The Ugly Side of Ambition: A Conversation with Joy Lanzendorfer
Joy Lanzendorfer and I met through a workshop we both took with the writer Sheila Heti over a weekend this past winter. It was during the heart of pandemic lockdown and it seemed like many of us were craving intimate connection through the craft of writing. There were well over a hundred people contained within a grid of small Zoom boxes as Sheila held court from her living room in Toronto, an oversized dog wandering about in the background.
After the workshop ended, one of the participants took on the burly task of connecting writers who might be interested in working together. Joy and I both live on the West Coast; she lives near San Francisco and I live in Portland. We began meeting twice a month on Zoom, focusing on our novels-in-progress and calling ourselves “accountabilabuddies.” Her second novel is based on a school shooting and Joy warned me that it might be difficult subject matter, but as someone who’s often drawn to true crime narratives, I enjoyed her work right away.
When Joy handed me her debut novel, Right Back Where We Started From, I was immediately drawn into the dual storylines. I was thrust back in time to early 1930s Hollywood and the California Gold Rush. It’s a historical literary novel containing dialogue and descriptions that come to life, not unlike a moving picture. Joy describes the main characters, three multigenerational women, as somewhat difficult, and as much as I get why she says that, I also find them relatable. They are women who constantly feel like they live in the shadows of men. It’s a book about blind ambition. The mother, daughter, and granddaughter are pursuing their own desires with the same ruthlessness of the men who went searching for gold in California in 1849. It’s a story about greed and its side effects.
I spoke with Joy over multiple Zoom calls in May about her first book, 1930s Hollywood, the California Gold Rush, and greed and ambition—all through the lens of how women are viewed differently than men.
The Rumpus: This book is about a lot of things—the California Gold Rush, Hollywood during the Second World War, ambition, greed, socioeconomics, the role of women and their relationships to men—but really I feel that this book is the story of three generations of women. Can you tell us about these women, and what inspired you to write about them?
Joy Lanzendorfer: You’re right, the women are the core of the story. Sandra is loosely based on my grandmother, who was a vivid presence in my life, and the plot includes stories I heard growing up about our family. My grandfather used to tell dramatic tales about family silver mines, forbidden love, and life among cowboys in the 1920s. When he died, my dad learned that a lot of the stories weren’t true, which left behind some gaps in our family history. We don’t even know which country my grandfather originally came from, for example. His storytelling left behind a legacy of confusion, of sorts.
It made me think about family myths, and how generational identity feeds into personal identity. If you grow up believing false stories about your family, and you build the foundation of yourself on top of that, what does that say about who you are? What happens if you learn that your beliefs about your family aren’t true? This is the conflict Sandra has in Right Back Where We Started From. Her mother tells her one version of her heritage, which is that their family used to be wealthy and that bad fortune robbed them of their place in society, so Sandra believes it’s her job to become successful and restore her family to a place of prominence. But inconvenient secrets start popping up that suggest that the way Sandra sees her family, and therefore herself, isn’t accurate. As she runs away from the truth, the book starts to tell you the real story of her family, beginning with her grandmother, Vira, coming over in the Gold Rush.
I wanted to tell a matriarchal story of a grandmother affecting the mother and the mother absorbing that and affecting her daughter. Historically, matriarchal stories are erased or written off as unimportant. It’s the men in history who are supposed to be interesting, while we’re supposed to think the women were off, I don’t know, embroidering doilies or something. It was hard for me to even find scholarly information about the lives of ordinary women in nineteenth-century California. Of course, then, as now, women had messy, full lives. And much of that complexity would involve the power dynamics of the mother/child relationship.
Rumpus: We have spoken at length about the complicated women in this book and how they are sometimes called “unlikable.” I’d like to hear your thoughts on that, and why you feel that readers tend to hone in on the women in particular and not so much on the seemingly unlikable men.
Lanzendorfer: I guess it was naive of me not to anticipate what a big deal it would be that I have not one, but three, complicated women in my novel. I failed to realize that it’s still important for women to be likable, and that it’s a huge stumbling block for some readers that my characters display unpleasant traits like greed, manipulation, and narcissism.
While it’s reasonable to want to like the characters you’re reading about, this criticism is linked to the fact that my characters are women. Male characters aren’t subjected to this tyranny of being likable. In fact, “unlikable” characteristics are welcomed in male characters as a sign of complexity. Personally, when reading or watching television, I don’t need characters to be likable. I enjoy it when women in fiction are allowed to be ugly or mean or greedy or any number of “unfeminine” qualities. It’s refreshing and interesting, not to mention an accurate portrayal of how people really are.
My characters in this novel are difficult for a reason. I wanted to see what it looked like when women chase greed and ambition like men. It turns out that ruthless ambition corrodes a lot of things, like morality and relationships. It’s not the most likable trait to allow running your life, but it’s a very human trait, and in America, a common one.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the men in this novel. Sandra, Mabel, and Vira seem to have challenging relationships with the men in their lives. Not only do they depend on them, but their feelings toward them often shifts. What can you share about these men and the relationships to the women you write about in this book?
Lanzendorfer: The romantic relationships reflect the transactional nature of marriage in the past. For Vira, who meets Elmer in 1850 in a dramatic, romantic way (you can read that chapter here), marriage renders her powerless. She doesn’t want to go to the Gold Rush, which means leaving behind family, friends, and everything she knows for what she calls “the uneven gamble of striking it rich.” But it’s either go with her husband or stay behind with his mother, who she barely knows. In a sense, she’s lucky to have even this choice. Many women were left behind when their husbands went to the Gold Rush and never saw them again. So Vira tries to believe Elmer’s promises, even though it means shutting down her own common sense. When that trust is broken in the middle of the Nevada desert, she resolves to gain control of their marriage, which has a huge and negative impact on their relationship.
Then you have Sandra, who in the middle of the Great Depression meets Frederick, a German immigrant who’s a photographer and a bit of a liar. Sandra thinks she’s too good for him, but she’s also attracted to him, and that’s the dynamic that starts out their relationship. But Sandra wants to marry a rich man, because that’s a way she can have power. Frederick doesn’t have a lot of interest in becoming rich, no matter what Sandra wants. So yes, romance and finances are tied together in this novel—even more so for Mabel and her husband, Arthur Beard.
Rumpus: There’s a strong sense of place in your writing. You take the reader through many parts of California: Hollywood, San Francisco, Healdsburg, Walnut Creek, Petaluma, and others. It seems like you know these places well. Can you share your personal history with these particular areas of California and why you chose them as the settings?
Lanzendorfer: All the settings in the book are places where my family or I have lived. I live in Petaluma, and my grandmother is from nearby Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Growing up, I heard a lot about the “San Francisco house” my dad lived in as a child. “If any of us had kept that house, we’d be rich now,” is the refrain, which is probably true—my dad is eighty-three and the house he grew up in is no doubt worth millions. The Walnut Creek house is also closely based on family stories that I can’t share without spoiling the novel. And my grandfather spent time in Hollywood and had a chance to work with Walt Disney on the ground floor of animation, but turned the job down because he found the idea of drawing Mickey Mouse emasculating, which I think says a lot about him as a person.
There’s a sense of loss in my family connected to place, the what-if of selling a home before the housing market skyrocketed, the if-only of moving to the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose that’s part of why my novel is so consumed with failure. There’s a sense that the life I grew up with in California is a shadow of the life my parents had, and even that is slowly crumbling or suddenly lighting on fire. This tension is part of my daily life, so it’s natural I would write a book that critically examines the California dream.
Rumpus: While reading, I was struck by how much it must have taken to write a historical literary novel–the details within the scene, keeping language and dialogue consistent, even down to the way the characters looked and dressed. Can you share a bit about your research process?
Lanzendorfer: It took me eight years to write this novel, and a lot of that was spent researching. I read copious books about everything from the history of credit cards to the home front during World War II to the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There were trips to Gold Rush towns and time spent studying vintage fruit labels or digging around the internet for menus to figure out what Sandra would have eaten in a fancy restaurant in 1932. There were also lots of trips to the library to study primary sources. For the lives of prune farmers, for example, I scrolled through microfilm of old newspapers in the Healdsburg library, piecing together details like how prunes were graded and dried—not all research is glamorous!
This book is different from other historical novels in that while I’m using history as a backdrop, it’s very much a work of the imagination. I’ve braided fact and fiction together and exaggerated details to make a hyper-realized, almost mythical version of California. In some cases the scenes are bordering on magical realism. Much of the humor in this book is winking at you from this place of off-kilter reality, which goes along with the novel’s themes of lies versus truth and myth versus reality.
I also used pop culture as inspiration. There’s a palatial Victorian mansion that’s loosely based on the ever-expanding Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. I based a character on Britney Spears back when she was shaving her head and hitting paparazzi with an umbrella. I drew inspiration from the actor Mary Astor and her purple diaries, which was a Hollywood sex scandal in the 1930s. There’s a runaway blimp, a racially charge boxing match, a character who has a crush on Black Bart, a citrus-themed speakeasy… I find history endlessly fascinating, and I think that comes through in this book.
Rumpus: I feel that one of the main themes of this novel is socioeconomics, most especially in regards to the female protagonists and how they depend on men to survive, how they have a strong desire to elevate their status in society. I noted two quotes in particular: “She wondered when she would be the rich woman in the room already. It was something she’d been waiting for her entire life,” and “If I had some money, everything would be different.” In what ways do you think things have evolved or not, in regards to women’s roles in society?
Lanzendorfer: Yes, this is a huge part of the novel. Throughout, Sandra repeatedly comes up against the financial limits of being a woman. She grew up as a child laborer, picking prunes in orchards, and she’s terrified of going back to that level of poverty. She knows that the jobs women could get—teacher, secretary, sales girl—won’t provide enough money for her to leave that lifestyle behind for good. When she goes to a bank to get a loan for a business, she discovers that they won’t lend to women. She’s told, “We’ll only sign a woman if a male relative will cosign with you. Do you have a father or brother who could do that for you?” Her options are limited, which is why she ends up focusing on unrealistic things, like becoming a movie star or finding a rich husband. Vira and Mabel also come up against limits because of their genders. Mabel, for instance, faces what happens to women of the nineteenth century when they lose their status and are left to drift on their own.
At the same time, these are white women who have a great deal of entitlement and privilege, and I don’t let my characters off the hook with that. I didn’t want to just write a book about how hard it was for women in the past, because we all know that. I was interested in the ugly side of ambition, and how following it to the exclusion to all else can lead down some dark paths. My characters are trying to fit into a capitalist game of get-rich-quick wealth that’s designed to cut women out, as well as Black people, people of color, and other minority groups. They are complacent with this system, trying to achieve success within it while at the same time playing the gender games that are, at root, designed to hold them back. It doesn’t work out well for them.
Rumpus: It was really fun to read about Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, witnessing Sandra trying so desperately to eke her way into any measly role in film. For me, this is really what set the foundation for the story. Do you agree with that?
Lanzendorfer: Yes definitely. Sandra is “gold rushing” for fame at a time when the industry is collapsing from the Depression. (There are many gold rushes in this story beyond the literal gold rush of 1849.) Hollywood felt the Depression later than other industries, which is why people thought it was Depression-proof at first. Eventually the public couldn’t afford to go to the movies anymore, so the smaller studios went under and others consolidated or reorganized under bankruptcy. At the same time, the “Okies” were flooding into the state—migrants coming to California to escape the Dust Bowl—and many of them went to Hollywood.
I had a breakthrough when I found a series of articles from the 1930s that followed bit players in Hollywood. It involved the Central Casting system, which was how Hollywood found actors for small parts in movies. It was a gig economy that went through this central office, and it became exploitative when people started pouring into LA to break into movies. It drove the pay down and forced actors to live on a subsistence level. That’s a huge part of Sandra’s Hollywood experience.
But you’re right, the Hollywood section is the foundation for the rest of the book because it sets Sandra on a pattern of starting over again and again. She wants to believe the family narrative that she can achieve anything if she tries. This is a very American impulse. Many people are uncomfortable looking at the uglier parts of our history because it’s easier to believe America is the greatest nation on earth, and by extension, all of us have the potential to become great if we work hard enough. Throughout history, scores of people have followed the myth of easy riches that came along with the Gold Rush. The irony is that few people got rich in the Gold Rush from gold—the people who made money did so by selling goods to the miners. At heart this book is about what happens to the people who fail, the ones who never strike it rich or make it into the movies or rise to prominence. What happens to the person who shows up late for the Gold Rush?
Photograph of Joy Lanzendorfer by Kyle Rankin.