As does the fog, satire tiptoes on little cat's feet. It teases and uneases to please.* Satire makes us think, in a more honest way.
Victoria Patterson, below, author of “Drift: Stories” and “This Vacant Paradise,” is a cunning satirist. Her writing is subtle and sublime. Her eye for fine detail is strong, distinct and razor-sharp. Her satire is as precise as the thrust of an épée.
Satire exposes and condemns foolishness and, especially, evil. Thus, it’s the most unstable, insecure form of humour. The writer is never sure the reader gets the punchline: a good satirist is thus hard to find.
Patterson skewers the elites of Orange County, California, without remorse or compassion. “I write what I saw.” She spent her teenage years in the Newport Beach area of Orange County. “I recorded how the one per cent lives,” says Patterson. “I made up some, not as much as readers think, because it is fiction.”
“House of Mirth,” by Edith Wharton inspired Patterson. “I read it, repeatedly,” she says. “In graduate school, at UC Riverside, the students nicknamed me the Edith Wharton of Orange County.”
Patterson creates few likeable characters in “Drift” and “Vacant Paradise.” In that hollow world, women are ornaments, men sense no limits and lives unexamined lead to spiritual ruin. Patterson thus has no regret for skewering these women and men.
Shane Malcom found “Vacant Paradise” a great, quick and effortless read that make him think. Salter Reynolds noted how Patterson has no illusions her characters will change. Kate Christensen decided, “Patterson beautifully parses the [results] of one woman’s fall, in [a] memorable, penetrating, fully achieved novel.”
Patterson can also create characters readers love to love. “The Peerless Four,” her latest book, tells the story of the Matchless Six, the Canadian women’s track and field team at the 1928 Olympics. Women’s track and field were trial events that year.
Coaching for women’s events was almost non-existent. The women, of “The Peerless Four,” self-trained. They medalled in every event they entered.
The team chaperone, Mel, tells the story of “The Peerless Four.” She’s a former runner, forced to give up athletics to marry. “Mel is both an insider and an outsider, with much attitude,” says Patterson. “This makes her the ideal narrator: she sees the goings-on in a different way.”
“The Peerless Four” is not satire. “It’s a meditation on sports,” says Patterson. “I try to answer questions I had about sports. What’s it like to compete, to win, to lose? Why do female more than male athletes fade after their peak? Why are there so few books about women athletes?”
Victoria Patterson, with “The Peerless Four,” shows she’s no one-trick satirist. She’s a skilled teller of gripping tales. Few succeed, as has Patterson.
In this interview, Victoria Patterson talks about her near-obsessive need to write. She explains she’s thankful for an agent, editor and publisher that support her writing whatever she wants. She says she knows that behind her success is the relentless encouragement from her family.
GrubStreet (GS) You said, before you published, you were not a writer.
Victoria Patterson (VP) That’s how I used to think.
GS Is publishing the defining part of being a writer.
VP Too many people think that’s true, it’s not. Changing my mind about that set me free. I write every day, I am a writer. I journal every day, I am a writer.
Publishing is an adjective. Now, I am a published writer. Once, I was an unpublished writer. Either way, I’m a writer.
When publishing is an adjective, my worries, about my writing, are different. I write to please me, first, not an editor, publisher or audience. Such freedom increases the integrity of what I write as well as my potential as a writer.
GS What inspires you?
VP Love, it’s the most important emotion in the world.
GS What led you to write “The Peerless Four,” your second novel?
VP I needed a break from writing about Newport Beach, California. I published a book of short stories “Drift: Stories” and a full-length novel, “This Vacant Paradise,” about Newport Beach. Also, my next novel, due in 2015, takes places in Newport Beach. I had to get away from Newport for a while and “The Peerless Four” did that for me.
As well, I wanted the challenge of writing a book that was different from what I did in the past. Then I discovered Ethel Catherwood. She was one of women athletes in “The Peerless Four,” which I created from the Matchless Six.
GS There's some writing in Canada about The Matchless Six, but you write about “The Peerless Four.” Is there a connection?
VP Both groups, at the core, include the same women. I read everything I could about the Matchless Six, the seven women that completed for Canada in the IX Olympics, thinking they were the basis of my imaginative launch, with these characters. “The Peerless Four” is my fictionalization of the Matchless Six; it’s the same women, all from Saskatchewan.
Today, I couldn't tell you where the Matchless Six begins and “The Peerless Four” ends; I combined some of the characters for my fictional story. They go to the 1928 Olympics, held in Amsterdam, to compete in track and field trial events for women. These facts mix with other facts and sports figures, of time, as well as my own imagination.
GS What, about the Matchless Six, first caught your attention?
VP I came across a short graphic, a comic book style, biography of Catherwood. She was women’s high jump champion in the 1920s. David Collier, the comic-book artist, wrote the graphic Catherwood biography.** She fascinated him.
Originally, I was going to write a short story about Catherwood or based on her. When I started researching, I read about her Olympic teammates. From there, I moved to reading about sports and the 1928 Olympics, the IX Games, in particular.
I became super-interested in how and why the Olympic Committee allowed women on the playing field; especially, the challenges these women faced. The event was dramatic for Catherwood and her teammates, and all women, as well as their lives after the Olympics. Fact was a good basic for fiction, in this case.
There wasn't a lot written about Catherwood or her teammates that made up “The Peerless Four.” I had to piece facts and events together. Fact-based fiction, that’s “The Peerless Four.”
I wanted to write about women in sports; what sports means to women, how it affects their lives, life roles and so forth. I decided, since Ethel Catherwood and her teammates were the base of my original interest, I would focus on these Canadian women. I would honour them, how they were the start for women athletes in the Olympics, and go from there.
GS Catherwood was the “Saskatchewan Lilly.”
VP Yes, she's beautiful. She was a great athlete. That's why she got most of the media attention, in 1928.
GS She was born in Hannah, North Dakota and not a Canadian.
VP This is true; Catherwood was an American by birth. She grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I don’t know if she became a Canadian citizen, but she compete, in the IX Olympics, as a Canadian.
In “The Peerless Four,” I kept to the facts of Olympic events, as well as I could. There was no pole-vaulting event, but there was the shot put. I wrote the shot put as pole-vaulting, in the novel. I thought it better as a compelling storyline.
I let myself do whatever I wanted. One of the women had a crush on her coach; well, she obsessed over the coach. I made up that storyline, although sports reporting, of the day, never mentioned it.
GS Is “The Peerless Four” a Roman-a-clef.
VP No, it’s not. “The Peerless Four” is a blend of fact with much fiction. The imagination, of the writing, brings it together, in a unique way. I was answering my own questions about sports. Some of the questions are deep and soulful, such as “What’s it like to lose,” but I made it up, based on a few facts.
I think there’s some confusion for some readers. They believe it's non-fictional, but it's total fiction. I stuck to the events, as factually as possible, which may lead some readers to believe the book is a true account.
GS You make the story seem factual, although it wasn’t.
VP I tried. I hope it’s true.
GS I read the women had no training in the trial events.
GS Yet, the Matchless Six medalled in every event they entered.
VP Yes, this fascinated me. These women, with no training in most events, won every event they entered. They were the first women to compete in these events.
There wasn’t much coaching; they figured it out for themselves. Muriel Ziegler, nicknamed Farmer, won the women’s shot put, in the 1928 Olympics; in “The Peerless Four,” she won the pole vault, which I made up. As a character in the book, she had to figure out how to pole vault, without any help.
These women had much resolve. They were strong, individualistic, determined, competent athletically and gutsy. There’s much to admire in their stories.
GS As an aside, this is how Canadians think of most women and men from Saskatchewan.
AT That’s interesting.
GS What do you hope the reader takes away from “The Peerless Four”?
VP The story is a meditation on sports, about what it means to take part in sports, on a world stage; what it means win, what it means to lose. There’s a strong message that women can compete, regardless of what some people believe.
“The Peerless Four” portrays how it might feel to be a competitive woman athlete, in the 1920s. The prosperity of the 1920s opened many doors for women. Competition was becoming a larger part of the world for women, at least in the public realm, and the Olympics were one example, on a huge scale.
As well, I hope the reader comes away with deeper understanding of sports. What sports mean. How it’s best to try, whether you lose or win.
Sports are a social product that binds us as a group or a nation. In 2014, Putin spent $51 billion dollars on the Olympics, in part to bring Russians together. The Matchless Six helped bring Canada together, as did the Toronto Blue Jays when the team won the World Series, in 1992 and 1993.
GS Yes, newspapers, throughout Canada, reported the success of the Matchless Six.
AT There’s also a message about equal opportunity to win or lose, in “The Peerless Four.” I wanted book to resonate for women and men. Not all men can be athletic competitors; men need to know it is okay to lose, if you take part and try your best.
GS I suspect your target reader is a woman.
VP I don't know. I guess. I didn't even think about the target reader, much.
I know some readers talk about the book as a feminist cheerleading novel. Other readers think the book is more gloomy and philosophical. Feminist readers don’t care for readers that think “The Peerless Four” is a philosophical book and the other way around.
I hadn't counted on the division. A writer hopes to please every reader. Still, I think, most readers appreciate the themes of the novel: hard work, struggle, taking home the gold.
GS It strikes me you want readers, of “The Peerless Four,” to come away with what is normally a part of male socialisation, which includes competitiveness, teamwork and camaraderie.
VP Yes, that’s right.
GS You give women, especially those middle-aged or older, information that wasn’t part of their upbringing.
VP Right and I think the book is about the entryway for women into rigorously competitive sports, at least among ostensible amateurs. Before 1928, there wasn’t much for women in the Olympics. They couldn’t complete.
Going back to the original Olympics, in Greece, women couldn’t watch the games. If a woman watched an Olympic event, her punishment was death. They threw her off a cliff.
One woman, in ancient Greece, sneaked in to watch her son box. The only reason they didn’t toss her off a cliff was her male family members were among the best competitors, at the time. After this incident, a new rule went into effect: only naked spectators could watch the events.
Before the Matchless Six, if a woman strove to compete, on a world stage, if she were ambitious, there was nowhere for her to go. I wanted to answer questions about the effect of such limits. What did and does such restraint mean? What does it mean to have legitimate ambitions squashed?
I learned a great deal writing “The Peerless Four.” I discovered how important sports are to developing social- and self-identity, the importance of sports to finding your place, learning how to complete, on any level, learning how to win or lose. Sports teach life skills.
Men have always had a head start, an advantage, when it came to these and similar life skills. Precluding women from sports helped disadvantage them in life. This is another message of “The Peerless Four.”
GS Is the reaction to “The Peerless Four” what you expected.
VP I'm getting mostly good reactions, but it’s mixed. A reader e-mailed me to say how much she enjoyed the book and how important the book was to her. She said she studied sports, at college, which made her aware how little attention the topic of women and sports gets.
GS “The Peerless Four” fills a huge void.
VP It does. As I mentioned, there also seems a feminist response and an intellectual response to the meditative leitmotif. This doesn’t suggest feminists aren’t intellectual; only how two strong views exist about the book.
As well, some readers don’t like it the women are stubborn and independent. Writing “The Peerless Four,” I had to consider what makes for a successful athlete. The most accurate descriptions of great athletes include words such as driven, stubborn, independent and crazy, maybe.
These traits, embraced in a good way, lead to success. I don’t sugarcoat these traits. Sometimes, some characters may come off as rough-hewn because they are rough-hewn.
GS Are you happy with the attention paid “The Peerless Four.”
VP The book hasn’t received the attention I think it deserves. This is typical of women athletes as subjects. Books about women athletes are not as popular as books about male athletes.
GS It’s a worldwide attitude.
VP I know, but I think, I hope, it’s changing, if too slowly.
GS How long did it take you to put “The Peerless Four” together?
VP I would say two to three years. The research took a long-time. Once I found my narrator, Mel, I had to lay out the story. There was much stopping and starting, during the writing.
At first, I thought the book centred on Ethel Catherwood. That soon changed. I came up with Maribel Eloise Lee, nicknamed Mel, as narrator, from looking at photographs of the 1928 women’s Olympic team.
In one photograph, I noticed the team chaperone. She stood a little off to the side, in the photograph, unnamed, anonymous. Then it hit me, there’s the narrator, Mel. She’s an outsider and an insider, at the same time.
Mel can see actions and effects the others can't. I realised she's going to have a chip on her shoulder. She had to give up competitive running to marry.
“The Peerless Four” came together at that point. I knew Mel had to be a heavy drinker, as a way of compensating for unavoidable decisions in her life. She’s a borderline alcohol, with an intense, downcast outlook; she’s deep and sad, yet effective as chaperone and narrator.
Mel limits what comes into the story. She’s the gatekeeper. She decides what the actions means, too.
GS In a screenplay, Mel would be “Morris the Explainer,” for obvious reasons.
VP That’s interesting. “The Peerless Four” took almost three years to research and write. I was teaching at UC Riverside, at the time. I checked-out every book its library had on women and athletics.
Then I watched sports, on television and sports movies, endlessly. I immersed myself in all ideas involved in sports. As the research moved along, I realised I was reading all the classic sports novels, but there weren't many about women or involving women in central roles.
I wondered why so few novels were about women athletes. I wanted to write into a big hole, in the literature, which I felt existed. It was so obvious.
Then I realised the novels that did exist about women and athletics were underdog tales. These books focused on women fighting to find a place in the sports worlds, overcoming great odds, and dropping out afterward. As well, all classic sports stories have an underdog.
GS What you’re saying reminds me of the heart of the coverage of Jackie Robinson and Major League Baseball.
VP Yes and there’s often an emphasis on a different sexuality. Many novels play up the sexuality and play down the athletic ability of women. The underlying theme may be women shouldn’t be competitive, at the highest levels of sports, and their sexuality needs overseeing.
GS Before 1928, weren’t women severely limited to certain Olympic sports?
VP Yes, the modern Olympics, that is, since 1896, allowed women to take part in events that didn’t involve much perspiration and called for the most modest costumes. Equestrian events were typical of what the Olympics allowed women, tennis and, eventually, swimming.
GS I’m sure the swimsuits weighed a ton.
VP Yes, they had to wear huge dress-like swimsuits. They couldn't wear what women swimmers wear today. The key events, say track and field, were lacking for women competitors, but that began to change in 1928.
GS The 2014 Olympics included ski jump competitions for women for the first time.
VP Yes, I wrote an article about how it took until 2014 to allow women to ski jump. Finally, science trumped the old arguments, which precluded women. Once, many believed ski jumping was bad for the health of women; they wouldn’t be able to get pregnant, due to the intensive training, for example.
GS How do you feel about “The Peerless Four,” now that it’s out in the world, on its own?
VP I go back and forth, but I don’t linger on it. The book is in the past as I move forward. I love to write, which keeps me focused on the future.
GS What do you linger on?
VP Mostly writing, sometimes I can't even believe I get to write, let alone published. I'm lucky to work with Counterpoint, my publisher. Jack Shoemaker, my editor, gives me freedom to write what I want to write, that is, “The Peerless Four.” I write about female athletes and go on a tangent no one expected; no one, at Counterpoint, said, “No.”
At the same time, I try to figure out what to write. For instance, today, I got another rejection for a short story I wrote; I’m sure it’s a good story. This is the seventh rejection for this story.
GS If anecdotes about writers and writing offer any insight, the more rejections the better.
VP How true is that? There are difficulties for writers at every stage of development or success. I understand I'm fortunate to write. I love writing.
I've written and wanted to write, since I can remember. Here I am, getting to do write. I have to keep perspective, though.
GS You keep getting rejection letters that help your perspectives.
VP Yes, I don't think the trail of rejection letters will end. I don't know, maybe for some writers, but not for me. I still get rejections; it keeps me on my toes.
GS Your family moved around a great deal when you were young.
VP Yes, we lived in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Texas before landing in the upper class community of Newport Beach, California. I was in the seventh grade, at the time, and Newport Beach was a shock for me. We stayed put through my high school years.
Orange County, which includes Newport Beach, is the area I write about most. I haven’t lived in Orange County since high school, but it had a huge effect on me. I write about it all the time.
GS Were you one of the rich kids in Newport Beach?
VP Yes, my husband, Chris, wonders how I turned out so different. Why did I rebel? I grew up in a patriarchal, Republican family. I always felt like a misfit.
GS What is your least favourite word?
VP Weirdo, as in somehow strange or eccentric, I guess, because I was the weirdo in my family. They called me a weirdo.
I tried to fit in, honestly. I would be lying if I said I was above it all. Yet, I never was a spoilt, entitled rich brat.
There was always a lurking feeling that “This isn't right.” The privilege, excess and lavish wealth that defined Newport Beach bothered me. I knew of other people and places, such as Mexico. I knew how most women and men lived, which wasn’t well and not as in Newport Beach.
Plus, I had a great curiosity about how other people lived. I never wanted to fit the classic mould of supposed to be. That was what my family wanted of me.
If I had followed the dictates and pressures, of my family, I would be playing golf, today, not writing novels or doing interviews. I would have married a business mogul, a wealthy, conservative Republican, mostly likely prone to affairs. I would tolerate boredom for security and advantage.
I’d be raising kids who’d attend the USC, the University of Southern California, which is where the Newport Beach kids go. I was on that track. At some point, I don’t know why, I rebelled and got out, eventually.
GS I shiver to think what your lifestyle might have been.
VP I know. Most or many of the women from my high school are living that life. That’s who they are. They can never be more.
GS You have to wonder if they are happy.
VP I do wonder.
GS You wouldn't be writing books if you had followed that other path.
VP No, I won’t. That's funny, as in usual, because my family continues to give me much material for my writing. They're an unrelenting source, if I want to tap into it.
For the past twenty years, I’ve lived a different life in South Pasadena, California, which is close to Los Angeles. I did what I had to do to write. As I wrote, I waited tables and opened rejection letter after rejection letter. I paid my dues, kept at it and found my way.
GS What turns you on?
VP Humour, it’s how to live: laugh, don’t take too many events too seriously. Learn to laugh it off.
GS You went across the country, from Newport Beach almost to Boston, for college.
VP Yes, I went off to Mount Holyoke, a college in South Hadley, MA, ninety minutes from Boston. At the time, Mount Holyoke was women only. It was the first of the Seven Sisters; colleges for women that matched the Ivy League, which, at one time, included male-only schools.
I was rebellious, yet I was on the tennis team. I had much going on in my life. I had to get away from home, but I didn’t last more than two years at Mount Holyoke.
GS Holyoke was a bad experience.
VP Yes and it was scary. After Mount Holyoke, I took a year away from college. I got myself together.
I went back to college, the University of California (UC) at Riverside, and graduated. I was so happy UC Riverside took me, after I messed up so bad at Holyoke. I was fortunate.
GS UC Riverside is a solid school.
VP Yes, I also went to graduate school, for a Master's of Fine Arts (MFA), at UC Riverside. That’s how I began teaching at UC Riverside and Antioch University, which is a low-residency programme, in Clover City. I teach in the MFA programme at both schools.
Through it all, I kept writing. After I met my agent, Michael Carlisle, at Inkwell Management, my writing found a publisher and an audience, quickly. Carlisle is a great agent.
GS What item must you always have with you?
VP Lip balm, as I have chapped lips, always.
GS In what city could you lose yourself for hours to explore.
VP New York City because there’s so much on every block. There’s so much to see, so much going on, it can overwhelm. There’s nowhere like New York City.
GS You’d need much lip balm for a New York City winter. What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
VP My grandfather’s cashmere sweaters, I was close to him. I miss him. Wearing his sweaters gives me a sense that he’s watching over me, to this day.
GS Your first novel, “This Vacant Paradise,” takes place in Newport Beach, California.
VP Yes and I have a book of short stories, “Drift: Stories.” Both books take place, in Newport Beach, among the shallowest women and men you can imagine. I took my revenge, for my high school years, on them. This is what I promised to do when I left high school.
GS I didn’t catch on, at first, to what you were doing. You’re subtle.
VP Thank you.
GS The shallowness of your characters takes time to recognise and believe. The absurdity astounds.
VP Thank you, I went for that effect. Growing up in Newport Beach, I saw, first-hand, how, for a great many women, life as an ornament is the ideal occupation. Their focus is money, looking good and plastic surgery. They encourage each other to look good, smile, stay married and away from each other’s husband.
GS “House of Mirth,” by Edith Wharton, influenced you, a great deal.
VP Yes, I love “House of Mirth.” It’s one of my favourite novels. I love Edith Wharton. When I was in graduate school, a professor said, half-jokingly, I guess, “You should write a modern-day ‘House of Mirth’.” The graduate students nicknamed me the Edith Wharton of Orange Country.
GS Why was that?
VP She liked to take apart the New York Police (NYPD) as well as elite society. This was my goal, too. I wanted to take apart Newport Beach and the police, as in my next novel, which is about the Haidl Gang Rape, in Orange County, in 2002.
Exposing the upper class is what Wharton did best. She opened that small world. She tore that coterie apart in her books.
GS They had nowhere to hide.
VP Exactly, I loved what she did. I accepted the moniker, the nickname, gratefully. I thought I’m going to do what Wharton did, but to Orange County.
My collection of short stories, “Drift: Stories,” were mostly about Orange County. After the short stories published, I read everything by Edith Wharton and Henry James; he also lambasted the upper class. I read “House of Mirth,” repeatedly.
I understood, well, the Lilly Bart character, from “House of Mirth.” To succeed in her world, she must suppress her intrinsically good qualities and ethical ideals to succeed. She must devise a manipulative role for herself.
It was simple. To succeed she needed to land a man, a wealthy man and the wealthier the better. Her upbringing was to be an ornamental figure. Her parents brought her up for the elite life.
Yet, she wants to marry for love. She wanted to live a principled life. She wants to be a better person.
Lilly Bart is fighting, constantly, what elite society demands she must do. She understands what she wants is different from what she’s supposed to want. There is the conflict that defines her.
GS Wharton tried to save her biscuits by calling her book, “House of Mirth.”
VP She was under pressure to act reserved and be beautiful. She was to stay quiet, to be co-present and unspoken. Most of those she ridiculed likely didn’t catch on.
I don’t think her mother ever forgave her for writing “House of Mirth.” Edith Wharton and her mother did not get on, right up to the end. I think, when she wrote “House of Mirth,” she passed the point of trying to fit in, where she didn’t feel she belonged. She passed the point of caring what they thought about her.
GS Have you passed the point of caring?
VP I don’t know.
GS Did you have Lilly Bart, specifically, in mind when you created Ester Wilson?
VP Yes, I created Ester, the main character in “This Vacant Paradise,” as similar to Lilly Bart. Supposedly, Ester is an ornament. This is the core dilemma in the book; she doesn’t want any part of being an ornament.
Ester Wilson is beautiful, but she has no skills. She works in a retail boutique. She finds her power in her beauty.
Yet, she’s ageing. She needs to find a husband, now. She’s desperate, with no money, much debt and thinking her beauty, her eligibility as a trophy wife, is fading.
In “This Vacant Paradise,” money and good looks are everything. Ester feels trapped. Each time she thinks she’s landed a husband, she self-sabotages.
Ester doesn’t want to marry for money and social standing. She wants someone to love her. She wants to love someone back.
She also wants acceptance, as Ester Wilson, not merely a beautiful woman. She likes the idea of wealth and high society, I guess, but that’s not enough. She does not want to be only an ornament.
This is the core of the novel. I take much the same position in everything I write about Newport Beach. I had a great time writing “This Vacant Paradise.” I guess I like to skewer.
GS I look at your picture; you’re on a beach, the wind is blowing through your hair. You look so likeable and pleasant. You couldn’t write nasty about anyone.
VP Thank you, but I do.
GS Yes, you skewer well.
VP Thank you.
GS Ester Wilson reflects Grandmother Eileen, the family matriarch.
VP I went off on my own fictional path with that character. This leitmotif is different from “House of Mirth.” Grandmother Eileen is a horrific matriarch.
Her husband passed away. Now, she has all the money and power. She wields much power within the family and is unrelenting.
There’s much intrigue in the family, involving most everyone. The intrigue surrounds Grandmother Eileen. Who will inherit her money? Grandma Eileen lives in a world of secrets and much deviousness.
Esther's father was a closeted homosexual. The family frowned on him. No, more than frowned on him, they disowned him. He passed away at a relatively young age.
I would say Esther tries to stand away from the family intrigue. Yet, she needs money. She hopes Grandmother Eileen will leave her enough to cover her debts.
GS I read a festering fierceness in Esther.
VP She exudes separateness, such as that obvious in Grandma Eileen; yes.
GS I took Ester and Eileen, if not parallels, then similarly determined.
VP Eileen is eccentric. Maybe, it's her age or dementia. For Ester, it’s hopes and dreams, on her terms, over and around which she stumbles.
Esther wonders what she will do. “I don't want to do this,” she says, “but I must because I don't have anything else. I'm hoping for $10,000 from somebody, most likely Grandma Eileen, but I don’t want to give myself up for money.”
GS That’s some riddle.
VP Yes, this is where the root of the Ester and Eileen connection grounds. They have a crazy love for each other. Even though there’s much anxiety, most of the time, I think Esther loves Grandma Eileen and Grandma Eileen, in her own perverted way, loves Esther.
Perhaps Eileen sees Easter as her younger self, with opportunities for autonomy she squandered. She may think she lost the battle. She may hope Ester can win and she, Eileen, can win by proxy.
GS How old is Grandma Eileen, 85?
VP Yes, I would say that’s about right. She hasn’t had it easy. She married for money, not love. Her husband cheated on her, a great deal, all his life.
Perhaps Eileen is full of resentment. Esther has a festering resentment, is angry, about what she must do to live her life. This is her dilemma.
GS When Ester mentions, Romance, the store where she works, it’s obvious she’s gritting her teeth.
VP She hates store. Yes, it's horrible. I based Romance on a boutique that exists in Newport Beach.
GS That's funny. Do you plan sequels to “This Vacant Paradise”?
VP I do, many.
GS What’s your favourite word?
VP Longing, a yearning, a need, that drives each of us. Longing is different from loneliness, which is an unpleasant emotional minefield. Longing is mysterious, motivating us to act, to find what we crave.
GS Roughly, what are the word counts for “This Vacant Paradise” and “The Peerless Four”?
VP I’m not sure. I write until I believe the story finishes. I write until it feels done.
GS I like your approach.
VP “The Peerless Four” is a short novel. “This Vacant Paradise” is much longer. Still, I don't consciously make that distinction. I don't think, “Oh, it's not an honest novel unless it’s 350 pages.”
I don’t keep track of words. I try not to make boundaries. Sometimes, in some ways, I must count words or pages, though
GS You prefer to let the story end on its own.
VP Yes, I believe that merely filling space, dumping, is not good writing.
GS Alternatively, you might take a nod from Raymond Chandler and keep ending the story, repeatedly.
VP That’s true.
GS It took two years for you to research “The Peerless Four.”
GS Once you began writing, how long did it take to complete the novel?
VP I would say “The Peerless Four” took a good year to get a final draft, including rewrites. “This Vacant Paradise” took two years or more. Yes, it takes a long-time. Writing is hard work.
GS AJ Liebling, I think, said writing was like sweating blood.
VP I hear him. Sometimes writing is a hassle. I know I’ll throw away what I write, but I must write. It’s a horrible feeling, but a writer must write, poorly, to get to a point where she or he writes, well.
GS Do you have a routine?
VP I do have a routine. I love to hole up and write for hours and hours. I'm lucky, in a way, that writing has always been an obsession or compulsion for me; it’s not work, although I often refer to writing as work, rather, it is fun.
When my children were young, I had to carve out time. I had to be creative to be creative. Sometimes it was difficult to make time and a place to write.
With my next novel, about the Haidl Rape, I tried to write one thousand words a day. I know I said I don’t count words, but for that book, the daily goal was helpful, if not necessary.
I finished that novel. Now, I’m a resting writer, as the British might say. I don't know what I'm working on next, where I’m going or what I'm doing.
This is the mourning period the end of a book. I always get sad after I finish a book. I don't know what to do, to fill time, right now, but I will find a new book to write.
GS I understand.
VP I journal every day and do other tasks to keep me writing. I might have to impose a one-thousand-word goal, on myself, again, if only to have a goal that keeps me writing. Even on days when I don’t meet my writing goal, it is okay, I'm doing something each day. I feel better about myself when I write.
GS It feels good to go to write every day.
VP Yes, it does.
GS You realise your goal, which is good.
VP Yes, most of the time; I think I'm going to do it, again, impose a one-thousand-word a day goal on myself.
GS Roughly, how long does it take you to reach that word goal each day?
VP Some days I would get it done in two or three hours. Other days it would take six hours. I don’t relax or stop for the day until one thousand words are on the page.
GS Is that roughly three pages a day.
VP Yes, roughly, for the Haidl Rape novel; then there were many hours going over everything I wrote, in the days before. I had to see how it flowed and fit with the next part I wrote. Writing, even one thousand words a day, can fill a day.
GS Do you edit and revise as you go along or bang-out a full draft and then go back.
VP I’m constantly saving and looking it over and reading what I write aloud. It's good I work from home. I always read aloud. I would sound like a nut, if anyone saw me.
GS Bruce Ferguson, a good friend, long vanished, was a strong writer. He advised me to read all that I wrote, aloud. I do it to this day, forty-five years later. It works as a charm.
VP Yes, I agree. You can hear the rhythm. You hear dialogue, say, in a different way, a way you might miss, otherwise. The dialogue will sound more natural or you’ll know where and how to change it.
GS Reading what you write, aloud, is physical work.
VP Yes, reading aloud can be demanding.
GS Can you write anywhere.
VP I was good at writing anywhere, any time, when my children were young; I had to be. I was creative. I would figure out places to write no matter what.
GS Some writers claim a serendipitous moment or event launched them to success. Is there such a moment or event in your writing life?
VP Oh, yes there is. I waited tables for many years. Something that came about from waiting tables radicalised and revolutionised my writing. Two business people, I waited on them for years, knew I was a struggling writer, with no money.
Each one offered me office space, where I could write, at no charge. It was the first time I wasn't writing in a library next to someone that sat down next to me to strike up a conversation. The office space kept me out of coffee shops, often filled with struggling writers.
The office gave me privacy. I could work without interruption. I had a room of my own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolfe. She argued for a literal and figurative space for women writers, a room of one’s own, in the literary world. Now, I had a place in which to carve out my literary space.
I went to the office, as in any job, to write. The secretaries wondered who I might be. I did feel as if everyone was looking at me like. What was I doing? How did I land in that office? The implied attention spurred me to write.
Everyone was working, including me. The office had a bustling sensation, a work feel to it. I couldn't check social media. I couldn’t mess around on the Internet. I had to work, to write.
I thanked those business persons in my acknowledgements. “How can I ever repay you for this?” It was their way of cultivating the arts or supporting the arts, I guess.
The feel of being in a busy office kept me going. That’s where I wrote my first two books, in that office, with everyone wondering what was what. I’m not sure my first book would have finished without that office.
When I quit waiting tables, I continued to use their office space. I wrote daily in that office. Still, I crave solitude and a separate environment when I write.
GS That’s tipping the server, well.
VP Yes, exactly, acts of random kindness, I guess, that I play forward. The world works well this way.
Still, borrowed space doesn’t always go that well. A friend let me use her home office to write. She had a wonderful dog, Joey, which craved much attention. I stopped writing to play tug-the-toy, with Joey, and didn’t write as much as I wished.
Loan of the separate space, in a busy office, spoilt me. I now understand that where you write makes a difference. I try to satisfy my need for solitude when I write.
When my children were young, I couldn’t write at home. There was too much going on, all the time. Now I have teenagers; they’re gone much of the time.
I’m able to write at home. I work in my bed. Edith Wharton wrote in bed; she lay on her bed and wrote. I prop a bunch of pillows, shut the bedroom door and go to work.
One problem, working from home, is the number of distractions, such as laundry and other chores or the television. It's almost better if you have somewhere else to go, specifically to write. I guess I need a room of my own.
GS Are you working longhand or at a keyboard?
VP I do both. I journal; I've been journaling since roughly 1990. I have a huge stack of journals, on my bookcase. These are big journals, the sketchbook kind.
I recently went through my journals. I numbered each one. I have seventy-six journals, nearly four a year, full of memories, notes, ideas and much more that I’ll discover when I need it.
Journals are a great source of material. If I need a line or if I'm writing a book that takes place in the 1990s, I can go to my journals. The journals contain specific details I wouldn't get anywhere else and couldn’t remember.
GS That's a great idea.
VP Yes, I love journaling. It saved me, during all those years when I didn't feel as if I were a writer. I had no publications, but my journals were full of my ideas. I wrote every day, in a journal. That made me feel as if I was doing something, even if I only have ten minutes here or there, I'm writing.
GS Journaling is writing.
VP Yes, when I am ready to write, I sit down and write in my journal for a half-hour or forty minutes. Often, my journal entry is griping about this or that, maybe I'm scared; the usual journal stuff. When I finish journaling, I get to work.
When I'm writing a novel, say, I have notebooks as well as journals, which are full of book-specific notes. If I come across a word, phrase or idea I might be able to use, I jot it down in the notebook. Each of these notebooks is full of ideas that might help with the current novel or, maybe, the next novel.
GS Have you developed your own shorthand, to save time.
VP Yes, but sometimes I find it more useful to write ideas or themes out in full. This makes transferring to the novel much easier. My shorthand is uneven, sometimes I’m not sure what I meant by a certain squiggle; longhand makes it easier to understand what I write in my journals or notebooks.
GS Have you tried a writing group or reading group to help as you move through a novel.
VP For a long-time, I was part of writing group. The other members were Dancy Senna, she wrote “Caucasia: a novel”; Veronica Gonzalez-Pena, author of “The Sad Passions,” and “Elsewhere California” author, Dana Johnson.
The group met roughly once a month. Two weeks before meeting, one or two of us would send our writing, say, twenty-to-fifty pages, to the others to digest, edit and comment on. We’d meet for lunch, talk about the writing and suggestions for improvement.
Much trust, deep resilient support and comradery arose from those meetings. We took terrible writing seriously. We conspired to improve it and did.
I’d rush home. Do the edits. Work on the suggestions for improvement, which usually worked well.
GS You talk about the writing group in the past tense.
VP The group is no more. Senna moved to Paris and Gonzalez-Pena moved to New York City. Johnson published and became busy.
GS Once you decide a book is complete, what happens?
VP When I think a book has reached its end, it hasn’t. First, I send the manuscript to Michael Carlisle, my agent, at Inkwell Management, to help me as I close in on the end of a book. He and his assistant, Lauren Smythe read it, offer edits and suggestions. They say it’s great, but it needs this or that; good or bad, they’re always positive and supportive.
I try to incorporate their ideas and send it back. Carlisle and Smythe reread the manuscript. They may or may not have more edits and suggestions.
When Carlisle and Smythe believe the manuscript is ready, it goes to Jack Shoemaker, my executive editor, at Counterpoint. Shoemaker may have edits or suggestions, too.
Yes, there are always more rewrites. Every time an editor glances at my manuscript, it means more changes. There’s always room for improvement.
Once Shoemaker is happy with the manuscript, Counterpoint agrees to buy it. Usually, the publisher wants more rewrites. I rewrite, as suggested by the publisher.
Once I do these rewrites, the manuscript goes to another editor and more rewrites suggested. Once the publisher is happy, the book goes to press. At this point, I’m finished writing the book. Next, I must promote it.
For “This Vacant Paradise,” all of this took about two years. This was after I completed the story and thought I finished the book. Figure on two years of fine-tuning a manuscript after I think the manuscript is letter-perfect and before it hits the streets.
GS Your publisher, Counterpoint, is cooperative.
VP They're great. I love Counterpoint. It’s one of the last independent literary publishers. My editor, Jack Shoemaker, is wonderful. When he signed me for “This Vacant Paradise,” he said, “I want to work with you long-term. I want to be part of your career.”
GS That’s special.
VP Yes and he took the pressure off me to have a best-seller first time and every time. When someone publishes, a shark-like attitude takes over. Selling books, making money, becomes the top priority. If you don’t make money, you won’t publish, again, at least with that publisher.
When I signed with Counterpoint, Shoemaker said, “I want to cultivate your career.” Now, I get to write what I want, no limits, for the literary market or the trade market. Considering what sells is secondary.
Shoemaker let me write “The Peerless Four,” rather than cater to the market. I have a novel about the Haidl Rape that happened on 5 July 2002. He’s good with that topic, too.
GS The Haidl Gang polarised Orange County.
VP Yes, for that reason, among others, the book packs a punch. It will attract a wide range of passionate reviews. The promotion may be more difficult than usual.
That Jack Shoemaker and Counterpoint allow me to write what I want, how I want, means I can write freely about Haidl or any subject. Shoemaker wants me to concentrate on writing. As far as he’s concerned, I can stay away from Twitter, Facebook and so forth.
GS That’s interesting. Steve Berry, he writes thrillers, has a deal with Penguin for one five or six hundred-page novel a year.
VP That's crazy.
GS He constantly has three books in play, I think.
VP Those are formula novels, I assume.
GS I guess Berry's writing formula, at least in a way. You're not.
VP Right. I don't think I could write formula. It seems dreary, at least to me.
I'm lucky to have hooked up with Carlisle, Shoemaker and Counterpoint. Most writers don't get the freedom I have. There’s no expectation for me to crank a book a year or, even, every two years.
GS What gives you the most satisfaction?
VP Besides writing and books, eating, especially bread, sugary treats and coffee are most satisfying. The sensory pleasures, the odours, make eating wonderful. I love to eat.
GS You said writers are anonymous.
VP Yes, they should be, I think.
It is interesting for a writer. When she or he publishes, it’s as if they get the spotlight on you for a second so it goes away. Fifteen minutes of fame, I guess. Afterward the early celebratory atmosphere fades and the writer vanishes, in a way.
Some writers want the spotlight and keep chasing it. That's frightening. It’s not for me.
That's why I want to hide and write; I don’t want to fall into the grind, chew and spew a novel a year. Counterpoint, my publisher, understands that and is obliging. The result is much better quality writing, more serious writing.
GS What turns you off?
VP Exclusivity, as the opposite of love and tolerance; life should be inclusive.
GS Anonymity and book promotion aren’t a fit.
VP That's true. I think it is an interesting puzzle. Exclusivity seems a better fit with book promotion, which tries to edge out other books or authors.
My problem is I'm not good at the marketing or the publicity. I can do book signings and interviews, but when it comes to social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, I’m cooked. I'm not on either of those sites.
I feel strongly, as a writer, that I be a quiet, private observer. I bristle at the thought I'm supposed to be the entertainment, a bustling, witty commenter on Twitter, say, or at a book signing or a television show. Some writers are good at social media razzmatazz. I am not.
I believe my work counts. I know my limits, when it comes to promoting my books. If I stay within my limits and let my writing do the selling, I am happy.
GS Most serious and great writers believe promotion sullies their work.
VP That doesn’t surprise me. I'm sceptical of a writer that’s more of a personality than they are a writer. Years ago, Jacqueline Susann sold millions of books mostly through carnival style marketing and a flamboyant public persona.
GS You’re not in show business.
VP No, not in any way is what I do show business.
GS When I was a kid, I paid a quarter to see a car ostensibly owned by Hitler. To some extent, I see book signings as a writer, a novelty, on display.
GS Yet, there's meeting readers and listening to what they have to say about your book.
VP Yes, there's always that advantage. I’m shy at events. I have a friend. She’s a writer, too. She says the best part of writing is when a reader reaches out and tells you how much they like your work and you.
GS Yes, that’s important.
VP I experience what my friend says. Yet, I’m often too nervous at events. Thus, I often don’t hear or understand what readers tell me.
Some of my work is in your face. “This Vacant Paradise” is one example. I fear I may have upset readers, that they’ll say something nasty about my work. When one of my books or short stories upsets a reader, I get deeply sad. I don’t want to upset readers. I don’t want to be sad.
Other times, I don’t care what they might say. I must write what I write. If a few readers are upset, I must live with it.
I don't hide, yet I don't want to hear how angry my book makes a reader. I must write what I write. Readers will own the writer, if she or he is not careful.
GS If I lived in Newport Beach, read “This Vacant Paradise” and was sharp enough to identify at least some characters, I might get upset.
VP Yes, I imagine you would.
GS I’m thinking of the couple waiting for Grandma Eileen to pass away so they can get her house. “This Vacant Paradise” might incite them.
VP Yes. I thought “Paradise” was funny. Most people don't get it. Many people don't think it's funny.
GS What sound or noise do you love?
VP My sons laughing, it makes me happy.
GS I look at your picture. You’re a kid, classy and not a show.
VP Oh, thank you.
GS You have the wind blowing in your hair.
VP Oh, I know.
GS It’s a great picture. You look so likeable and pleasant. You couldn’t write nasty about anyone.
VP Thank you, but I do and I enjoy doing it.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
VP Asshat, a hat on top of someone’s behind. It’s a word for Winnie the Pooh.
GS You teach writing, in a well-regarded university, UC Riverside. Does your university teaching affect your writing?
VP I'm always a writer, first. Teaching a UC Riverside and Antioch University is confirming, I think. People take me more seriously, since I began teaching. Saying I’m a professor, of creative writing, has a solid ring to it.
GS I think Lionel Trilling, the great American essayist, said something to the same effect.
VP I didn’t know that. In a way, a writer is anonymous and, as I said, I like it that way. Yes, my readers know me and understand what I do. Most people do not understand what I do, as a writer, but if I say professor, there’s some inkling of my work, some credibility, too.
I enjoy the anonymity that comes with writing, holed up in my bedroom, with my journals, notebooks, pen and writing pad. I'm in a world, not only a room, of my own. I enjoy the notoriety that comes with teaching, meeting bright students. Yet, I don’t think one has any effect on the other, not much; not that I notice.
As I wrote, for all those years, without a published book, I felt everyone, including my family, thought I was crazy. When I moved from restaurant server to published author to professor, I think it was easier for everyone to grasp what I do. It’s more interesting for my parents to say their daughter is a professor than their daughter is a writer.
Before I published a book, my parents, my siblings, wouldn't read my work. I wanted their acceptance; it was difficult to get. Recognition was important for me, but writing was more important.
GS What occupation, other than writing, would you like to try?
VP Liberian, it’s involves me surrounded by books all day, every day. I love libraries. I love Liberians.
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
VP I would never work, again, as a server in a restaurant. I did that to support myself while I was writing.
GS You’re with a traditional publisher, Counterpoint. What do you think of the stampede to self-publish, such as via Kindle?
VP This is an interesting time in the publishing world. I knew I wasn't going to pay to publish my own book. That was not my goal.
GS Does payment for writing, by a publisher, legitimise your writing?
VP I think that’s true. I wanted a publisher to pay me for my work. I never considered self-publishing. Writers, anxious to have his or her work out in the world must be careful: self-publishing is a predatory world.
A woman approached me, the other day. She owns a press and had some interest in my writing. I was so happy until she wanted me to give her money for a publishing package, which included marketing.
GS Writers are self-publishing and making a good living.
VP I can understand how a writer will bite. She or he grows frustrated. At some point he or she thinks, I'll publish it myself; at least my writing will be out in the world.
For me, I always figured, if I die and I didn’t publish, at least I’ll leave the stacks of daily work I did; writing I put my heart into. Whatever happens will happen, but I am not going to pay to publish my book.
GS The vanity press is exploitive, but today there’s more to self-publishing. For a Kindle book, the author pays for the cover, plus any editing and polishing that she or he wishes. Kindle does the rest and takes roughly forty per cent; there are opportunities for the author to earn even more.
VP That’s exciting, but not for me.
GS What’s your favourite movie?
VP I think “Top of the Lake,” an intense, five-part television series by Jane Champion, is my current favourite movie. Beautifully filmed, the scenery is astounding, middle-aged women are the main characters and the storyline is deep and intense. “Top of the Lake” is also a bit scary and suspenseful. I didn’t know I liked suspense until I saw it.
GS What is something you like to collect?
VP Books, I’m a bibliophile, a book lover, a book collector. I love books as books. I’m also a bookworm; I love books for their content.
GS As well as Edith Wharton, what authors do you like?
VP William Trevor, he writes great short stories. He breaks all the rules, writing in multiple points of views. I can’t figure out how he switches point-of-view in one paragraph, but he does.
Several of his stories are movies, such as “My House in Umbria,” The Ballroom of Romance” and “Secret Orchids.”
GS What are you reading right now?
VP “Pin,” by Vladimir Nabokov, his use of language is funny and playful. Nabokov is a joy to read.
GS What books do you urge readers to read?
VP Mine, ha! Seriously, any book by Nabokov or Edith Wharton. He has a singular way to make language fun. She can slice and dice the upper class, as can no one else, while remaining interesting all the time.
GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?
VP I’m happily married for 18 years. Some of my writing is dark, not comparable to the constant stability and support provided by my husband, Chris, and two sons, Cole, who is 16, and Ry, he`s 14.
GS What’s your favourite ice cream?
VP Chocolate peanut butter is my favourite ice cream.
GS Enough said. Thank you so much.
VP You’re welcome.
*Apologies or thanks, as the case may be, to Carl Sandburg, for “The Fog,” and Kim Carnes, for “Bette Davis Eyes,” from which I flagrantly swiped metaphors and rhymes.
**In Ivan Brunnetti, editor (2006), “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: volume one,” published by Yale University Press.
Kate Christensen (2011), “‘House of Mirth,’ Updated,” in the New York Times for 4 March.
Slater Reynolds (2011), “‘This Vacant Paradise’,” in the Los Angeles Times for 26 April.
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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