Vendela Vida's fourth novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, is about a woman who travels to Morocco to escape her life. Just as she's checking in to her semi-shitty hotel, someone steals her backpack. Her passport, her wallet, her computer—anything that could identify her at all—gone. After an absurdly bureaucratic and emotionally galling search for her belongings, the protagonist decides to take on the identity of another woman, initiating a journey of self-discovery through other selves. As a writer of fiction and screenplays, a founder of and contributor to the Believer magazine, and a cofounder of the nonprofit 826 Valencia, Vida has made a living hopping in and out of other selves. In anticipation of her reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on June 18, I called her to ask about the intersections of life and fiction.
First of all: Is "Vendela Vida" your real name?
Yes. My mother is Swedish, and Vendela was my grandmother's name. My middle name is Ingeborg. Both are names that you see on a lot of Swedish tombstones from maybe a hundred years ago. My father is Hungarian, and Vida is a Hungarian name. You put all these words together and you have a name that confuses everybody.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you shadow a spy?
I went to Morocco with no intention of setting a book there. While I was checking into my hotel in Casablanca, I had my backpack stolen—not my passport, just my backpack. An hour after that, I found myself in the Casablanca police station. I've had this idea for a book about the malleability of identity swirling around in my head for years, but I never knew how to start it. So I was sitting there in that police station being interviewed by these detectives, and I started realizing that this scene, plus the situation of someone having their identity stolen, could be a good start to the book I was trying to write. I became very excited. I'm sure my attitude and sudden exuberance confused the detectives. Suddenly I was the happiest victim of a crime who had ever been in that police station. The rest of the book was completely fabricated.
The whole novel is in the second person. Walk me through that decision.
It wasn't really a decision. I started writing the book on the way home from Casablanca, and because my laptop had been stolen, I was writing it by hand on the backs of scrap paper. From the start, I wrote it in the second person, and I never looked back.
I feel like the second person is in keeping with one of the main themes of the book: the malleability of identity. I found it kind of liberating, especially when I realized that I wanted the "you" character to switch identities so often. The second person freed me from worrying about whether the reader would remember what name the character was assuming at various points in the book. They didn't have to think: "Is she now Reeves, or Sabine, or...?" She was simply... you.
There's a little bit of an Eat, Pray, Love, "white woman using a nonwhite locale as a place to 'find herself'" issue going on here. Care to address that?
I really love all novels and stories that take an American and put them in another country. I love Antonioni's film The Passenger, for example, and that was a big influence on this book. I also love books about people coming to America—I love Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín about a young Irish woman coming to America and deciding whether to stay. And I really admire Chimamanda Adichie's book Americanah, as well as a book by my former professor, Julia Alvarez, called How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It's about four sisters from the Dominican Republic moving to the United States.
I have to ask, though: How do you know the protagonist of The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty is white? And if she is white, is she not allowed to go to Morocco? There are two kinds of stories: stories about people who leave where they're from, and stories about people who stay where they were born. So, in the thousands of years of written storytelling, half of the stories ever told are about somebody going to a new place. I hope we'll always allow anyone to write about anything—going somewhere, not going somewhere—as long as it's done respectfully. Literature would be greatly diminished if characters were discouraged from leaving their houses or their countries.
One of the great ironies of this book is that your protagonist's sense of self sharpens as she loses her original identity. Over the course of four novels, a couple screenplays, your work as the founder of the Believer, and the launch of a successful tutoring program, you, too, have jumped into several selves. What of you seems to stick in all those projects?
Words! It sounds like I'm being facetious, but I'm being really honest. My original passion was reading and then, later, writing, and the endeavors you mention share that in common. It's not like I'm one of those closet rocket scientists or something.
Big philosophical question: To what extent do you believe we have control over who we are?
I believe that people have the power to change, but fundamentally you can never completely change who you originally were unless you're able to completely forget. (This is why amnesia is so interesting to our culture, and so popular in films.) You can gradually slip away from yourself through a series of lies, but I don't think you'll ever become a different person simply by virtue of the fact that you want to become a different person.
Is that because other people tell us who we are?
That's a good point, and that's why I like books about traveling to other countries. The possibility of becoming someone else when you're abroad is much greater, especially if you're traveling alone, because there's nobody there to remind you of your past, of who you were. That's why, in the book, the protagonist is particularly haunted by seeing this woman in the puffy white Reeboks from her "past" life back in Florida.
But I can tell you're seeking personal advice here. So, yes, if you want to completely switch identities, the best chance you have of doing that is going to another country. Safe travels!
There's a lot of frustration with the nuts and bolts of the movie industry in here. Are you through with the silver screen?
In the book I try to poke a hole in the idea some people might have that Hollywood is all about lights, camera, action! because being on a film set can be so incredibly boring! There's so much downtime while the scenes are being set up or the lights are being adjusted.
I'm also interested in the lengths that filmmakers have to go to in order to make something artificial look real. For instance: There's so much traffic in Casablanca, but in the book I make it so that the film crew has to block off traffic in order to create a fake traffic jam, which creates more real traffic in Casablanca.
But I'm not frustrated with the medium at all. I enjoy writing screenplays because they lend themselves to collaboration, which is a kind of relief from the solitary work of writing a novel. The only frustration I have with screenplays is that it requires so much money to get a script made into a film. In contrast, you can write fiction on the back of a hand or paper, and you can get it out in the world on your own. You don't need much.