The Rumpus Interview with Karolina Waclawiak
How to Get into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio) by Karolina Waclawiak is a novel about a woman trying to find her place in the world. Anya is a Polish immigrant in Los Angeles who doesn’t quite know how to be Polish and isn’t quite American so she decides to pass as Russian. As she walks by the men smoking outside of the Twin Palms, a Russian nightclub in her neighborhood, she thinks, “I know what they want to ask. Polska? Ruska? Svedka? Or maybe just Amerykanska. They can’t tell with me.” She changes her appearance. She tries to find a way to belong to the community where she lives. “My dark hair makes my eyes more cat-like and brighter in hue. More Eastern European, Less American. I am starting to make sense to them.”
As part of passing, Anya endeavors to get into the Twin Palm as if beyond the doors of the nightclub she might find who she wants to be. She takes up with a man who may or may not be a gangster, Lev. Her neighbor and his mother watch over her. She calls bingo numbers. Wildfires blaze at the edges of Los Angeles and Anya is unmoored, trying to make sense to herself. The novel is beautifully written and so suffused with loneliness it makes you ache. Not only is How to Get into the Twin Palms about the overwhelming state that is displacement, it’s about what happens when loneliness becomes unbearable. Waclawiak writes through these tensions so elegantly, so tenderly, that How to Get Into the Twin Palms is, by far, one of my favorite books this year.
I had the opportunity to talk with Waclawiak about her novel, the displacement of being from different worlds at the same time, loneliness, and Los Angeles.
The Rumpus: I’m always fascinated by writers’ day jobs. You are the Deputy Editor of The Believer. What is a deputy editor? Do you have a shiny badge?
Karolina Waclawiak: Ha. I wish I had a badge. That would be very exciting. Perhaps we should make some iron-on badges for all of us at The Believer. I’ll have to talk to someone about that.
What is a deputy editor… good question. I’m not really sure, but in my case I’m quite lucky because the magazine lets me make up my own job description. I handle all the incoming essay and pitch submissions for the magazine, edit essays, manage the editorial calendar and I email Andi Mudd, the managing editor, about 180 times a day. I also do all the social media stuff for The Believer. We all man the Tumblr page, but I’m the resident Tweeter and Facebooker. I can say with all confidence that I have the best job in the world and work with the most amazing people in the universe.
Rumpus: Your novel, How to Get Into the Twin Palms is out in July. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Waclawiak: This particular baby came from talking to other people who came to America as young children. I think we all shared a very peculiar assimilation problem— we all felt the same kind of displacement from our mother country as we did with America. But we were far more American than our parents because we essentially grew up here and didn’t have accents so we could fly under the radar. Gary Shteyngart calls these kids the “1.5 Generation,” which I love. We are immigrants ourselves but were sort of just along for the ride with our parents as they struggled to enter the country and survive here. I studied with Gary at Columbia and he taught an immigrant literature class where he really focused on writers who came to this country as children. I wanted to write a book about the experience but I wasn’t really interested in doing a straight immigrant narrative. Because I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of passing, I thought it would be really interesting to have my narrator try to pass as a Russian. This in itself feels like a really transgressive act because Russians and Poles have a very acrimonious relationship although, in some ways, the cultures are quite close.
Rumpus: When did you come to the United States? Do you remember what your first impressions of the country were?
Waclawiak: I came to America when I was two. My first impressions of America came later, probably when I was around five or so. We were sponsored by a Catholic church in San Antonio, Texas and everything we had came from church donations—clothes and toys, everything. We would get these big donation bags and my mom would sift through looking for clean clothes for us to wear and I would get these old, used toys I hated. I would cry and my sister (who was five years older) would be so embarrassed, trying to quiet me down. Don’t get me wrong, the church was very good to us, they helped us find an apartment and church members helped my parents enroll in English courses and find jobs. But, as a kid I felt there were so many things to want and everything seemed so out of reach. And I think because of that, I was a very covetous child. Even something as simple as a hula hoop this girl in the neighborhood had became absolutely marvelous to me, but so impossible to actually own. It was so exotic to me. But I knew I would never, ever be able to own a hula hoop. There was another girl down the street from us, who I didn’t particularly like, but had the best toys and owned an entire set of Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I would play with her just to get the chance to hold these dolls a couple times a week, and strangely, smell them. I stole one of them and she knew it, made me give it back to her, and stopped letting me come around.
My parents were always working so my sister took care of me and we watched TV all the time—before and after school—literally all the time. It was a strange mix of Scooby Doo, Benson, Facts of Life, Laverne and Shirley, Munsters, Three’s Company, and most importantly MTV. We were these mixed-up pop culture sponges who mimicked everything, but always got it a little bit wrong. When I was about six, I was at the grocery store with my mother and tried to steal a People magazine because Molly Ringwald was on the cover and I was obsessed with the Brat Pack and I loved Molly like I knew her. I just stuck it down my pants as if no one would notice. I needed everything. I was like the ultimate consumer, but because we really couldn’t afford much, I turned into a little thief. Of course, to my parents, being a thief was worse than being a murderer and brought so much shame our hardworking family.
Rumpus: I can relate to that sense of displacement. I was born here but my parents are immigrants and it often felt like we had one foot here and one foot back in the motherland. I see that sense of displacement in a lot of my writing. Does a sense of displacement often influence your writing?
Waclawiak: Oh yes, definitely. My characters are always estranged from other people and usually, their physical landscape as well. I always have the sense that my characters are on the outside looking in. They want to belong but don’t quite know how. I definitely feel that with my character, Anya. She’s in a strange cultural limbo and as a result isn’t really anything at all. I think it’s interesting to come from a background where you do have one foot in one place, and one in another. You have a family history associated with “the old country”, as my parents call it, but are so displaced from it that you don’t necessarily feel an allegiance to it, or any place at all. Even so, I do feel haunted by my family history. Reading your work, it seems as though you are too.
For me, all this adds up to a sense of displacement within my own family story, because I was so young when we left Poland and don’t remember anything. We escaped Poland and we were refugees, but it feels fraudulent to me to even say that it’s my story, because I didn’t live it, even though I was there.
My brother, who was born here, is even more far removed this story because he was born ten years after me and we had already moved past the really difficult stuff by then. When we go back to Poland there are varying degrees of displacement within our own family— my parents have a fractured relationship with their home country, my sister (who was seven when we left) looks at Poland lovingly, my brother is so Americanized that I think it really seems like a foreign country to him, and I am somewhere in the middle of all of these feelings. It definitely informs all of my work. It would seem hard not to let it and I’d really have to be suppressing my past to ignore those feelings of estrangement.
Rumpus: I’m a little obsessed with Los Angeles and one of the things I admired most in your novel is the sense of place and how the book reveals a different side of Los Angeles than we normally see. Why do you place your novel in LA?
Waclawiak: Thank you! It was so daunting writing about a place that has been so well documented by amazing writers. I moved to Los Angeles when I was eighteen and lived there for ten years. I was completely obsessed with Los Angeles as a kid, but when I got there, I hated it. I was going to film school and had no car and didn’t know anyone there and the only place I knew of was the Sunset Strip. It was ridiculous and hopeless. Then I met some locals who started showing me secret places in Los Angeles and what really struck me was the existence of these defined cultural communities that functioned within Los Angeles. Koreatown, Little Armenia, etc. I went looking for a Polish community and it was pretty nonexistent; however, there was a large Russian community in the middle of Los Angeles, around the Melrose/Fairfax area. I thought it would be the perfect setting for a novel because the community felt so distant from everything surrounding it. Sadly, from my latest visits to LA I realized that the area has changed so much and a lot of the Russian shops have disappeared. I feel really fortunate to have been able to capture a moment in time.
Rumpus: When I finished How to Get Into the Twin Palms the first time, I was struck by how it seemed to be, among other things, a lovely meditation on loneliness and how loneliness was almost a character in this book. Was that intentional?
Waclawiak: I certainly feel as though Anya’s loneliness is unassailable and as a character, she is plagued by it. Or maybe she’s just a functioning loneliness addict.
It’s interesting you say loneliness feels like an actual character. Loneliness is so alive and present in Anya’s world that it really becomes a tangible thing rather than just an abstract feeling. And Mary’s loneliness is even more profound to me. It’s as if the book is full of women trying to deal with various kinds of loss.
I was trying to really present Los Angeles as a character and I think it’s a city that breeds a sense of alienation. It’s so vast but you never really see anyone on the street. You’re surrounded by cars but cut off from any meaningful human interaction. It’s a much different world from New York where I feel the need to be as far away from people as possible, because I am so physically surrounded by them. In Los Angeles, I found myself constantly craving human contact and that’s something I gifted to Anya as a character.
Rumpus: How do you get into the Twin Palms?
Waclawiak: I am sure there are many ways to do with it, but they all come at a high cost. You have to give up a lot, as Anya did.
Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?
Waclawiak: I think the best aspect of my writing is the cinematic quality I think it has. I went to film school before getting into fiction and as a screenwriter I really had to learn how to think in pictures and scenes. Now I can visualize a scene—locations and characters in dialogue—and put it to paper, transcribing what I see. In film school, I had a teacher who was a National Geographic photographer and he was a real ball-buster. We butted heads each week because I just could not understand the value in what we were doing. I was so wrong. We would have to tell a story in one photograph and he’d screen each student’s photo and we, as a class, would have to guess what was happening. Any amount of characters and any setup were allowed, but the story had to be clear in one photograph! It was impossible
Once we could successfully tell a whole story in one shot, we were allowed to move to three photos to tell a story. I think we had ten photographs for our final story progression. I decided to do a story about how giant bugs were taking over Los Angeles and I think my main character fell in love with one of the bugs and she let it eat her, out of love. I was really into stop-motion animation and strange acts of love in college.
Working with those kinds of restraints made me realize every single thing in your scene has to count and not just be visually pleasing, or in the case of fiction, not just lyrically pleasing.