Shifting Identities, Literary Legacies, and the Second Person: An Interview With Vendela Vida

VV_colorphotocreditChloe Aftel

In Vendela Vida’s fiction, traveling to distant destinations often forces characters to confront that which they’ve buried deeply within themselves: horrific family secrets, trauma and conflict that lurks just below the surface. Her new novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, follows an American woman who travels to Casablanca for reasons that become clear over the course of the book. Through deft use of the second person, Vida explores her protagonist’s shifting identity, and the course of actions that she undertakes after her belongings are stolen from a hotel lobby. It’s a fascinating and deeply layered novel; I talked with Vida via email about the novel’s origins, its history, and its cultural predecessors.

Did you know from the outset that this would be a story told in the second person? What were some of the challenges of using this style?

I knew I wanted to experiment with the malleability of identity, and second person seemed the best way—it eliminates the need to actually ever name the protagonist. I can’t say there were that many challenges, except that I had to figure out ways to describe the character’s appearance. But that same challenge exists when writing in the first person. There was an additional advantage to using the second person, one that I didn’t realize until I’d finished a draft and counted how many times the protagonist switched identities: the reader doesn’t have to keep track of all her incarnations and names. She is simply, always “you.”

What initially drew you to Casablanca as a setting?

I traveled to Morocco with my husband with no intention of setting a book there. While there…well, let’s just say I experienced a theft that led me to the Casablanca police station. For years, I’ve had this idea for a novel about a woman who takes on new identities out of necessity. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in the Casablanca police station that it occurred to me that this could be the opening to the book. I literally had the idea while I was sitting there giving my report to the detectives. I was the happiest person I think the police chief and detectives had ever encountered in that station. I should add that I didn’t lose my passport, but my protagonist does.

When did you first encounter the poem that gave the book its title? Did the protagonist’s athletic past come about as a result of the poem, or were you drawn to the poem because of her time diving?

I always knew my protagonist was an athlete. I wanted her to be more connected to her body than to her face, especially because I wanted to experiment with the idea of “masks” as far as her face was concerned. (She has really bad acne scars from her teenage years, and she’s constantly trying to cover them up.) Part of the reason she gets into diving as a sport is because with diving her face is never a factor. She’s judged by what her body does in the air.

In terms of the poem, I shared a draft of the book with some writer friends, and we were discussing potential titles for the book. These friends knew that I got the title of another book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, from a poem by a Sami poet. And so we were talking about poems that could potentially inspire titles for this book. One of my friends said, “Isn’t there that poem by Rumi about a diver?” Five minutes later I was in one my favorite bookstores in San Francisco, Dog-Eared Books, and found and bought a collection of Rumi poems. I stood outside on the sidewalk, and found the poem “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty” and immediately got chills. I had had a similar experience when I read the poem that inspired the title for Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. In this case, Rumi’s poem was in so many ways exactly what my book was about and I knew I had my title.

In terms of handling information about the narrator’s past, how did you choose when in the course of the book to reveal certain pieces of information about the life she had left behind?

I had a professor who once who said that if you ever got stuck writing something, you should think about what it would look like if it was in a different medium—say, a film, or a play. I’ve taken that advice very much to heart, even when I’m not stuck. So in terms of revealing information about the protagonist’s background, I thought of the scenes as being like flashbacks in a film.

There are allusions to Paul Bowles and to the film The Passenger early on; were these nods to specific works with which you found common stylistic ground?

I felt that if I was writing a book about an American in Morocco, I couldn’t not mention Paul Bowles. And I do love his work, and in particular I admire the way he uses landscape. Bowles doesn’t use landscape as a mere backdrop—he uses it to actually influence characters’ actions and behavior.

The reference to The Passenger comes when the protagonist is on a plane and she’s thinking about a film she saw with Jack Nicholson and a foreign actress whose name she can’t remember. I don’t say it’s The Passenger, but thank you for noticing. That film was so influential when writing this book. I was reading the script for The Passenger the other day—the script is so good—and at the end the publisher included a Vincent Canby review of the film. Canby said something so interesting: He said that Antonioni’s “camera’s eye is a laser that transforms everything it sees into a more precise definition of the thing represented—objects, people, movements, landscapes. Yet the definition of the thing represented—and this is the rub—becomes increasingly ambiguous the closer Antonioni’s camera gets.” I have no idea why I’m telling you that except that I found it fascinating.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a novel set in northern Africa where paranoia abounds; the creation of a film also plays a significant part. It shares several attributes with Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery, so I’m curious–was her novel an influence on yours?

Patricia Highsmith was an influence on this book. But even more than her books, I was influenced by films based on her work, like Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, because it plays so much with identity and relies so much on pacing. But I haven’t read The Tremor of Forgery. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll check it out.

In addition to your fiction, you’ve also written for the screen. Did the film that the protagonist encounters the cast and crew of draw at all from your experiences in the film industry?

Before I spent any time on sets, I thought movie-making was this really fast-paced world of lights, camera, action!  But for most of us who aren’t the director, being on a film set can be so incredibly boring. There’s so much downtime while the scenes are being set up or the lights are being adjusted. There’s a reason why those snack bars on film sets are so popular.

I’m also interested in the lengths that filmmakers have to go to in order to make something real not look artificial in a film. I was on a film set once where an actor was sitting in front of a green garden with lots of bushes. It was a hot, windless day and somehow the green of the garden looked fake when it was on film, so the crew had to set up a fan in front of the leaves of the bushes to make it clear that it was a real garden. Those kinds of challenges are endlessly interesting to me.

We see glimpses of the film that’s being made; did you have a sense of the plot of the film as a whole when you sat down to write the novel?

I did have to write out scene descriptions, and think about the plot as a whole. And then there was the challenge of what to name the film in the book. (I called it A Different Door.) I had a lot of fun making up the character of the famous American actress, who isn’t based on any actress. But I did spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what films she would have been in before, and thinking about how she might have started her career on the stage. (This fact is surprising to the protagonist because the famous American actress has a terrible, cackling laugh.) And then I had to think about what kind of film she would have been in with a montage—I knew the actress would have been in a movie with a montage—so I envisioned her in a film with a montage of her eating fifty bowls of rice.

The protagonist uses several names over the course of the novel, none of them actually her own. How did you think of her when you were writing the book?

I thought of her as you the whole way through. I do know what her real name is, but there’s only one very vague reference to it early on in the book. The protagonist is being picked up at the airport by a driver, and he’s holding a yellowed paper with her name scrawled on it. And there’s mention of the fact that he spells her name “the French way.” So that’s one clue. I don’t want to say what her real name is, but if you happen to guess it, I’ll tell you if you’re right.


Photo: Chloe Aftel

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