An insidious little poem for today by Michael Snediker. We liked the confrontational flirtation here, the crispness of its Jamesian distinctions, and the uncanny feeling of being caught holding a missing puzzle piece. —Dan Chiasson Read More
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.
How effective is it to use literature to seduce men?
So maybe it wasn’t fair to invite him to the lecture I was giving on The Great Gatsby and then use it as a chance to get back at him. After all, I’m a writing teacher and a student of literature—soon to be a professor of literature—and I should have respect for Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, even if it flopped when it came out. Was I really going to use it to show him—in the most petty and humiliating way—how hurt and pissed off I was that he had told me he just wanted to be friends?
Yes, I was. I sat on a bench on the “literary walk” in Iowa City—the UNESCO City of Literature—and made notes so that my lecture had less to do with how anecdotes hinge together within chapters and more to do with what a philandering ass Tom Buchanan is. My plan was to focus on chapter one, specifically the moment when Nick goes over to Tom and Daisy’s for dinner and glimpses East Egg for the first time. I’d talk about how each anecdote—each seemingly random incident—sets up what a snake Tom is. After all, he’s the one who shuts the windows and brings Daisy and Jordan Baker—whose dresses are “rippling and fluttering” as if they’ve just taken “a short flight around the house”—to the floor. Tom’s a bummer, the kind of man who uses his “gruff” voice and “cruel” body to beat the spirit and life out of women.
He would get the message.
As I got up from the bench, the better part of my thin soul tried to remind me that Gatsby is the kind of book that proves writing is an art, even if Fitzgerald did write it for money. It’s a novel I love, one I teach to literature students twice a year.
And really, what had this guy done? I wasn’t Daisy and he wasn’t Tom Buchanan. He was just a guy who liked to flirt and send lots and lots of text messages laden with sexual innuendos late at night, just one of the many Americans who thought about writing a memoir and wanted to talk to “a real writer” about it. Was I really going to break his newly found literary spirit? Wouldn’t I be better off delving into Fitzgerald’s rich text for the right reasons?
No, I would not. I walked into the lecture hall packed with aspiring writers wanting to know how novels work. The guy was in the fifth row innocently reading the newspaper. I was the one who had convinced him to read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and then meet me “for strawberries” to discuss it. I was the one who told him he should read Hemingway and then invited him to go for a walk because I really wanted to know what he thought of Papa.
And he wasn’t the first. There was the filmmaker who wanted to read more poetry, the luthier who was curious about novellas. I don’t know when I started using literature to seduce men, but my bookish attempts to entice were starting to make me feel desperate and unclean.
I delivered my vengeful Gatsby lecture. But every time I caught the guy’s eye, I started to feel a lot like Tom with his $300,000 pearls. Wasn’t I just trying to bribe men hungry for something to read? And what would happen when and if the guy reciprocated? How could I deliver book recommendations for an entire marriage? Wouldn’t he, eventually, see right through me—just as Daisy had with Tom? And wouldn’t I, like Tom, eventually stray to fill my need to entrance someone who had never read a personal essay?
When I finished my lecture, the writers in the audience applauded. They seemed genuinely pleased. They came up and asked lots of questions about structure and scene-versus-summary. The guy stood up and left. I assumed he was irrevocably pissed off. I had achieved my goal. I’d won. Hadn’t I?
The writers filed out, and I erased the blackboard. As packed up my things, I felt my phone vibrate. A text from the guy: Great lecture. Meet for lunch?
At the end of the first chapter, Nick sees Gatsby looking out across the Sound. He assumes he’s staring at the green light at the edge of Daisy’s dock. But how can Nick be sure what Gatsby’s really looking at? How can he really know?
A modern tale of heartbreak and video games.
For years I’ve enjoyed a mildly successful career as a voice actor. Specifically, an advertising announcer, which means I get paid to say things like, “Get into a Saturn for just $299 a month.” I’ve hawked everything from cars and credit cards to hotels and beer, all with a tone that rarely deviates from that of a pilot announcing a plane’s gradual descent over the intercom.
I recently asked my agent if I could try auditioning for video game character voices. I thought it would be fun and maybe even legitimize the fact that I play more video games than a forty-year-old who has been laid probably should.
I went on a few auditions. Regrettably, and I’d like to think, understandably, I failed to convince anyone that I was a Latino mercenary, a Korean soldier, or a homicidal Midwestern drifter. I frantically practiced accents in anticipation of what might come next. My German sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. My French, like Pepé Le Pew.
Thankfully the next audition turned out to be for neither, but for an old, foul-mouthed lawman in a game set on the American frontier called Red Dead Redemption. My agent called. I got it.
A week later, I went into Rockstar Games in Soho for the recording and screamed two hours of lines as Marshall Leigh Johnson. I threatened, chased, arrested, and killed people. I even died. I didn’t just die, I died with an accent. I was in the freaking zone. After signing my paperwork, I left, sweating, voiceless, and thrilled to bid farewell to my voice-over innocence. A new day had dawned for me and my badass larynx.
A month later, New York City was covered in promotions for the game. Subways, buses, sides of buildings. It was the most highly-anticipated game in years. I couldn’t contain my gravelly chuckle as I walked past posters of myself, or the under-my-breath “hee-ya” when a police horse crossed my path.
I imagined kids rushing toward me at Comic-Con begging me to do the voice.
“Sorry, I can’t,” I’d say. (in the voice)
“It IS you!” They’d scream.
“That’s right,” I’d reply, “Now go on and git!”
I’d sign posters right across the yellowed whiskers of my beard. I’d sign the breasts of the kids’ moms. I’d draw the barrel of a pistol as the “i” of my signature. It would be my thing.
I monitored the game’s Web site for the latest news. With the release two months away they put out a trailer that, to my confusion, didn’t feature my voice when the Marshall spoke. I asked my agent about it, she told me not to worry and that it was typical to use different voices specifically for the trailers.
A month later another trailer came out. Still not my voice. IMDB released credits for the game. I wasn’t listed. My agent maintained her position. They must have used the name of the trailer voice actor by mistake, she said. I no longer shared her optimism, but knew where I needed to go for the answer: the GameStop in Park Slope, May 18th at midnight.
I passed by the store early that day to confirm the pickup time for the big release night. During an extremely short lull while chatting with two whitehead-ravaged clerks, I succumbed to a confusing urge to tell them who I was.
“You’re the Marshall?” they said in disbelief.
“That’s what the badge says.” Dear God, celebrity had already wreaked havoc on me. Read More
In his new book Mentor, Tom Grimes explores his friendship with Frank Conroy, who was the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for almost twenty years, offering the reader an unvarnished account of the vagaries of MFA programs, the fickleness of publishers, and the anguish and second-guessing that even the best writers suffer. He recently answered our questions about the book via e-mail.
You write of Frank Conroy’s memoir, “What electrifies Stop-Time is its demonic anger.” There’s definitely some anger in Mentor, and a strong brew of other emotions. How did you marshal those into a finished book? Type angry and revise calmly?
Actually, I never expected to write the book. Its existence is due to pure chance—an off-the-cuff comment by a Tin House editor who suggested that I write about Frank Conroy’s work. Instead, without giving it much thought, I began to write about Frank and me. Since the memoir’s inception was accidental I didn’t know what emotions I’d encounter. I simply knew that I had the beginning of the story—when I met Frank Conroy—and the events that happened during the sixteen years we were friends. Other than that, I handled what came at me, through my recollections, on a daily basis. Usually, I had no idea what would come next until I was just about to write it. Certain parts of the memoir clearly needed to appear: writing my second novel, describing its fate, continuing to write, and my relationship with Frank. But the memoir opens up into a larger meditation on friendship. I never really considered Frank my “mentor.” I considered him a friend and I was more interested and invested in that relationship than I was in our relationship through writing, once we’d moved past the experience of my second novel’s fate. Also, I revised sentences relentlessly and that marshaled my emotions as I wrote. And the quickness with which events moved saved me from the sandpit of self-absorption, which any memoirist absolutely has to avoid.
Has Conroy’s initial snubbing of you at a reading in Key West influenced the way you act at your own readings?
Yes and no. I’m polite to everyone who approaches me, but I understand that Frank had to be wary of strangers who approached him with questions about applying to or getting into the Iowa Writers Workshop. In retrospect, I understand his guardedness. More importantly, his initial snubbing of me sparked the anger that informed our relationship later on. I believe that if I’d never encountered him I may have been just another student who studied at Iowa but lacked a strong emotional reaction to and, ultimately, a strong emotional bond with him. Several years after the incident when we knew one another quite well and were very close friends, we were at a bar, somewhat drunk. I looked at him and said, “You know, the first time we met you walked right past me after I asked you a question.” Momentarily, Frank stared into space, puzzled. Then he said, “But I didn’t know it was you.”
You are unsparingly self-critical in the book, especially about your second novel, Season’s End: “I’m a failure as a writer because I’ve overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent.” How are you judging failure here?
My sales were lousy and my novels—no matter how good some people (or reviewers) told me they were, or how good I thought they were—hadn’t won any prizes, so I was left in a vacuum. The literary world didn’t provide me with a sense of my worth as a writer, or give me a reason to continue writing. Nevertheless, I did. That was personal, and that had to do with my ambition. I wanted to be a great writer. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelves that Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Pynchon’s books occupied. I wanted to write books that would change the way people saw the world. To me, that was success, and according to those standards I overreached. Had I set my sights lower, at age nineteen, which is when my ambition was first formed—before I’d written a word of fiction!—I may have been less tormented for the past twenty years. Read More
In recent weeks I’ve been told by three separate (male) friends that I talk about sex perhaps a bit too freely. What should I read to restore my sense of conversational decency? —Gretchen, Berlin
As Daniel Piepenbring observed earlier this week, no subject—not even kittens—is safe in the presence of a thoroughly dirty mind. So don’t bother reading about kittens.
Years ago a friend invited me to visit his family in New Delhi. Just before I got on the plane, he called to warn me that his family was broad-minded, relaxed, urbane, good-humored, devoted to Scotch and to gossip—all of which turned out to be true—and all of which might lead me to venture an anecdote about, say, dating, or flirtations, or romantic misadventures. This, my friend assured me, would be a disaster. “My family is not like your family. We do not talk about sex.”
Didn’t talk about sex? What did he mean? Would they laugh? Would they change the subject? “They would pretend not to have heard you. They would be shocked.”
I boarded the plane in a state of intense dismay. My friend was right: my family can’t get through dinner—can hardly get through Lehrer—without at least one pretty detailed discussion of somebody’s love life. And I would be staying with his family for a week! I had visions of John Cleese goose-stepping all over Fawlty Towers in his doomed efforts not to mention (sorry, Gretchen) the War.
But as luck would have it, the books in my carry-on were the Palliser series, by Anthony Trollope. These saved me. Readers of the Daily know my feelings about Trollope. Among his many virtues, he manages to write about intimate family life, intrigue, courtship, and infidelity—without ever raising a blush to the Victorian cheek. I clung to him as a guide. It helped that my hosts spoke an English closer to Trollope’s than to mine. (They were the most genteel people I had ever met.) Every time I opened my mouth, I simply asked myself WWTS.
I suggest you do the same. (And/or make a few new friends—you’re in Berlin!)