Conditions of Creativity: Rebecca Handler and Vendela Vida in Conversation

August 6, 2021   •   By Rebecca Handler, Vendela Vida

REBECCA HANDLER IS a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Her stories have been published in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly. Edie Richter is Not Alone (2021) is her debut novel — of which, in a starred review, Booklist writes, “Handler’s Edie has joined the ranks of unforgettably eccentric, intelligent women protagonists.” A Kirkus starred review calls it a “tragicomic exploration of the collateral damage of Alzheimer’s disease. […] Handler gets it right from the title on out. Edie is definitely not alone.”

Vendela Vida is the award-winning author of six books, including We Run the Tides (2021), The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (2015), and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2008). She is a founding editor of The Believer magazine, and co-editor of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (2008). She was a founding board member of 826 Valencia, the San Francisco writing center for youth, and lives in the Bay Area with her family. Author photo by Lili Peper.

In this conversation, conducted via email in June, the two writers discuss their working methods, the power of setting in fiction, the importance of endings, and the need to find space to write.

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VENDELA VIDA: How do you know when you’re writing something funny?

REBECCA HANDLER: I’m always looking for the humor in day-to-day life, so I jot a lot of things down when they strike me as funny. For instance, yesterday I overheard someone use the word “necrophilia” when they meant to say “necrosis.” I thought this was hilarious and wrote it down to use at a later date. And then, as I’m writing, I always read my work aloud to myself before I show it to anyone. If I still find something funny after reading it a hundred times, then I feel pretty confident other people might laugh. I’m curious what you do. Do you have a laugh-o-meter that you run everything through? And when do you first show your work to anyone else?

VV: I love that you write down funny experiences when they happen. I used to have a really good memory and trusted myself to remember anything important, but that no longer seems to be the case. When I’m deep in the writing process I write very early in the mornings, and I generally think that things that amuse me then will be amusing to others later — but sometimes I just realize later that I had too much coffee. My husband is my first reader, and I’ll admit that sometimes, after I give him a draft, I pretend to close the door and occupy myself with something else — dusting? — while he’s reading, but I’m just listening to whether he’s laughing or not. Luckily, he’s an easy laugh. But in general, it’s strange, isn’t it? As a writer, you don’t typically have an audience, unless you’re doing readings — and this, as we know, has been a year without live readings. And without a live audience it can be hard to tell whether something’s funny or not.

Let’s talk about settings in novels. Your book is set in San Francisco and Australia. Why Perth?

RH: The short answer is that I lived in Perth for four years and so the inspiration was right outside. The longer answer is that I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog cities. The Sacramentos and the Pittsburghs of the world. I like the idea of highlighting a place not seen so much in novels or on screen. Sydney and Melbourne are both spectacularly beautiful and famous cities, and I would be happy living in either place. But the most handsome man in the room is not always the most interesting to me. Perth is a quiet, spacious city with white sand beaches and jellyfish, and green parks with snake warning signs. I was attracted to the juxtaposition of natural beauty and the terror that lies beneath. This intersection happened to work perfectly for my protagonist, who is wrestling with demons while trying to preserve her stoic and reserved demeanor.

San Francisco is represented in both of our novels, but it’s more of a character in your new book. I love how in We Run the Tides you so perfectly depict 1980s San Francisco — it brought back so many memories for me, like buying stacked silver bracelets on Haight Street. I got my ears pierced on Haight Street!

When selecting a book to read, do you think about where it takes place, and if so, does that make a difference in your choice? And tell me your secret to writing landscape. You write settings so well. In The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, I felt like I traveled to Casablanca.

VV: Ha! I love your comparison of handsome men and cities. I seek out books that take place in Japan and Greece, because I have yet to travel to either of those countries, and I would probably read any book set in Lisbon or Stockholm, two of my favorite cities. When I travel and have an intention of someday writing about a place, I take photos of very random things: menus, teenagers outside train stations, shower curtains, trees, deserted streets, unusual things in local grocery stores. I used to take photos of pages from phone books to get ideas for character names, but phone books are not so easy to find anymore. I also always write down smells because sometimes just the description of a scent will take me back. For example, when I was in Casablanca, I took note of what certain rugs smelled like in the markets — like sour heat, like clothes that have just been removed from a dryer after remaining wet for too long — and that description ended up in The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.

While I do love writing and reading books set in foreign places, I did notice a change in my reading patterns during the pandemic. I found myself gravitating toward books in which the character spends time in someone else’s house. Maybe that’s because, during COVID, going into someone else’s house was foreign and taboo. So, I’m thinking of Edie, in your novel, who gets a little too comfortable in her neighbor’s home when her neighbor’s away (those are some great, comic scenes!), and I’m also thinking of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind (2020), in which a family rents a vacation house only to have the owners show up. I also read and admired Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020) and Sanaë Lemoine’s The Margot Affair (2020), both of which have young female protagonists who go to stay with slightly older couples in their homes. There should be a word for this — something between voyeurism and home invasion.

I’m curious: what kind of books have you gravitated toward in the last 15 months?

RH: At the start of the pandemic, when I wasn’t staring out the window in disbelief, I reached for some comfort reading. The All-of-a-Kind Family series (1951–’78) by Sydney Taylor, anything by Lydia Davis, and An Everlasting Meal (2011) by Tamar Adler, a book I try to have nearby because I can open to a random page and her words always make me feel better. Once I settled into life in quarantine, I started spending all my money at my neighborhood bookstore, Green Apple Books. Some of my favorites have been Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi, The Friend (2018) by Sigrid Nunez, Murakami’s new story collection, and an older nonfiction book called Composing a Life (1989) by Mary Catherine Bateson. If I had to make the ridiculously impossible choice between character and plot, I’d go with character. I read to meet new people.

I want to ask you a question without spoiling We Run the Tides, so I’m going to be careful here. I found the ending of the book to be one of the best I’ve ever read. Did you know how the story would end when you began writing the novel? Or did you play with several scenarios? And in the interest of not spoiling anything, feel free to talk more broadly about endings. Do you like surprising your reader? Do you have a favorite ending to a book you’ve enjoyed?

VV: Thank you for that. What became the real ending of We Run the Tides, when the plot jumps forward to the present day, came pretty late in the process. The rest of the book sat, more or less finished. But then, while it sat, with the paint drying, I was rereading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) and admiring the way she sometimes leaps ahead in time by a couple years and I realized I wasn’t done with my characters. I wanted to show how much the girls changed as they entered middle age, but also how much some people don’t ever truly outgrow the habit of living in a fabricated world.

I don’t know if I like surprising readers with endings — it’s more that I want to give a feeling of some sort of lift-off right at the end of a book. That sense you feel when the wheels of a plane tuck up and your heart leaps. That’s always the sensation I’m aiming for when approaching the final sentences.

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992) has one of my favorite endings. The last paragraph of the final story, “Beverly Home,” which is about the main character — Fuckhead, thank you very much — working at a hospital for the aged. The ending goes like this: “All those weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”

Speaking of finding one’s place in the world and not being alone, how did you come up with your title, Edie Richter is Not Alone?

RH: I love the image of a plane’s wheels retracting. Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last (2015) has an ending like that and I think of it often. Edie Richter is Not Alone ends with possibility without spoon-feeding anyone. It’s been fun talking to readers and hearing how they interpreted the ending. It reminds me that, although writing a book is a solitary endeavor, once it’s out in the world it belongs to everyone.

And funny enough, the original working title to my novel was You Belong to Everyone. The story has the main character wrestling with the concept that, although we have free will and operate independently, we are ultimately linked and responsible for each other. Edie has spent her life putting up walls, but this only works for so long. Once I had a final manuscript, however, I wanted to be more specific, given that the book is a character study. I loved Edie and wanted to pay tribute to her journey. There are several ways of interpreting why and how she is not alone, and again that’s been fun to discuss with readers.

I’ve been dying to ask you something, as a talented writer who is also a mother and someone with a busy life. Have you read Daily Rituals (2013) by Mason Currey? It takes you through more than 100 artists throughout history and explains what they did every day to help inspire creativity. What Beethoven had for breakfast (coffee), and how Gershwin worked more than 12 hours per day, that sort of thing. It’s about the conditions of creativity, rather than the product. It’s a fascinating read, but it also made me feel slightly miffed. The book depicts mostly male artists who sound like their only job was to produce art. Nabokov worked until dinner, and I have a feeling he didn’t stop to prep the casserole. I want to ask you about balance, but that’s such an over-used, boring question. So, I’m going to ask about boundaries. Do you have set times you write and set times you do everything else? Do you try and get away when you are on deadline? Does your family deliver you breakfast in bed every morning like James Joyce?

VV: Well, I think your title really fits because reading, for me, is an act of realizing you’re not alone. Books helped me so much when I was a teenager in particular and felt, well, isolated. Imagine that: a teenager who felt she was the only one in the history of the world experiencing certain emotions. For me, your character’s name also had distant echoes of Edie (1982), the oral history by George Plimpton and Jean Stein that, to this day, I find incredible. It works so well as an oral history because it shows how everyone projected their needs and desires onto Edie Sedgwick.

I haven’t read Daily Rituals, but you sell it well. But how come I don’t get breakfast in bed to fuel my creative process? Does that mean my family sucks? I have to take that under consideration. As for boundaries, I’m always setting new boundaries for myself. Sometimes I use word counts — I make myself write a certain number of words a day — but what works most consistently when I’m deep into a book is waking up early before anyone else gets up, and before I’ve received emails or phone calls. I never mind being tired later in the day if I’m tired for a reason, and having written always feels like a good reason.

What about you? What sort of boundaries did you set for yourself when writing this novel?

RH: I wrote the first draft of Edie Richter is Not Alone at my local library in Perth. I had some rituals that quickly became superstitions. I’d bring an iced latte, a water bottle, almonds, raisins, and one hardboiled egg. I’d listen to Bon Iver and stretch every hour. I would only answer my phone if it was my children’s school. Did all of this help Edie come to life? Probably not. But it helped me with self-discipline, and to create a space where all I needed to do was write this novel. When I write at home, I inevitably find myself putting in a load of laundry or chopping onions for a stew. Now, in San Francisco, I rent an office close to home, but far enough away where I can’t do laundry. I have an electric kettle and when I turn that on, it’s time to write. I think I need word-count goals. You are inspiring me!

I have two teenaged daughters that most of the time don’t need me at all, but occasionally need me. I’m happy to pause for those two. Beyond that, however, everyone else in my life knows that, when I’m writing, I’m in my happy place and it’s best to leave me alone. I have a tendency to take on too much, so I’m trying to prioritize writing and be okay with disappointing people.

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Rebecca Handler is a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly. Edie Richter is Not Alone (2021) is her debut novel.

Vendela Vida is the award-winning author of six books, including We Run the Tides, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. She is a founding editor of The Believer magazine, and co-editor of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. She was a founding board member of 826 Valencia, the San Francisco writing center for youth, and lives in the Bay Area with her family.