Vendela Vida’s new novel, The Lovers, follows a middle-aged Vermont woman, recently widowed, as she vacations in the unfamiliar territory of Turkey in an attempt to re-examine her life. Among these new surroundings, her initial numbness about her bereavement gives way to doubt over whether her marriage was even happy, and she has to face up to a pain she never anticipated. Vendela Vida recently answered my questions over lunch during her book tour’s stop-over in New York City.
What drew you to set this novel in Turkey?
It was completely an accident. I went there for a month in June of 2005 when I was trying to finish my second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and wanted to be far away from the Arctic Circle in winter—the setting of that novel—and free from the day-to-day distractions of my life in San Francisco. I found a rental house by typing “Turkey,” “rental,” “cheap,” and “beach” into a search engine. I had no intention of setting a novel there, but a year later, this house and this town I stayed in kept appearing in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of the idea of writing about Turkey, so I did.
Did the house you stayed in have any of the unusual contents of the vacation house in the book?
Yes. I usually don’t like to take details from life, but, in this case, I couldn’t resist. The owners left out things that people typically wouldn’t leave out—sex swings, pornographic photos of the wife, books on sexual positions. My husband and I would leave the house to swim, or eat, or explore, and when we returned we would want to be in a neutral, uncomplicated place to relax and absorb everything new we’d seen and experienced beyond the walls of the house, but we were continually affronted by some new and intimate discovery about the owners’ lives. I wanted to put Yvonne, the protagonist of The Lovers, in a discomfiting situation like that.
Lionel Shriver has said she writes partly as catharsis-in-advance. So she wrote about death to experience bereavement. Was this a motive for you in exploring the character of Yvonne?
I write a lot from a place of fear. My friend, the writer Amanda Davis, who was killed in a plane crash in 2003, said that every day you should write about something that scares you. I was finishing this book just after the birth of my second child and the notion that this newborn could one day be estranged and the source of pain for me was also something I feared—and so I made Yvonne’s relationship with her daughter an especially fraught and challenging one. Even the vague idea of my husband dying is something that devastates me. So I was tapping into that fear when creating Yvonne, who’s fifty-three and a widow, and trying to imagine what it would be like to lose someone after spending half your life with them.
Yet at the same time as Yvonne is living out her worst fears, she’s also looking back and questioning whether this marriage that she’s lost was really so precious.
When I first started the novel, I thought, “I’m going to write about a woman with a happy marriage. There are so many novels about unhappy marriages.” But the more I wrote the more I thought, “Actually, maybe theirs wasn’t necessarily a joyful union.” As Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike…” It became much more intriguing to me to write about a more nuanced and fundamentally cracked marriage.
How did you develop her character?
I talked to widows. I walked around Burlington, Vermont, and took pictures of the house I thought Yvonne would have lived in. I visited the high school where I imagined she would have taught, and I interviewed women about menopause—I did much more research that never made it into the book.
I approached her character differently than I approached Clarissa, the protagonist and narrator of my last book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Some readers described Clarissa as “unlikable.” I remember just feeling stabbed by that. I was upset by the way readers were reading, as though they were evaluating the character based on whether or not they’d want to be her friend. I think the reason you read books is to be with characters you maybe wouldn’t want to hang out with in your real life. This is all a long way of saying that I knew from the start I wanted to direct a lot of tenderness toward Yvonne. This didn’t mean she couldn’t have a sense or humor or make terrible decisions, of course.
Why do you think people had a problem with Clarissa as unlikable?
Because she’s a little cruel at times—but, I thought, with good reason given what she’s going through (she’s just buried the man who raised her, and that night found out he wasn’t her father after all, her fiance’s lied to her, etc.). And she’s very capable of delivering a caustic barb when she wants to—which, again, I thought was appropriate given her feelings of anger and confusion. I’ve been intending to write and essay for years about “unlikable” characters in fiction, and why I feel they’re much more forgivable when they’re male.
How much does having to empathise with your characters affect you on a daily basis? Is there an excuse you can make to friends and family of, “Oh, I’m sorry I’m not better company. Yvonne was really miserable today”?
I have to say that The Lovers took everything out of me (which is, I suppose, how you know you’re done with a book—when you feel you have nothing left to give it). I was finishing it in the months right after my son was born, and I was so sleep-deprived and emotionally exhausted from trying to be cheerful for him and for my daughter, and then, while they were sleeping, slipping into the dark mood of the novel. Did I have to make excuses to my friends? No, because I wasn’t even seeing anybody.
What were your influences for this book?
A short-story writer named Sait Faik, who’s kind of the Chekhov of Turkey. I also re-read The Sheltering Sky, The Stranger and A Passage to India. And Duras’ The Lover.
Do you have influences who are always there?
Joan Didion, J.M. Coetzee, and James Salter are three authors whose styles I find intoxicating. I study their sentences when I’m starting a book, or when I’m lost in the process of writing one. They’re so brilliant at removing the extra words. That’s something I strive to do in my novels—to be as economical and sparse as possible, and to allow each sentence to carry its full weight.
You’ve worked on a screenplay with your husband, Dave Eggers. What’s it like to be in a couple with someone who’s as passionate as you are about writing?
It’s always hard for me to answer a question about what it’s like to be married to another writer, because I’ve never been married before. I mean that quite seriously. The nice thing about being with another writer is you don’t have to justify working. You can say, “You know, I don’t think I can go to so-and-so’s house for brunch this Sunday because I really want to work,” and they’ll understand. Actually, I don’t know why I’m giving a brunch example. I can’t remember the last time anyone invited us to brunch, or the last time I ate it.
You were once an intern at The Paris Review. Did that experience help you as a writer?
Enormously. It made writing—and publishing—seem very glamorous (and every subsequent job I had seem extra punishing). I would go to George Plimpton’s beautiful apartment on East 72nd street and sit looking out the window at the river, and read manuscripts. It felt very sophisticated to my 21-year-old self. Reading the slush pile also really gave me a sense of what people were writing at the time.
I would also take one back-issue home with me each night, read it, and return it the next day. I think that’s when I first fell in love with the long-interview format, and that’s why we have the long-form interviews in The Believer. Those interviews were amazing—just reading all this advice from accomplished writers was really important to me. It’s what made me decide, “Okay, I’m really going to go for this”—even though the rest of the world was constantly telling me how hard it was to be a writer.