Interviewed for Book Passage (August 2011)
Zack Ruskin: You’ve made reference to your novels acting somewhat loosely as a trilogy on the themes of rage and violence. With your third novel, The Lovers, now completed, do you still view your work in this context?
Vendela Vida: I was interviewed by a radio station in Santa Cruz after The Lovers came out, and the interviewer said that he viewed the three books as functioning like a triptych. As soon as he said it I knew he was right—that calling them a triptych was a more accurate description of how the three books interact. I wished he had interviewed me years before he did so I would have had a better description of what I was setting out to do. But now I’ll pretend I was calling it a triptych all along.
ZR: The Lovers is set in Datca, Turkey. Did your writing process require you to spend a prolonged period of time in Datca? How did it compare to visiting Lapland, the setting for Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name?
VV: I traveled to Turkey three times when researching The Lovers, and each time I was there I spent varying amounts of time in Datça. Turkey in the summer and the Arctic Circle in the winter are about as opposite as you can get, but I have a deep love and regard for each of these vastly different terrains. I suppose the main difference was the crowds. Turkey in the summer is hugely popular, and, well, I can’t say the same thing about the Arctic Circle in January.
ZR: Having written three novels that feature American heroines going abroad, you must be an avid traveler. Are there any destinations you are particularly fond of? Any places you may wish to incorporate into future works of fiction?
VV: I love travel, yes, but I also love reading about protagonists who aren’t in their element. South America and New Zealand are two parts of the world I’d like to explore in fiction. I’m saving up my frequent flyer miles.
ZR: Even though there’s substance behind the scene, the moment Yvonne finds a sex swing in her rental home is clearly a moment of levity. How important is humor in your novels?
VV: On a scale from one to ten, I’d say ten. I care about entertaining the reader, but I also need to entertain myself when writing a book.
ZR: There is a glut of talented writers that call the Bay Area home. Are you one to workshop your prose with peers in advance of your finished product? Even if you don’t workshop, it must be helpful to have such a deep pool of resources nearby while you’re writing.
VV: I’m in a writing group of Bay Area novelists. After I earned my MFA at Columbia in the early nineties, I swore I would never workshop a piece of writing again. But then I met up with these writers, and I feel incredibly fortunate. I think the Bay Area is a wonderful place for writers to live; there truly is a sense of community. And great bookstores like Book Passage.
ZR: I could be completely off-base here, but with the lyrical and visual nature of your fiction, I keep thinking that a graphic novel adaption of your work would be really interesting. Would you ever consider something of this nature?
VV: If I didn’t have to do the pictures, then definitely. Last time I did a drawing in my an adult life, someone said to me, “Oh, how cute. How old were you when you did that?”
ZR: In my opinion, a protagonist is never a mirror reflection of the author, even when they share a name (I’m looking at you, Paul Auster!). With this in mind, do you see equal portions of yourself in all of your lead characters, or does one perhaps have a touch more Vendela in her?
VV: That’s a great question. Even though my characters are all really different, and all different ages (the youngest being 21, the oldest being 53), I can’t say that one’s more like me than another. They each feel like people I’ve spent a great deal of time with rather than reflections of me. That said, I think the one attribute I share with all my characters is humor. We all have the same sense of humor—although one character’s might be more punny, and another’s more morbid. I think it would be very difficult to write a humorless character. And it would be very challenging and probably impossible to give a character a different sense of humor than my own. That would entail writing something and thinking, I don’t find this funny but maybe my character would….It just wouldn’t feel true, and I don’t think it would ultimately work because the reader would sense it wasn’t true
ZR: In The Lovers, Yvonne reads Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Do you often consider what books your characters would read? Would you ever let them read a book that you haven’t?
VV: I do a lot of character sketches before I embark on writing a book. I write scenes about the characters’ childhoods, or a bad day, or a normal day, etc. These scenes rarely make into the book. When I was developing Yvonne’s character, though, I made a list of the books she would bring with her on her trip to Turkey. One of the first books I wrote down was Duras’s The Lover. And that made me reread Duras’s book, and in some ways it became an entryway into Yvonne’s character and ended up having more of an effect on my novel than I ever thought possible. Not in any structural way, but in terms of the mood and the wistfulness of my novel. I don’t think I could let a character read a book I hadn’t read unless it was a purely invented book.
This interview appeared on the Book Passage blog on August 1, 2011.