Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Vanessa Veselka InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release, Art Is Everything by Whiting Award winner Yxta Maya Murray. In her funny and propulsive new novel, Murray offers us a portrait of a Chicana artist as a woman on the margins. Written as a series of Instagram essays, Snapchat freakouts, and rejected Yelp reviews that merge confession with art criticism, Art Is Everything shows us the painful but joyous development of an artist whose world implodes just as she has a breakthrough. Listeners receive a 20% discount on Art Is Everything or any other title with promo code, POD20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands, a January Indie Next pick that Helen Macdonald calls, “Funny, eerie, tender, haunting and unsettling, smokily atmospheric, and fantastically enjoyable.” Set in late Victorian London, the novel tells the story of a rash of missing girls, all of whom seem to have disappeared under similar circumstances. On the case is Inspector Cutter, a detective as sharp and committed to his work as he is wryly hilarious. And his sidekick Gideon Bliss, a Cambridge dropout in love with one of the girls who’s gone missing. As the duo peels back the mystery layer by layer, they offer a glimpse into the strange undertow of late 19th century London and the secrets we all hold inside us. The House on Vesper Sands is out on January 12 from Tin House and available now for pre-order. Somehow, if you are listening to this, and I’m saying it, we’ve made it to 2021. Happy New Year, everybody. Even if the turn of the calendar year is an arbitrary division of time, the ritualistic and superstitious part of me wants to believe we are turning a page. But on the other hand, I think of Samuel Beckett when asked in 1983 by The Times for his New Year’s resolutions and hopes, where he responded with a brief telegram that went, “Resolutions colon zero stop period hopes colon zero stop Beckett,” and yet there is something real, not based in the stories we tell ourselves that is happening this time of year. The return of the light, the retreat of the night, and soon the rising of the sap and the trees. My pink dawn viburnum is starting to bloom. The daphna outside are budding. The hellebore looks like they’re preparing to show their flowers for Alyssa Harad’s weekly Flower Report on Twitter. Even with the pandemic, with the wildfires, with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, with the contested election, and so many other things, the earth is still turning and returning, getting ready to participate once again in renewal. This tension between reality and the real, and myth-making—and the ways myth-making is part of the real—is a big part of Vanessa Veselka’s latest book, a book that looks at how the absence of narratives or stories can be harmful, and how story and myth-making can be an act of survival, but also looks at the harms caused by myth-making, whether that of a nation, and the murder, and theft it can gloss over with story or that of a mother trying to imbue her child with a sense of purpose or destiny or safety. It seems like the perfect writer to begin the year with, one who writes a big American novel that jumps right into the ring with the story America tells itself, while also creating new stories for those who are often never in them. Most guests, when they contribute to the bonus audio archive, read something of their own writing, either something forthcoming or a little known or in a different genre than the main conversation, or they read something by someone else that inspires them. But on rare occasions, people do something entirely out of the box, like when Chaya Bhuvaneswar sang, or when several cross-genre hybrid writers—I’m thinking of Alicia Jo Rabins and Dao Strom—perform songs with violin and guitar, respectively. Today’s guest, Vanessa Veselka, who prior to being a writer was, for several decades, a working musician both here and in Europe, performs a song for us today as her addition to the bonus archive. That is another thing like the returning of the light that has been real, and yet feels like a fairy tale, that listeners in a way, that I couldn’t have ever dreamed, have lifted up the show and ensured it is going forward into 2021 ready to bloom. Writers too have been offering incredible things to entice listeners to become listener supporters. You can find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio, check out all the wide variety of possible gifts available for becoming a listener supporter—from Broadsides by Forrest Gander, to Borges-inspired prints by Rikki Ducornet, to limited edition hand-crafted collectibles by Nikki Finney, to becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving advanced copies of 12 books over the course of the year and a lot more—by heading over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Enjoy today’s program with Vanessa Veselka.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer Vanessa Veselka. Veselka’s 2011 debut novel, Zazen, for which she first appeared on Between the Covers, was also one of the first publications for Richard Nash’s new publication venture at the time, Red Lemonade. Zazen was a book that heralded a new voice, one that prompted Tom Bissell to say, “Vanessa Veselka is something like a literary comet: bright-burning, far-reaching, rarely seen, and a little dangerous.” Zazen won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize beating out runner-up, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. The Judges in their Citation said, “When practicing zazen, the disposition of our mind should be to see without being marred by what we see. This definition stands in stark contrast to the experience of reading Vanessa Veselka’s keen dystopian novel Zazen: we can’t help but be injured and destabilized. We can’t help but find the contents at once disturbing and funny, explosive and muted, encyclopedic, intimate, and painfully honest. On top of all this, Veselka has thrown herself into every single sentence of this lyrical, incisive, nervy book, turning even the most nightmarish scenes and satirical dialogue into effortless beauty. An ambitious encapsulation of our modern times, Zazen tackles counter-culture hipsters, geology, Buddhism, consumerism, terrorism, veganism, family drama, and, above all, love. In doing so, Zazen brings to the foreground the most fragile aspects of living the 21st century life, and how, in the end, we as a society can become the very thing we fear.” Unsurprisingly, Zazen is being reissued by Vintage a decade later in the fall of 2021. Vanessa Veselka is a graduate of Reed College which she attended as a non-traditional student, 15 years older than most of her classmates, waitressing at a vegan cafe, driving a night cab, and raising her daughter as she worked on the manuscript that became her first book. You won’t see her schooling in her bio, however, but rather her non-traditional schooling as a teenage runaway, hitchhiker, sex worker, independent record label owner, and union organizer. She was also, from the 1980s into the 2000s, a working musician. She opened for The Ramones and Faith No More in Europe with her band, The Remnant, moved to Seattle and formed Bell which played with everyone from The White Stripes to Sleater Kinney, and later with Steve Moriarty of The Gits, formed the band, The Pinkos. It’s Vanessa’s life out in the world, on the road, one that courted risk, and chance, and discovery, that informs both her fiction and non-fiction. Her 2012 piece for GQ, The Truck Stop Killer, investigates whether her own brush with death might have been a near escape from the serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades. This and much of her nonfiction explore the gender dynamics of a woman on the road and the effect on women of the absence of quest narratives centered around female protagonists. The Truck Stop Killer went on to be included in Best American Essays 2013 and her other short prose has appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, Smithsonian, Maximum Rock’n’Roll, and Bitch Magazine, among other places. Vanessa Veselka returns to Between the Covers to discuss her much-anticipated new novel, The Great Offshore Grounds from Knopf. A book that was long-listed for the National Book Award in Fiction. Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, says, “Veselka blends fascinating details of seamanship, cab driving, and boot camp with intimate, spot-on descriptions of contemporary American poverty . . . This gritty and unsentimental work is compassionate, funny, and deeply human.” Lidia Yuknavitch adds, “I immediately fell in love with the phenomenal sisters at the heart of Vanessa Veselka’s supernova of a new novel, The Great Offshore Grounds. This novel is thrilling in its content, daring in heart, and makes a helix between a novel of ideas and the best damn story of women who forge their identities on their own terms that I’ve read in years.” Roxane Gay adds, “A magnificent beast of a novel. Utterly engrossing. Original. One of the rare novels that understands the realities of American poverty. Epic.” Finally, Karen Russell says, “The Great Offshore Grounds reminded me of what a great novel can do—Veselka’s seafaring epic has the forward momentum of a grand adventure and the spiraling depth of a new myth…darkly hilarious, astral, cerebral, suspenseful, warm-blooded, divine.” Welcome back to Between the Covers, Vanessa Veselka.
Vanessa Veselka: It sounds so much fancier when you say it, [laughter] but thank you. I’ve been waiting to do this. You have a reputation as everybody’s favorite interviewer.
DN: I’ve been waiting to do this, too, because it’s super gratifying. You were one of the first 10 or 15 interviews that I ever did, and now flash forward, here we are. You are a National Book Award finalist for Fiction, and as we’ll talk about later, our lives sort of intersect along the way, which I do want to weave into our conversation at some point. But before we talk about The Great Offshore Grounds, specifically, I was hoping we could talk about gender and quest narratives more generally.
VV: Sure, anywhere you want to go.
DN: You tackle this head-on in your essay, Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters, how narratives for women on the road, either end in their rape, their death, or both. In that essay, you say, “Whereas a man on the road might be seen as potentially dangerous, potentially adventurous, or potentially hapless, in all cases the discourse is one of potential. When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends.” I was hoping we could start with you talking more about the scarcity of female road narratives and then more specifically, why it matters that they exist, as I think this question informs both of your books, but this book even more than Zazen.
VV: Yes, absolutely. When I wrote that for context, as you mentioned, I had done this piece about a long-form piece that appeared in GQ through an old story in my life, about a time where I was held hostage in this situation when I was a teenager with somebody that I thought might be this particular serial killer. In writing all of this, the beginning of any project that you write, or at least the way I view it, is I’m looking for the language that only that project speaks to a degree. I’m looking for something like what is the language of this particular story? My work feels a little more cohesive as it continues to develop over the years, but it was very common for me for a long time for people to pick up one thing and say, “I can’t imagine if it’s the same writer who wrote this as wrote that,” and particularly between my fiction and non-fiction. Some of that was because I really do approach each thing as what is the language that’s required for this. My first interaction is to find the language. In searching and writing the original GQ piece which was a reported investigative piece that had a lot to do with memory as well, I had to find my own way in how do I tell this story, this very hard to tell, to explain efficiently, the rules of the world that this is happening in so that I can explain what I’m about to say. As I was writing, I was actually going into a lot of investigation of the story myself that would be more of what I would think of in fiction because I was having to try to understand, “How do I tell this thing?” One of the things that became difficult in the writing of that is I turned it in at 14,000 words and it ended up being 9700, and what was cut out of it essentially became Green Screen. As we were taking things out, I was getting frustrated because I was of two minds. I was the person trying to tell you a ghost story about death and about women on the road, and about all the bad things that happened to them, and all the dangers. I was on the other hand, the person who had hitchhiked 20,000 miles who believed in freedom, who believed there was potential, who had a problem with continuing to reify that story of people on the road, at the same time, I had to explain how dangerous it was. It was causing a problem and I really needed to separate them. It became a joke as we were writing with my editors like, yeah, that one’s going into the—we called it the feminist critique of the article I’m writing. This project where I was doing a current feminist critique of the article I was writing in my own mind. I published them within two weeks of each other. They are always in my mind, related in this very particular way, in which that one is almost arguing against the other sometimes. But I needed a place for that whole other discourse that wasn’t academic to me, about why and what does it mean to be on the road that’s not just this story—the story of women being cut off from society. This is where the two stories come together. There’s this quality of when you see—and I think I say it in Green Screen—when you see a woman on the road, it’s so much of where the danger is, is what happens when you see her? What are you seeing? Are you seeing someone, as you say in that quote that you imagine the potential in for one way? Primarily, what most people see is somebody who has the perception, the instinct as somebody who has been shunned, somebody who is cut off, somebody who is invisible to the world, somebody who is dangerous. There is not this safe idea that there could be any other reason a woman would take that step and be on the road. This quality of shunning is a very big one. A woman who is that cut-off from the pack, from the tribe, from whatever, there’s something dangerous about it, and there’s something that draws predators about it. That is true. What Green Screen is saying is until we can even start to imagine that there’s a quest that these women could be on, that there’s some possibility, then, there are so few options that all of the ways that you become visible—because it’s about invisibility, and both pieces have that in common—what happens if I decide you’ve been shunned for something? I decide there’s something wrong with you. I decide I don’t want to get into that mess, that’s not my mess to get into, and then I decide because the price of what that may mean for you is high, I have to tell myself, “I didn’t really see it.”
DN: Yeah. When I think about that, I think about the way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or as it seems to, like the way in which the absence of narratives leads people not to see people who are outside of the narratives. When you wrote The Truck Stop Killer, you went back to places that were the site of brutal murders—outside of diners where a woman was left in a dumpster—and you were talking to people who were working there at the time that these things happened, and they don’t remember it. Then also the FBI talking about how many people along that stretch of highway were killed and yet no one has the impression of that time period being about that, which made me then wonder, are these people not remembering or were they not noting the people in the first place? If they’re not noting the people in the first place, is that why it would so easily draw a predator? Because that would be self-fulfilling that it would be more dangerous, the absence of narrative, not noticing somebody because of that, and then you becoming more vulnerable fulfilling the prophecy that you shouldn’t be on the road in the first place. I was thinking about this with Natalie Diaz when we were talking about the continual epidemic of the disappearance of indigenous women, and that never even makes the news. There’s an epidemic in Oregon, in Washington, in Canada but a predator would go after somebody where no one’s going to blink an eye, I would imagine, if they disappear.
VV: No, that is exactly the connection between those things. Because of that article, I’ve been privileged—one of the weird and uncomfortable privileges, I will say—over the last years, is that I get contacted sometimes by homicide or sheriff’s departments when remains come up in various ways or other things. I’ve also gotten to work with several indigenous women’s networks up in Canada and done some support and other work with certain people. Think about the levels of invisibility you’re talking about there. I’ve written about it a little bit from a completely different angle. The Indians are all dead. We killed them all. They’re done. That’s an incredible erasure. It’s erasure upon erasure upon erasure. Of course, you don’t see them. I can think of no greater layering of every level of invisibility than a Native American woman, an indigenous woman on the road in those settings, and of course, predators are on it like that. That narrative, we don’t have the placeholders that say, “Oh, I remember you. You were this type. I saw you on the road.” It’s just not a placeholder. It’s not attached to a story to us. We’ll get into this with The Great Offshore Grounds, I have real mixed feelings about things being attached to a story or not.
DN: Yes, I do want to get into that.
VV: There’s a real double-edged side of that but when something is not attached to any story, it’s just an object in the wind. It’s not placed into anything that memory is trained to hold.
DN: Yeah. I’m going to read another line and then ask you another question about this. You say, “Siddhartha wants liberation, Dante wants Beatrice, Frodo wants to get to Mount Doom—we all want something. Quest is elemental to the human experience.” Even reading that however, I get the feeling that your answer with regards to female quest narratives is not simply to replace a male hero with a female heroine. My two questions for you are, one, how are quest narratives in your mind the same or different than heroes’ journeys? Two, how does the structure of the story change, at least for you, when you shape a quest narrative around a woman rather than a man?
VV: Those are both very deep questions. First, one small digression right there, when this piece came out, it came out in The American Reader and it was called Green Screen as you read it. But it got picked up also by Salon who retitled it, Where are the women Kerouacs? It went everywhere that way. I got a whole rash of feedback on people angry at me for not recognizing that there were women writers writing about the road out there, and that was just because of the title that they put onto it. My question was never why are there no women Kerouacs. Why aren’t there women iconic narratives—not writers, not experiences. There’s an experience out there. What I mean by that is that if I’m the average person on a road and I am looking at that man on the road, even if I haven’t read this book or that book, I know Frodo, I can recognize that kind of character, I have places for that in the story, and I don’t have that for women. The fact that one or two people wrote a really stellar book about sometimes, they took traveling together through Russia in the late 90s. It’s irrelevant. We’re talking about deeply grooved human iconic narratives. Can you build that outside of a hero’s journey model? That’s a rut that’s pretty deeply dug at this point, in terms of what becomes a mass mythic understanding of something, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. We have to change how we look at the quest. There’s a beauty to the hero’s journey which is it can, at its best, make mundane, horrific, annoying, frustrating, or devastating things, seeing part of the piece that is moving somewhere that has a purpose and a point that should you make the right choices, a win is guaranteed. That’s a fundamental thing. It can really pull people out of other stories. You use one story to pull people out of other stories. The downside—and I think this is where you get in all sorts of the question of privilege and how it functions, and why it can’t function the same way—the downside is, I’ve been reading a lot of Vonnegut again, recently, that point when you decide that every single person around you is a machine who showed up to interact with you at this moment for this particular reason, [laughs] there’s a quality of the hero’s journey that makes everybody a symbolic object—You are my obstacle, you are my this, you are my that—what is true is that the hero’s journey is really just so much the white man’s journey. It really strongly comes out of that a lot of times. How do you do when you write around a woman? I don’t find that I can write it in the same way because I can’t think of it in the same way. The hero’s journey lacks one of the most fundamental truths that I can think of, which is doubling back and doubling down. One of the things in this book that I looked at a lot was how do you show character arc when fundamentally they’re doubling down? In the way we think about their hero’s journey—what they learned, who they become in the end—all of these imaginations, what do you do when it’s doubling back?
DN: Another thing that I think of from an interview that I was reading of yours too was how, when you read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, it blew your mind that when the main male characters were dead, the story continued with the woman who goes out into the desert. It’s my favorite part of the book and it’s so unexpected. There’s something thrilling, it’s not a doubling back but it’s forging a new path that is completely outside of the form. Everything that you expect that’s going to happen, all of a sudden, it’s something else. It feels like the rhythm, the pacing, everything about it seems to shift all of a sudden in that book. It’s very wild. I could see why that would have been, for someone starved for female quest narratives, a potentially revelatory moment.
VV: It was. The pacing of necessity is different and then it comes back to the question you started with which was, there are many more possibilities than death and rape on the road, and yet those are also still possibilities, and they are very real possibilities. Because of that, the things that have to be done, the way things have to be managed, is built in the story the same way poverty is built in the story. Somebody said to me recently, “Ironically, your character is the only thing they think about their money.” And I’m like, “Yeah, everybody’s got no money and has to get from point A to B. All they think about is money.” [laughter] If there is a way that things just take on a completely different rhythm from the complexity of how you go from this is my idea to this is my action, is everything about the power you have in the social world to make that happen. Depending on whether that’s a woman traveling on a road, whether that’s somebody trying to do anything that takes a financial reach, it’s going to change the pacing of how we tell stories because of that.
DN: In one interview, you bring up that someone said to you, “I don’t know how to put this, but you write like a dude.” The interviewer then asked you if you thought that was offensive when they said this, and I found your answer really interesting and illuminating, actually. You said that you grew up with a lot of strong women role models and you write with a certain authority because of them. That feeling of authoritativeness from a writer is almost always associated with men in the culture. Perhaps the writing like a dude is coming from the sense of this feeling that you’re writing from a place of authority. Am I paraphrasing you right?
VV: Yeah. That’s really close. The conversation that came out of had two pieces that I’d want to bring into, which was the person who had said, “You write like a dude,” also said to me—he had been teaching a lot in MFAS at that point—and he said, “Every woman writer I’ve ever met, no matter how good, no matter how confident,”and he brought this up because I was expressing the same issue, this is how he got me to write The Truck Stop Killer piece, he said, “Everybody doubts it’s their right to tell the story.” Every woman, you ask them and they’re like, “I’m not sure if it’s my story to tell. I’m not sure I’m the right one.” He said, “I have never once met a single guy in any MFA I’ve ever been who’s ever doubted for one second. It was his right to tell any story he wanted to tell. I don’t understand that he was coming from a real place. I just don’t know how to break that spell. I don’t know what that is.” On the one hand, I did come from my mother-wielded power like a man, in a lot of ways. I do, too, in social spaces a lot of times. That’s what I’ve seen and always you can talk about that.
DN: For what it’s worth, I don’t feel like you write like a man. Both of your books have these super resilient women in them and unconventionally so.
VV: However, I have to jump in on one thing. I don’t feel like I write like a man. That sense of authority is something that’s somehow recognizable, meaning it’s a kind of directness. But I never got put into women’s fiction with Zazen, even though all the characters are women except for one.
DN: Which is also true with your new book.
VV: But with my new book it’s listed as sisters’ fiction, women’s fiction, domestic fiction, divorce fiction, and I have been completely separated into that world.
DN: Wow. I’m shocked, actually.
VV: I’m not happy about it. [laughter] I know it sounds petty but it’s like no one bothers you. That’s how it’s like you go look in the libraries, it’s domestic fiction. It is just simply the fact of having anything. There’s been a feminizing and I was afraid of it in the writing, and I chose to take the path I took, and I was right that there was a fear for it. But that’s what I’m up for.
DN: That’s so wild. I would never have dreamed that would have happened to this book because you do have almost all women as main protagonists in the book—super resilient. Motherhood is a part of the book but for no character in the book is motherhood central or all-encompassing or even self-defining really. The main man in the book, Essex, who’s a street kid adopted by Kirsten when he’s 11, and who becomes the brother of the two main characters, the sisters Cheyenne and Livy, he’s raised entirely by women and there’s this really funny moment where we learn that one of his formative texts is reading Little Women, which is so great. His whole way to make meaning from the world is coming from that fact. I want to ask you a question as a lead-in to talking more specifically about the book. It’s a question about America. Then, I want to take that question of America and bring it into, what is one of the more unusual aspects of the central family. First, there’s this particularly storied tradition in America of road narratives—the romanticization of open spaces, of trains, of cars on the road, of wilderness, and wildness, of the possibility of reinvention, and living a life away from or escaping the pressures of history. But what is interesting to me about your book, The Great Offshore Grounds, is that it seems to both join this tradition and critique it, or perhaps to join it in order to critique it. I’m not sure. But the novel feels like a very American novel and a novel that is evoking the story that America tells itself to punch holes in it. I just wanted to hear what you thought of that take. Does that seem right to you? If not, tell us about that aspect because it feels, in a way, like you’re embracing an American road narrative but also making us very aware of the shadow that it casts.
VV: Yeah. It is right that I am intentionally doing both those things, however, what is also true is that it’s an honest project. I write about America, in my mind that’s how it just comes to be, but what I’m drawn to is the places where my own desire and critique align, there is no answer where I’m both very drawn—I’ll talk about more widely in an adventure tradition too in a second—but where I’m very drawn to something, to that big expansive story of what the possibility of America could be, which is up to the point of elements of exceptionalism, and at the same time, very in contact with all of the death, and danger, and lying, and all of the darkness and shadow that is equally a part of it, I write into the places where I can’t find a full resolution, where maybe I know I should be here but I am also here, but then I’m here in this way, but then there’s also something great. When I started out writing this, what I wanted to do in part, was I really had to try to say to myself—because I was in a very dark place—in some ways, I feel like I could say, “I’ve always been in a really dark place about America because I’m basically a red diaper baby, and was raised with COINTELPRO. I’m not somebody who came to that in college. I came with analysis at a very early age. [laughter] When I was five—I don’t recommend this for parenting—but when I was five, we would play Vietnamese kids hiding from the terrible US soldiers who were trying to burn and kill us. That was my concept of play at five because that sense of empathy, and that sense of awareness that my family had brought me to know what was happening in the war—in a very non-age appropriate, for someone-who-can’t-do-anything-about-it way—was haunting my dreams, and my imagination, and my lack of place, and not sure where I should be in that. That’s just normal human stuff. I didn’t come to this American story as something that was fed to me like apple pie, that I slowly in college began to untangle, and then had analysis. I came from a very other side of it. Then, the project sometimes for me—is there anything worth saving? What is there that’s worth saving?
DN: Right. Which is the question of Della in Zazen, “Should I leave the country? Should I stay despite things falling apart? Should I even help speed up the falling apart?” But the reason why I wanted to start with this question of America, and its upsides, and downsides—which are not often experienced by the same people, and also of national, and cultural myth-making—because I wanted to bring that into the central family in the novel. Because it feels like the upsides and downsides of a culture trying to escape history are baked into the story of this family. I was hoping you could talk about this extremely unusual and mysterious origin story for the two sisters, Cheyenne and Livy in the book, as our beginning into unpacking the story that you’ve created in the novel.
VV: Cheyenne and Livy are half-sisters who share a birthday. The woman who has raised them, her name is Kirsten, was a 19-year old pagan goth girl in the early 90s when she got pregnant. She was in a relationship with a grad student and it was an open relationship, and another woman became friends, and their periods synced up, and they ended up getting pregnant at the same time.
DN: By the same man?
VV: By the same man. One woman didn’t really want to be a mother. Kirsten, for a set of half-baked reasons—being 19 and newly vegetarian, and suddenly having this squeamishness about life in any way—couldn’t simply conceive of the idea of aborting, from where she came, from all this stuff. She agrees—after some throws of the I ching—with the other woman that she will take both girls when they’re born. They don’t know they’re girls then. She will take both kids and the other woman will go on, and that she will never tell them which one was which. She will raise them both and the other woman gets a total pass. She’s gone. She’s out of the paper. When the novel starts, the women are 33 and they’re starting at a very particular point in their life—and I won’t go to the details of that—but that’s the founding myth. What happens is when Kirsten decides she’s going to do this, the grad student kid—he’s not a kid, he’s older than her—the grad student bails and just gets out of the situation, and occasionally comes, and pays a hospital bill here and there, but has had substantially no—when they’re younger, he brings the girls to his work in this software company. It’s a show-and-tell from his wild polyamorous days, they say [venomous 0:43:22] and unconventional thinker, but there’s no connection yet. They haven’t seen them since they were 14 at the beginning of the novel. It opens basically on his wedding to a younger woman.
DN: You mentioned right at the beginning how you explore your ambivalence around story making and myth-making, and I feel like this is a prime area. To me, America tries to imagine it doesn’t have a mother itself, that it doesn’t matter who its mother is. I think of Whitman inventing new forms by willfully pretending that no poetry existed before him, and the way we glorify freedom and self-invention over and against countries that seem to have more rigid caste systems, it feels like that’s all somehow intertwined with this family too because we have Kirsten who invents a narrative purpose for her two daughters, also out of nothing. It’s a mythology about the North Star that imbues their lives with a sense of destiny. I was hoping you could talk about that, both sides of that, the purpose of that, and then maybe the ways in which it doesn’t quite do what she’s hoping it’s going to do.
VV: It’s really interesting that you say that because at different periods—and we will talk about this I’m sure a little bit—in the very long time of me writing this novel, I came to understand it in different ways “what am I trying to do here?” In some ways, I felt like Kirsten was part of creating a founding mother. She was a founding mother in the way that she set herself up. It’s a very small part of the book, but when she cut ties with her family, she had told the little girls when they were little that they were immigrants, and they actually thought they were real immigrants, but Kirsten was just like, “We left the dead old world behind, we’re here in the new world.” [laughs] They actually introduced themselves as the first generation in their second grade, when they weren’t. There is this her as a founding mother, and there is her that’s like, what’s the unseen? That’s one of the things Cheyenne—one of the sisters—what if there’s another history to have? What if that other history is invisible now, but you can find it? What if you can’t find it, but you can make it? What does it mean to make it? Are you constructing yourself? Kirsten is definitely somebody who believes you can construct. If you just tell the stories and you take someone, you raise them in it, they will believe it and have the things you did not have. They will take for granted that which you will have to fake. A lot of people in social justice movements know the difference. My daughter’s 18 in 5 days and you can see a lot of this like, “Oh, she takes this absolutely solid.” Fact. Stuff that people my generation are like, “This is an ideal. This is a vision.” She wants to create a sense of autonomy, and purpose, and specialness for the daughters. Freedom and a pioneering spirit for that is an obviously very complex word but that’s kind of how she’s creating something. She wants to make a new world, and at the same time, the number one thing that she’s seen as the difference is that people come from the upper classes, automatically, have a story built-in that their life matters, that their changes can be glorious, the destiny holds something for them, that people are on their way to teach or serve them, and that there’s something of greatness that is always unfolding if they but follow it. She wants to give that to her daughters because she sees that poor kids don’t have that. She’s like that sense of, “Yeah, we all have to watch out where the king’s parade is going if it rolls over you, but the king’s parade’s not watching out for you.” [laughs] There’s a difference. She thinks if she instills this belief system that they will think that they are worthy of greatness, and they will not expect less from themselves, not even emotionally like wishy-washy worthy of greatness, more like they will expect that they can have a place and meaning in the same way.
DN: This is interesting and complicated because it feels like Cheyenne, one of the daughters, is upset with her mom’s obsession with this hero’s journey or personal journey, which she does associate with rich people. But the need for it, as you say, is coming from poverty. There’s this thing that you say in writing about your own hitchhiking when you were 15, that your survival depended upon some narrative to spell out a potential for you beyond death, which then raises the question, is it better to have a simplistic and ultimately problematic narrative than no narrative and maybe Kirsten’s stepping into the idea that this story, however you analyze it retrospectively, is going to save my daughters. I just feel like this is one example of the way poverty is shaping the narrative of the book, and we’re talking about poverty that is extreme enough that the characters are making their own tampons because they can’t afford to buy them in a store. There are characters who have never been on a plane or in a hotel. There are characters who join the army for financial security. But I wonder, if another way the narrative is shaped by poverty, is the way the characters are all keeping secrets from each other. I don’t know if I’m reading into this or whether this is there—I’ll put it out there, you tell me what you think—but there’s a lot of things that happen between these characters who care for each other, whether it’s a sexual assault or a health diagnosis, that they don’t share with each other, and to me it feels like they’re so under-resourced and so overextended not just financially but ultimately emotionally, living on the edges of their own abilities to cope with their own things, let alone the others that it almost feels like the withholding is an act of care.
VV: It is. You’re 100% right. It is exactly what that’s intended to be which is there are not enough resources. There’s no resilience. I know you and I know how hard it’s going to be for you to hear what I’m about to tell you, and once I tell, you won’t be able to do anything about it. You won’t be able to change anything. Then I’m carrying that too. You’re carrying that, or worse, you give me the one only resource you have to try to make something better, and it’s still not enough. Now, you don’t have it, and I don’t have it. They are very close and the closeness is marked by the things they don’t share with each other because they are trying not to overburden each other, to the point of complete annihilation in so many ways. It causes all sorts of problems but it’s not because they’re distant—and it would be very different—it’s because they are poor, and the resources and the levels at which things are where just the general state of living is hard. If you’ve ever been in a situation really without resources doing something and somebody who means well says, “Why don’t you just do this?” and you start to explain, “Because a, b, and c, and d can’t do this without doing that. Why don’t you just do this?” You can sit there and politely spend a lot of time with people as they very generously walk around what seem to be obvious options to make a change. At the end of the exchange, everybody’s miserable. Then, what happens at that moment is interesting. Because a lot of times the person who’s offering, “You could do this, you could do this, you could do this,” gets frustrated and say, “Clearly, you don’t want to change.” Because it’s too painful to say, “The barrier is here, I cannot solve that easily.” On the other hand, it is in the details, the hardness of the life that they’re in. It’s in the details. It’s not into like, “Here’s one thing that fixes it,” it is in the details. I have decided these last years, the height of privilege in any form is the privilege to be abstract. That is the highest mark of privilege to me. To be abstract is to say, “I’m going to have this one litmus test political issue, and scorch the earth if that’s not met, to be at whatever level, or to be able to be above the details, that is related to privilege. These are characters who do care about each other. They’re very flawed people. They are not dour about their circumstances. They’re not dour characters. Some of them are incredibly talented at certain kinds of the grift. There’s also a love of that in the book that I share, a love for people that are grifters, and they sketch along some of that. They’re not pure characters. The reality of their situation is in everything, and the trickiness is, the characters are very different in how they take it. Livy, one of the sisters, she’s bought into the American idea of bootstraps enough, that her big goal is to get to where nobody owes her. She doesn’t owe anybody a single thing, and she’s got her boat, she’s got her place, and that’s it. But she doesn’t have it anywhere in her to imagine that she’s actually going to get out of working class. She just wants to not be sinking. She just wants to not be owing. Whereas Cheyenne, she went through a marriage with somebody who was a different social station, and what part of her anger about these heroes’ journey stories of her mom’s, is that they didn’t work. What she saw, she could not pass, even with those things, that the real difference was deeper than that, and that she was marked as somebody who was not from that class, in a much more deep level than she could pass with. She was more of a true believer in that, and then it backfired.
DN: I want to take a moment to talk about one of the things that we see and watch a character experience that not everybody in the book learns about or not at the same time, and that is, there’s a rape in the book that happens in real-time, and the way you portray it and its aftermath, I thought was really rare, I guess. I don’t know that I can connect it to other portrayals. The way the character responds is so outside the normal cultural tropes around sexual assault narratives. I know you’ve thought a lot about it, and generally, I know you have an older essay, The Collapsible Woman, so it made me want to ask you as a writer what considerations you were going through as you wrote this thread of the book, what you did and didn’t want to do in terms of portrayal, and how it affected the character or what you wanted to avoid versus what you wanted to write into that wasn’t there, and in literature at large.
VV: Yeah. It’s interesting because as you know, the book went through some transition with publishers, and one of the big moments where I realized how far apart I was from an editor at one point was that their perception of what that scene was, was so radically different than my intention, and they hated it with such passion that they could barely talk to me, and felt like it was there just for shock value.
DN: Is that why they hated it?
VV: Yeah. They felt like it was there for shock value. I remember having this discussion with this person and saying, “Look,” and this person was very smart and everything but kind of a blue blood, and I said, “Look, for many women in upper-middle-class New York or other things like that, sexual assault, child molestation, all these things, they’re in rich people as well as poor people, but not in the same ways and same degrees because it has to do with accessibility, visibility, and who’s protecting whom, and where all that power is.” Child molestation’s a little different, but when you’re talking about straight-up rape and assault, you’ll hear stories of women who have, in the upper echelons of culture who may have had a lot of experiences with molestation but the fewer with straight-up rape, where it’s like, “Okay, there was something in college and this happened,” or “This happened with my first employer, I never told anybody.” What I said to this person is that you have to understand that for a good 30% of the poorest women in this country, it’s just a bad Friday night. I can’t tell you how many times. I’ve met women who if they called it rape, would say they’d been raped 30 or 40 times. It’s a bad Friday night. You want to talk about the story and how the story allows you to survive even when it’s not a helpful story? The most fundamental thing about this when you look at Trump, and women, and things like that is like, think of all the women who if they had to look at what he was doing and call it rape or sexual assault, sexual abuse, we’d have to look at everybody else, in their entire family, society, everybody whoever done that, name it, it is the same thing, then what do you do? There’s a different way that because of the invisibility—think about everything that economic resilience goes into, “I’m assaulted and it’s my boss. What if I can’t afford to get another job?” “I’m assaulted, I need time to take time off to try to get everything else. I don’t have time to take time off.” Is it even considered assault in that? There are so many cultures, so many subcultures where it’s not even considered assault. There’s this constant set of layers to this, it’s true for me in my own experience. I have an older sister that I found through Ancestry—which is a very fascinating way to find a whole extra sister—[laughter] she and I talked about through things as well, where it’s just like, yeah, we feel a lot of times we’re like, you have the same, “Yeah, you could call it that. Yeah, it was. I’d call it that today. I didn’t call it that then.” In this case, the character is very self-sufficient, and she hates the idea that anybody could decide who she was ever at any time. It’s particularly difficult for her to figure out what to do at that moment, and I wanted to leave space for other ways of reacting because I think that it’s become so prescribed.
DN: The reason I’m surprised that the editor was shocked, is your characters are also putting themselves in professions that are overwhelmingly male professions too. You’re in a situation of nine to one man to women in confined settings also that wouldn’t make that shocking to me.
VV: We saw things differently on what a feminist novel was. We both understood that this was in many ways a feminist novel. I take that to mean there are humans who are women in the story, and she wanted a feminist, she understood in one of them, and yet we were generationally a little bit different and had very different ideas of what that feminism meant and what it looked like. For instance, she wanted all the male characters out because she felt that heightened the feminism of the novel, and I felt like my female characters are strong enough to stand on their own in a world where there are also men, and still have it be about them. I was very much like that. We would have these different debates that were in heart generational. When it came to the rape, she saw the character as living in a world that was largely male-dominated, and that she was out in this world and felt that I was continuing an anti-feminist trope by saying that she would get raped in that world. I write about it in a way where it happens very quickly, and it moves extremely fast. She thought that was a lazy way to do shock value writing, whatever it was, she had strong feelings about it, and that’s how we got into that conversation. Whereas my point was a lot of times, this stuff is like, you’re getting cheese out of the walk-in. You’re in one situation or another.
DN: In your own non-fiction, I know there were scenes when you’re being picked up by a trucker and you wake up from sleeping, and he’s got his hand down your shirt.
VV: Yeah. It’s just instant. It was a generational, primarily, and a perspective difference, but the one we were talking about with poverty is a big one because when I talk for real to my friends who come straight out of working-class backgrounds, we’re talking in numbers 20, 30, 10, and they’re a lot more able to talk about it ironically than the women and friends of mine that I’ve talked to who come from where it’s treated as a more rarified experience, rather than a thing that happens. It goes to the story, do you want it to be treated like a rarified experience? Yeah. But does that give space for the women for whom it’s not a rarified experience to interact? They need to survive. What if they can’t get counseling, and they can’t take time off, and they can’t make it the center of their lives, and they’re going to have to live with these people or work with these people? They need to build something inside themselves that allow them to thrive, and be there and have a sense of humor, and a perspective.
DN: I’d like people to hear a little bit of the book if we could have you read a little bit.
VV: Okay. This is from a chapter called Irish Lord which is about Livy.
[Vanessa Veselka reads from The Great Offshore Grounds]
DN: We’ve been listening to Vanessa Veselka read from The Great Offshore Grounds. You mentioned this at the beginning unprompted about people being surprised about you being the author of different things, particularly between your fiction and non-fiction, that it’s the same author. I wanted to ask you a question in light of that. Before we talk more about the story, I wanted to talk about the language and the syntax in the spirit of reinvention. Because one of the things that’s fascinating to me about having read Zazen and now, The Great Offshore Grounds, is that I recognize thematic resonances between the book. I recognize kindred engagements with America. I recognize characters that could inhabit either of the books, but nevertheless on the level of the line, if we think about the music of the sentences or the wave of the mind underneath the meaning of the words that Virginia Woolf talks about, I don’t know that I would know that these two books were written by the same writer on that level. It’s almost like you reinvented your musical signature from one book to the next. I don’t know if that rings true to you but if it does, I was wanting to hear about it. Also, you’re a musician, so I’m curious, because the music of the language is really different, it’s remarkable actually, it does feel like a reinvention, and I didn’t know what that was all about.
VV: It’s a combination of things, yes. As I said earlier, I do look at everything and I’m learning, as I’m writing, what is the right language to tell the story in. That’s happening at the same time as I’m going, “Oh, wait a minute is it this story or is it that story?” You’re digging in deeper and going like, “Oh, it’s that story, okay,” and reorienting. I’m also looking at what is the language that can contain that story that’s going to give me the most range. This very simple answer—which is not sufficient between the language shifts in these two books—is one’s first person, and that’s the sound of Della’s voice and the other one is a third person narrator, it has a different sense of scope that needs to be laid from the beginning. However, that’s only one aspect that accelerates the polarization of those voices. I think there always was this sense for me as I was not somebody who wrote and wrote and wrote, then started publishing or somebody who played music and played music and played music, then started publishing. There’s not a gap where I have tons of material I was experimenting with and came up with something. My whole learning curve has been public. The way that I tended to write nonfiction fell more into my own internal way of trying to show scope and hearing things in a very particular way. Yes, I write very sonically. I knew I was going to need—I like your way of talking about a musical—I knew I was going to need another way to convey the story I wanted to convey. I knew I wasn’t going to do it with the tools that I had learned in the ways I had learned to tell stories in Zazen or in some of my short stories up to that, those were all first person as well. I knew I had to do this in third person, so the very first problem I had was that I hated third person when I first encountered it, I hated writing in it because I felt like it was horribly normalizing. As soon as you go to third person, if you get too rhythmic or particular at the line level, then all of a sudden it’s not third person anymore, it’s this narrator that’s talking to you in a very stylized way and you want to know who they are, [laughs] it really defined to have a third person be a third person. It normalizes language in a lot of ways. That’s I think where people who like to write in third person but want to be more experimental, they go to form but they’re still at the level of voice in third person, it was like being put in a cage all the time. I tried all these different ways of, “How do I not give up the range I want to have for the sounds I want to make because I think it’s found in rhythm.” It’s really hard to start to sort it out. I’m not totally sold 100% on where I ended up. The merging of the narrator and the characters was a lot more extreme and disorienting at different times. I had to reel some of that. It’s always funny saying that. The truth is there is a narrator in this novel. I started calling it the accusatory third, [laughter] it occasionally just turns and accuses the reader of doing something terrible or saying like, “And this is how things are,” there is that breach that happens. The songs, the shanties that are in here are definitely part of the narrator’s humor, the narrator’s voice. There is a quality of narration. Not being able to access the rhythms, the moves, and the ways that I could get to insight quickly in one way or not that I had accessible in the first person, I had to understand—then I was stuck with this problem which was how do I find and hear the natural sense of music that makes it work for me, that allows me to do this?—I had to dig into what that was. I think that it really is a function of the third person exploration, probably the elements that I went, to some degree, were coming out of—I wrote a piece called The Fort of Young Saplings, I wrote that in the middle of writing this—they share a telling of the Battle of Sitka which is a very meaningful thing. The Fort of Young Saplings explains why it’s meaningful to me but it’s also in here, I wrote them in two different ways but I think that I was starting to discover the rhythms that I could use in third person in certain ways in that interaction. It has a very different musical quote but I don’t think the next book will have the same either. I really do look at what’s the language.
DN: Let me ask you about the size of the book, because I know when I would see you, you said you wanted to write a big, fat 19th-century style novel like a Dostoevsky book. It’s not that big now, it’s 400-hundred pages but I think at one point, it might have been 600 or 700 pages before you edited it. I remember, it made me think of a Facebook discussion that happened among smart people, among writers, or so, I thought they were smart, that was started with and was mainly people trashing long novels as just another example of man spreading of like the maximalist impulse, they’d point at David Foster Wallace or at Knausgård’s My Struggle as this exasperating gendered phenomenon. My one brief entry into the conversation wasn’t to argue that there wasn’t a gendered lineage among size, I mean, I even think if we’re going back to poetry like Whitman versus Dickinson, the way their lines are, the way the legacy is like if we looked at Alice Notley and Jorie Graham wanting to claim the long line away from Whitman and Ginsberg—I don’t know if they explicitly were doing that—but I also feel like there’s something inherently pleasurable about long, where you can’t—I’ll use the ocean metaphor since your book is there—but where it feels like you can’t see the shore that you’ve left from and you can’t yet see the shore that you’re going to end up at. If it’s long enough where you feel there’s an illusion that the experience isn’t going to end at some point in the middle, that you are completely in it. Something to do with the book being thick and big, for me, has to do with that, that’s my pleasure. I think of so many great books that I love that are large books including George Eliot and other women who’ve written large books that I love. But I wondered what the attraction was for you? Why are you thinking, “Okay, big, fat 19th century tradition novel.”
VV: When you’re talking about in some ways, there’s a bit of a conflation of two things that I was thinking, one is in the beginning, I was like, “Yeah, I want to write my own 19th century novel in my way.” This very much is that. I remember I had a really funny night with my boyfriend because in bed, he was watching The Great Courses Plus on something about English 19th century, I was half asleep, I just heard him turn on the thing, he was listening to it, he said, “Here are the main elements of uncertain parentage trying to find their status in time, and will as usually [inaudible 1:19:36].” It just starts to go down, he just starts to look over to me as he’s like, “You know, this, didn’t you?” I’m like, “Yes, in fact I did.” There was that sort of playing with it but it came out of the more simple question for me which was, what am I afraid to write? What books do I love the most? Why can’t I go there? That was the impulse to explore that. The length thing, when I was first thinking of that, I was thinking of something like 350 pages, I wasn’t thinking of huge, huge. As I began to write, it really began to grow, in part because by nature, I am a maximalist, and there were so many things that were in the stories. I remember also, at that time, the way that I would get talked to about it sometimes, I felt like there was a way that women get talked to around long works that is different, it reminded me much more about how people talk about women’s bodies, and fat, like this idea that “you’re out of control, you’ve lost like I don’t know what’s going,” I would always hear from people, I say like, “Well, it’s about 600 right now,” they’re like, “Oh my God, how are you going to get it down? Are you going to diet in time for your wedding?” It was like, “Never.” It was so strange, that kind of way of constantly hearing that. Women have written long novels forever, they just ghettoized them into genre fiction. The question isn’t “Do women get to write long novels?” it’s “Can we take women’s writing seriously enough as an intellectual project and still allow them to retain ‘literary fiction’ standing in any way when they do?” The shortening of this novel came for a different reason which was I had an excellent conversation with an agent who is very, very smart. She’s one of the big agents of probably most of the literary writers of color. She’s been around a lot. She’s very sharp and opinionated. She’s a really good reader. She had read a draft of this at the height of its size. She gave me the greatest gift which is, because everybody’s like, “This thing has to be cut in half,” she wasn’t like that, she’s like, “Yeah, it’ll probably have to come down but here’s why.” She was able to explain, in her words to me, she said, “Every single thing that you’re doing is interesting, it’s strong, it’s working and I get lost in it.” She’s basically said, “I’m losing the noise in the signal,” she’s like, “I don’t know what you care about most, I can go in any of these directions but you’re not telling me which one I’m supposed to go into.” It was more of a cueing problem. That was very, very helpful to me. I was in this very maximalist encyclopedic place, does the American project work? What is the road? What is space like? What are these characters doing? I know all those connections. I took it back in this way, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to edit it from this perspective, if I were to give you, David, my book and say read this, what is it that if you didn’t get it, I would have failed? If I were to say, “What’s this book about?” and you couldn’t say, “It was about one of these things,” that I would have failed my job like what are the things I care about that much? What are the things I need to hear back from you if you’d tell me what this book is about? I realized it, I began to look at the lens through all that and through that, I began to make those different choices with it. I asked a friend of mine recently who read every iteration of this book—she’s one of these people who reads super fast and always likes to read multiple iterations—she has read every iteration of this book, I said, “How does it feel to you to see it in final form when you were so attached to the 720 page version of it and all these things?” [laughs] She just said, I think this is maybe younger kids who do more gaming but she is like, “It’s like there are rooms that were open to me before that are not open to me now but they’re still there. It doesn’t feel any different than the first day I read it, there’s just different rooms I can go into now that I couldn’t go into before and the ones I went to do before are gone.”
DN: I love this friend of yours.
VV: Expansion doesn’t have to be this contraction. I do think women are just talked to totally differently about it. We are talked to with fear of madness and control, fear of taking too much space, fear of just a lot of that stuff. Then my editor is fantastic, the agent I ended up working with in the end was absolutely stunning, I had lots of help but fundamentally.
DN: Yeah, I’m going to ask you a question that I think maybe, you’ve already answered with what you said about the accusatory narrator, but I wanted to ask you about writing a book that feels very political and historical but where none of the characters themselves are political. Because that’s very unlike Zazen. This is where I think of Moby Dick, speaking of large novels, not just because the book opens with a sermon at a lighthouse along the coast that makes me think of the sermon at the beginning of Moby Dick, not just because Essex, the main male character, shares the name with the ship that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick—a ship that was sunk by a sperm whale, and whose few survivors in smaller boats lived off of the dead, then drew lots to see which half would be killed so the other half could eat them—not just because the book has boats, sailors, and whales itself, but also, because like Moby Dick which can be read just as a tale of a megalomaniac, captain’s obsession with a whale but is also a book that is about America, it’s about the bottomless hunger of extractive capitalism, you could even say it’s about peak oil at a time pre-electricity when the world entire was lit by the oil of whales. Whereas Della, in your first book, could be a character in your second book, she’s unlike your characters in the second book in that she’s overtly political, she has a political analysis, and she’s wondering what to do in relationship to her political analysis. But in this book, there’s this atmosphere that infuses the book with the afterlives of colonialism, theft, craft, genocide, conquest but none of the characters are actually speaking about it necessarily, I didn’t know how you pulled that off. I love this about the book. Maybe, that is the accusatory narrator.
VV: It is.
DN: If it is, I don’t think accusatory narrative is the right word because the narrator comes in very subtly to me. I don’t feel like I’m ever having a finger pointed at me.
VV: Earlier versions, I would say it was a more accusatory narrative, not in the sense of “why did you do this?” but more in the sense of “but who can halt the lumbering desires of the world?” There’s that comes in from the beginning in the first pages. In that sense, the narrator’s always teasing out those questions. It’s carried by the narrator, it’s carried by the way that history is talked about, particularly around indigenous and genocides and the sense of how a place is built into it. The daughters are aware of history in some ways, in the ways that they’ve learned it from Kirsten. They’re aware of women’s history. They’re really, good luck on that. [laughs] But that greater sense of what is in the dread, the grandeur, and the crisis of the novel is carried by the narration. That was a question, it was a really tricky thing to go from Zazen to this because thematically, yes, a lot of similarity, yet I felt, all the time that I was writing this, deeply troubled by the fact that here in this last eight, nine years where I had such strong political emotions myself, there’s such need to act, do things, change, and participate in all of this, that I felt like here, I was writing this novel but it felt very apolitical compared to the directness of Zazen. It’s more political in a way but it’s not the same, it’s not as direct, and it was really hard for me at times to see why it mattered to write it at all. I think a lot of it was I was in this really deep engagement of what’s to save, where are the points of aliveness that I recognize? Because I’ve lived outside of America too, I had to think of that too, what are the points of aliveness that I know that are here, that are not in other places that seem politically perfect but don’t have it? I was trying to bring in a lot but it was a deep meditation for me, it’s pretty dark times, it did feel strange to not be writing something that was going to be very overtly directly having characters speak exactly.
DN: I think it’s weirdly more political because it feels like the political is the entire world which then is what we’re all steeped in regardless of whether we’re thinking about it. The book is mainly realism, there’s the fairy tale aspect to the family origin which does feel, it’s not fantastical but there’s a fairy tale element to this origin story. But then you literally also have two ghosts, historical colonizing figures that appear very much on the margins, mainly a light touch in the book but both the narrator—the way you bring in history—and these ghosts, it’s what I would say un-American continual reinsertion of the past, its consequences, past actions, and their consequences into the present moment. Unlike the American mythos of leaving the past behind and creating something anew, the past literally is haunting this book by these ghosts. I guess, what I wanted to talk about was that in relationship to the other mother because I remember the feeling of vertigo in Zazen, when the book would telescope between the pressing and urgent needs of the moment and more of this geologic scope or time frame, non-human framing. The main way I feel like you do that in the new book is with the other mother, the way she tries to disentangle herself from time and consequence through Buddhist practice. It’s something that feels as it is embodied in her. It’s something that feels simultaneously attractive and repulsive somehow. I was hoping you could talk, without spoilers, about her and also, about Buddhism, I guess also, since it is a significant presence in both books.
VV: The question of scope and how I think of it is deeply complicity, inextricability, can you untangle yourself? What are you responsible for? What is yours to carry? You’re born into a country that was built on a lot of theft, racism, and the labor of others yet you’re born new on this ground without having ever been able to be a part of any of those decisions. How do you carry all of that in a way that allows you to accept what should be accepted on your shoulders and also, respect the given right of every single alive thing on this planet to want to live and to want to feel that their life is also their own, how do you put those things together? Those versions of those questions go throughout my mind all the time, they go through everything I’ve ever written. Geology, to me, I think there’s a joke that Della says in Zazen where somebody told her that she needed to step back and get some perspective, or something like that, things are traumatic or there’s too much on fire, she’s just like, “Yeah, 68 million years seems to be about right,” that’s about how far back I’d have to be to have an analysis on this that doesn’t get really upset, you know what it’s like compared to other extinctions. [laughter] That question of “how far back do you have to be?” At what scope do you have to understand things to see the beauty again in a way that’s not checked out but that can still encompass the detail, not too far back that there is no detail, not so close up that you can’t see the beauty in it again, how do you find that spot? There’s a lot of shortcuts to that too. I think that the other mother is one who is engaged in some of those shortcuts. I find everything that I’m fascinated and drawn to, there’s all the ways that people talk about detachment that is incorrect to talk about in Buddhist detachment, meaning, it’s a hackneyed understanding of what it actually means when you talk to Buddhists where it’s just like detachment means having no feelings, I was like, “No, it’s not really that.” There are healthy ways of describing that and there are ways of describing that are just creepy white dudes finding a reason to not actually have sex with people that they’re in relationships with. I think that the Noble Truth, I mean the parts of Buddhism that have always been the most powerful for me is very much the Pāli canon and the fundamental Four Noble Truths, the earliest stories, there’s no deification in it, it is not Zen, it is not this, you can hear the in the mud feel of it in a lot of ways. In that world, Buddha died of dysentery, he has everybody watch him so that they too know that life is like this, it’s a very different thing than the iterations that come as it migrates through different cultures and becomes, at once, gothic and beautiful in some ways in the Vajrayāna or very down to earth in the Zen but having this other quality that lops off other ailing—I shouldn’t go down a rabbit hole with that—but I guess, what I’m saying is that then, you come back to this question of poverty, privilege, and things. If you think of narratives as tools, these stories, they’re all there. Who gets to use them to do what they already wanted to do? Who gets to use them with a different power because they have more power? The person who gets to go, “I’m just going to walk away” or “I’m just going to do this,” and “I’m going to call it this other thing.” Some people just don’t get to do that. I think, ultimately, Buddhism is not a home for me but I have learned and appreciate a lot of the teachings, particularly again, in the Pāli canon that I consider to be so true. The question of suffering, I’m answering something specifically about the character you’re talking about, this is not a character who knows suffering, so what does it mean to apply the Four Noble Truths to somebody who doesn’t know what suffering means?
DN: Or perhaps is pursuing Buddhism to avoid suffering?
VV: Yeah, or just has no empathy, any element of it, it’s like you can sit there and you can say those things but the foundational thing that makes it true is that you know and understand suffering. If you can’t get there, you can’t start.
DN: I want to go another direction with these two scopes of time because they also make me think of the time between our two conversations, not just as some mysterious gap between then and now but because you’re unfolding quest narrative as a writer working on her sophomore novel was a quest that was periodically visible to me as we would see each other in pre-pandemic days, periodically writing in the same cafe, I was getting updates from you. At one point, you lost the editor who was working with you, she moved to a new house, you were giving this new editor a chance but you reached a place where you realized you had two entirely different visions for the novel and two very different ideas of the 19th century novel that you were trying to write. You walked away from this relationship without knowing if this would ever become a book.
VV: And owing lots of money.
DN: Yeah, this was years into the process. I’d see you at the cafe, you’d tell me you’d rather fail on your own terms than succeed on the wrong terms—or I’m making that up—but something to that extent. Obviously, you couldn’t have known at the time that you would end up succeeding so well without compromising your vision. But you talk about this dark decade in your acknowledgements, both saying that novels are like doomed marriages. You talk about also, the help you got in the years where you didn’t do your fair share of dishes or your fair share of bills and the people who did more than their fair share to try to make this novel succeed when it looked like it was going to fail. The people were so invested with their own sweat equity, that when you finally decided to quit, you’re told by your partner that it was no longer your decision, that essentially, you were beholden to the people who’d been lifting you up for so long to bring this to an aesthetic resolution. I guess I wondered if there’s anything else you wanted to say knowing that a lot of people listening are writers, or artists or aspiring writers, and artists about that time when you lost your editor who understood the book, you went through a considerable period of giving this other situation a chance, then worked your way out of a contract, walked away from money and from a publication deal, is there anything about that you would like to add? I know you nodded to it earlier, but people always love when the curtain is pulled back on these sorts of things, the taboo around speaking about the business side of writing also, if you do have anything about your quest narrative?
VV: It goes back to the story too. This is what I mean about the story, then I want to ask, say something about the business side of it. It is true that I said and felt, and had made the decision for real, that I would rather do it on my terms in terms of what I was trying to go after, I’d rather fail mine than succeed on somebody else’s—I don’t know that I said exactly like that but that sounds like me, yes, it was something very much along those lines—I said that and I meant it. When I tell that story and you tell that story now, it is a story that ends in success, it is a story that ends with like, “I got to go to Knopf. Then this happened, and that happened, I got a long list for the national book,” it could just as easily be the other story, that’s the thing that’s also true. I guess what I’m saying is it’s almost impossible for a writer who’s struggling in the business side and also with where they want to be right now to not hear that and want to hear the story that it all ends well because, of course, while that is true in this case, it was equally possible that it’d be not true, in fact, it was more possible that it would be not true. I want to focus on the reason I said the thing I said which was not bravado—I meant it, I put my actions behind it, but I meant it—is that I was in music for years, I made records that I did not love at different times, some were okay, some were terrible, I didn’t do exactly what I wanted to do enough, I didn’t stand my ground on certain things. As a result, I spent 15 years doing something—I don’t actually have the proof of what I really did best anywhere to show my child or my family or anybody. There are things that I’m like, “Oh, I’m pretty proud of that,” but nothing touched on what I actually really had the gift to do and how I did it. I don’t have that to show but I did learn all about the business and how to do all the things I needed to do. When I came into writing, I had that experience, it was really, really clear to me that the only thing that matters is the work. The “how do you make a living” is the “how do you make a living”. There’s a great story Johnny Evison told me when I first started writing, I met him when Zazen came out. He was a pretty serious baseball player, he’s a teenager, he’s like, “I was a baseball player, I was looking to being a pro ballplayer. I remember making that choice with like, ‘Yeah, not that many people get to go pro in baseball, I might become a novelist instead.” Then they did that [piece 1:45:11] 10 years ago in New York Times, something fan out, there are only 200 novelists in the country who are making their money just off novels. [laughs] Then Johnny yells like, “There were 1300 baseball players.” [laughter] I love that because the question of how we make our living, some people, it’s important for them, the ways they make their living say, writer, and hold that status. But most people are not making their money off novels. You make your own calls about what you need out of it but I would rather have something that I have printed out in my basement and stapled together that I truly believe in to live for my daughter than anything, and the most beautiful thing about this—I give this credit, not to me, this is to the people I got to work with—when I finished this book and I got it back, there was not one compromise. I didn’t feel like there was one single thing I said like, “Yeah, okay.” We had discussions, we had different feelings, but there was nothing that I had to eat it on, nothing. That felt great. They made it better than I could have made it in my basement, it was part of a process but–
DN: It’s not like you weren’t taking feedback.
DN: It’s not like, I didn’t compromise meaning, “I wasn’t going to listen to them, it was–”
VV: No, I know it wasn’t like take it or leave it, we had conversations about everything and that’s all I ever want for people, have a fair fight, [laughs] the best idea wins. But the business side of it is also real, I guess I do have opinions about that particularly for women again. There’s a gatekeeper mentality that really runs through that world, that there’re beautiful, wonderful people in the literary world who, they’re in it for the right reasons, they care about books, there are tons of them that are great people. It’s a very status-driven world, it’s a world that’s like the status is very academic and performative, it runs off a lot of cues that if you don’t come from that world, you don’t recognize it. I think they’d lose a lot of good writers because of that.
DN: Sure, they do.
VV: I even noticed coming from music that the very basic ways where I would say, “Yeah, I’m not sure really that I would defend or uphold my position on something,” to raise my voice at all was all of a sudden, “What do you think a lot of you?” It was like there was this incredible performative submission they expect writers to have. So different from music where it’s just not that it was like, “People are just going mad,” I was like, “What the hell, it’s my song,” [laughs] You would have these worries, it’s so different, there’s a timidity that’s built into the industry, it’s eroding, things are changing, and it’s shifting because it has to because they don’t hold the power that they really used to, they can’t really be gatekeepers to everything, in the same way with self-publishing and smaller presses and all of that, online. But I do think just because someone gives it to you doesn’t mean it’s a gift. Someone gives you an opinion, be fully, fully, fully belligerent defense of your own artistic instinct, that’s what you’ve got, it will trust that it will grow you and find the people who are excited by that.
DN: I was thinking about that moment in the cafe with you when you’re like telling me you’re going to go for broke with the novel you wanted to write, perhaps literally broke, leaving the publishing house and the contract in hand without a place to land essentially. You didn’t produce a place to land before you left.
VV: It took me a year and a half and it’s $76,000. [laughs]
DN: It feels connected to a lot of the things that you write about growing up and hitchhiking tens of thousands of miles as a 15-year-old, you’re not knowing how you’re going to make it one week to the next. One week, it could be selling flowers by the highway, it could be doing farm labor, it could be digging ditches, it could mean sleeping under an underpass or not sleeping at all so that you knew when to jump out of a ride because the driver was about to assault you. It feels very connected to something about your characters too, that energy or that willingness to go forth without knowing how it’s going to end up. I guess I wanted to talk to you about something else in the book that feels connected both to your autobiography and this strange origin story of double mothers for your sister protagonists, and that is your dad’s adoption. You talked about one of the pieces you’ve written about it, that under somewhat mysterious circumstances, he gets adopted as a member of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska and even though he didn’t really, on his own, explore what that might have opened up for him, it wasn’t really a big part of his life ultimately, it doesn’t sound like from what you’ve read–
VV: It’s changed some, in some ways, I have more information about that now than I did but finish your question and all.
DN: Okay, but nevertheless when you were a toddler, some of your first memories were of being on Tlingit land with your adopted family, with all of that iconography and culture. It is something you don’t entirely belong to but it’s also something that you continually return to at the same time and it’s become a part of the narrative of this book with a ship named the Neva which is the name of a Russian ship that fought in the Battle of Sitka which you’ve referred to which is the battle between the Russians and the Tlingit. I was hoping you could talk about the Tlingit tribe, then the Tlingit in your life and let’s link it in the book.
VV: The Tlingit are an Athabascan indigenous people in Southeast Alaska—not just in Southeast but primarily Tlingit and Haida are Southeast Alaskan—they have stories that match geological and anthropological records that go back 10,000 years on the land, some of the oldest sets of consistent storytelling, it’s just tribal consistency all the way back, they’re remarkable. I am no expert. My father was adopted in the early 70s, when we moved up there, my father worked a lot with Tlingit activists and developed very, very deep relationships with them that continue to this day. One of the mentors and men in that world was a man named David Katzeek, he died about three weeks ago. When I was doing my Zoom tour of the internet, I was also doing blog posts about the road trips that we redid on the tour that take place in the novel and the last one is the stuff that involves Alaska, then goes out and I also did stuff with Tall Ships America and a variety of things, I was supposed to post it about three weeks ago, it was right when David died. He was a Tlingit elder, he was actually not from the clan that my father was adopted into which was Kiks.ádi. Kiks.ádi, the line comes maternally and my mother was not adopted, I’m recognized by my father’s clan as a clan child, I’m not directly adopted. Kiks.ádi is a Raven moiety, she wasn’t adopted because they’re in the middle of divorcing at that time. One of the things I’m doing in the next few days is I’m going to—which will be up by the time somewhere by the time this comes out for sure—I’m trying to go back and put up the things I was going to say and say more about my relationship even tangentially to the Tlingit and talk about David Katzeek who was a a man that was a mentor to my father in many ways, who is of his generation and has left an enormous hole in the Tlingit culture up in Juneau recently. In a clean culture, you would say he walked into the forest, that’s how you talk about it, it’s how we walked into the forest or walked in the woods. The Fort of Young Saplings is a very complex story, it would take a long time to retell all of that here and you don’t need it, [laughs] but I’d always had this relationship because we talk about stories, I was told at a very young age, “You have a Tlingit family, these are your Tlingit family, treat it like a real thing.” Then I was also moved across the country, my parents were split up, I grew up with this idea in the back of my mind that I was from this, that I had a Tlingit family, I was in a world in New York where like, “All the Indians are dead, we killed all the Indians,” I’m like, “That’s not true, I come from the family that was never beaten by anybody,” because that’s part of what I was raised to think. But then I’m taken out of that context, I’m in another place, it begins to just sound like madness. [laughter] Then as you get older, you think about things, it feels like, “Okay, is this appropriation? Is it this? Is it that?” Then I had periods where when I’d go back to Alaska, I was reconnected in the way that it was real and not real in the way that it was not real but what my feeling was to continue to show respect for it and learn.
DN: Can I connect, I know you don’t want to go into the Battle of the Sitka.
VV: No, I’m going to go where you want, it’s fine.
DN: But I did want to connect it to this question from the very beginning around invisibility and narratives, the absence of narratives and what effect that has because one of the fascinating things in one of your writings about it is that they consider one of their central stories their victory over the Russians.
VV: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
DN: Yet when you go to say, the Wikipedia page or most American or European accounts of that battle, they were roundly defeated in those narratives by the Russians.
VV: That’s not true. [laughter]
DN: We have these two, the official account is that they were defeated, and their account is the opposite, they won. That’s fascinating around this invisibility of narrative. Obviously, their victory, as you suggested around say a female quest narrative, didn’t become iconic, enter the larger culture, and literally enter whatever the shared history of various peoples. What’s that all about in a nutshell?
VV: Yeah, in The Fort of Young Saplings, this also gets the story, I’m going to pronounce this incorrectly because I haven’t heard it pronounced in so long and I’m nervous, I’ll get it, it’s like [inaudible 1:58:07] which is the story ownership concept in Tlingit culture, it is very unique and different from other kinds of cultures, it’s got very specific rules around it. For instance, there are stories that I can share, that I can technically share that probably reality wouldn’t share because I still feel tentative about all of this but that I theoretically could share because I have this Kiks.ádi lineage that allows me to tell Kiks.ádi stories. I don’t have many other clan lines that would allow me to tell other stories, you don’t just get to tell somebody else’s story. This created a problem in the sense that fundamentally, when the Tlingit kicked the Russians out of Sitka twice, and they beat them twice, that involved technically a move where they gave up the Fort, then retook the surrounding areas. Giving up the Fort to a European—I did a lot of research on this, [laughs] that’s in the story—giving up the Fort to a European military eye, everything about accepting defeat is built into the ritual of taking that space and switching ownership of that space, but that was a European understanding, everything about the rules of war like what engaged prisoners, it’s all about taking that spot.
DN: Okay. I want to spend some time with something that’s still blowing my mind which is your whole investigation which brings us back to big novels, you’re wondering and your theory that you explore—you go to great lengths to explore this—was it possible that the strategies that the Tlingit used to defeat the Russians may have influenced or informed the Russians’ own strategy shortly after against Napoleon where they do the unheard of thing according to military strategy, they abandon Moscow, their seat of power in advance of the arrival of Napoleon’s troops, an event that is immortalized by Tolstoy in War and Peace? Here we are back in 19th century Russia. If this is true, this would connect everything, your adopted family, your love of 19th century novels, and your novel. I just love this investigation. It’s so cool. I want you to talk a little bit about it if you will.
VV: Yeah, I got obsessed with this. It came up as I read about the Battle of Sitka, I really started to break it down. But I do have to go back, the reason there was no writing about the Battle of Sitka from a Tlingit perspective was because of two things, basically, the Tlingit perspective that if it’s not your story to tell, you don’t tell it, you don’t just publicly share stories, story ownership is a big thing. The other thing is if you’ve had a war and you’ve moved to a piece, you don’t bring up those old stories, it’s considered a way to start a war, you’re being rude, you bury those stories with you. There wasn’t anybody speaking on the Tlingit side about what actually happened in this way until over a period of 30 years, Richard and Nora Dauenhauer collected—Nora was Tlingit and her partner was a linguist anthropology—they collected all his work, they got all the permissions, they got the stories, and they set it up in a Tlingit way, they were able to finally make something that put them together, and I was reading that. The idea that War and Peace—one of my favorite novels ever, I read it a bunch of times—I just automatically, when I was reading the Battle of Sitka, I’m like, “This is like the Battle of Moscow, the Kutuzov has it,” it was instantly to me, “How strange is this? How is this any different?” I began to look at the dates, then I began to come up with this crazy idea like, “Is it possible?” What’s the first impossibility? What I ran into when I first started to try to tap the web with historians about it, I have this crazy idea, I’m wondering, I would pose it and oh, my gosh, the disgust with which I was responded to about “how ridiculous an idea that was” was incredible. The guy who wrote a book I actually used is one of the resources and he was so offended by it, he stopped talking with me, [laughter] it was crazy, I was like, “I’m just asking a question.” That’s where you go like, “Wow, how can it be so insane to ask such a simple question?” How could the great Kutuzov, famous for saving Russia, have had an idea that came from the indigenous people? I was first of all trying to track it down in a couple of different ways, one, I remember being on the phone with people going like, “I need to find a really good historian who specializes in European warfare of the 18th and 19th century.” It was a really lovely man who’s a very illustrious historian who just put me in touch with this unbelievably wonderful English gentleman whose specialty was land battles in the 19th century. He taught in England, sort of their West Point, he taught military tactics and history at West Point. I met him on Armistice Day. We were sitting there with poppies, I think we talked for about maybe four hours in this pub. He was so gentle. He listened to my whole theory and he asked all these lovely questions about, “Could I draw this? Could I draw what I was talking about here?” Then he just stopped, he stepped back, and he said, “Let me tell you about rules of engagement and the medieval system,” then he began to just talk me through but he was just such a lovely, lovely man to deal with on this, I still stay in contact with him, he sends me his new history books, it’s great. But this idea was could it have happened? What I needed to find was some kind of tie that’s shown how that story in its more specific forms could have gone through back to a link to Kutuzov. I got a researcher who came from reading his book, Russian, he was broke, sketchy, and had him look up a whole bunch of stuff. It’s been years since I’ve looked at the research I did on that but I found all these things where they almost connected, where you almost could put him in the room with the person you could put him in the room with but you couldn’t quite do it until I saw the Tolstoy connection.
DN: Yeah, it didn’t feel like you proved it but you certainly seemed to establish multiple ways it could have happened, one of them being his Tolstoy’s older cousin who he would listen to telling stories, Tolstoy would listen to his older cousin coming back from these huge sailing trips.
VV: He was on the Nadezhda which was the other boat that went with the Neva.
DN: Yeah. The Neva was the one in the Battle of Sitka and the other principal boat for Russia was the one that Tolstoy’s older brother was on but I think he also established some shared neighborhoods in Moscow of certain people who could have come home and spoken to each other.
VV: Yeah, when I go down a wormhole, I go down a wormhole. [laughs]
DN: I want you to be right.
VV: I want to be right. [laughter]
DN: I do, I want you to be right. Yeah, it’s so great.
VV: I do believe that, not in the state of metaphor, I think my piece there makes a strong case that the clan won the Battle of Sitka.
DN: Yeah, which we learn a little bit about in The Great Offshore Grounds.
VV: A little bit. David Katzeek, the man I mentioned before, when I was writing The Great Offshore Grounds, I went up to Juneau for a 40-day—there are certain rituals after death and before the full Khu. eex party, the 40-day is 40 days after but it’s a quick one compared to the potlatch and party Khu. eex you would do afterwards—I went up, I met with him, he told me a whole bunch of stories that I could only hear because he had a Kiks.ádi forebear, somewhere in his family so he had a lot of old stories. He passed them on and told a lot of them to me. There are very tiny parts that no one would ever notice in the Tlingit sections of this book that are nods to him, that are nods to the stories without telling those stories but that just have an object like an orange or something in it.
DN: Yeah, I love that.
VV: I’ve been thinking about him in it a lot. The only places I publicly used stories that I heard were places where they were already published in the Russians and [inaudible 2:08:53] in America.
DN: Okay. I wanted to end with the title and a couple of things about the title. I love the title because of the tension between offshoring grounds, something both watery, fluid, and out of reach, something solid, stable, and right under our feet held together like that or juxtaposed. But it’s also a real place, one connected to the other boat, we’ve talked about the Essex because at that point, we had eliminated so many whales to such a degree that the Essex had to go thousands of miles off the coast to the offshore grounds to even find the whales to kill them. It is there that the ship is sunk by one great whale. That feels like poetry and it also feels that in the consumption of the dead, then the drawing of lots who’s going to be eaten and who’s going to eat just feels like a fitting allegory for late stage capitalism–
VV: I thought so too. [laughter]
DN: Not that you spell any of that out about the Essex at all in the book but I was thinking about how you’ve said that you don’t know for sure why your dad was adopted and how you had always thought that it was political, but you’ve come more recently to think that it could have been due to love, a love that couldn’t be out in the open, so that the adoption was something to facilitate that love possibly happening. That definitely feels like a motif in the book, people joining the army or hiding their illness or joining a political movement to head to both metaphorical offshore grounds or literal offshore grounds not out of greed or curiosity or conquest but out of love. I don’t know, did you see that in the book, that vein of—I don’t think it’s optimism for the future—but maybe a very present thread of care and love? There’s a way in which I feel like you take this willingness to go to the edge like thousands of miles offshore, let’s take it as a metaphor in this case, for someone else as a way to flip that narrative. The people aren’t out there necessarily in the book. None of this happens in the book but I’m thinking of how, in real life, people are going out there because we have no sustainable reciprocal relationship to the land and to the ocean so we have to keep going farther out on the edge, then so much so that we’re eating each other—alive essentially—but there’s a way in which you flip it I think.
VV: It is exactly that those questions that I had that you were talking about around the adoption were very conscious in mind, particularly because as I began to think about that, I began to think about how much of politics is done, how many choices are done because of the person you’re doing them for or with. I think we tell ourselves a lot of lies about that. It goes from the simplest side to like, “Oh, I had a girlfriend who was a socialist but now I have a girlfriend who’s not so everything’s different,” [laughter] like there’s the shallow version of that. But then there’s also, when it comes to those final moments of “I’m going to give up something for real because I believe in you and you believe in it,” or because not necessarily for this thing, it’s kind of a cliche about army that you don’t die for the country, you die for the person beside you, there’s a lot of that. I think that’s just deep into a lot of things. I think in leftist progressive worlds, we pretend that that’s not there at all as well. With the stories of Livy and Sarah, it was very much in my mind, well, I think I won’t do it for that but I will do it for this. This book has a lot more love in it not because of love stories, the friend of mine who I mentioned before who had read it a whole bunch of times, she had read Zazen too, she said she really liked Zazen but she said, “You know, when I list everything that happens in this book, it just sounds like the darkest thing ever, [laughter] in some ways, it’s way darker, all the things that happened,” she said, “But it feels so different.”
DN: It does. It feels like a book of care enacted over and over and over again.
VV: Yeah. I went through a real process in writing it. It sounds strange but this was a very found experience for me, to try to write this book was very, very hard and one of the things I came up to again and again and again was how much darkness? How much love? I had crazy dreams. I would sound like a mad woman if I told you the story of the internal experience of writing this thing, it’s of no interest to anybody so I’ll spare everybody, but there was just this quality of going as deep as you could into these experiences, and it’s because the characters love each other, they love each other, I love them, and I’m writing it. It showed me how much that alone could change everything in a story, and I didn’t know that. I feel like I learned about love and what it could do, I didn’t know it in the same way. That is because I was also experiencing it with my daughter or with my partner. I was deepening to understanding some of these things and in a lot of despair. It was all part of a piece but it was also a blindness, it was writing in blindness for eight years, it felt like it was the most shamanic writing– [laughter] People were like, “How did that feel like?” “Terrible, terrible, I never wanted to feel like that again, ever.” There was nothing, that was eight years of misery to try to get it.” [laughter]
DN: Yeah, I’m hesitant to ask you this question because of that, this long road trip that you went on, this eight years of miserable writing experience, [laughter] I want to ask you what you’re working on next but I don’t want to ask you that because I feel like you should be in a hammock somewhere now, you should have given this interview from a hammock.
DN: But what are you working on next or if you’re not working on something, what does it compel you to want to write?
VV: When this went into the publishing cycle, I went back to work as a union organizer which I had not done for 16 years because of the state we find ourselves in and because I worked for healthcare workers unions. I began working for a nursing home workers union and the home care workers union, then COVID hit, and all this stuff, and there’s just a lot of work, fighting, organizing, and things to do. I went back into that world 100%. In that world, I am not writing, in that world, I’m working all the time and I’m not writing. I know that’s the nature of that world. That was okay because I made a conscious choice that for this time, in these moments, in this place, that’s what I want to be doing. But also, because I knew as a writer that I often need a year or two after finishing a project to just remember why I ever wanted to write again. Part of the drawback of being somebody who thinks encyclopediacally or maximally about things is I tend to throw everything in, then I get nothing. Once I’m done, then I’m done for a while, I’ve gotta let the fields go. I had a very encouraging thought about a week ago about a project that I’ve always intended to go back to, it’s a novella I want to pair with short stories. It’s half finished, there were things I liked and didn’t like about it. All of a sudden, I had this like, “Oh, I know exactly what that thing is about, I didn’t know it when I started it.” I had this just take for a second that I couldn’t describe that I knew what I was trying to write about and how to go, do it. There was just this quick moment of going like, “Yeah,” then I was like, “In a year, I’m going to get to it.” [laughter] I think I’m in a place of just letting the world hit me again. What I know as an artist that I didn’t know as a younger artist is that it just grows back and it grows back and it grows back. Even when I’m not writing, my artistic mind is developing and growing. Whenever I start again, I will be somewhere new. It’s different to stop in the middle of a project than to stop between, they have very different outcomes. So I don’t have any fear about stuff. That’s where you have to separate the business, it’s not good for your career, it wasn’t good for my career to take eight years to write a book. [laughs] People were like, “These things are not good for your career,” but the work is the work.
DN: Yeah. Speaking about gendered responses in the business world, you just need to figure out how to be the female version of Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen who put out one book every 10 years. It’s an event.
VV: Yeah, I don’t think the world is opening up to me in that particular boat. [laughter]
DN: I hope it is.
VV: All these last eight years my mom would say like, “You don’t want to be Donna Tartt.” I’m like, “What do you mean? She’s doing fine, she had that first book and everybody was excited, and it took nine years to get her next book,” [laughter] and then of course, it did great too, it was just like, “What do you mean you don’t want to be Donna Tartt?” That’s my mom, she wants to tell you. [laughter]
DN: Thank you for being on Between The Covers again, Vanessa.
VV: Thanks, David.
DN: We’re talking today to Vanessa Veselka about her latest book from Knopf, The Great Offshore Grounds. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers, I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Vanessa Veselka’s work at vanessaveselka.com. Also, don’t forget that listeners of today’s program can get 20% off on Yxta Maya Murray’s new novel or any other book put out by Northwestern University Press with the code POD20 at their website nupress.northwestern.edu. If you enjoyed today’s program, consider supporting Between The Covers, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers where you can learn about the bonus audio archive, collectible items or writing advice by your favorite writers, getting a bundle of books sent to you and curated by me or joining Tin House’s early readership subscription. Again, this and much more can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth DeMeo, Alyssa Ogi, and Spencer Ruchti in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writing Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album, Imre Lodbrog & sa petite amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.