VICTORIA PATTERSON'S energetic fiction is populated by women with desires and ambitions unwelcome in their families and communities. When her characters follow their minds they are locked in closets, thrown out of their homes, ridiculed, abused and exiled. They persevere with dignity; sometimes they prevail. Patterson’s gripping new novel, The Peerless Four, follows four of the first women athletes to participate in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam and their chaperone and coaches, all of whom suffer the misogyny of the public and the press for daring to compete at the highest level of sports. The Olympic Games, according to the Toronto Star and almost every other guardian of culture, “must be reserved for the solemn and periodic manifestation of male athleticism.” Patterson, a novelist, short story writer and essayist, has lived in South Pasadena for close to 20 years. We met for coffee on Colorado Boulevard, and talked about The Peerless Four and the book she’s writing now. Like a character in one of her own novels, Patterson was quick to laugh, intense and irreverent.
SAMANTHA PEALE: Where did The Peerless Four come from?
VICTORIA PATTERSON: I read a comic by David Collier about the Canadian high jumper Ethel Catherwood, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She won two gold medals in the 1928 Olympics and became a media darling because of her good looks; after that she took on the life of a recluse. There were reports that she sicced her dogs on some reporters, threw away her medals, and, when Hollywood courted her, she told them to fuck off. I wanted to know what happened to her.
I started reading about Catherwood’s fellow athletes, and, from there, about women in sports. Because I’d grown up with Title IX benefits, I was so naïve. I had no idea how women had struggled just to be allowed on the field.
SP: So you’re not much of an athlete yourself. You didn’t grow up idolizing athletes.
VP: I played tennis competitively for years, but mostly because my mom wanted me to be a professional tennis player. She still brings it up. I quit the tennis team my sophomore year of college and haven’t really played since. I don’t miss it.
Neither did I have any sports heroes or idols, and I think that was more of a reaction against my family. I turned against it. I remember hearing my family talk disparagingly about Martina Navratilova because she wasn’t as attractive and feminine as Chris Evert, who they loved.
SP: Would you describe your research?
VP: I’m a sucker for a good sports story. Sports and narrative are intertwined, and I let myself go anywhere I wanted, which meant a lot of documentaries and movies and television shows, which I often watched with my teenage sons — Hoosiers, Friday Night Lights, Hoop Dreams, The Bad News Bears, Personal Best, Chariots of Fire. We watched the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated a couple of times.
With literature, I read the classics, but I also read sports biographies and essays.
SP: And your imagination was stoked?
VP: Frank Bascombe, the failed novelist and narrator of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter, says, “If sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret.” Give me a character dealing with terrible, searing regret, and I’m hooked. Also there’s passion and delusion, frailty, strength, fanaticism, duplicitousness, destiny, luck, losing, winning, vanity, aging, hope, beauty, resilience, fandom, toughness, courage, loyalty, nationalism, politics, racism, class, and sexism.
Sports are central to American life, and have been used throughout literature, from classics such as The Old Man and the Sea to Deliverance. Even Fitzgerald used golf to expose the dishonesty of Nick Carraway’s girlfriend in Gatsby, as well as Gatsby’s peripheral involvement with the Black Sox World Series scandal of 1919.
SP: None of which featured women.
VP: The more I read, the more I wondered, “Where are the women? Not just as writers, but also as subjects?” While I appreciate Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, published in 1999, it’s impossible for me to ignore that only one of its 59 articles is penned by a woman and that none have a female athlete as the main subject.
Over and over, I wondered why so few of the classics are by women or about women. Philip Roth, John Updike, Richard Ford, David Foster Wallace, Thom Jones, Norman Mailer, Leonard Gardner, Frederick Exley, to name a few. A quasi-exception is Don DeLillo's Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, which he wrote, or wrote most of, under the name Cleo Birdwell. His co-author was Sue Buck. This is lighthearted DeLillo, from 1980, before he gained a wide readership and critical acclaim with White Noise. DeLillo has tried to suppress his authorship of the book. Ever since the paperback went out of print in the mid-1980s he has not allowed the book to be republished.
I appreciated the almost whimsical, mythological feel of some of the novels, like Malamud’s The Natural and Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. I included a myth-like story within my novel, about a female Iroquois lacrosse player, Onata Green.
I also wanted my novel to have a big feel, a philosophical feel. My favorite sports narratives are the more meditative ones, so I chose to make my novel a meditation on sports and life and relationships.
SP: Aside from Catherwood, are the characters patterned after historical athletes and coaches?
VP: Hilary Mantel said, “Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.”
There wasn’t a lot out there to draw on. I had to make up quite a bit. I did, however, stick close to the actual events of the 1928 Olympics.
SP: After two books set in present day California, Drift and This Vacant Paradise, did you like writing about the past?
VP: It did feel good to leave contemporary Newport Beach for historic Toronto and Amsterdam. To test myself as a writer and try something new. It was important to me that the pacing and the narrative fit the time instead of feeling modern. While I wrote, I only read books written during the 1920s and ’30s to ensure that my writing had a sense of the period.
SP: You have been called the Edith Wharton of Orange County, where both Drift and This Vacant Paradise were set. What is your relationship to Orange County now?
VP: It’s complex. My mother still lives in Newport Beach, and when I visit her, I’m struck by the beauty of the area, and all the reasons that I love it, especially the ocean. But then I’ll hear something or read something, say about how a privately funded statue of Ronald Reagan has been installed in a public park, even though it’s a park and shouldn’t be used for political purposes and statements, and I’ll remember why I write about the area, and why I left.
My family is English, Scottish, a sprinkling of Irish, some of them emigrated from Indiana, I believe. Very Wasp, Puritans, with each generation less religious, until the born-again Christians made up for it in the eighties. Roots in Whittier, California, a street named after Washington Hadley, one of the banking patriarchs of our clan. We moved around when I was growing up, for the steel company my dad worked for, and we lived in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Waco, Texas, before we moved to California to stay, when I was in the 2nd grade. Yorba Linda until my parents divorced, and then Newport Beach by 7th grade, until I completed high school.
My grandparents built a home in Newport the same year I was born, and we visited often when I was a kid, before we moved there, and then we lived walking distance. That home is long gone, but it’s where I had the most stability in my life, and I still dream about it. The owner of the Angels bought it years ago and tore it down, and built a monstrosity in its place.
Newport Beach is a part of me, whether I like it or not.
SP: You've written about patronizing sports casters and female athletes’ struggle for equality. With The Peerless Four do you aim to right wrongs or level the playing field?
VP: Oh, man. I don’t even know how to answer that. Maybe shine a spotlight on the wrongs. But I wasn’t aiming to right wrongs or level the playing field. I don’t think I have that power.
SP: You have a habit of speaking up for underdogs or people who can’t defend themselves. You criticized Jonathan Franzen for slighting Edith Wharton and her masculine looks in the New Yorker, and you also wrote about New Orleanian Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who Dave Eggers made into a hero in his best-selling nonfiction book Zeitoun. Zeitoun is a Syrian-American who spent 23 days in jail, wrongly accused of terrorist activity, after his post-Katrina heroics. You felt it important to note, when Zeitoun was arrested for assaulting his wife with a tire iron, that Eggers’ protagonist had “walked off the page, without a political and moral agenda, borderless and uncontainable.”
VP: I’m not a particularly angry or activist-type person, but I have a low bullshit threshold. Not just for men, though they seem to get the attention, and have that cultural power.
Zeitoun is still being assigned at schools for reading. This guy was made a hero. It’s wrong.
As a writer, Eggers taught me a lesson. Try not to simplify complexity or whitewash in my work for my own moral agenda. I call it, “Pulling a Zeitoun.”
SP: How do your books begin?
VP: I don’t know! They begin and then I throw away what I wrote and try again. And then after a while, something begins to accumulate, but I might have to trash it and then begin again. All of this is accompanied by a lot of note taking and observation and tons of reading.
SP: Your protagonists are often reluctant pioneers, they are the first in their family or community or in history to step out of an accepted role, to the chagrin of their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
VP: It’s a visibility problem — not being seen or heard. This drives me crazy. For me to go back to late 1800s and early 1900s and imagine what it was like to be a woman then, I imagine all the restrictions placed upon women, and what that might have been like. God, I love being able to wear pants. I can’t imagine having to be in a girdle or corset.
My narrator Mel loves men. She doesn’t want to cause trouble. She just can’t seem to fit in with the world as it’s been presented to her, with what is acceptable and unacceptable, and how she’s supposed to be.
What I loved about my research is learning about all these women who did things even as they were told not to — they went ahead and did what they wanted anyhow. It takes courage. I was inspired by these women, which is why I included a list of their feats at the end of my novel. They’re everywhere, footnotes to history, stories that need to be told.
Women of a certain age become more and more invisible. Jane Campion said in an interview that, as women become deemed by society as unfuckable, they disappear from representation. I’ve always been interested in people on the periphery.
SP: Would you say more about Mel, the narrator of The Peerless Four? She’s unusual for her time, and I think we would still find her uncommon today.
VP: Mel’s not looking for validation outside herself. She’s old enough to be off the radar with men, but she doesn’t mind. A former runner sidelined from exercise by doctors’ orders, now chaperoning the women’s Olympic team, she likes to drink and smoke, and she’s ambitious, though there’s really nowhere to point her ambition.
Mel gave me my way in, because she’s both an insider and an outsider. I recognized her first while looking at old photographs of women’s Olympic teams, and noticing, off to the side of one photo, a chaperone standing beside the athletes, not named in the caption. A side player, anonymous to history.
SP: Is it an artistic or political impulse that drives you to write about women that are not being seen or heard? Or is it something else?
VP: I grew up in a very patriarchal family. Both my father and brother were Promise Keepers. My grandfather used to give the women in our family a list of whom we were to vote for during elections. I read and wrote to make sense of how I belonged, to figure out who I was, and how to survive. I still do.
SP: Which other authors figure in your development?
VP: Edith Wharton. That’s why Franzen’s New Yorker piece undid me. Henry James, Richard Yates, Andre Dubus. I’ve been reading Willa Cather and Evelyn Waugh. Lately, I’ve read recent books by Ruth Ozeki, Meg Wolitzer, Claire Messud, Adelle Waldman, Jane Vandenburgh, Veronica Gonzalez-Peña, Christina Schwarz, Elena Ferrante, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
SP: Do you work regularly, every morning, say?
VP: I’m a compulsive writer — I probably write every day more than not. I carry a Moleskin in my purse and write while waiting to get my car smog-check, in doctors’ offices, during kids’ sporting events. I’m always sort of at it.
But when my kids were young, I couldn’t work at home, even when they weren’t there. I couldn’t concentrate. They were all around me in the feel of our house, and the chores were unending, so that I’d end up not writing and thinking about them, or my writing would be of the journal variety, again about them.
Now that my kids are older and at school for long hours I write at home. I’m adaptable — in that I’ve learned to write in the mornings if that’s what I have, even though I’m not a morning person.
SP: You've written about your distaste for social media. You are not on Facebook or Twitter. Do you have any concern that your work might be more widely read if only you’d join the masses?
VP: When Drift was published in 2009, I was pressured to join Facebook and get that “platform” we writers hear so much about, and after some awkward attempts at social media, I rejected the entire social media platform deal entirely, never to look back, and I don’t have any regrets — at least not so far.
In my opinion, the ego-seeking, voyeuristic, self-centered nature of Twitter and Facebook are anathema to what I’m trying to do as a writer — to observe and go deeper, which requires privacy and loads of concentration.
It bothers me that babies and children can’t speak up and say, “Leave me alone — stop tweeting about me and posting cute photos of me. You’re invading my privacy and using me as a prop or an accessory for your own ego-feeding needs and I don’t like it!” It’s disrespectful, to exploit your kids for some image you want to portray. Will they even get a chance to know what it means to have a private world?
SP: What about a community of writers that gathers, so to speak, online? Do you think that’s for real?
VP: If you’re going to know me, it’s going to be in real life, not online.
I’m fortunate to have been in a writers group for a number of years with Dana Johnson, Veronica Gonzalez-Peña, and Danzy Senna. That’s the closest I’ve had to a community of writers. There are also writers who’ve been supportive of me and helped me, generous writers like Michelle Huneven, Alice Elliott Dark, Jane Vandenburgh, Donald Ray Pollock, and others. I hope to be like that — I don’t want to be a cipher of solitude. I try to help other writers. It’s important to me.
Yet writing is a lonely craft. You have to be alone. A lot. As much as possible.
SP: How, then, do you think of your audience?
VP: That’s a tricky question. I try to tell a really good story, where the audience wants to know what happens, and thus will continue to read. But honestly, as a woman, I do feel like I’m susceptible to another audience — one that I try my best to ignore — that tells me my work is too dark, contrarian, unlikeable, ugly, sexual, etc. I’ve been fighting that audience most of my life. It’s that Miss Congeniality thing. So maybe I do write for that audience as well — with somewhat of a raised middle finger in mind.
SP: You were a finalist for the Story Prize in 2009. After the ceremony at The New School, The New Yorker profiled you in their Book Bench blog, not the winner. They fell in love with you, and said so.
VP: That New Yorker profile was a boon. When the prizewinner arrived late at the book signing, he was quick to compliment my fellow male finalist, letting him know that he’d read his work and how much he admired it, and then hearty compliments were exchanged between them. And then a great stifling silence as both the winner and my fellow finalist stared at me, and I realized that it wasn’t that they didn’t like my work — they hadn’t read it. Both were good writers. I’d read their books, of course. To say that I was the underdog at that event would be putting it mildly. So to have The New Yorker post that piece about me was really lovely.
After the ceremony, the maintenance guy, the one who helped us put our microphones on, he came over to me and said, “If it’s any consolation, I was rooting for you, since you’re the only one that was nice to me and talked to me,” and that made me happy.
SP: What about the new novel you're working on. Is it unfair to ask you what it will be about?
VP: I’ve been following the Haidl Three case for years — a gang rape case that took place in Newport Beach in 2002. I’ve completed a draft of a novel that’s inspired by the Haidl Case — but completely fictionalized. To me, it’s the ultimate Newport Beach story. And now, ten years later, the victim "Jane Doe" went public. (Though she’s gone public, I don’t feel comfortable using her real name.)
She refused to back down, and because of her strength and courage, the alliance between Haild’s father and Sheriff Mike Carona unraveled, with all sorts of political ramifications. Carona, a self-proclaimed family values Christian, is in prison now because of it.
SP: Sounds like a horror story.
VP: I didn’t want to “pull a Zeitoun” and make it a diatribe; it’s too easy to be on the “moral” side, though Jane Doe’s story is amazing and will be told. (We’ve communicated.) I decided to write it from another angle, and it has been a challenge. That’s all I’ll say.
Samantha Peale is the author of the novel The American Painter Emma Dial (Norton), which is being developed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Ziff’s Cooper’s Town Productions.