Vendela Vida’s latest novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty thrusts a nameless narrator into a maelstrom of mishaps in Morocco in which she loses her luggage, money and proof of identity and dives headlong into a random hiring as a cranky and needy Hollywood actress’s double. Her delirious dissembling is fuelled by a determined indifference to recent personal trauma and a reckless proclivity to go with the flow, and told in a striking second-person voice that puts you right in the heart of the frenzied action. I talk to her about backpacks, back stories and the unexpected repercussions of giving the actual Patti Smith a walk-on part in a sea of anonymity.

MR: The second-person narration of the novel is very distinctive, and puts the reader right in the protagonist’s head. Was the book always conceived in that way, or did it come later? And is it a device you’ve used before?

VV: I’ve never used the second person before. I always admired Lorrie Moore’s short stories that are told in the second person. I’m a huge Lorrie Moore fan; I love the precision of her sentences, and also the fact that she’s very funny. When I started writing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, I found myself writing in the second person without really even thinking about it, how unusual it was, or what the challenges would be. It’s always hard to describe what a first-person narrator looks like, unless you do it in a cheap way like, “I looked in the mirror and I saw a red-headed woman…” and there were some challenges that were similar to that in writing in the second person. The first sentence originally wasn’t in the second person, it was a question: “Why is everyone clapping?” But I realised I had to introduce the second person right away, otherwise the reader might get a little turned off. When I got to the end of the book I realised another advantage of writing in the second person is that it relieves the reader of having to keep track of all the narrator’s different identities and whether she was who she was saying she was at that moment – because a lot of the time she’s obviously lying.

I wrote the first draft very quickly, like a fever dream… I think you can signify to the reader when you’re writing how you want the book to be read, and I wanted it to be read quickly.”

It’s part literary mystery, part psychological thriller, a kind of comedy of errors too. Were you thinking of genre as you were writing, or did you just set out an escalating series of ‘what-ifs’ on your theme of identity?

I didn’t think about genre so much, but I did think about the tone of the book, in the sense that my previous books have been a little darker, and that’s proved a little problematic at some points. For example when I was writing Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, it has dark humour for the first third, and there comes a point where something so traumatic and terrible happens that the book doesn’t have the capacity for humour afterward. When I was working on that book, I had a Post-It above my desk that said, “No more humour.” Some terrible things happen, there’s been a rape, you cannot have humour anymore, the book cannot accommodate it. And I knew from the outset with this book that I wanted to be able to incorporate dry humour all the way through.

The book has the pace of comedy, with all its wrong turns, stumbles and switches. But this is underscored by some deep trauma.

It is, and that was tricky but I felt at the same time, because of her attitude of leaving it all behind, as long as the tone isn’t over-the-top comedic, that it could also hold some trauma.

It felt to me like being plunged into someone else’s dream.

I wrote the first draft very quickly, like a fever dream. That doesn’t mean that when I went over it many times afterward I didn’t have to go through it slowly and really think about the sentences, but the initial dash was written deliberately very quickly, in fact I really shut down everything else in my life. I agreed with my husband that I wouldn’t necessarily be around for dinner for the month that I was working to just get everything down – which was nobody’s loss because I’m a terrible cook, so I think everyone was happy.

That immediacy does invite the reader to really engage with the book. I read it in two sittings. The first time I picked it up I only had half an hour to read, and the next time I picked up from twenty pages in and went right through to the end.

I’m glad you said that, I wanted it to be read quickly. Hitchcock said that no film should be longer than an hour and a half, because basically he didn’t want any restroom breaks in his films. And I think about that a lot, because I think there’s some degree to which you can signify to the reader when you’re writing how you want the book to be read, and I wanted it to be read quickly. That’s why there are no chapter breaks, for example.

The title comes from a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, who I admit I’ve never read before. At what point in the writing of the novel did that poem begin to resonate with the story you wanted to tell?

Let_the_Northern_Lights_290I once read that Martin Amis said there are two kinds of title: the kind you have before you start a book, and the kind you come up with afterwards, and his inference is the better kind of title is the kind you came up with before, because it penetrates every aspect of the novel. Even in subliminal ways, you would find little echoes of the title in the book. I kind of regret ever having read that quote, because now I get panic-stricken when I start a novel and I don’t have a title for it. I was about two-thirds of the way through a first draft, and I was sharing it with a friend of mine who I always show my work to. I told her I didn’t have a title yet and she said, “Well in the past you’ve had such good luck finding titles from poetry.” Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name came from a poem by a Sámi poet. A lot of that book takes place in northern Scandinavia, and part of it is devoted to the plight of the indigenous population, so I was really happy to find a title that paid tribute to their culture. So my friend said why not turn to poetry again, and she suggested I look at a poem she vaguely remembered by Rumi. She said, “Rumi wrote a poem about a diver, maybe if you look in the body of that poem you’ll find something. You know the one?” She’s very smart, and I wanted to impress her, so I said, “Sure, I think I know.” And so right after we parted ways – we were meeting on Valencia Street where The Believer’s office is – and as soon as she left I looked both ways to make sure she was out of sight and I ran straight across the street to my favourite second-hand bookstore, Dog Eared Books. I found a collection of Rumi’s poetry – as I knew I would because I always find what I’m looking for there – and I was so excited to find the poem she’d been referring to. I stepped out onto the street. Valencia Street’s very crowded during the day, there are lots of people walking, but I didn’t care, I was just standing on the sidewalk, I found the poem, and I literally got chills because it was so much what my book was about in so many ways, about doubles and the slipperiness of identity, and I knew right away that I had found my title. The poem is called ‘The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty’, so I tweaked it a little bit.

I have a bit of an issue with the first line of the blurb on the inside flap, which describes this book as a ‘novel of ideas’. Should there be any other kind?

I didn’t write that! But I think some novels definitely are more novels of ideas than other novels, in the sense that they play with different concepts. In this book I’m obviously experimenting with ideas surrounding identity… Now I’m trying to think of a book that doesn’t have any ideas in it – but they do exist.

The book has been described as a “love child of Albert Camus and Patricia Highsmith”. Were either or both a particular influence?

Definitely I knew very early on that I wanted to embody some of the existentialism of Camus; it’s an existential situation in some ways that she finds herself in. I don’t read that much Patricia Highsmith but I love the films that have been made of her books. When I was writing this I watched The Talented Mr Ripley, the Anthony Minghella version, which is fantastic, it holds up so well, and also Purple Noon (Plein soleil), the lesser-known French film which was based on the same novel, just to see different interpretations of it. I also watched Antonioni’s The Passenger, and I found it was helpful to watch all three of those films while writing the book, because of the plot points and because I was dealing with a more thrillerish plot than I’d dealt with in the past. Also in The Passenger, the moment when Jack Nicholson changes passports with a dead man was something I studied because I’d already written a similar scene in my novel, and I thought, “how did they do it in the film; how does one do this?”

With a book all you need is a pen and paper, it’s very democratic, whereas with film you can’t do what  you want to do without someone giving you a lot of money.”

There’s a great opportunity here for a Julia Roberts type to play a self-deprecating version of herself as ‘the famous American actress’. Has anyone snapped up the film rights? And did you have any particular actress in mind as you were writing that character?

I didn’t have an actress in mind when I was writing it, but I wanted to give her one detail: a terrible cackle of a laugh. I did that for two reasons. It amused me to think there’s this beautiful woman and every time she laughs everyone has to cover their ears, and her laugh has to be dubbed over in her films; and also because I didn’t want any actress to claim it was based on them, and no actress is going to embrace this terrible cackle. I would love for it to be made into a script, and I would want to write it, but so far it’s just been sent to actresses – with good and bad laughs. We’ll see.

What are your experiences of working in film, and how badly do you want to do it again?

I enjoy working in film in the sense that it’s collaborative. As a writer you obviously spend so much time by yourself at your desk alone, and I think there’s a reason that so many people write films with screenwriting partners, because the form lends itself to being a collaborative effort, especially in dialogue where two people are interacting. My issue with film is that it requires so much money to get a film made. With a book all you need is a pen and paper, it’s very democratic in every sense, whereas with film I have two scripts now that I’ve written that have not gotten made because I don’t have, whatever, two million dollars. You have to find someone, convince them to put money behind the film. I have friends who are directors and it’s a fantastic profession, but it must be so frustrating that you can’t do what you love to do, what you want to do, without someone giving you a lot of money. In that sense I find it a very challenging medium, but I love watching movies. When I’m writing a book I watch more movies than I read books, because I don’t want to be too influenced by what I’m reading at the time.

I guess one complication for making this into a movie as well is that you’d have to persuade Patti Smith to play herself.

Or someone else who is an authentic person. The reason I used her real name, whereas everyone else is known as ‘the famous American actress’, or described as looking like David Bowie or whatever, is that I wanted to make the contrast that whereas the famous American actress is very inauthentic in many ways, I feel that Patti Smith is an authentic performer and an authentic person. I’m also a huge fan of her writing. I loved her memoir Just Kids. So yes, I would have to convince her. The funniest thing that happened with this book is that I had to write a cheque to Bruce Springsteen for use of the lyrics to ‘Because the Night’. First of all, I didn’t know that the writer is responsible for paying for the rights to songs, so next time I write a book I’m not going to include so much music.

You probably only really need the title, and the song’s in people’s heads anyway.

You don’t need to have the lyrics, I know. But I included the lyrics and my publisher in America said you have to write a cheque, and make it out to Bruce Springsteen, so I made out a cheque for a hundred dollars, and I want to go and check my bank to see if he cashed it. I’d just love to see the signature on the back.

I’m surprised he didn’t charge more than a hundred dollars.

I won’t say how much other people in the book charged, but it was a lot more.

Which writers did you grow up reading, and which current writers do you particularly admire?

I grew up reading a lot of Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham, mainly because those were the books that we had in our bookshelf. My parents weren’t readers but we had this really beautiful Italian bookshelf. My father had an antique store and he bought this fabulous big bookshelf that was empty and the next trick was he had to fill it, so I remember going with him to estate sales to find old-looking books, and we ended up getting whole collections of Somerset Maugham and Hemingway, literally because of how it looked, not the content. So as a result I read a lot of those books and I was obsessed with Somerset Maugham. I think in part because I loved the name Somerset. I recently re-read him, and though I still love Maugham’s work, I couldn’t figure out what it was that appealed to me about his work as a nine- or ten- or eleven-year-old reader, but obviously something did. In terms of what I read now, I’ve always loved Joan Didion, also James Salter’s short stories, and for this book Paul Bowles has been an influence. Not just Sheltering Sky, because it’s set in Morocco, but his short stories, particularly a collection called The Delicate Prey. I love his Morocco stories, but I even prefer some of the stories set in other places. There’s one story called ‘How Many Midnights’ set in New York City. We think of him always as describing these ‘exotic’ foreign lands very well, but he’s actually really good at using landscape even when he’s describing New York City.

Sometimes when I think I can’t do something, I tell myself, ‘Well if you can climb Kilimanjaro while throwing up, you can probably write this assignment that’s due tomorrow.'”

Do you agree with the advice in the travel guides that the first thing to do upon landing in Casablanca is to get out of town?

I can’t say I have a lot of affection for Casablanca. I did get my backpack stolen there, very much like the protagonist. The rest of the book is fictional, but the backpack theft was based on what happened to me. But on the other hand I did get a novel out of it, so I’m torn. I do think there are beautiful parts of Morocco, and I’d advise people to go there. I’d also advise people to not spend the entirety of their trip in Casablanca.

So what’s the worst experience you’ve had whilst travelling?

I climbed Kilimanjaro ten years ago and I got terrible food poisoning on the second day, but I’d come all the way to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro and I didn’t want to go back, so I climbed Kilimanjaro throwing up. It was an eight-day trip: six days up and two days down, and I didn’t eat for seven of those days. It was worth the view at the top but I was so stubborn. People were telling me “You’re really sick, you should probably go down,” but I’m really glad I didn’t go back to camp and wait for everybody else from my group to return. So that was probably the worst experience. Although sometimes when I think I can’t do something, I tell myself, “Well if you can climb Kilimanjaro while throwing up, you can probably write this assignment that’s due tomorrow.” It was a fundraiser for cancer research. I lost a friend to cancer and I thought I would do it. It was one of those trips where you get people to pledge a certain amount of money so, besides the fear of failure, I was somehow afraid I might have to give the money back and I would let down all my friends and the research institute.

What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?

Well it wouldn’t involve a beach, I’m not someone who likes to go on beach vacations, that’s not my thing. First because my Scandinavian descent means I burn very easily, and I get bored on a beach unless I have, you know, ten books with me. I’d really like to go to Antarctica. I was in Patagonia a couple of years ago and I wanted to make the voyage to Antarctica, but two things were prohibitive: one, the cost, it’s very expensive to take a boat from Patagonia to Antarctica, and secondly I’d recently read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and there’s a trip to Antarctica on which everyone gets disastrously sea-sick. But at some point I’d like to go to there.

Do you still view your earlier novels as a loose trilogy? Or does this book extend that sequence in some way?

I once said it was a trilogy and I really regret that. I was finishing my first novel and I had that feeling of frustration I’m sure a lot of writers feel, that I hadn’t got everything I wanted to get into the book onto the page. But I hadn’t set it up to accommodate all these other ideas I wanted to get into it, and so I thought maybe if I say this is part of a trilogy, I’ll have two more books to get all my ideas in… so hey, I guess they were novels of ideas as well.

I’m sorry I brought that up…

No, I think it’s very funny. That was fine for the second book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, but it put a lot of pressure on the third one because I thought, “Oh no, now I’m really going to have to get everything into this book.” Probably ‘triptych’ is a more accurate description, because they all reflect on one another. A trilogy implies you have to read one to read the next, and that’s not the case, but I think they do operate like a triptych. The Divers’ Clothes Lie Empty is different though. Like I said, the tone is different, a little bit lighter, and it feels like something else to me than those other books.

What are you writing next?

Right now I’m working on a book that I was working on before but put away, it’s set in Sweden, it’s my family’s story and it’s a more autobiographical than anything I’ve written before. My first book was non-fiction and it’s kind of fun to be coming back to it. The problem is I have to use the ‘I’ again. I’d actually like to write a book in the collective first person; I’d like to write a ‘we’ book, so maybe I can write this book in ‘we’, but I don’t know. It’s already changed a lot. I wasn’t in it when I first started it, it was all about other people, but now somehow I’ve come into it. So these things morph and change.


Vendela_Vida_290Vendela Vida is the author of the acclaimed novels And Now You Can Go, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and The Lovers, and the non-fiction book Girls on the Verge. She is a founding editor of The Believer magazine, and the editor of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with husband Dave Eggers and their children. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is published by Atlantic Books in hardback and eBook. Read more.

Author portrait © Annabel Mehran