrew, and qualified in law. So I worked there for several years, then moved over to administration in the School of Management." At this point, Diamond's life took a turn for the worse. Several crushingly painful years follow. "I had a mid-life crisis," he says. "Up until then, my life had been pretty stable. I married, my Israeli wife and I had two great daughters. Then I came to the realization that I was married to the wrong person, and if I didn't do something about it, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life. The pain was enormous. I'm not the kind of guy who wants to hurt people. I was desperately trying not to hurt my kids, not to hurt my ex-wife, but at the end of two years, I was floundering. My personal life was in shambles. At work, I wasn't as challenged as I wanted to be. I was down on myself, regretting that I hadn't achieved more than I had. The first ray of light was a phone call from a friend. 'We've got a creative writing thing going at my house,' he said. 'Why don't you come?'" Diamond had no training in writing and had never studied literature. "But I'd always written - lawyers write. Somehow the idea grabbed me, so I went. "The evening's exercise was to write a story: a black slave was being freed by his master, and as a token of good will, the master gives the slave his jacket. We had a half-hour, so I wrote from the point of view of the jacket, which seemed the most interesting: there'd be different movement, a different scent. We were supposed to read our bits out loud, but I refused. I just couldn't. Finally they forced me. I read, then there was complete silence. I was hardly breathing. Finally someone said, 'Did you write that just now?' After that, I started to wonder if maybe writing was something I could do." From that point on, Diamond's life becomes a flurry of working during the day, writing in the evenings and weekends. "I started by just writing a scene - a completely random scene, not connected to anything at all. It was very satisfying. The next day, I wrote another scene. After a few months, I had all these unconnected scenes, and started to think I should put them all together. I still wasn't really trying to write a novel - all I was doing was enjoying the satisfaction of being able to express what I wanted to say. Soon I had 15,000 words, but right about then, all the uncertainty returned. "I was floundering again, sitting up night after night, trying to make some order out of it, and not succeeding. One day I picked up the whole box of paper and threw it into the dustbin. I was back with that interior battle: Who am I? What am I worth? Finally, I just refused to let myself give up. I needed to accomplish something. "The next day, I sat down and wrote, 'Chapter One' at the top of the page. I began to write sequentially - writing by hand, in pen. I can do anything on a computer except be creative. So I'd hand-write a chapter, enter it into the computer, then spend a few days revising and rewriting. I liked to be around people when I wrote, so I sought out coffee houses. At some point, I was grabbed by my own story. I wanted to know how it was going to end! I'd worked to get my protagonist David Dekel into terrible trouble, but didn't know, myself, how I was going to get him out. Not until I was about three-quarters through, standing in the shower, did the penny drop. Suddenly I knew how I'd end the book." Even at that point, Diamond wasn't aiming to publish. "I was there for the challenge. My goal was to finish, not publish. I spent a year writing the first draft, another six months polishing. But what's interesting is how the work changed my personal life. By that time, I had two years in, and my whole outlook had changed. I was creating. I was achieving. My sense of self was returning." Soon it was show time. "The 'Idiots Guide' said a first novel should have 85,000 words. I had 84,976. But I started to think: I'd created an entire world that only I knew. I'd brought these friends of mine into existence, put them into relationships, inserted circumstances and events, and I was the only person in the whole world who knew any of it! I started to think about publishing it." Diamond began exposing his work to others. "I was terrified - maybe people won't think it's interesting. I finally gave it to a good friend to read, someone I knew who wouldn't tear me apart, even if it was horrible. A few days later, she called me from the car, saying she and her husband were driving to Jerusalem, but she had to take the book along because she just had to finish. I started to feel better. I let other friends read it, and everyone seemed to read it in just a day or two. That was encouraging." In today's publishing world, having an agent seemed like a necessity. "I sent out three letters to agents, got one almost immediately, but I'm not sure how much good it did," he says. "She didn't get any takers, and said her impression was that the left-leaning publishing industry in New York was so anti-Bush that anything from Israel was being rejected. 'If it comes from Israel, they assume it must be pro-Israel, and they won't even look at it,' she said. So my manuscript sat on the shelf, with nothing happening. Then, a year ago, I accepted the position of Administrator of BGU's Columbia Program, and began devoting all my energy to that. Now, even if my agent found a publisher, I'd be too busy to do any rewriting an editor would want. So what the heck - I decided to publish it myself." Diamond became a big fan of "publishing on demand," where a publisher prints a book only after it's been purchased. "It's great fun," he says. "[A] great thing is that publishing on demand also lets me revise. Someone pointed out that if this book took place in 2012, there was no way there wouldn't be some reference to the 'failed Annapolis conference.' So I put that in. In traditional publishing schemes, you'd never be able to do a thing like that." What's next? "I have joint custody of my teenage daughters, and between being with them and my work, I don't have much time to write. But lots of plots are rattled around. How about this: During the Haj, there's an earthquake, and the Saudi royal family is buried in the rubble. The only people who can get them out are Israeli nurses and doctors." The Jenin story is fiction, but for Diamond, the subsurface has barely been scratched. "I just got my first royalty check," he says. "The grand total of $26! I framed it and hung it on the wall. My daughters think I'm crazy not to cash it, but to me, that check represents a whole lot more than money can buy."