Victoria Patterson, author of Drift and the recently released This Vacant Paradise, sat down to answer a few questions about her new book, her inspirations, and her upcoming event with James Brown at Vroman’s (among other things, of course!)
1. What was your inspiration for This Vacant Paradise?
My professor once called me, “The Edith Wharton of the O.C.” He said, “You should write a House of Mirth for Newport Beach.” I was already a Wharton fan, and I became consumed by the idea. I studied House of Mirth, re-reading it many times. I read biographies of Edith Wharton–her autobiography. Then I started interspersing my reading with Henry James. He and Wharton had such a complicated relationship and influenced each other. James has these fantastic swooping sentences. And Wharton’s prose is so sharp and humorous. I wanted to have that same leveling grasp.
2. This is your first novel. How was it different writing a novel versus your collection of short fiction, Drift?
In my experience, both novels and stories are difficult. They take a large amount of time and concentration, and you don’t even know if they’re going to work. I’d written two novels that got buried before This Vacant Paradise. I’ve also written many stories that died. But they were necessary. They taught me how to write. Drift was similar to a novel in that it has recurring characters, so I lived with the same characters for years and years. But what I appreciate about stories is that you can set them aside, begin others, and then come back to them, whereas with a novel, you can’t go that far. Novels allow more space for sprawl, while stories are compact, charged entities.
3. Now that you aren’t working on This Vacant Paradise, what do you read?
I decided to read the Story Prize finalists: finished Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option and Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall (he won). Now I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. I highly recommend all three.
4. This Vacant Paradise is such a great title. How did you decide on it?
When the novel went out with my agent, it went out with the title “Nobody’s Daughter.” But I found out that was the name of Courtney Love’s perpetually in hiatus comeback album. Her album did finally come out. So I went on a title hunt, reading tons of poetry, listening to songs, hoping to come across the perfect fit. One night, I was reading a poem by James Wright with the stanza:
Be glad of the green wall
You climbed across one day,
When winter stung with ice
That vacant paradise
I changed the “that” to “this,” sat with it for a few days, then consulted a few people, and I had a title. This Vacant Paradise grew on me, and I hope by the end of the novel, the reader will have a deeper understanding of the title.
5. Esther Wilson is a wonderfully complex character: beautiful, smart, honest, and self-aware. How did her character emerge and develop in your mind.
Esther came to me first as an image: I saw her at Shark Island (a restaurant/bar) sitting at her bar stool, drinking a sour apple martini, her feet crossed. For character development, I took a big cue from Wharton’s Lily Bart. Lily is so self-aware and honest, even when it makes her look bad. She’s a no B.S. kind of woman. And I think the reader–at least this reader–appreciates that. I wanted to create a character that had that same kind of edge. Often, as writers and as women, we’re sort of programmed to be nice and accommodating–and Esther is tired of pretending to be nice. She’s smarter than that. I like that about her.
6. You spent a significant amount of your childhood in Newport Beach. Can you share a specific experience/anecdote from childhood that opened your eyes to the materialistic value system and limiting environment of Newport Beach?
Not so much childhood as when I was a teenager. There were two suicides that happened when I was in junior high/high school. The first was a friend of mine–not a close friend–but our lives were very parallel. We were in the same grade, her mom had been my mom’s sorority sister, etc. Her dad killed himself due to financial troubles. I was so torn up by this suicide, by watching this friend suffer. And then later, a relative of mine killed himself after his brother fired him from the family business. I couldn’t grasp it. It made no sense to me. And I saw the way my family and friends reacted. I understood the power of money, of not having it in an environment that is predicated on it, of what money can do to people. I believe it was tremendously influential to my overall view.
7. Tell me about your history with Vroman’s?
I have quite a history with Vroman’s. It’s still where I get my books, and I’ve taken my boys to Vroman’s since they were born. In fact, I used to come to Vroman’s coffee shop and write while my kids were at church daycare. And I wrote there often. This is when my kids were very young, and I was desperate for time to write. I wrote an essay about it: you can read it here.
When Drift’s publication date arrived, I went to Vroman’s to buy my book. I went alone. I can’t tell you the feeling: walking into Vroman’s and seeing my book. I will never forget it. After I bought Drift, I went to the coffee shop where I used to write to show the workers, and they were all happy for me because they knew me. One of the customers overheard us and asked me, “Did it take you a long time to write it?” Before I answered, one of the employees said, “Oh yes! It took her forever. She was always in here–writing, writing. It took her a very, very long time.”
Victoria Patterson will discuss and sign This Vacant Paradise on Thursday, March 24, at 7pm. More information online, here.