“With every book you write you limit yourself a little bit because you can’t do the same thing again. I’ve written two novels about people in their 20s—with this one I wanted to write about a woman looking back on her life.”
Vendela Vida is a busy woman. The author of two previous novels—And Now You Can Go (2003) and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)—and a nonfiction book, Girls on the Verge (2000), Vida is co-founder and co-editor of The Believer. The mother of two young children, Vida is on the board of 826 Valencia, which she co-founded with her husband, Dave Eggers; the two also co-wrote the screenplay to last year’s film Away We Go.
On a chilly morning in June, author Michelle Richmond sat down with Vida at the Grove Café in San Francisco to talk about Vida’s complex, emotionally layered new novel, The Lovers. The story centers on 53-year-old Yvonne, who returns to the Turkish seaside town of Datça two years after her husband’s death, only to find that the place where they honeymooned twenty-six years earlier has dramatically changed. Nothing is quite as good or as beautiful as Yvonne remembered it, and a series of arrestingly rendered encounters proves that nothing is as simple as it might first appear.
THE RUMPUS: In The Lovers, Yvonne visits this wonderful hotel in a cave, and in Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name you have the ice hotel. Do you go to great hotels?
Vendela Vida: No I don’t. I’m actually someone who doesn’t like nice hotels. I love going to Best Westerns, and I love seedy motels. I often go stay in a motel for a night or two when I’m trying to finish a book. I went to a Budget Inn when I was finishing Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and I was really pregnant with my first kid. I remember the owners giving me dirty looks when I checked in, as they took note of the fact that my home address was so close-by. I can only imagine what they thought was going on.
When I was in Lapland, I went to an ice hotel, and it was one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever been inside—the beds, the tables, even the chandeliers were made of ice. I knew right away that I’d have a pivotal scene in Northern Lights take place there. When I was researching The Lovers in Turkey, I went to Cappadocia, where the landscape is filled with these bizarre structures that look like very narrow volcanoes. And people have carved living spaces out of the stone, which is very soft stone. So there was a cave hotel there, too, and I stayed there. And that’s where my protagonist, Yvonne, stays. Yvonne is in such a strange place emotionally that a cave seemed an appropriate place to have her spend a few days.
Rumpus: So let’s talk about the endings. The ending of the book is really beautiful, surprising, and very brief. Did you write the ending and know that that was the ending or do you write endings over and over again?
Vida: I never like to plot out my books ahead of time. I want to surprise myself—that’s what keeps it fun. You change as the characters evolve, and you make certain choices that lead to other choices. When I got to the very last ten pages of The Lovers, I kind of had that circling feeling where you know that the book is coming to an end. I honestly don’t think I knew what was going to happen until I wrote the last line. And then it made total sense to me.
Rumpus: Who sees your work while it’s in progress?
Vida: I’m in a writing group with about seven other writers in the Bay Area. I also show my work to my coeditors at The Believer, to the managing editor, to some McSweeney’s editors, and to my husband.
I joined the writing group after having a terrible experience writing my first novel. I spent years writing this 400-page book and didn’t show anybody it in the process. In the end, I was only interested in about eight pages of it, which I salvaged. I threw the rest away and started another novel, which became And Now You Can Go, based on those eight pages. After that experience I decided to never go for so long and write so much without showing my work to at least a few trusted readers.
Rumpus: Really? That’s amazing because your books are very spare, especially this one, and that’s something that I really admire about your work. It’s a very precise way of writing.
Vida: I overwrite at first. Whenever I start a book, I think, This is going to be my long book, and by the time I take out all the extra words, I think, Well, the next one is definitely going to be my big book. But I think I’m finally at peace with the fact that I like writing shorter novels. Those are the kind of novels that I love reading.
Rumpus: So that sense of sparseness is a process of peeling things away?
Vida: I definitely sculpt all the extra words out of a sentence. I think every sentence I write starts with about 4 or 5 more words than end up in it.
I had a professor in college who used to talk about how you should keep a jar on your desk and put a quarter in it for every word you took out of your prose. I always think about that when I’m writing, how the words are actually worth something; it’s worth something to throw the extraneous words away.
This same professor also told us to keep another jar, and to put a quarter into it every time we had sex during the first year of marriage. Then he said that we should take a quarter out each time we had sex during the rest of our lives, and see how many we were left with at the end.
Rumpus: The book is called The Lovers, and at one point you allude to the Marguerite Duras novel, The Lover. What is your history with the Duras book?
Vida: I remember when I read The Lover for the first time, it had this powerful effect on me. I was also really curious about the choices Duras makes. She switches back and forth between the third- and first-person [points of view] throughout the book in an arbitrary way. What I really loved about that book is that it’s about a woman looking back on her life and at her youth.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but I feel that with every book you write, you actually limit yourself a little bit because you can’t do the same thing again. I’ve written two novels that focus on protagonists in their 20s, and with this one I really wanted to push myself and write about someone older. I also wanted to write in the third person—I had only written novels in the first-person before. I knew I wanted to write about a woman looking back on her marriage, so I think that’s why I turned to The Lover, and reread it and really examined it. I also thought it was the kind of book Yvonne would have taken with her on her trip to Turkey—so I put in a reference or two to what she’s reading, without actually naming the book.
Rumpus: You have a lot of tenderness toward your characters—Yvonne, Ozlem, the little boy Ahmet.
Vida: That was a deliberate choice on my part. One of the biggest surprises for me after I published Northern Lights was how many people said that the main character, Clarissa, was unlikable. This took me completely by surprise. No one who had read the novel while I was writing it—my writing group or my husband—had ever even mentioned that she came across as unlikable. I think that’s the difference between how writers look at books and how a lot of readers do. Writers don’t read about a character and think, Do I like this person? Would I hang out with this person?
Rumpus: It’s funny, I don’t remember her being unlikable.
Vida: Clarissa is prickly, but I felt she was acting how someone would act in her situation. The man who’d raised her had just died, and then she found out that he wasn’t her father. And then she finds out her fiancé has been keeping a monumental secret from her. Her entire life is in a state of chaos and she travels to the Arctic Circle to find out the truth about who she is. She definitely isn’t beyond delivering a few caustic barbs—but I liked that about her. It felt believable to me. But I decided with this book, The Lovers, I really wanted to work hard to make a character who was a bit softer-edged, and I wanted to direct a lot of love toward her when creating her.
Rumpus: I think you did that without compromising the complexity of the character. So you were mentioning with Clarissa her life had just sort of exploded and fallen apart. For Yvonne, it has been two years since her husband died. Why two years?
Vida: I was at a college reunion a couple of years ago and two of my friends were talking about how their mothers had adapted to being widows. They both said something interesting: That it was after two years that it really sunk in, and became difficult for their mothers, and that was at the very same time that everyone else in their lives kind of left them alone. Their mothers’ friends thought, “It’s been two years, they’re over it, they should be dating again, they should have moved on.” But that’s really when the mothers felt, “Jesus, what am I going to do with my life now?”
Rumpus: Was Yvonne modeled after anyone you know?
Vida: Not at all, which was kind of the challenge of creating her. In some ways I felt like that made her more pure in my head, but I also had to do a lot more work in terms of thinking who she was. This is where a writing group was really helpful. Some of the women in my writing group are around the same age as Yvonne and they would point things out to me, simple things I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed. I have one scene in the book where Yvonne drives to this other town and goes to the beach and goes for a long swim, and then drives back home, and they said, “If she’s fifty-three, she’s going to be really tired at the end of a day like that. She can do all those things, but just make sure it’s clear that she’s exhausted.”
Rumpus: Yvonne has children, Matthew and Aurelia. As a mother, was there any sense when you were writing the book of casting forward in time? Did you think about when you are older and your children are grown?
Vida: I often write about my worst fears. I look at my daughter, who’s four, and I think, What’s the worst thing that could happen to her? That’s probably not a healthy response to looking at this beautiful little creature.
Rumpus: There is a great story behind how Yvonne and Peter met. It’s so romantic and strange and impossible. There a sentence about how, because they met through the poste restante, Peter was occasionally concerned she would fall “sneakily, whimsically in love with someone else.”
Vida: I’ve always felt like the thing that attracts someone to a relationship in the first place often becomes the very same thing that drives them crazy at the end. The idea of a poste restante started with a story I heard. I was having a drink with a friend and she had brought another friend with her, and he told us this amazing story… He had met this woman through the post restante, and they became really good friends. As soon as he told me that, I said, “Are you a writer?” and he said no, and I thought, Okay, good, because I am going to take that.
Rumpus: There’s a great line in the book about how, having being a teacher and a mother, Yvonne was always concerned about how people were going to get home. Is your mother a teacher?
Vida: My mother’s retired now, but she was a nurse. I think it’s something I took from being a mother, and also a teacher at 826 Valencia. Toward the end of any class—particularly if it’s at night—I start thinking, “How are my students getting home?”
Rumpus: Speaking of motherhood, you have two small children, you have 826 Valencia, you have The Believer… How do you find the time and emotional space to write?
Vida: I actually don’t think it’s so hard to get writing done every day. I think everyone can find two hours in their day, even if it means writing when the kids are asleep at night. For me, the hardest part is finishing a book. There’s that period at the end of the novel—which I think is really the most important part of the writing process—when you’re carrying around the whole book in your head, and it’s really hard to do that when you’re thinking, “Did I drop off the carseat for my daughter’s playdate? Did I get the right kind of bottles that don’t have the wrong kind of plastic for my son?”
Rumpus: So what is more fun for you: writing or editing other people’s work?
Vida: If you spend a day writing and it goes really well, there’s no better feeling, but I think it’s a lot easier to edit pieces because you can check that kind of task off. You can say, “Today I’m going to edit this interview,” and you edit it and you’re done. But you can’t say, “Today I’m going to write this really brilliant scene” and check off that box.
Rumpus: What books do you admire most? Is there a book you go back to a lot?
Vida: Yes, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. I think it’s the perfect novel in so many ways. I love the prose, the subject, the setting, I love the relationship between the father and the daughter, and I love what it says about South Africa in a particular time and place. I probably reread that book every time I’m about to start a novel and then at least once while I’m in the process of writing.
Rumpus: In your books, your characters go far away and are deeply immersed in those places. Do you travel somewhere because you want to write about it, or did you write about Turkey because you were in Turkey and about Lapland because you were in Lapland? How do these settings become part of your books?
Vida: I actually had no intention of setting a book in Turkey. My husband and I rented a place in Turkey when I was pregnant with my daughter, and I was finishing Northern Lights. I was trying to go anywhere to kind of isolate myself and be without much exposure to day-to-day distractions or Internet access. So we rented this place in Turkey in this weird little town. When we were looking for a place, I just typed in, “water, Turkey, small town, cheap,” and we found this house.
Rumpus: This was in Datça?
Vida: Yes. We spent a month there. I took no notes when I was there because I was finishing Northern Lights and for a while I thought my next book would be set in Croatia, but every time I started writing, this house and this town of Datça would present itself. Suddenly I found myself writing about it, and then the problem was, because I hadn’t taken any notes when I was there, I had to go back and actually take notes.
Rumpus: Did you go back to the same house?
Vida: No, unfortunately. I went back to the same town and then when I was halfway through the book I realized that I really wanted Yvonne to travel to Cappadocia, the cave district. I think that was because I had just reread A Passage to India and I just had this image of her in a cave. So I went back a third time, when I was really pregnant with my son—about seven months. At one point the only dress that fit me that was appropriate for the 110 degree heat was this bright fuchsia maternity dress. I remember being on a bus going to the cave district, and everyone around me was dressed in black and grey, pretty conservatively, and everyone just stared at me in this bright pink dress, this American who was hugely pregnant. I looked like I was running away from something. I’m sure everyone thought I was going to go give birth in a cave.
Rumpus: There’s an interesting parallel, because Yvonne has returned after twenty-six years, and you were also returning in a different sort of mindset.
Vida: Well, the whole idea that Datça would be different her second time around came from [my] second trip. In the book Yvonne remembers Datça as being really glorious and amazing, and then she goes back and sees it as a town that’s become decrepit, a town that is no longer a desirable destination spot. I wanted to incorporate the idea of how a place can change over time and also in your own mind.
Rumpus: So the grand house that she stayed in in Datça was modeled on the house that you stayed in?
Vida: It was, yes.
Rumpus: Was there a sex swing, like there is in the house in the novel?
Vida: There was. We had a similar experience, where we couldn’t figure out what this hook was for, hanging over the bed. Then we saw this crazy device in another room, and after a few days—we’re really dense, I guess—we thought, Ooooh. That’s what the hook is for… There were some other things we found that the owners had either forgotten to hide or had purposely left out—you never know—and that idea helped me form the whole experience of being an outsider in the country, in the town, alone and adrift.
I hadn’t spent that much time in Muslim countries before and everything was new and exciting and other, but there was no neutral place I could go back to and process everything I was seeing and hearing and tasting around me. I’d go back to the house to rest, but then there were all these surprises and confrontations within the house itself, behind every closet door or on every book shelf.
Rumpus: So you’re about to start working on something now? You said it’s been nine months and you’re ready to go?
Vida: Yeah, it’s interesting. During those nine months between when I turned in the book, I was in a gestation period: I was still editing The Believer, obviously, but in lieu of writing I was taking harp lessons and brushing up on my Swedish.
Rumpus: Really? Are you any good at the harp?
Vida: No, I’m terrible, but I wanted to be able to express myself in some other creative form. When I finished The Lovers I said what I always say whenever I finish a book, which is that I am never doing this again—it’s so hard, so painful, so much work, I cannot do this again. And then it’s interesting that it took nine or ten months—definitely the same gestation period that it takes to create human life—before I thought, Oh, I could actually do this again. I actually really want to do this again.