The Rumpus Interview with Karolina Waclawiak
When I recently went to the Los Angeles launch of Karolina Waclawiak’s newest novel The Invaders, I was intrigued by her thoughts on how women are devalued as they age. That said, I was a little concerned I might struggle relating to this book; my upbringing, which was very southern Californian and poor, couldn’t have been more different than the characters she portrays. The Invaders is a dark tale of a stepmother and her stepson surviving in a wealthy, safe, and beautiful but somehow deeply disturbing beachside community. To my surprise, when I sat down to read it, I found myself invested. I could relate to these characters, and I was eager to talk to Karolina about why.
Karolina is the author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms published by Two Dollar Radio in 2012 and The Invaders published by Regan Arts this past July. She is also currently the nonfiction editor at The Believer.
The Rumpus: How’s your book tour?
Karolina Waclawiak: It’s been good. It’s been really interesting because I’ve had women come up to me at the readings and sort of divulge personal stuff to me about their relationships and how the book really hit close to home for them and they hadn’t read anything like it before. They felt so connected in terms of the pitfalls of a marriage or what’s at stake.
Rumpus: Was there any particular person that really shocked you?
Waclawiak: I read in my hometown in Connecticut and a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for writing this. I want to give it to everyone I know in town because I feel like we all kinda need to know our situation.” There are two camps, which is women who say they feel akin to these feelings and then another set of women who feel this is depressing and don’t need to read about this. Kind of like ignorance is bliss. In talking to book clubs, I think some readers just want to feel uplifted by the things they read instead of having a reality thrust into their face. I could write those sort of things but I don’t know how.
Rumpus: This is your second book. How has the process differed from your first book to this book in terms of writing it, the tour, reader responses, etc.?
Waclawiak: With the first book I didn’t know what to expect and I feel like I got really lucky with the amount of press that it got. It had so much to do with Two Dollar Radio having such an amazing collection of books and people waiting to see what they come up with next. Being published by them was the best case scenario in the indie world because they’re so well-respected. I think I assumed the second book would be easier to sell because I had such a great reception with the first one. With my first book I didn’t have an agent. I had queried agents but no one wanted to take me on because they thought the book was too hard of a sell or they thought I needed to have a more likeable character as my narrator. They basically all told me you have to rewrite this book to make a likeable character. Which I really bristled at. So I started sending queries to indie publishers, because I figured if I’m expending so much energy trying to find an agent, why not? And so Two Dollar Radio picked me up and then I got an agent. I figured with the second book it wouldn’t be so hard, but it was. It was really hard. I think it took a year or a year and a half to sell the book. I was getting a lot of good responses from editors saying we love this book, but publishers were not as excited because I had an unlikable female narrator and so from a marketing standpoint they weren’t sure if women would want to read the book or if they could sell it to book clubs. To write a book about female aging, female sexuality, and female invisibility is sort of on par with writing a book about death. Americans don’t want to act like death exists and people don’t want to talk about aging.
Rumpus: We don’t want to talk about the very obvious elephant in the room.
Waclawiak: I got a lot of pushback. I had people wanting to see the second book in terms of press and stuff, but I think the big turning point for the second book was Oprah Magazine picking it up for the lead review for August. And that’s been really interesting because the book has been publicized as a summer read. You think, especially with the cover, you’re gonna get some breezy book and then you open it and it’s dark and depressing. This wasn’t a summer read. So I started thinking in terms of what makes a summer read. I started asking if that is a slur in the book community. Does that mean you have a light and fluffy book? What is a beach read? And what does it mean for my book to have been labeled a beach read? It’s funny because a friend of mine tweeted “I’m sitting drinking rose at a beach club in the summer and it’s hard for me not to think about The Invaders.” It’s really fun to think about because I kind of love the idea of the book being an impetus to look around the communities and think about the secret lives of these people.
Rumpus: I think you’ve inspired some people watching this year.
Waclawiak: That I love.
Rumpus: The book alternates between Cheryl and Teddy. I love the back and forth point of view, especially in some chapters where they’re going over the same events with their different points of view. Did you always intend to write it that way?
Waclawiak: It had several incarnations and I always was focused on Teddy because when I started thinking about this story and this community I was around Teddy’s age. I felt very connected to him. Over the course of ten years of thinking about this story I started becoming closer in age to Cheryl. I had written a short story where she was a background character and I pulled her up to the forefront and I didn’t want to lose Teddy but I also wanted to tell Cheryl’s story and I remember someone in the whole selling-the-book process saying just get rid of Teddy.
Rumpus: Oh no, that would’ve been a tragedy.
Waclawiak: I said no way because I’m dealing with the duality of being trapped when you’re born into this community and being trapped when you try to get into this community and I think that the insider-outsider perspective is so necessary for the book. To me they’re both outsiders even if one was born into this world and so it never occurred to me to make it just one person’s point of view. They’re both unreliable narrators, so you’re seeing the world through their eyes and you’re seeing people through their eyes and you know if there isn’t this sense of deep development of other characters in the book it’s because it’s just how Cheryl sees them or it’s how Teddy sees them so maybe they’re not seeing the nuances of you know, someone like Laurie.
Rumpus: I feel like they both on some level essentially wanted out of the community but Cheryl is really fighting to keep what she has and Teddy assumes he’s going to have no problem with staying and getting things handed to him. And in a sense, he’s right. He’s born into that but at the same time you can tell he doesn’t want it.
Waclawiak: Right, but I think he doesn’t know what else he’s supposed to want. When you live in a rigid community—especially where there’s a legacy of you know exactly what trajectory you’re supposed to be on—you don’t know what the other options are. And every other option seems like a failure. Especially if your father is like Jeffery and your life has been laid out for you. There’s a sense that Teddy doesn’t really appreciate how hard it is to get to where he is, especially as a starting point, where Cheryl knows exactly how hard it is to get there so she doesn’t want to let go of anything. She’s worked for it and lived around it because she knows what the alternative is; Teddy doesn’t.
Rumpus: If Cheryl had left before the event at the end of the book, how do you think she would’ve faired in the world?
Waclawiak: This is something I always think about. She hasn’t worked for ten years; how are you supposed to get back into the job market and essentially support yourself when you haven’t worked? You’re educated but your values diminish, especially as an older woman. I see a lot of women who get into circumstances where perhaps their husbands are cheating or they’re not happy but they haven’t worked for twenty years. What are you going to do? And then you’ve lived this lifestyle for so long, your alternative is to what? Move into a one bedroom apartment? Yes, that is obviously an alternative but I think sometimes women will say they don’t want to give up the lifestyle, so they’ll stay. And I used to think that that was a really black and white wrong decision. I empathize with them more now because it’s so much more complicated when you essentially leave your entire community. It’s their identity, and so leaving means completely losing your identity too.
Think about it—all these towns are microcosms of the world at large, and there are different stratospheres and the people who’ve lived there longest have the most power or have the most money and so even if you get new people coming in they’re not going to want to rock the boat because they don’t want to become outcasts. It’s like high school. It’s just we’re trapped in this perpetual high school wanting to be in the in-clique.
Rumpus: There is this other element to your book: preying on youth. Cheryl does a lot of reflecting about women aging and how their husband’s attentions are therefore turned on younger women. And there are two examples of the opposite where women are preying on younger men. You have Teddy with Jill and Cheryl and Stephen.
Waclawiak: In addition to female aging, I really wanted to look at sexuality and acceptable forms of desire, and I thought it was really interesting that Teddy was attracted to older women. But it felt unacceptable and sort of secret; he was never going to talk to his friends about liking a forty-year-old. With Cheryl and Steven, you know, she’s attracted to him because he feels dangerous and also he actually pays attention to her and it makes her feel powerful. So I think in sexual relationships it’s always interesting to me who has the power. I think when you feel like your power is dwindling in your relationship you look to other places to find that power. I do think it’s really interesting to think about power dynamics in sexual relationships, so I wanted to look at that in terms of age. And then there’s this sort of scrutiny that the younger guy will always leave and it always feels linked in tabloids with the woman’s ability to have children or not. It’s so interesting to me that a woman value is tied to whether or not she is able to have children and that’s directly connected to your age, so there’s a line in the book that I had that basically said men only want you when you are fertile. I believe that because we’re all animals that we’re hardwired to procreate, but the older woman has less value because she’s got an end point to when she can have children, and men don’t really have that, so they’re always valuable.
Rumpus: Do you think that things would have been different for Cheryl if she had a kid with Jeffrey?
Waclawiak: I think she would have had less regret. I think much of the choice for her to not have a child was directly linked to Jeffrey not wanting to have children anymore. She would probably channel a lot of her energy into having a kid so her being who she is, she would be less unhappy.
Rumpus: What do you think the future holds for Teddy?
Waclawiak: He will probably end up back home. I think there is a sense of, “Oh I can make it in the outside world,” but when you don’t necessarily have the tools to do so I think it takes a lot of courage to walk away from the world that you’re born into and say, “I don’t want this, I’m going to live another way.” Especially if it’s all you know.
Rumpus: One of the more secondary characters that I really loved was Tuck. Tuck is the person I was rooting for, especially at the end, with his act of defiance. I feel like Cheryl wished that in some way that it was her being able to act on these feelings that she was trying to suppress.
Waclawiak: Tuck is the type of person who never necessarily had a job. There’s never been a fear that he couldn’t get this life or afford it. In many ways he’s Teddy grown up. He’s comfortable in who he is and he’s comfortable that his place in this society is not going to change. He’s not fighting for anything like everybody else, except against Laurie who he feels is this person who’s abusing her power. I thought about him a lot after the book. I think he sort of just wants the neighborhood like it was when he grew up. Like in my first book, I knew if I was going to write a bleak book I needed to have some kind of humor. He is a laid back guy and I think you need points of humor in these kinds of books.
Rumpus: I could almost see him wearing a Hawaiian shirt because he knows they can’t do anything about it.
Waclawiak: What are they going to do?
Rumpus: There are two characters, Jeffrey and Cheryl’s mom, whose relationships with Cheryl feel very parallel in the sense that they are both lost to her. Would that be fair to say?
Waclawiak: That’s a really good point. We only have control of how we react to things and we can put our best effort forth to mend fences or mend relationships but we have no control over how the other person is going to take what we’re doing or take what we’re trying to fix. They can either accept it or reject it. And so it’s interesting to me when one person wants to fix something and the other person is done. A large part of the book was me essentially playing with the idea of where does love go. You can really love someone and all of the sudden it disappears. Of course it’s not overnight, but over time, love erodes. I heard the secret to a long marriage is never falling out of love at the same time. I thought that was genius. If you both stop fighting, that’s when the trouble happens, and I think the same goes for any kind of relationship, especially something as fraught as a mother-daughter relationship.
Rumpus: Do you sympathize with how the husbands act in these communities?
Waclawiak: I have sympathy for everyone and it took me writing this book to gain sympathy for everyone. In the end, we’re all human and we all want to be loved. There’s a lot of sympathy to feel for this sense of deep unhappiness for something that you’ve worked for in this world, that you’ve surrounded by, but you’re not happy with and knowing you can explode your life and move somewhere else or you can sit there and obliterate yourself and act like you’re happy with the alcohol or drugs or whatever. And there are of course people that are happy in these towns—Tuck being one of them, his wife being another—but there’s also this sort of deep sense of unhappiness and thinking, “But this is what we were supposed to want.” I think that goes for both the husbands and the wives. It makes me sad, but I think it’s worth looking at and I think it’s uncomfortable to look at and I think that’s why people have had an adverse reaction to looking at it.
Rumpus: If Cheryl had been included more, would she have been happier?
Waclawiak: I think the inclusion would make her happy. I think maybe that’s what we want. To feel a sense of community with people. But then you know the women who are included in this community aren’t happy anyway. They’re all sniping at each other and they’re all speaking behind each other’s back and stuff so I don’t know. It’s hard not to think we’re doomed.
Rumpus: On a different note, what is your writing process like?
Waclawiak: I have a full-time job so I really try to write nights and weekends and lately I have not been doing a good job. I’m working on another book and I’ve been sidelined with a lot of different things but I’m going to get back to it. I’ll write a first draft semi-quickly, just get it out and then I’ll take everything and look at it and think about what’s missing and then I’ll fill in. So to me, I want to get to the end before I start doing any revising or going backwards, and I think that’s really helped me. I remember being in college and I was in the screenwriting program and I saw classmates sort of working on the first act of the script for the first semester and tweaking it and tweaking it and never finishing anything, so I became obsessed with finishing things. I’m a compulsive finisher—even if I think what I’m coming up with is terrible, I need to finish it so that I can have something to work with and start from page one and do a rewrite.
With this particular book I’m writing right now, I really have to be in the headspace for it. For the first time in my life, I got an Airbnb and ran away and sat there without Internet or television and wrote for four days. I think I’m going to have to do that a lot more with this book. I think sometimes with social media we’re so inundated that we don’t have an attention span anymore so it’s important to take us out of our comfort zone and our day-to-day and to say, I’m paying for this therefore I need to make this worthwhile.
Rumpus: Can you tell me more about your current project?
Waclawiak: The book I’m writing right now is about miracles and death, specifically a miracle that occurs in the desert in Texas. I’ve been going to the desert in Texas and I’ve also been going closer to home in Joshua Tree to be able to write and feel the desert vibes. It’s about religious miracles and why we believe what we believe. The first chapter was published in VQR in the summer issue. It’s a huge departure from what I’ve usually written but also is still investigating the things I’m always obsessed with in my books, which are women in peril and women trying to sort out their life and their world.
Rumpus: We talked about how dark The Invaders is. Does the subject matter you write about ever affect you as a person or your mood?
Waclawiak: I was a real joy to be around while I was writing this book for three years. My husband kept asking, “Are you finished? Can you be normal again?” It really affects me because I have to be in the headspace of these characters. I’ll tell you being in Cheryl’s headspace was really not a place I wanted to be. There’s a desperation to it and this melancholy that you can’t shake and so it was affecting my point of view. I would obsessively watch couples on the street and pick up their behavior. I was also seeing a lot of couples having silent dinners at restaurants. That was really bumming me out. So yeah, I’m a person who’s deeply impacted but what they’re writing and it’s hard.
Rumpus: So you edit at The Believer, which is one of my favorite publications. How has your editing career affected you as a writer?
Waclawiak: It’s actually helped me tremendously. I think it’s been really smart to edit nonfiction as a fiction writer because I don’t get bogged down or depressed while editing. I’ve learned a different sort of narrative structure in a really interesting way editing nonfiction and it’s made me more conscious and careful about what I’m doing. I think that’s also just editing in general, because when I’m editing, I’m refining what other people have done. So instantly now when I work on my own stuff I’m always thinking about revising and refining. For a long time I was so anti-revision and now to me it all seems like problem solving and so that part of the process isn’t as terrible as it used to be.
Rumpus: Does that ever get in the way when you’re doing first-draft work? Does your editor brain try to kick in?
Waclawiak: I might write notes to myself now saying when you come back to this make sure to hit this, this, and this. Points like that, but I still have to get to the end.
Rumpus: Switching gears a little more, you live in Los Angeles, which has a very vibrant literary community. What do you think about the community here?
Waclawiak: I think the community here is so awesome and supportive. People come out for each other and everyone is so nice and inviting. It seems like a much lower pressure situation here. It’s just sort of like, we’re all doing it. We’re all in this together and that’s relaxing and nice.