Talking with Rufi Thorpe about writing and her latest novel

Rufi Thorpe gained accolades for her first book The Girls From Corona Del Mar, which was long listed for both the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her latest book, Dear Fang, With Love, is being released today (we ran our review yesterday). I talked to Thorpe over Skype from her home in California. (Author photo by Nina Subin)

You start the book with that great poem from Czesław Miłosz. Can you talk a little bit about that?

The book originally had three quotes from different Czesław Miłosz poems in it, and then the copyright was such a disaster, it was so expensive to keep them in, so I fought for that one poem to at least get to stay, and even still, it's not going to be in the audio book, it's not going to be in the UK addition, it's just…I don't feel like you can really write a book that is set in Vilnius without talking about Czesław Miłosz. You can't even walk around that city without seeing images of Czesław Miłosz. He is beloved in Vilnius and really is sort of like the patron saint of poetry for Vilnius.

I personally just find his writing…I have a huge connection with it and I find it very, I don't know, like someone's been writing down all of your secret thoughts that you didn't know how to put into words. Those poets that are personal for you. It's not even that you academically admire them, it's just that they're your guy, and he's one of my guys.

You spent time in Vilnius, right?

Yeah, I went there as part of an SLS. There's a program called Summer Literary Seminars run by Mikhail Iossel that has contests, so I placed, I forget if it was second place or if I did even worse than that, but I won free admission to one of their programs, and the one that I could do with my adjuncting schedule was in Lithuania because it was the only one in the summer time. I went, even though I didn't know a ton about Lithuania, and I didn't really have any conception of Vilnius as a city, in particular, and then was just blown away by it.

It was sort of paired with a history program, so we got to attend all the events being run by the history program. We would go on these walking tours with a historian who is very much like Darius and, in fact, I felt that Darius was such an homage to him that I had him read it before we published it. I was so nervous because he's this deeply, I think, this daemon of historical knowledge, but he's also kind of funny in the book, and I could see someone really taking it the wrong way, but instead was like, "I love it." I got very lucky, I guess.

I knew pretty much nothing about Vilnius, so it was a great introduction. I came in, I felt a little bit like some of the characters, coming in a little blind and not knowing, but learning quite a bit. That trip started your history, but did you have to do more research? Did you go back?

I mean, it's not like I was taking notes. We were wandering around and then…I got to know Vilnius that way, and then I read…I recommend it, I think, in my acknowledgments, but it's Laimonas Briedis book, Vilnius: City of Strangers and it's such an enchanting, very cerebral history of the place, filled with incredible anecdotes, and then I read a ton of other books, too. I wanted to include a bibliography, but I guess you're not supposed to do that with fiction.

Lucas is a really interesting character. Do you consider Lucas your protagonist or do you consider Vera the protagonist?

I think that they're both main characters, in the sense that I think that ultimately the entire book is held within Lucas' mind, since even her letters, we later come to understand, are texts that he has discovered. I consider him the protagonist. In the original version of the book, her letters were not part of the text. It was told entirely from his point of view, and then she sort of emerged through later drafts. Once you get her talking, she'll just talk and talk, so a lot of it was trying to keep a balance between the two of them in the book, but I think it is, in many ways, his book.

What was missing without her letters, because I can't imagine the book without it, frankly.

I know, right? It was a much quieter book, but I think that there was a certain tension created, just in terms of having her not understand her parents' relationship creates this tension for the reader about trying to understand the relationship, so it makes that whole back story a little bit more than back story. It certainly makes the book more dynamic, I think, from the reader's perspective. Whenever the reader gets to be putting two things together and trying to see how they match, I feel like that's a much more engaging. I think that when it was all from his point of view it was a little bit one note. It was a lot more about, he had a fiancee and this whole other plot line about his love life and what kind of man he wanted to be, and it was all a little much, so I kind of cut out even that whole question of his love life and refocused the book on his relationship with his daughter. That enabled the book to…It just gave it a much clearer focus. It was a little bit more trying to be about his whole life, and this made it much more focused and I think more dynamic between the two of them.

It feels like you have a very assured prose style. Immediately, from the first sentence, I totally trusted where you were going. I trusted Lucas as the storyteller, to a certain degree, you kind of see the cracks in his veneer a little bit. You also see the cracks in other people's veneers, which was really an interesting experience trying to see those undercurrents. Your characters are very sharply drawn, but they're also very layered, and seeing them from the different angles kind of brings it on.

One thing in particular that I noticed was you have all of these women throughout different periods of their life, but you have this almost stair-step from Vera to RĂ¼da to Justine to Katya up to Judith, and it's really fascinating to see Lucas react to women in different parts of their lives, and obviously very different relationships with them, some of them circumstantial, but that was really interesting, I thought.

Character is, I think, what I'm in it for, and it's certainly what I seek in novels, as a reader. If the characterization is good, I'll read about anything forever with no plot. Just character I'll read forever, if it's good enough. I think it's a huge compliment for you to say that the characters seem like they have layers. It's a book that's almost all women. I guess there are male characters and there's the issue of Lucas' cousin and this doppelganger of self, but it's funny. Different interviewers have asked me how it was that I felt writing a man and whether that was okay, and I'm like, "Well, I didn't create him in a world of almost exclusively women."

It was a unique opportunity, I think, in writing. I feel like I'm answering your question so diffusely and roundabout, but I guess what I would say is, I didn't intentionally set out to draw portraits of women in different stages of their lives, but I think that when you're talking about family and you start to have different generations, that is fundamentally what the activity of understanding a family is, is understanding not only these generations of women, but how they have reflected each other and informed each other and the ways that they are reacting against each other, and the ways that Lucas' own mother was formed by Grandma Sylvie and the way that all of that came to be.

I think that that's really fascinating for me. Families and the ways that we process where we came from and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our parents. I'm always really baffled. When I'm getting to know people, one of the first things I'm like, "What's your mom like?" Really want to know about their family. Some people are really incurious about their parents' lives, and I have grilled my mother. I don't think there's a single one night stand she's ever had that I haven't asked the details about. It was very frustrating. My grandmother would always claim to just forget huge swathes of her life. I'm like, "Why did you do that?" She's like, "I don't know." How could you not know? You're holding back!

Does your mom actually like sharing that or is it something that you push her to do?

She didn't have very much choice. We spent a lot of time in each others' company. She was a single mom, I was an only child, we talked a lot. Our relationship has always been more friendly than strictly parental. She's very open. I'll write about her life in essays and publish it and stuff, and she's always very "Fine, write about it, that's fine," but then I started drafting this piece about how many pets of ours died when I was little and she was like, "Uh, maybe not that. Maybe not that."

That's hilarious. The relationships with mothers, especially, in the book, and grandmothers, very important. It's interesting that…. There's a couple things. First of all, there's a moment later in the book where he says something to Katya about the guilt of Lucas not being there and Katya basically put it on its ears, you know, "You've got it wrong. I felt sorry for you. You were the one that wasn't there." It's a very sweet moment, especially, I think, for a parent who's "How could you make that choice to not be there?" Obviously some people do and they have their reasons, but seeing Lucas grapple with that and seeing it through his eyes was really an interesting moment.

There's a couple ways that you flipped expectations in really nice ways that I thought spoke to really interesting things. One was that against classical gender roles, Lucas is a little meander-y, a little unsure about what he wants, and most of the women in the book are like, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go do it." And also this idea of a Catholic man investigating his past which has to do with his Catholic grandmother in a Nazi death camp, which is kind of a twist, and some irony there to her escaping, I think.

I definitely think that I have a tendency to go about things sideways. I think that I do that all the time. The book, I think, to me, is very much a book about California and Californians, even though it's a book about Lithuania also, in the sense that I grew up where almost everybody had some sort of roots to a past or a religion, but they didn't even really have any significance anymore. Maybe it was small and faded, but no one was really going to church that I knew growing up, so whether you were Catholic or whether you were Jewish or whether you were Mormon….

We were all basically just secular Californians, and I feel like there's something amnesiac about California in particular, where it almost seems to be ahistorical in some way, and part of it's the newness of the construction, and part of it's maybe even, especially in southern California, the desert and the sun, and maybe you jut have too much serotonin. You're not actually able to remember anything, you're just blasted by the sun and the beauty and you're like, "Whatever, we'll just let it go." I think that there's this meandering journey between remembering and forgetting, so I really wanted the book to have people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds.

I also was very keenly aware that I was trying to write about the Holocaust and I am not in any way Jewish, and I didn't want to be trying to say that I was saying anything unique or remarkable about the Jewish experience or about Jewish diaspora. I fundamentally believe that people can understand each other and that that material is within my ability to understand, but I'm not going to have anything unique or profound to say about that because it's just not my personal experience. I think it was a lot of a balancing act to try and find the places where I could be authentic in writing from a man's point of view, in writing about characters who had Jewish backgrounds. As a fiction writer you can't only write about people who are exactly like yourself, or you would have an extraordinarily small cast. You would have one person who is an idealized image of just yourself.

I think you kind of saw some of that between Vera and Judith, where Vera was looking up to Judith and asking her these questions that Judith was perhaps not really prepared to answer because she was struggling with some of them herself. This idea that we're not all completely settled on our identities or our past.

Exactly, and that they're very much in progress, and that everyone is sort of cobbling them together from whatever happened to be at hand for them. I think that that's very true of my own experience, anyway.

You have two kids, is that right? How do you make writing happen? It's tough, especially for women, I know, often times, who get the brunt of caregiving in the house, no matter how equitable the relationship, so how do you make that happen?

How do I make it happen? Right now it's as scrunched as I think it's ever going to be. I actually wrote the first draft of Dear Fang when I was pregnant with baby number two, and even before then, I wrote it basically the year before selling The Girls from Corona Del Mar and The Girls from Corona Del Mar came out, and then I spent about a year revising it and rewriting it, and it substantially changed. Then I think I got the manuscript in final edits for this book right before giving birth to my second, who's now almost one. For the past year, really, we had a move across country and then I've been doing publicity stuff and edits, and this kind of work.

I started the next book, but I'm really only 60 pages in and I'm doing just a ton of reading and notes and I'm not producing polished pages every day, and it makes me a little bit insane, but it's also doing something kind of interesting to be book because not being allowed to write it, it's not getting smaller and smaller, it's getting bigger and bigger in my head. Maybe being forced to hurry slowly will kind of pay off in the end. Right now my elder son goes to preschool and my little one has a morning nap, and that is my productive time, is those two hours. You can actually get a lot done in two hours if you're desperate. I try and do my emailing or my other stuff and times when he's awake and playing on the floor or something and save those two hours for whatever I'm most desperately trying to get done.

I think that by the time he's two then he'll be in some kind of nursery school of something, and then my mornings will really open back up again. The main thing right now is that I'm not teaching, and that's kind of a calculated risk that we're taking right now to try and launch my career and make sure that I have time to write a third book, but also because the kids are only little once and it's hard to not want to spend time with them.

It's pretty fun, at that age.

It's pretty fun. It's not fun when you feel like you're losing part of your adult identity or when you don't have time to shower, when you're just feeling frazzled, and that can happen sometimes, but if you can find the balance…I feel like I can see a golden world here I get to pick everybody up and two in the afternoon and then just spend all afternoon in kid world, but that I still have this sacred adult time in the morning, so I'm just trying to work towards that.

What are you reading now?

What am I reading? Right now I'm reading Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. It's really good. Have you read it?


It just came out. It's about this family…it's kind of a big family drama. It reminded me a lot of Ann Packer's latest. It's about a family where the father is extremely clinically depressed and then winds up killing himself, and then it's about the children as adults. It's an intensely weird book and I love it when books are weird.

How do you feel about the push towards more plot driven, I would even say Hollywood influenced works, these days? It seems to be that's the general movement in literature these days.

I think that I'm kind of squarely in between commercial and literary concerns and affiliations. Commercial people always consider me so literary, and for literary people I'm never literary enough. I studied with a writer who was very much a commercial writer, did a lot of ghost writing, and I learned a lot of craft, and the idea of pay-off scenes, and a lot of screen writing-y type strategies, and I really like them. I think it's really important, as a writer, to be worried about whether or not your reader is enjoying it and having a good time and it with you. I think that ultimately, all those tricks are just designed to make sure that the reader is engaged. I don't think that there's any reason why being meaningful also has to mean being boring. Being interesting seems to me to be the goal. I also think that you just have to write what's interesting to you, and it's possible that my own personal proclivities really place me where I am, and if I had a longer attention span my books would be more boring, or something like this.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't mind it. The books that I read that I'm obsessed with and that I consider the novelists that I wish I could grow up to be, like Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Strout, Jane Smiley, they're all best sellers because they're incredibly readable, but they all are saying deep things, and they all, actually universally, have an amazing ability to create memorable characters. If that's what we mean by Hollywood writing, is writers like that, then I'm like, "Yes, bring it on. More of it," but it's just sort of like…I have a harder time with books that turn on a trick.

Like Gone Girl. I think the writing was so good and I like all her books, honestly, but I couldn't handle the end. It lost me because it felt too much like playing a trick on the reader.