JR: I was once a buyer at Bookazine and now I work in sales. I bought FSG, Rizzoli, Holt, and Houghton Mifflin. A few years ago the rep for HM was presenting the new list, and this title Drift shot off the page and I asked for a manuscript, which met with a long stare. I started tearing through Drift, a wonderful and powerfully written collection of short stories from Victoria Patterson. The collection went on to be nominated for The Story Prize. This book didn’t have the highest expectations, and I remember telling people about it, but with collections, it certainly goes with the territory. I started writing blog entries on the stories as I read them, and was absolutely knocked down by how good this collection is. Victoria Patterson is a fine writer, and someone that I greatly admire. Her talents are on display in her new novel, This Vacant Paradise, pubbing 3/11. Over the years Victoria has been a positive and wise advocate of the Three Guys Blog, and a great friend. We’re thrilled to have her here at the blog, where she’ll be giving us a column once a month (she was the first writer to solicit us with her own When We Fell In Love essay). In the meantime here is an interview she did with Jane Vandenburgh.
Jane Vandenburgh and the Hypothetical Fifteen-Year-Old Girl
“When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong—it wouldn’t even have kept anybody awake…I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said to me was, ‘You don’t have to write for fifteen-year-old girls.’”
–letter 3/10/56 Flannery O’Connor
Jane Vandenburgh is the author of the novels Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, as well as the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century. Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook was published September, 2010.
We met at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April 2010. Her husband Jack Shoemaker is the editor of my forthcoming novel This Vacant Paradise with Counterpoint Press.
VP: I got in trouble with my family for writing Drift—well, not for writing it but for getting published. Lately, I’ve been worrying about my novel’s publication, including my insecurity about the writing itself. And, much to my frustration, I found myself recently apologizing to my dad for my novel pre-publication, regarding the sex in it.
JV: I’ve never been secure either except in the secret place where I keep my writing self, that something that somehow knows—and who knows how? —what is and isn’t excellent. By excellent I mean only true. I simply have to work away until I get my writing to exist in at least the vicinity of the truth, otherwise it won’t continue to interest me.
But that box of unease and anxiety has also become smaller since I’ve grown a little older. Jack says women hit their Fuck You Period at around 50 or so—what a relief to realize you honestly no longer care whether you’re voted Miss Congeniality.
Still it may be true that women, particularly mothers—as you and I both are—must operate in a way that is more dependent upon society’s support. It’s when we have kids that we become truly reliant upon those cork nets that society tosses out that are intended to keep our children and us from drowning. So maybe we, as a class of people— and by “we” I mean those of us who are moms—do simply need society’s approval more than other people do. And one quick way to lose said approval—as I witnessed with my own mom—is to be all the time needing to say the outrageous thing. My mother specialized in being outré, in uttering the true but unpopular thing. She also ended up losing custody of her kids when she was locked up in a mental institution.
VP: While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the negative reactions to Drift, it bothered me that the complaints seemed to infer that I shouldn’t write about unflattering, gritty topics—especially as a woman writer. A couple of reading groups “dis-invited” me. And I’d been asked to speak as part of a fundraiser, only to be discouraged later from coming, when they finally took a look at the book. What in your writing do you think is considered unpopular—or risky?
JV: What I’ve always wanted to say that is perhaps unpopular—as this is one of the great truths whose utterance goes in and out of fashion—is that female sexuality actually IS different from a man’s. It’s bound up in biology, in temporality, in our mortality and our ability to be generative. It also exists in context, referencing issues of emotional and physical and psychological bonds and the need for safety. What I mean is that our sexuality is vastly more complicated than a man’s, which is more simple and direct, but by simple I ardently do not mean either flat or one-dimensional.
And writing graphically about sex is difficult, because it becomes so quickly emotional, in that it makes you the writer feel things even as you’re making your reader feel things too. The writing itself also gets so easily gaudy or purple or cartoonish. It’s hard to tell the truth. You sit down to try to write about sex and you—I mean me—will instantly begin to reveal yourself, what each of us thinks about our own human bodies and those of other human beings and what this spiritual and physical and emotional connection is and isn’t made of.
And you and I are each trying to write about sexuality in the harsh light of day, that is, honestly, realistically, writing into the face of the received wisdom to say what it actually is and not what it purports to be.
It reminds me of that Flannery O’Connor quote I sent you about writing for fifteen-year-old girls. And then there’s this as well: Ulysses couldn’t be published in the US from 1922 until 1933 because some youngish female person (described as an unnamed “girl” of unknown age) had read a chapter in a little magazine and was upset by it. The courts found it to be “obscene,” the “product of a deranged mind…” (who upsets fifteen-year-old girls…. but who ARE these people, Tory! at fifteen I knew all kinds of things, didn’t you?) Judge Wolcott’s New York district court 1933 decision was bound into the Random House edition I read in grad school.
VP: Tell me more about the received wisdom?
JV: The received wisdom is—I believe—just as tyrannically wrong as it’s ever been. A woman’s sexuality is so often used by a misogynist society to accuse her of her inferiority, which serves to subjugate her. Sex and the City? the kitty-cat, almost childish sexiness of that show strikes me as just such horseshit. This is where the bodice-ripper has gone, no doubt, women in cute designer outfits eating, drinking, talking about shoes, waiting in their shallow and venal way for Mr. Right to show up to actualize their lives while they carry on achieving multiple orgasms with Mr. Wrong. Which might be harmless enough except that it commodifies all aspects of these characters’ existences.
What it does say that is honest—I think—is that our sexuality is defined socially, that it is at least informed by Group Think, the degree to which we are social creatures. And that American society is—as ever—almost astonishingly conformist. Added to this is that rapidity with which the manners and mores to which we’re required to conform are almost as mutable as fashion—it makes it hard to keep up.
Group Think—when I was a kid—said sex for women outside of marriage was (morally) wrong. Only Protestant white guys over six feet tall got to have sex whenever they wanted, as long as this was heterosexual sex—witness Mad Men, which is one great show. Society criminalized my dad’s being whatever degree or variety of gay he was, and I knew that to be horseshit because my mother told me it was horseshit. And while my mom was crazy she was hardly ever wrong.
So I was born into a world that said—as a matter of our Calvinist inheritance—that we had to deny our human desires, then came the hippy days and poof! we were supposed to instantly get over that. Now a girl was supposed to be enslaved to her wanton desires, which we were being told were natural. Sexuality had morphed into this untarnished moral good, which was also horseshit.
Fucking various men was now supposed to have become this political act—we now could act out sexually or use our sexuality to stick it to The Man, whatever, which benefited men even as it actually harmed women by trivializing the complexities. It was confusing: I’d be thinking: But I don’t want to go to bed with you, and not because I’m particularly hung up. It’s because you’re not really that attractive.
So maybe my work has tried to be about what girls and women feel in these moments when they find themselves at those specific junctures, where they are changing or society is changing the rules on them. I’m just vastly interested in what I think of as speech acts, in finding out what it’s possible to say because what we are and are not allowed to say does change what we think and feel and do.
I believe human sexuality to have everything to do with balancing power and powerlessness. I’m interested in all this politically, interested in that particular existential edge, where we become alert to all the subtle manifestations of conflict between peoples of various classes, castes, races, genders, peoples, ethnicities.
I’m not particularly interested in what sex is supposed to be like according to the current fashion. I’m interested in what feels real, what words can be used to describe textures, the inside-outside way the human body feels in moments of profound intimacy.
It is the writers who must get at this particular intimacy; we’re the ones who depict all the many subtle varieties of intercourse, the speaking or not speaking, the touching or not being able to touch. It is in Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or John Updike or Gore Vidal that I’ve gone to find enlightenment. My theory about why women haven’t written a deep literature of female sexuality is that they’ve been too caught up in the received wisdom of society’s expectations. We’ve also been too busy getting our kids’ lunches packed and them off to school on time. And up until the 20th century we would just too regularly have died in childbirth or lost a child or be actually worked to death.
Which is why so many of our best women writers have been one or another variety of maiden: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Willa Cather. So writing about female sexuality from an adult, post-kid perspective may still be a little bit new. It’s challenging, also interesting. But it’s shocking that the things you and I are saying, Tory, are still shocking, no?
VP: My work is influenced by my family of origin—the alcoholism, depression, suicides, the focus on money, the politics and religion, so forth —and I somehow have lingering guilt for having a somewhat healthy life—for not imploding.
JV: The healthy life! God, such an important topic! Because we—as novelists—need to lead the organized, coherent life in order to write in the way we must, as these are the demands of writing books. The length of a novel will all but demand a bourgeoisified existence. A good book takes stability, quiet, sobriety, as well as years and years of toil.
You and I also have the experience of emerging only partially scathed from profoundly messed-up families, which is probably what shaped us to become the writers we’ve become.
And we’ve needed to do something about that guilt—in my case this is pure raw survivor’s guilt, that cosmic why of how come I get to have the life I have, that I escaped that profound unhappiness, when my little brother did not. My brother George—like Eric in your novel—was a homeless alcoholic. He killed himself almost exactly a year ago.
How come he drew that existence while I…? how sad and lonely this kind of inquiry will make you in the dead of night.
My own happiness used to feel like disloyalty. I’d simultaneously think two exactly conflicting things: that I was both the most sane and stable member of my natal family, and also, concurrently, that I didn’t have the slightest idea who the fuck I was. Coming from the family I did, I believed my sanity to be dishonest. Being sane had this mediocritizing and frightened effect on me. I thought the rest of my family were all just so much better at everything than I was, so much better, at least, at being fuck-ups. I was a failure even at failing.
And because I have so little respect for the society that despised them, the failures in my family seemed somehow more honorable and attractive, even inspirational than normal people—my spectacularly brilliant and crazy mom? my elegantly messed up dad with his passionate sexual confusions? I just wasn’t much interested in succeeding in the world that had rejected them. Their Republican families seemed like The Textbook Elect, in that their own Personal White Person’s God had rewarded all these tall white emotionally frozen people with this great showing forth of His love and favor, this abundance of wealth and power and height and beauty, as well as Southern California real estate.
VP: There are parallels to our lives and to our work. Do you think Jack was aware of that when he took my novel?
JV: He mentioned he had this new writer, a woman, a novelist, who’d grown up in Newport Beach, whose work reminded him of mine, in that she was serious and knew about both wealth and poverty. And he kept trying to shove this book of stories at me, and I’d be like, Sure, sure, that’s nice, Honey. My tone was probably dismissive.
And I am equally certain, Tory, that my basic reluctance had to do with the same old crap that plagues the intellectual powerhouses of The East, our society’s profound misogyny, that it infects women as it does men, saying girls such as you and I—those who’ve grown up in the Vacant Paradise you so brilliantly describe—cannot possibly be thinking about our society’s very interesting conflicts, at least not profoundly.
And—as we’ve discussed—you and I look so, well, normal. We look like women who drive the carpool because we have, we do, we will. We don’t necessarily seem like people who are ambitious, driven, discerning, as this has never been expected of people like you and me. But it’s actually important in that our Southern California-ness, this laid back, warm and open aspect is what has allowed you and me to come and go unnoticed, to both survive and even prosper behind enemy lines.