Vendela Vida is a force to be reckoned with. She's written four novels and one book of nonfiction; she's a founding editor of the Believer
and a cofounder of 826 Valencia, plus she's done some screenwriting. Her newest novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
, is her strongest work yet. In this moving, darkly funny, beautifully written story, an unnamed narrator who has traveled alone to Morocco finds her life and identity beginning to alter and unravel in sudden, surprising ways. Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
, raves, "You will tear through Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
, this wry, edgy, philosophical thriller, this love child of Albert Camus
and Patricia Highsmith
, this sly satire of Hollywood, this entertaining journey through the vast desert of identity and regret." We agree, and we're proud to choose it for Volume 53 of Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: In an interview with us several years ago after your first novel, you talked about how finding the starting point is often the hardest part of the writing process, and once you have that, everything falls into place. I was wondering if that's still true, and how you found the starting point for The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty.
Vendela Vida: That's very funny that I said that so many years ago, because I've been thinking about that with this book, too. I didn't realize I had already come to that conclusion. I feel like you're always coming to the same epiphanies as a writer.
I had a plot in mind for a book for a long time that I wanted to have happen and wanted to write about. I had some backstory written for the character, but I didn't know exactly what the main story in this book was going to be for a long time, and I didn't know where it was going to be set. But I had this character in mind, and I knew some of the themes about identity and so forth.
It wasn't until a trip to Morocco, where... I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say that, like the character in the book (the second-person character who's never given a real name), I also ended up in Casablanca being able to meet the chief of police.
There is not much similarity between the book and my own life; the only similarity, really, is the starting point. But I found myself in the police office with the chief of police in Casablanca, and I was probably the happiest person ever to be in that police office because midway through the interview talking about what had happened and going over details, I realized that this was going to be the beginning of my book.
After that, I think I had a huge smile on my face. I was looking around the office taking notes of what the interior looked like, what the flowers looked like, what everything looked like. I think they were all very confused to see someone so happy. Usually people sitting in that chair are crying or very upset, and I think I was almost elated because I had finally found the entry into this novel that I knew I'd been trying to write.
That's how it started, and after that I wrote very quickly.
Jill: Travel is a major theme in all your fiction. Even in your earlier books, it's a means of getting away from oneself, or shedding or changing one's identity a little bit. What interests you in writing about those moments of change, those intersections of Americans in other countries?
Vida: I have two answers to that. One is that my favorite novels are novels that start off with Americans abroad, everything from Graham Greene to Hemingway to Paul Bowles to Jean Rhys, people who write about characters not comfortable in their own surroundings. I think from the onset that creates a lot of inherent drama. That's always been interesting to me. I always love reading fiction that's set in other countries. And I love travel, so I think in some ways it was a natural intersection of writing about other places.
I also am someone who doesn't necessarily like to write about where I am right now. For example, right now, I'm sitting outside a laundromat in San Francisco. I don't think I would ever write about San Francisco while being in San Francisco.
I like to not be in the place I'm writing about, because I think that if I were writing about San Francisco and living here, I'm afraid that too many of my day-to-day interactions would make their way into the book. I would experience something and then I would be tempted to put it in the book. Whereas I find there's something about setting fictions in other countries that allows me to envision them whole and separate and then write them down, if that makes sense, and not have the landscape and the terrain and the world that I created in my head be punctured.
For those reasons, I really love to set books in other countries. And also because, as I mentioned, those are my favorite kind of books to read. I think ultimately as a writer you tend to write the books that you like to read. That's what the deal is for me.
Jill: How much did you have to travel for this book? Did you go back to Morocco after that first time when you realized this was where the story was going to be set?
Vida: I did not go back there after that. I thought about it at one point. For the last two books, I spent a lot of time in each of the countries. With The Lovers, which is set in Turkey, I went back there three times; the same with Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which takes place in northern Scandinavia. I was there a total of three times, in Lapland.
For this book I didn't go back. I use a lot of... I don't know what else to call them but tools, while writing, meaning a lot of photographs of things. If anyone ever looked at the photos I take while traveling, they would be of no interest to them. [Laughter] I take pictures of laundromats, of billboards, of cars, of hotels where I think my protagonist might stay or be. I find those pictures to be really useful when I'm writing. For this novel I had a lot of those photos in my head or I researched a lot of photos and that's what I used to recall some of the details.
I also watched a lot of films set in Morocco, documentaries and even travel videos, just to remind myself of all the small details — what's sold in the souks, what's sold on the streets, things like that. Sometimes when you're writing, you think, "What is something I saw?" You wind up back with some spices, or the same display of leather goods that you saw, and then you can research what other goods are sold in the streets. Because of that, I didn't feel like I had to go back to Morocco.
I wrote the book fairly quickly and intensely. I locked myself up to write this book, because I had felt this urgency that I just wanted to get it down while I had it in my head. I did everything I could to push real life aside and lock myself up for days at a time.
Jill: You have some wonderful and surprising similes in your fiction. In this book, one example was, "The Moroccan sky above you is pale blue and cloudless, like the sky in a musical production for children," which I loved.
I was wondering, do those come to you as you're writing and picturing the scene, or are they happening to you in your lived experience and you're saving them up to put in your fiction?
Vida: That's a really great question. In that instance, that simile came to me when I was writing. I felt it was right for the scene, because it was feeling very juvenile to her, all the manipulation that's going on around her. It felt very natural to me.
But other times I take notes when I'm traveling, and sometimes similes or metaphors will occur to me while I'm taking those notes. That happened a lot for Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, for example. I had a lot of notes in my journal that were already there. I had a chart describing how the sky looked at various times of day. When I was writing the novel, I could plug in, "It's five o'clock now. The sky looks like a freezer being opened in a dark room," or something like that.
But for this book I didn't actually write any of the similes when I was there. It was all written when I came back. I was in Idaho, with my family, trying to sequester myself, and that simile came to me.
Jill: How did you decide to do the second-person narration for this most recent novel? It creates a strong identification with the reader and the narrator, and it also furthers the slippage and the uncertainty of the boundaries of identity.
Vida: I knew very early on that I wanted to do second person for this book, for two reasons. One, I had never tried it before. I'd done first person, and I'd done third person with The Lovers. I thought the next challenge was to actually try second person. For me, it was a creative challenge to explore it, and more and more stories are actually written in second person and I find it can work for humor and storytelling, so I thought I would try it in her story.
The other reason I wanted to use second person, particularly for this book, is because it is so much about identity, and the narrator is a twin. Because I knew I didn't want to mention the character's name, it was an easier way to do it than saying "she" the whole way through.
And I also wanted the reader to feel that they were in that situation pretty immediately. That's why I started with "you." The "you" is in the very first sentence. Mainly because of the theme of identity — it's been a theme in all of my books, particularly in my first nonfiction book about young girls going through initiation rituals trying to figure out who they are, so I really felt that it was important to use it in this book.
Jill: What was so interesting to you about exploring identity through all of this doubling? It builds and builds and builds until it's almost like every female character in the book is a different version of this "you," in a way, which is really fascinating and layered.
Vida: For a couple of reasons. One, I think everyone does have a second identity. The second you get onto a plane and arrive somewhere else, you're you, obviously, but there's this part of you that feels like, "This is a new opportunity to be a little different. I'm in a new context, a new setting." I felt that was interesting for this book.
But also, she ends up working as a stand-in on a film. Even before I knew what her role would be on the film set, there is so much doubling in films. There's the separation of real life in the first place. There's a doubling, especially when you're doing films out of the country, there's dubbing, even, the voiceovers. There are so many layers of façade to get to something that's supposed to look very realistic, ultimately. There are all these layers. I was really interested in that.
The reason the film component came about as part of the book is that Morocco has a really popular and great film school. That's why a lot of films are actually shot there, because they know they don't have to bring over the crew. They have to bring over the cast; usually they bring the American cast, obviously. But they can rely on the crew from the Moroccan school and people who graduated from the school. It can save a lot of funds for movies, so that's why a lot of American films that are supposed to take place in Africa or in the desert are filmed in Morocco, because of the existence of this film school. I wanted to make use of that in the book as well.
Jill: Did you have anyone in mind as a model for the famous American actress?
Vida: I had no one in mind. I deliberately didn't want to have anyone in mind. I didn't want anyone to think I was parodying someone. I was just thinking of what a famous American actress would be. She was definitely created out of whole cloth. I wanted her to have this charm and be able to seduce, in a friendship way, the narrator, and perhaps the reader, too. I wanted her to be very likeable and charming and appealing.
Of course, speaking of doubles, she's doubling too, because she's working as an actress but also there's a sense that she's actually acting when she's interacting with the protagonist in some ways and trying to coerce her into doing certain things for her life, seducing her with her charm and her extension of friendship.
Jill: You said about Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name that you didn't realize that some readers would consider Clarissa unlikeable, so you concentrated on making the protagonist in The Lovers a bit softer. Did you think about this narrator in those terms at all?
Vida: The likeability question is one that I think about a lot. My whole point with likeability of a female character... I've become quite obsessive about it in the past, to the point that a few years ago I was looking up every review of female characters, usually created by women and not by men, and male characters, usually created by men, in fiction.
It really was startling to me that in every book review, the word "unlikeable" was used so much more to describe female characters, even if you were looking at reviews of books with male protagonists who were definitely at least shady characters at best, who abandoned their families or maybe betrayed a relative in a pretty major way. And they were never described as unlikeable. I thought that was very interesting, that the female characters were so often described as that.
One book I was looking at in particular was The Darling by Russell Banks, which is a book that I really love. I love the female character in that, and she was often described as unlikeable, which is so interesting to me, because basically she's a very strong woman who makes her own choices in life and doesn't rely on anyone. To some reviewers, that made her quote-unquote "unlikeable."
With this book, I didn't think about it that much, because at this point, I almost don't care anymore. If you find her unlikeable, maybe it has more to do with you as a reader and your own biases about femininity and what a female protagonist should be like. But I don't read books to make friends.
Jill: [Laughter] That's a great line.
Vida: If I want to pick friends, I do it in real life. I don't read to find someone who's exactly like the person that I'm going to see in this laundromat next to me to maybe strike up a conversation with. I actually view books as an entrée to go into a life that is not familiar to me and a life with someone who is not someone I would necessarily be friends with.
I'm reading Jane Bowles' book Two Serious Ladies right now. I am really intrigued by her main protagonist because she's someone I can picture on the outskirts of a party, but she's someone I wouldn't necessarily be drawn to talk to at that party. But I love this protagonist and am so intrigued by her quirkiness and just her character when reading about her. I think that's the pleasure of fiction for me.
Jill: I think that makes sense, and I will say, I was surprised when I read that about Clarissa, too, because it never occurred to me that she was unlikeable either.
I never really thought about likeability or unlikeability with this narrator. I did think a bit about reliability. I like that Sheila Heti called this book "poised somewhere between a fever-dream and a suspenseful thriller," because there were points that the tone felt very surreal to me. There were times when I would go, "Is she being a little unstable? Is she being appropriately paranoid?"
Vida: I think that she's reliable and she should be viewed as a reliable character, but that's related to why I wanted to use the second person.
It's almost like what I would think is the equivalent of being a director and deciding how close you want the camera to be to an actress — if you want to do long shots the whole time, if the film is supposed to distance you from the actress, or really show every little twitch of the mouth. Obviously a lot of films go back and forth, and then some do medium range, and close-ups, and there's rarely a film that's just showing an actress walking in the distance.
But I came to realize that the "you," second person, is very familiar and it really is like having a close-up on a protagonist the entire time. I think that with that, you will see all the paranoia. The paranoia is something that she's experiencing. Whether she should be or not, it's something that she is in fact experiencing, and so I wanted the reader to experience it with her.
Also, because you don't know exactly what her background story is until the end, you don't know why she's acting the way she is. I wanted that to be a mystery, too, to have there be this tension between the story and the reader, where the reader's hopefully wondering, "What has caused this person to arrive in Morocco? What is she doing there, and what are these elusive things that she's referring to in her past that you know are very present in her mind and in her consciousness but that she's not revealing to you as the reader until later on?"
Jill: Yes, definitely. There are influences on her that you don't really understand until the end.
Jill: You called your earlier three novels a trilogy, or a triptych, on the subject of violence and rage. This novel is pretty dark in some ways, too; the narrator has a lot of justifiable anger at some people in her life. How did you think of this book differently? Are you thinking of this as a stand-alone, or do you have another concept of a theme for the next few?
Vida: I sometimes regret ever saying that I view my first three novels as a trilogy or triptych, because then everyone is always asking me, "Do I have to read the first one to read the last?" [Laughter]
No. When I finished my first novel, And Now You Can Go, I just felt like I hadn't said everything I wanted to say on the topic. I thought, "OK, I'll write another one. I'll give myself two more books to get this right." I thought of it much more as a triptych in the sense of... Philip Roth has those three novels about America that he views as existing together in his mind.
I packaged them together in my head almost as a way for me, every time I finished a book, to not feel that letdown. "Oh God, I'm really done with this now." There's another one. But that, of course, posed a problem when I finished The Lovers, because I really was done with it.
I feel that this new one, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, stands alone in that the tone is different. Even though it's a dark novel in some ways, I wanted the tone to be light enough to include room for more comedy and I wanted it to be a little funnier than some of the novels I've written in my past, even though And Now You Can Go definitely has lighter, funnier moments.
But with Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, for example, there was a point in the novel where I really realized the character could not be funny and the observations couldn't be funny. I'd gotten halfway through writing it and thought, This woman has just found out terrible things about her past and about who she is. She cannot be funny.
I literally had this Post-It note over my desk, which was, "No room for humor anymore. After this point, there is no room for humor." I didn't want The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty to get to the point that there wasn't room for humor. I wanted the same sort of playfulness throughout the book.
So yes, I feel this is a stand-alone and it's not part of a triptych.
Jill: You're setting the record straight, here. No trilogy, no triptych.
Vida: Exactly. [Laughter]
Jill: How did you find the Rumi poem that gave the novel its title?
Vida: I'm in a writing group with several other writers in the Bay Area. I had almost finished the first draft of this novel and I was discussing it with my writing group, and at the time I was trying to figure out a title. I really wanted to have a title before I finished the book, because I felt that would help me in a lot of ways.
It's funny, because one of the writers in my group is a novelist and memoirist named Lisa Michaels. She was brainstorming and she said, "Oh, there's that poem by Rumi." I love reading poetry and I'd just recently been reading some Rumi poems and been really interested in him. She made this comment and other people made some suggestions, too.
Right after our meeting on Valencia Street in the Mission District, I went to one of my favorite bookstores called Dog Eared Books. There are some bookstores... I know Powell's is probably like this for people who live in Portland, or people who have the opportunity to go there more often than I do. It kind of becomes this magic bookstore for you where you find exactly what you're looking for or exactly what you want to read at that moment.
I went into Dog Eared and I just knew they would have this Rumi collection because this was my magic bookstore. I picked up the collection and looked for the poem with the diver. It was actually one of the first or second poems I opened to, the one that she was referencing.
As soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" to be the title of my book, which is not the exact title of his poem. His was "The Diver's Clothes Lying Empty."
I read the poem and I got chills because the poem was exactly about what my book was about in many ways — about identity and twinship and existing in one world and the other at the same time. I won't try to analyze the poem, but I felt this kinship between the poem and the book, and especially because she's a diver, it just seemed very appropriate to me.
At that time, too, I knew that I was going to incorporate the actual poem in the book in some way, and not as an epigraph or anything like that. I really wanted the poem to be in the book and to be something that the protagonist encounters.
Jill: I was wondering if she was already a diver before you found that poem, or if you went back in and changed that.
Vida: No, she was already a diver, which is why Lisa Michaels in my writing group thought of that poem. I think she was just thinking that I might find some inspiration in it, and that I wasn't actually going to use the title, but I ended up using the title.
Jill: The conversation that the narrator has with the actress's bodyguard about evolution and punctuated equilibrium was fascinating. In a way it's a close description of what the narrator is doing.
Vida: I'm so glad you got that, because I feel like there's a point when you're writing where you don't want to be too heavy-handed, but you don't want to be too aloof either. I definitely wanted that to be a metaphor in the book, and one that a close reader or English majors would understand and see. [Laughter]
I remember one version where at the end I had some reference to that, and I showed it to some fellow writers and said, "Is this too heavy-handed what I'm doing here? Is this too much?"
They said, "I don't understand. It's not even heavy-handed. I didn't even understand that you were doing that, and knew you were trying to do that, so no, you have to work a little harder." I think I just had some reference to the colors that she puts on, and that wasn't enough.
I think there's always a balance that you have to strive for where you want to make sure it's clear that you're going for that metaphor, but not make it be so distracting that that's all you see. Anyway, I'm really happy that you saw that, because you're the first reader who I tried that out on who commented on it, so thank you.
Jill: It made me wonder, why were you thinking about punctuated equilibrium and evolution in general? Why did that metaphor specifically come up for you?
Vida: I think it's probably because, like I said, I've had this story in my head for a while, especially what happens in the third act of the book. Even though it doesn't have chapter breaks, I do think of this book very much like it has a first act, a second act, and a third act.
In the third act — I'm not going to say exactly what it is, although she's part of a tour group and someone gets lost — was an idea that I had been trying to write for a while, and in the original incarnation, I set the tour group in the Galapagos Islands, which is a place that I traveled to a few years ago with my family.
I think even though the Galapagos Islands as a setting didn't end up being in the book, it still has the metaphors about evolution. I was happy to try to include them in this book to explain a little bit what she's going through on a more scientific level, I guess.
Jill: You were saying earlier that you wrote this really quickly. You've said before that you write a lot more than you need and then cut back. Was that true for this book, or did the writing process go differently this time?
Vida: I think that in some ways it was five years in the making, just with the backstory, and like I said, experimenting with putting some of the broad elements in different countries and different settings, even with different barriers and protagonists. But once I latched onto the voice and the setting, I wrote pretty compulsively. When I say I locked myself in, I'm not even joking.
We were in Idaho last summer, and my husband took our kids camping for several days. When they came back, I hadn't even left the cabin. I was still there and literally had not walked out the door. I felt this urgency to get it down really quickly. I was almost afraid that the tone and the plot would leave me if I didn't write it down.
There is this element of a fever dream that you were saying Sheila Heti was talking about. I do think that it was written very much almost as a fever dream, because I wanted to stay very much in the protagonist's head and have everything have that kind of surreal quality. I was afraid of stopping and leaving the cabin, even.
Jill: Is there a question you haven't been asked about this book that you would like to have been asked?
Vida: I'll backtrack and answer the question through the rear door. I interviewed Shirley Hazzard for the Believer, and she was talking about one of her novels, and I think she was talking about how she had references there to a book that the protagonist is reading on a train, and the book isn't mentioned, but she gives some clues as to what that book is.
The book turns out to be War and Peace, but she never overtly says so. I was really influenced by that conversation, and by her talking about giving clues to the reader without actually saying, "War and Peace." Because you don't really need to know what the book is, but it's kind of fun for the reader who has read War and Peace to put it together themselves.
In a different way, it also brings you into the protagonist's head, to bring you closer to them, because when you're reading a book you don't think, Oh, I'm reading War and Peace. You think, Okay, this is what's happening in this book. You're not actually thinking about the book's title so much.
The question I am not asked, but I sometimes wish I were asked, is that in these last two books, I tried to put in little clues about the film that the protagonist is watching or a book they're reading. For example, in The Lovers, I put in something about what the character Yvonne is reading on the beach, and it turns out to be Marguerite Duras's The Lover, although it never mentions that book by name.
So I guess the question is, "What is the film that she's watching in the beginning of The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty when she's on the plane?" There's a reference to it, and I can tell you the answer.
Jill: Please do.
Vida: The movie I wanted her to be watching was Antonioni's The Passenger. That was a film that we watched a couple of times while I was writing this book, because some of the themes are similar — identity, and exchanging of passports, and using someone's identity and passport that's not your own.
But also, I watched that film a lot while writing because I don't actually like to read a lot when I'm writing books. I find that sometimes it can be very distracting. You're almost afraid something will make its way into your book unintentionally, whereas films I find very helpful to watch while writing, because it's just a different world.
I had a professor once in grad school who said, "If you ever get stuck in the creation of a story, just think about what it would look like in a different medium. For example, if you're writing a scene, and you can't get it right, what would that scene look like if it were in a film or a play or an opera?"
I think that really helps me when I get stuck in certain plot twists in particular, and so that's why I turn to other mediums to try to figure out what to do. The Passenger was something that was really instrumental to me when writing this book. So I had put that reference in the very beginning, almost just to amuse myself if no one else. [Laughter]
I guess that's a question that I haven't been asked that I would like to be asked: "What was the film that she was watching on the plane?" Only because it means something to me.
Jill: Finally, what are you reading and listening to that you're enjoying these days?
Vida: I've been listening to Sleater-Kinney's new album a lot because I just saw them live in concert in San Francisco last week, and it was a phenomenal show. There's something about watching three women on stage who are amazing performers, all performing together in a big auditorium, that was just really inspirational to me.
In terms of reading, I've been reading Jane Bowles's novel that I mentioned, Two Serious Ladies, and also Alan Bennett's book, The Clothes They Stood Up In. It's funny, because I'd never heard of it before, but I've been on this reading jag that led me to that book.
Mostly recently I've been interested in books that start with crimes; I realized that a lot of books I've been reading all have crimes in them. I think that's something I'm naturally drawn to. I just reread The Delicate Prey, Paul Bowles's story collection, because I got asked to do an introduction for it, and I really love that collection. What was interesting to me, really in having to study all those stories and read them all again, was how so many of them include a theft of some sort. It can be really minor, or it can be really large. It can be as small as a theft of two cigarettes, or a book, or it can be a theft of someone's life. But in all of them, they propel the story forward. And obviously my book includes a theft, so I think I've been drawn to those.