Ivy Pochoda writes books that might be described as literary crime fiction. She seems to have combined the best of both worlds: her novels are unputdownable like the greatest thrillers and written with the sophistication of writers who wouldn’t be caught dead with a genre book in their New Yorker tote. Pochoda’s forthcoming fourth novel, These Women, is about a serial killer who targets prostitutes in South Los Angeles. It’s narrated by five different women, among them a victim, a mother of a girl who disappeared many years ago, and a detective whom no one takes seriously. Each voice is unique, rings true, and somehow familiar.
I met Ivy last June in Provincetown, MA: she taught the novel-writing workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center that I was a part of. Immediately, I fell in love with her no-nonsense personality and wonderfully dark sense of humor. But more than that, I was amazed by Ivy’s uncanny ability to diagnose novel-length works-in-progress and prescribe treatment that was always on-point and that helped make something beautiful out of varying degrees of mess. Her own novels always feature multiple characters whose stories intertwine in satisfying ways—she’s the master of structure.
Ivy Pochoda lives in Los Angeles with her screenwriter husband and five-year-old daughter, Loretta. When she came to New York for an event, I jumped at the chance to talk with her about her career in sports, the pitfalls of being a woman in the world, and her work in Skid Row where she teaches writing. Shortly after we spoke in person, I reached out to Ivy via email to ask her about the late Kobe Bryant, with whom she co-created middle grade books.
The Rumpus: You used to be a world-ranked squash player, then became a full-time writer. Is it something you always wanted?
Ivy Pochoda: My mother was a magazine editor, and my father worked in publishing. He made the annual trips to the London and the Frankfurt book fairs, bringing me tons of books. So, growing up, I read a great deal. I also went to this literary, artsy school in Brooklyn called St. Ann’s, then studied classics at Harvard. While there, I edited the culture magazine because all I wanted was to be a magazine journalist—that was my dream.
Rumpus: When did you start writing fiction?
Pochoda: I played squash in Amsterdam when I was twenty three. It wasn’t the most satisfying thing: I was good at it, but not good enough. I was ranked thirty-eighth in the world. Besides, I wanted to do something more creative, so I started writing a book. My parents weren’t a hundred percent thrilled that after college I decided to go and play squash, and then I picked a second less financially secure job—writing a novel. I really had no idea what I was doing, and that was a disaster. Ultimately, I came back to the United States and sold The Art of Disappearing to a publisher after getting thirty-nine rejections. I think I convinced my agent to sell the book through sheer force of will. She’d actually said to me that there was a world in which maybe I didn’t want to publish that book. It would’ve been much better to start on a cleaner slate with a better book, according to her. At the time, I thought she was crazy, but of course she was totally right. My next book did really well, but there’s a lot of attention that you get for your first book that you don’t get for the second one.
Rumpus: Did you eventually go to graduate school for writing?
Pochoda: I did—maybe even my agent suggested that I apply to an MFA program. I got in the same day my first book was sold. Full disclosure: back then you had to take the GRE, and there was no way that was happening for me. It’s so stupid! I would’ve loved to go to a fully funded program out of state—it would’ve been good for me. But I applied to the low-residency program at Bennington, and I absolutely loved it there and got a ton out of it. They taught me to be a better writer. Then I had to de-program myself, because Bennington is on a super literary track of a certain type of writing, and that’s not my style. I had to find my individual voice.
Rumpus: Would you call yourself a crime novelist?
Pochoda: I never set out to write a crime novel. When I sold my second book, Visitation Street, I thought I’d written a female version of a Jonathan Lethem novel—literary fiction about New York. About nine months into the process of publishing it my amazing editor Lee Boudreaux asked me what I thought about a big old quote from Dennis Lehane on the cover. I said, “Why would you ask him to blurb my book? He’s a mystery writer.” And she was like, “Honey, you wrote a mystery.” I was shocked. She said, “What did you think you wrote? Two girls go missing in the first chapter, and you find out what happened in the last one—that’s a hundred percent mystery.” I only had one question from then on: will they sell my book in airports? So they started marketing it as a mystery. Literary writers are afraid to subscribe to genre conventions, but genres are awesome. They are so much fun, and people read them for a reason. But in my own thinking, I’m not really good at writing mysteries—I’m good at writing about communities. I like to think of a crime as a way into a community: it gives everyone something to react to.
Rumpus: You often write about the underprivileged. Do you do it on purpose?
Pochoda: When I wrote Visitation Street, I didn’t even think it was about underprivileged people. It was about a bunch of twentysomethings hanging out at my neighborhood bar. I had moved to Red Hook in Brooklyn, and at that point it was pretty working-class. There were a couple of bars, two bodegas, and this Greek diner underneath my apartment. I just wrote about the people I knew. When the book came out, people started saying, “Oh, wow, you wrote about this really underserved part of the world!” Since then the neighborhood has gentrified, and the same happened with the neighborhood I described in my next book. It just keeps happening!
Rumpus: In Wonder Valley, your third novel, some of the characters are homeless.
Pochoda: I used to live in the Arts District in LA, and I would commute to my squash club through Skid Row on my bike. I randomly wrote an email to someone about teaching creative writing at a community organization called LAMP (now called The People Concern), and they were all for it. After working there for a while, I realized that no one’s life starts in Skid Row. Something’s happened to get him or her there. Like one little thing that they did, maybe they set a fire and their lawyer messed up, and then they owed money. Or they lost all their money on student debt and wound up on the street. I was very interested in how a community was formed out of people who didn’t mean to be there.
Rumpus: What do the people you work with in Skid Row write about?
Pochoda: I work at a community center with an art studio, so they all become members of the studio and have access to it. These are people who have been homeless at some point in their life or struggled with extreme poverty or mental health issues. Some of them do live on the street, but many of them have some form of housing. One of my students, Jerry, is Pat Benatar’s ex hairdresser. He’s amazing, a seriously good writer. He writes great dark stuff that’s grounded in some reality of his life and also kind of abstract. Nick Paul, a former drag queen and fabulous papier-mâché sculptor, writes amazing poetry. I’m not an arts therapist, so I try not to go too deep: I give really light-hearted assignments. I sometimes get nervous when we go into bad stuff because you never know what might be triggering.
Rumpus: In These Women, why did you choose to write about prostitutes?
Pochoda: There’s this thing called Next Door, it’s like Facebook for your neighborhood. I live off of a street in LA where there’s prostitution. I was on our neighborhood council for a while, and the council members were so nasty about the prostitutes. It was just shocking to me that they wanted to take these women’s pictures and put them on the internet, shaming them. I thought, Do you really think this is what that woman wants to be doing? Of course, in certain types of prostitution, like high-class escorting, I’m sure the women are capable of making that decision. But no one wakes up one day thinking they are going to work the streets of South LA. I wanted to change how people think about prostitutes. It’s really important to shine a light onto different sections of humanity.
Rumpus: Was that how the idea of the novel occurred to you?
Pochoda: The idea appeared to me all at once when I watched a documentary about a serial killer in South LA. You could say that my book is slightly based on it. It’s called Tales of the Grim Sleeper. The filmmakers were interviewing the killer’s friends, and they were saying the traditional stuff, like he was the nicest guy. But then halfway through the interview one of the friends just said, “Well, there were always pictures of naked women in his car, and he had all this rope there. And sometimes we’d go to his house, and there was screaming in the back.” And I was like, wait, you knew? Then, in a book about Ted Bundy, I read about his girlfriend calling the police, turning him in, and them being like, oh, it’s not him. I asked myself, how do you live with the idea that your boyfriend or husband might be a serial killer? I was very interested in that, and I thought this could be a feminist story about what it’s like not to be taken seriously because you’re a woman, about there being double standards.
Rumpus: Have you ever experienced something similar in your own life?
Pochoda: I grew up playing sports. Because I was very good, I played with boys, and they would just tease me mercilessly. Only much later I realized how much of that I internalized and just played along with this masculine culture. I also had quite a few different boyfriends as a young adult, and once, at an event, somebody said to my mom, “Ivy is that slut from Harvard squash team.” They didn’t know she was my mom, of course. To many of those Harvard preppy folks, if you had two boyfriends, you were like the whore of Babylon. I was also the captain of my team, and the girls on the team once wanted to stage an intervention because another teammate had slept with three guys over the course of several months. When I tried to explain why I thought that was okay, they didn’t listen. Basically, a woman in sports (and certainly elsewhere) isn’t and wasn’t deemed smart enough or in control enough to make her own choices, especially if others thought those choices were promiscuous. But if a woman was or is taken advantage of, somehow that was her own fault.
Rumpus: Do you believe in retribution in literature? Should villains get what they deserve in the end?
Pochoda: If I ran the world, everyone would pay for their crimes, of course, but I understand that’s never going to happen. And I think that some of the most powerful novels address the unfairness of society. If we’re speaking about endings, I go for whatever casts the longest shadow. For instance, if someone kills your child, do you want the killer to be caught and put to jail? It would certainly be better for society, but it wouldn’t necessarily be better for you. I have friends who lost their kids, and nothing makes it better. So I think that the most important thing for a writer is to access the human cost of violence. You should decide whether the story is better served by somebody going to jail or by them being on the loose.
Rumpus: There’s an unhappy ending trope that Russian literature, on which I grew up, uses often (think Anna Karenina). And I notice that the sadder the ending, the more realistic it feels to me. What do you think?
Pochoda: I agree. In Visitation Street, I wanted a happy ending, but it just felt so dumb and unrealistic. I don’t think a novel should be tied with a neat bow. Usually, you can see that kind of ending a mile away, and it doesn’t really satisfy you as a reader. That being said, I believe you can do anything well.
Rumpus: What’s your writing practice like? Do you have a routine?
Pochoda: I’ve a five-year-old daughter now who was three and four when I was writing These Women. Now my routine has changed because I have to get her to school. In my ideal world, I’d get up and start working at 8 a.m. and work until 1 p.m., but now I can’t actually start working until 9:30 a.m., or 11 a.m. if I go to the gym. I have to write as soon as possible, otherwise it’s not happening. I only work on weekdays, and I aim for at least a thousand words a day. On a really good day, I can write fifteen hundred to two thousand words. I’m not particularly ambitious, and I set very small goals. Like I’m gonna get Dorian from her fish shack to the bar today, and that’ll be a thousand words.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write the first draft of These Women?
Pochoda: About a year, but this was an anomalous project for me in terms of how fast it happened. Then my editor, Zack Wagman, and I worked on the Dorian section over and over, just trying to get her character nailed down. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on in her head, and I didn’t want her to just be angry all the time. And the detective sections were really hard to write, because I didn’t want her to be a cliche and to do all the usual detective shit. But the last sections basically wrote themselves. So overall it took a year and a half to write, which is short. I’m sure it’ll never happen again; everything will be super painful and awful. I can already feel it with the new book I’m working on.
Rumpus: I know you have a very special relationship with your parents, who are your first readers.
Pochoda: They have always been and still are the only people I show my work to before I show it to anyone else. My parents understand me, and they understand where I’m coming from in a deep, intrinsic way.
Rumpus: What kinds of notes do they give you?
Pochoda: My dad will give me these big-picture notes, and my mom will say something like, “This is great, but it’s super overdone. We get it: she’s from this place, and she talks like this, but we’ve heard enough of it.” She’s a great copy editor, and that’s the part that comes easier to me as I’m getting older as a writer. I’ve developed a style that I feel comfortable in. I believe that a little style goes a long way. In contemporary fiction, there’s this thing that gets overdone, in my opinion. These short choppy sentences with no verbs, like, “She woke up. She looked out the window. The lawn behind the window. Two trees. She wiped her hands. On her apron.” Or, “It was a cold day. Gray as dishwater.” Where are the words, you know? I’m all in favor of incomplete sentences when it’s meaningful and not just a trendy thing.
Rumpus: I must tell you that you’re an amazing writing teacher. You have this wonderful skill I haven’t seen in anyone else: you can analyze a work-in-progress, using just a chapter and an outline, and give incredibly astute notes. How do you do it?
Pochoda: I read a lot of novels-in-progress because I’ve taught this writing workshop in LA forever, and I also do a lot of freelance editing. I started to see the same stumbling blocks people have in terms of structure, and I just love to problem-solve. Maybe I should be a book therapist? When I was a student, sometimes I felt that teachers were unwilling to talk about my book as a whole, and I really wanted them to. I think it’s something I really missed and decided to attack. I’ve also read a lot of commercial novels compared to other teachers, and that gives me a sound framework in terms of the scaffolding the book is built upon. I believe that if you took Infinite Jest, you could put it in an order that is completely linear and logical. But so many writers are just trying to skip this step, and their novels are all over the place. I really love structure, and I love thinking about the book’s skeleton. That’s my obsession.
Rumpus: And I can tell you really like teaching and helping other writers.
Pochoda: I love teaching! I’d like to be on faculty somewhere, but I’m also happy that I have this sideline business of middle grade books that pays a little better.
Rumpus: Can you talk about how it started and what’s going to happen to it now?
Pochoda: Well, that’s a little bit on hold. For nearly four years, I collaborated closely with Kobe Bryant on a middle grade book that was supposed to be part of a four-book series. It’s called Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof, and it rocks. Shortly after you and I talked in New York, he died, and I’m still in shock. I had just spoken with him about his notes for the second draft of our second book. I’m currently finishing this second book. It’s been incredibly painful. I feel tasked with carrying on his literary legacy and making sure his complex, important, and profound message gets across to the people he cared most about: kids. I would love nothing more than to be able to finish the four books. I think there’s a chance, but right now there’s also a bit of uncertainty. I’m just grateful on a daily basis for what he and I were able to accomplish together and for our improbable friendship. It was such a delight to write outside my comfort zone—middle grade fantasy was not my jam until I met Kobe.
Photograph of Ivy Pochoda by Maria_Kanevskay.