"There is a headlong narrative energy in Julie Orringer's stories that I find quite remarkable," says National Book Award finalist Charles Baxter. Energy is right. At times, Orringer's sentences practically cartwheel down the page. The nine stories in How to Breathe Underwater introduce "young women entering a point in their lives when they're asked to make what seems like an impossible transition," Orringer explains, yet none of these narratives are quite alike.
The opening story, for example, "Pilgrims," is a truly original, updated variant of the Gothic tale, set in the unlikely jungle of a New Orleans back yard. "Note to Sixth-Grade Self," meanwhile, reconstructs the trials of one girl's adolescence in the form of an adult's corrective letter to her younger self. ("When Miss Miggie comes out, do not look at her enormous breasts. Breasts like those will never grow on your scarecrow body. Do not waste your time wanting them.")
The twenty-one-year-old narrator of Vendela Vida's first novel faces a daunting transition of her own. She begins, "It was 2:15 in the afternoon of December 2 when a man holding a gun approached me in Riverside Park." Ellis escapes uninjured, but the encounter leaves her an emotional wreck. She delivers the story that follows with stunning detail
Mr. Nagarro... had ten children, and my suspicion was he wanted to prolong his time alone. One night he stopped halfway between the bus stop and his house, and stood there for almost an hour, reading a book. It was amazing, him reading while standing. I saw his wife look out the window, a child on her hip and another holding her hand, as she awaited his approach. But Mr. Nagarro had situated himself beyond her range of vision.
all the while speaking to us through a haze of confusion and shock, dazed and wobbly-minded. "I have joined the world of people dealt unexpected blows," Ellis admits, as much to herself as the reader.
And Now You Can Go is "hilarious and touching," Kirkus Reviews concluded, "icily removed, yet bracingly real."
Dave: You met just a few months ago, and now you're touring together. How's that going?
Julie Orringer [to Vida]: He's waiting for us to say we've been getting in fistfights at the bar.
Dave: I presume from the way you're behaving that's not the case.
Orringer: Vendela and I met at the Book Expo in L.A., although our paths had crossed a couple times before at various literary events in San Francisco. We got along right away, so it's been a pleasure to travel together. We hung out a few times at home before coming on the tour to have some normal time together, which was great, too.
Vendela Vida: Julie came into my class I teach a short story writing class at 826 Valencia. She came in, and the kids were reading "Pilgrims," which they loved. We were reading it out loud, and I'd miscalculated the time it would take, so Julie arrived about ten minutes before the end of the story. The kids were cracking up they found the story very funny and I started getting worried because I knew that Julie was in the other room, in the pirate supply store, which is right outside the writing lab.
Orringer: I was looking through the eye patches and the fancy shells and the mops and things like that as I was waiting.
Vida: I knew that she was waiting, and I was getting nervous because all my students were laughing. I thought, Oh, God, she's going to hate me. This is a serious story. Then she came into the class and she was actually happy because when adults read it they don't find the humor that teenagers find.
The students loved Julie and wanted to read more of her stories. They wanted her to come back every class and team-teach with me, so it was kind of awful after that. No, I'm sorry, Julie's not here today. Just me.
Orringer: Vendela's students were fantastic and asked great questions. It was clear they'd been doing some careful reading and that they'd been taught a lot about craft and what to look for in stories. It was fun. A good thing.
Vida: And they ask questions that adults don't ask, like "Who are the pilgrims in this story, the people at the dinner or the people who come to the dinner?"
Dave: What was your answer?
Orringer: What was my answer?
Vida: You said that's why you phrased it as a question.
Orringer: Oh, right. In the story, it's phrased as a question because I think we're meant to consider the ways that both groups of people the people who are already comfortable in this setting, if you can call it comfortable, and the people who are coming in for the first time might be considered pilgrims.
One reason I really enjoyed talking to Vendela's students is that as high schoolers they're closer to the ages of the people who are in the story. The rawness of their own experience helped them frame questions that were a little riskier.
Dave: It's a twisted story. I've been trying to explain it to people here. It's set in New Orleans, though there's not a whole lot of the city in the story. You follow these children into the backyard and suddenly you're in the middle of a wilderness. The kids are completely out of their element.
There's no one city or geographical base to the stories in How to Breathe Underwater. Did you write them over an extended period of time?
Orringer: I wrote the stories over about seven years or so. I wrote many others through that time as well, but these are the ones that stuck around through many revisions and profound changes. During that period of time I was really learning how to write.
I was studying at Iowa for part of that time, at the beginning, then I was living in San Francisco. There was a lot that I took in at Iowa that I had to incorporate into my understanding of fiction, and that was a process that couldn't be rushed. It did take a while. With the exception of one story that takes place in San Francisco, I wasn't living in any of those places when I wrote the story. I think it takes some time after you live in a place to gestate the ideas you have about it. I felt more comfortable going back to the places that I had left.
Dave: I gave a plot summary of And Now You Can Go to someone who recently moved here from New York. Her response was, "Oh, that's so New York."
Vida: It is so New York. The fact that it was in New York was very important to me.
Since the book has come out a lot of people have made 9/11 connections. Were you making a metaphor for a random attack on 9/11? No, I'm not that clever. I actually turned it in before 9/11. But in a lot of ways it's very New York because of that, the randomness of it, and I think the loneliness of it. The whole reason that this assailant approaches Ellis is that he doesn't want to die alone. There's a loneliness in crowds that you find in New York a lot more than any other city in America.
Dave: You went to Columbia for your M.F.A., right?
Vida: Right, for nonfiction.
Dave: Does one particular teacher stand out from that experience?
Vida: Richard Locke was an editor at the New York Times Book Review and Vanity Fair. He was the head of the program then. He made everyone think about a book as a book and not just an idea. Especially for nonfiction, actually outlining it as a book. What became my first book, Girls on the Verge, was originally my thesis for him.
Orringer: It's almost impossible for me to name just one teacher at Iowa because I learned such different things from each of them. Frank Conroy taught us some of the nitty-gritty aspects of craft. Everyone feared his workshop because he didn't sugarcoat his comments at all. He was going to tell it like it was, and it was often going to be hard to hear, but I felt like that's why I was there. I wanted to hear what wasn't working and what I had to concentrate on. He was especially great about the idea that you had to establish clarity and communication with the reader before you could do any other pyrotechnical things with the language or with ideas. That was something I needed to be told at the time.
Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson were terrific for setting up the emotional and intellectual challenges in stories, saying, "What are you trying to do? Can you do something that's more difficult or more interesting?" Jim McPherson asked us to bring in the social context. Reading him many years later I found I was finally ready to take on that challenge, whereas I don't think I really was at the time, at Iowa.
Dave: And you're working on a novel now?
Dave: When I think about the process of writing a collection of stories particularly a collection where the stories aren't related the most unpleasant task would seem to be starting over again and again with a blank page. Twenty pages, one story, then you're back to square one. Whereas if you're working on a novel, there might be dozens of false starts, but at least there's a singular vision you're trying to realize. Do you find novel writing easier in that respect, or is it simply so much more daunting because of the scope?
Orringer: It was especially frightening when I was just about to get started after having done about a year and a half of research. I thought, Oh my God, how am I ever going to get what I've learned into the narrative without overloading the story? But I've found that the most enjoyable part has been getting to know these characters and knowing that I can stay with them for a long time. It is a relief, I think. And to be in this place: The novel begins in 1937 in Paris, and it follows a young, Hungarian, Jewish architecture student. That's been a really interesting place to inhabit. It's been an interesting character to get to know.
[To Vida] What about you? I know that your book took a very different form before it ended up like this.
Vida: This novel was about 450 pages. It was a different book. The scene that's now the opening scene, when the young woman is being held up at gunpoint in a New York City park, was fifteen pages of a much longer novel. It was buried in there at about page 300 through page 315. And when I reread the draft of the novel, which I had spent about two years working on, I hated the whole thing except those fifteen pages. I didn't know what to do. I kept thinking of ways that I could rewrite the book so I would like it, but I realized there wasn't any way I was going to be able to do that. So I started again using those fifteen pages, and I wrote really quickly after that because I'd found what I was interested in.
Everyone says, "Wasn't that hard? Weren't you upset?" But it was really easy, actually. Once you have your start? I think that's the hardest thing, finding the right place to start any story. Once I found that start, I was so happy that I didn't have time to be pissed off that I'd wasted all this time and effort.
Dave: Not wasted entirely, though, because it gave you the seed of the novel.
Vida: Right, not wasted. Everyone says, "Do you have anything that you kept from those 450 pages?" I'll say, "I know I had a good description for a sky. Or a good description for a pencil sharpener." Whatever it is, I'll go back in there and find it, but I've probably only taken three sentences from it.
I don't write short stories. I used to, but I can't imagine going back to that right now just because it is so frustrating. Once you find your start, for me that takes so long, then you're done with it so quickly, not necessarily time-wise, but quickly in pages. I don't know if I could do it now.
Orringer: Of course, this is all scary for me because as I'm writing this novel now I'm conscious that I may throw away every word that I'm writing.
Vida: Don't listen to me!
Orringer: But you're not the only one. People do those things.
Dave: The structure of And Now You Can Go is surprising. I didn't expect it to take me out of the country.
Vida: I didn't know that either when I started it.
Dave: Ellis doesn't know what to make of the events in that opening scene. She doesn't know how to react. She says, "I have joined the world of people dealt unexpected blows." And there are parallels in How to Breathe Underwater, people dealt unexpected blows. But the enigma at the heart of And Now You Can Go is that what happens to Ellis is completely undefined.
Vida: I wanted to challenge the whole idea of victimhood. The society we live in is so into therapy and viewing yourself as the victim. I wanted to take that idea and turn it on its head a little bit: people who are quote-unquote "victims" but don't want to see themselves that way. For me, that was a huge motivation in writing it. I didn't want to write a therapeutic book.
Dave: Ellis has to figure out what she's supposed to feel. She can't just feel; first, she has to qualify what happened and figure out who this event has made her. Is she a victim? Yes. But what kind, exactly? That's a strange contemporary phenomenon: needing a context to frame your emotions rather than just experiencing the emotions as they arise.
Vida: Right. And she's even thinking, Is it a big deal? Is it not a big deal? You said that at the start you didn't know the book was going to the Philippines, and the funny thing is that I didn't either. But as I was writing the book, when I got to the point where she was trying to get over it, I became a little like her mother. She has to bust out of this. She's living in such a contained world. She has to? go to the Philippines! I was liberated, almost like, She's going to go on a trip. That's wonderful for her! That's really how it happened.
Orringer: The idea of resisting therapy or resisting comfort is in some ways common to both of our books. The stories in the collection that have to do with cancer or some other kind of loss are not meant to be consoling stories or uplifting stories. They're not showing characters overcoming tragedy, but rather people in the throws of this thing that is happening to them. I've tried to shoot for narratives that acknowledge how hard that is and the fact that sometimes there is no remedy.
One of the people who has spoken eloquently about this is Barbara Ehrenreich in her article for Harper's magazine called "Welcome to Cancerland" [reprinted in Best American Essays 2002]. She's talking about the infantilizing of women that takes place in the culture around breast cancer, how women are given teddy bears and pink ribbons; they're made to feel like they're heroes in some way and that there's something strengthening about this experience. Of course, there's something profoundly heroic about a woman struggling against cancer and trying to retain her role in the family and some professional role as well, but the idea that this will somehow make you a better person is something I resisted through my own experience, and I didn't want these characters to be uplifted by their parents' illness. I wanted to show how tough it was for them.
The hope comes from the fact that these experiences are teaching them how to look for closeness through their siblings and through both parents, the one that is ill and the one that is not. If any good can come of something like this, that's where it comes from.
Dave: Six years ago, Vendela, you pretended to be a freshman at UCLA in order to rush a sorority for your Masters thesis. Congratulations, by the way, on getting in.
Vida: Yes, thank you.
I didn't plan on rushing, but no one at sororities would talk to me honestly. They all just gave me the same speech, and I knew it was the same speech because I heard it again and again, word for word, from everyone around the country. So that's why I tried to rush UCLA.
Orringer: You wrote an article about that?
Vida: It was excerpted in Jane, yes.
Orringer: I read that. It was fantastic. I sent it to my sister, who was in a sorority. She was excited about the sorority, but she was laughing about certain aspects of it at the same time.
Dave: The chapter about sororities in Girls on the Verge discusses the idea of leaving home and looking for new connections. The motivation for many of these young women to rush is at least in part about not wanting to be alone.
Vida: It's easy to put down sororities and fraternities because of all the ridiculousness that goes into it and all the judgment that's involved for various superficial reasons, but the instinct behind it isn't so different from what anyone else does. It's just that what everyone else does isn't done on such an organized level. But even the fact that Julie and I are friends? We're both writers, we both live in San Francisco, we're both around the same age. How is that any different than meeting a friend through a sorority? We met each other through our books.
Dave: And you're both married to writers. Professionally never mind your personal relationships how does that affect your writing? I imagine it might feel very confining at times, but on the other hand you have access to feedback, you have that back-and-forth within your own home.
Orringer: Both of my parents did the same thing; they were both physicians. Around the dinner table, they would talk about their patients and the problems they had, and they would draw us little diagrams of the blood flow through the heart, stuff like that. Growing up, I always felt like there was something profoundly exciting about sharing your life with someone who was studying and learning about the same things, somebody developing a professional life or an artistic life parallel to your own. In a way, it came natural to me to be with someone who was also a writer. Ryan [Harty] and I met at Iowa nine years ago, and I've always been so grateful to have him there and to be able to show him things and to read his work. I'm happy to be able to learn from him. I think it's been a fantastic thing, and it's just pure good fortune that our books happen to be coming out at the same time.
Vida: And you didn't even plan it.
Orringer: No, it was completely accidental.
Vida: I don't seek out writer friends or writer husbands or anything like that, but I do find myself always wanting to be around readers. I think that's the most important thing as a writer because you want to feel like you're not just writing for some vague audience. I think if I had a lot of friends who weren't readers, I would think, What's the point? But the fact that so many of my friends are readers?
I have an office at the Grotto in San Francisco, a writer's community. What's important to me is not that they're writers necessarily but that they read everything. I can sit there and feel like there's someone on the other end of things.
Dave: When you say office, do you mean a closed space? A lot of writers want to be locked in a shed when they're working.
Vida: It's a closed space. It's not like The Writers' Room in New York or the office here at Powell's where people are right next to you. You actually have a key to your office. I try to keep it as Spartan as possible, with as few books as possible only books that I've already read, so I can't be tempted. You can definitely have your space. I put down my curtain, and it basically means Don't come in. If you knock, I'll pretend I'm not here, even though I am. I think it works out well, to have that place to go where you don't have a phone, you don't have anything else to distract you. And you're not at your kitchen table. That was my main thing.
Orringer: And I like to be locked in my shed, which since I live in an apartment is actually located inside the house. I have a room that's about six feet by eight feet in which my husband and I both have a desk and a file cabinet and a bookcase. He writes up at the USF library, so we're not really crowding each other, but I do like to go in there and shut the door and turn off the phone and not speak to anybody for hours on end. And then be around a lot of people after writing hours to counteract that solitude.
Dave: What was the last book you read that really surprised you?
Vida: The last book that I was surprised I loved so much was Jennifer Egan's Look At Me. When I'd heard the book's synopsis a model gets into an car accident and her face is seriously injured even though I'm a huge fan of her work and loved The Invisible Circus, I thought, Oh, maybe it's just going to be about vanity and whatever, but the fact that she takes it to so many different levels and expands it into the level of terrorism and American vanity, all these different things, I thought was amazing. I was completely wowed by the size of the canvas she was painting on. It was hilarious and intelligent. It surprised me, how much I loved that book.
Dave: You talked to Liz Phair about it, right?
Vida: In The Believer interview, I did. She liked it, too. I wish we'd actually talked more about that.
Dave: When you're conducting those interviews, is there ever a time when, after you've finished the conversation, you don't feel that you failed to ask all the most interesting questions?
Vida: Oh, I feel that way all the time. In fact, I spent the whole day with Susan Straight she's an amazing novelist; she wrote Highwire Moon and I went down to Riverside, California, to spend the day with her there because she writes so much about Riverside, though she calls it Rio Seco in her fiction. I don't know any other writer that's written about it. It's a very unique town; it's called "the speed capital of the world." Well, I spent the whole day with her, from eight in the morning, with her and her daughters and her students, but it was only when I got home and started going through my transcript that I thought, God, when you talk to people you don't even get to the real heart of questions. Now that I look at this question, why didn't I ask her twenty more about that subject?
Maybe I'm just not very quick or something, but the process of putting a structure to someone's words, what they have to say, makes you curious. I do rearrange questions a lot. That's what I believe in: starting not with "How do you write?" but with a question from the middle of the conversation. So I went back and I called her and emailed her a couple times to get more questions. I always encourage my writers to do the same thing. I think it makes for a good interview. It's all about finding the starting point, the same way it was with my novel, finding the part to take off from. It's when you go back and revise it that you think, This is actually the nugget.
Dave: What book has recently surprised you, Julie?
Orringer: I found incredibly gorgeous and surprising Jonathan Lethem's new novel, The Fortress of Solitude. The thing that was most surprising to me was the way he managed to modulate the pace of the novel. There were times when you'd be reading along and he'd get into such minute detail in a scene that one moment would take four pages, but you'd be there with every line because there was something incredibly compelling going on with the characters. There were other times when I'd be getting toward the end of a chapter and I'd think, I have a page and a half left. How is he possibly going to end this chapter? And he would give three or four things, beautifully described and cleanly structured, so we would get something that we were never expecting. I was paying rapt attention the whole time.
His characterizations of this young boy, Dylan, and his best friend, Mingus, were so sharp and so beautifully drawn. There were lines that brought me to tears and many lines that made me laugh. I'm very excited about this book, excited to see what will happen when it comes out.
Dave: You two have been spending time together these last few weeks. I think it's safe to assume you know each other a lot better than I know you. How about you ask each other a question.
Vida: Oh, that's really hard.
Orringer: It is.
Dave: Take a minute to think about it.
Vida: Okay. How did you decide to name the collection How to Breathe Underwater?
Orringer: There was a really long time when I had no idea what the collection was going to be called. I didn't want to name it after any of the stories because those titles seemed too specific somehow, or too closely tied with the events of the story.
Vida: That's what I liked about it. When I first flipped through, I was like, There's not a story called "How to Breathe Underwater"! It wasn't until I read "The Isabel Fish" that I realized it came from that story. There's a line in there. The titular line!
Orringer: There was a point at which I knew a little more about the themes of the collection: there was a sense of loss and a sense of danger and something about young women entering a point in their lives when they're asked to make what seems like an impossible transition. So I was thinking about that line from "The Isabel Fish" because it seemed to me that it might be thematically connected to some of the other stories wherein these girls are trying to do something that seems, on the outside, impossible.
Vida: Plus, you always wanted to write a how-to book.
Orringer: Exactly! Plus, I really love swimming! I do, I love water. That's true, actually.
I have a question for you, something that I'm really interested in knowing. You lived in New York for a long time, and now you live in San Francisco. It's a very different writing world in San Francisco. I'm wondering how or whether that move affected your work.
Vida: I don't think it affected it because I've always written about places where I'm not living. When I was in my twenties, I wrote about teenagers. When I was in San Francisco, I was writing a book that mostly takes place in New York. Now I'm writing a book that takes place in Lapland. So I think the only thing it means is that I won't be writing about San Francisco because I think I'm there for good. I do feel like I have more time in San Francisco because there are fewer distractions than there are in New York.
Dave: Is there anything else that people need to know about you or your books?
Orringer: Well, I brought my copy of Vendela's book to a family reunion recently, and my sister picked it up and started reading. She finished the first chapter and literally stood up and said, "Everyone has to read this book!" Which is the way I felt about it. She was telling all our aunts and uncles about it. I just started reading this fantastic book. It's really an exciting and wonderful thing when you see people getting excited about your friend's work and see it going out into the world.
Vida: She's just trying to say something nice about me because I did a Slate diary a couple weeks ago and I said something nice about her. This is her way of paying me back. I know what she's up to. She doesn't have a sister!
Orringer: I do!
Vendela Vida and Julie Orringer visited Powell's City of Books on September 10, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State