Author Vendela Vida and the art of pretending
NEW YORK (AP) — Answering questions in a Casablanca police station, hoping to retrieve a missing backpack, author Vendela Vida was overcome by her feelings of good fortune.
"Halfway through the interview it just occurred to me that this was the entree into the novel," says Vida, whose new book, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," begins with a stolen backpack in Casablanca.
"I was so excited I think the detectives were really confused. I was having such a great time. I was taking notes in my head of the environment, what the detectives looked like."
Her book just published and papers otherwise in order, she is drinking iced tea at an outdoor cafe in Greenwich Village during a warm afternoon, a setting you are unlikely to find in a Vida novel. "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," blurbed by Lena Dunham among others, is Vida's fourth work of fiction and continues her exploration of American women in crisis in foreign countries, whether Turkey in "The Lovers" or the Finnish region Lapland in "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name."
The narrator is not named in "Diver's Clothes," but she does assume other identities as the disappearance of her belongings leads her to pretend that she's a New York Times writer, to falsely claim that a backpack belonging to another woman is hers and to take on work as a stand-in for a famous actress in a Hollywood production set in Morocco. The book's title refers to a Rumi poem about simultaneous presence and absence, being part a hunt for which you are the prey.
Vida, 43, has been productively fibbing since writing down her tall tales as a child. In her first book, the nonfiction "Girls on the Verge," she writes of taking on a new name (Kate Wintersen) and background as she participates in a sorority rush at UCLA. In "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name," the narrator confesses, "Travel is made for liars. Or liars are made for travel."
"Everyone has that sensation when they get on a plane that you're going to arrive in another country and ... 'What if you were someone different?'" Vida said. "There's always a part of transforming your identity when you're in a new place. So if you push that to the maximum extreme, it's actually, what if you take on a new identity completely?"
Writing itself is a kind of escape for Vida, whether the internal charade of imagining a life different from her own to the distance she sometimes travels to finish a book. Around a decade ago, after the birth of the first of her two children (her husband is fellow author Dave Eggers), she began writing in motels, fully separating "the fictional world" in her mind from the real world of diapers and feedings.
"The only way I could feel undistracted by the serious emotional pull of my family was to physically remove myself from hourly concerns," Vida, a San Francisco native who still lives in the Bay Area, explained in an email following the interview. "Also, because I would miss my family so much when I was 'away' (meaning in a motel a mere 45 minutes from home), it was extra incentive to not waste time; I would get more done in the course of 24 hours than I ordinarily could in a week."
While working on novels, she resists reading fiction, but finds a movie that somehow informs the book's story. Her chosen film for "The Diver's Clothes" was Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger," a 1975 release starring Jack Nicholson as a family man who deliberately goes missing. For "The Lovers," in which a widow revisits the Turkish village of her honeymoon, Vida thought of Roberto Rossellini's classic "Voyage to Italy," about a troubled and childless couple.
"I still have this image in my mind from the film of a woman who can't have children walking down the street and seeing babies in prams everywhere," Vida wrote in an email. "I imagined Yvonne, the widow in 'The Lovers,' having a similar sensation: She goes through the world and sees lovers everywhere around her."