JANUARY 1, 2018
OVER THE COURSE of three novels, Ivy Pochoda has ranged fearlessly through genres, landscapes, and psychologies. Her latest, Wonder Valley, is a gripping, gritty, and deeply humane novel of flights and collisions, rich with the profound mistakes and redemptive urges of a wonderfully interlinked cast of characters. Her writing has never been more assured. She set aside time to chat with me in the midst of our book tour — and gave us both more fodder for when she’s back in Los Angeles, the city she so richly depicts in Wonder Valley.
SMITH HENDERSON: I think one of my favorite things about your stuff — your language, your insights, your subjects large and small — is your rather fearless range. In three books you’ve tackled different places, subject matter, conflicts, and, frankly, genres. I admire this creative restlessness. Maybe it’s just bare-knuckle creativity, but some writers are hedgehogs — diving deeper and deeper into their own obsessions, neuroses, belly buttons. You’re more the fox, ranging. Vegas, Brooklyn, and now, in Wonder Valley, Los Angeles and the California desert. You’ve written a love story, a crime novel, and now a book that I guess falls into the thriller category. But all of your stuff is so literary.
I have a theory (or part of one) for why that is: you studied Classics at Harvard! As a former classicist myself, I am dying to know if your experience was anything like mine. Did reading such ancient poetry, philosophy, drama, and history create a kind of indifference to genre conventions? Or were you drawn to that stuff because of some other, more personal reason?
IVY POCHODA: First of all, this is an awesome question. But more important — how come we have never discussed being ex-classicists? We could have been the only people in Tony’s Saloon to have ever discussed Aeschylus. Ever. I totally dug studying classics — at least the story part. I think the thing that I gleaned most from ancient tragedies and epic poems is a sense of almost visual structure. (I really don’t want to confuse structure with plot here.) I like to envision the shape of my books — the way the chapters come together. This appeals to me more than the story per se. There’s a shape or a call-and-response I see in my own work that I suspect came from studying ring structure in the Iliad or the formal structure of ancient drama. I like a structure that hides in plain sight but is also an essential scaffold to the story that is unfolding. Maybe this is only apparent to me, or maybe others see it. Regardless, it came from years of squinting at tiny Greek words. But there’s something else that probably carried over from classics and that is the fact that I don’t run away from large events — big movements — the kind of things that tip a story from a quiet literary novel into something that might be considered genre-y. For instance, an ancient Greek play is poem, right? But then it must contain a major action, the murder of Agamemnon or the sacrifice of Iphigenia. A big, juicy action in the midst of something lyrical. I was raised on the stuff. Okay, I’m going to geek out here, sorry. Let’s just look at the Iliad for a second — you get both the action packed Death of Hector and the lyrical caesura of the Shield of Achilles. Genre be damned. What’s exciting to me is the unexpected combinations, say of poetry and violence, or action and humor.
Oh, hot damn … we are going to have to talk Aeschylus, Homer, and how great it was that J-Lo got a first edition of the Iliad in The Boy Next Door … but later. I wanna ask about violence, action, poetry, and humor in Wonder Valley. The prologue’s first paragraph introduces us to a naked man running on the jammed Hollywood freeway. You do a lot in that setup — introducing us to Los Angeles and the characters — but your signal achievement is what a lyrical performance it is. It’s imagistic, dream-like. It’s propositional (“There is a chance you envy him”). A man jogs after him, is arrested. Another man watching him is his brother. But we are carried along by your vivid prose. My question: Where’d this inspired prologue come from?
Man, J-Lo’s character was such a lucky lady. She needed to take that book on Antiques Roadshow for an evaluation. Okay, so full disclosure, the idea for the prologue wasn’t exactly mine. I was, and always have been and will continue to be, inspired by Don DeLillo’s “Pafko at the Wall,” which is the opening to Underworld. It’s a 50-page novella about the famous Shot Heard Round the World. DeLillo uses the framework of a ball game to draw the attention of an entire city — an entire nation. Through this one event we see thousands of different anxieties unfolding, from those directly to do with the game, to larger global, even nuclear ones. We take a tour of the stands, meeting famous faces, witness racial tensions, joy, and despair. It’s an entire panorama reduced to a pinprick. I love that. I love telescoping large events into something you can nearly hold in the palm of your hand. And I also love the idea of a prologue that both sets the story in motion but can also function as independent from the story. So when I started to write, I wanted my own Pafko moment. (No, I didn’t want to stare helplessly over the outfield fence at a home run I couldn’t catch.) But I wanted an event that captured the attention of the entire city, put it as DeLillo said, in a “stranglehold.” So I came up with a traffic jam — the great Los Angeles traffic jam. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Brooklyn and didn’t commute, but when I got to Los Angeles and started driving regularly, I became way more tuned into the morning news and the constant refrain of the traffic conditions. It occurred to me that everyone trapped in their cars is getting this report, everyone is listening, a city of frustrated strangers is paying attention, experiencing the same thing through individual filters. So I wanted to directly address this stagnant frustration. And what better way than a man running against traffic, making it worse. Now, this is a story I remember from high school. A friend of a friend, after a super late night and a cocktail of who knows what (I do, but I’m not saying) ran naked across the Brooklyn Bridge and was hit by a car and killed. I was interested in the many ways I heard this story. I heard about it on the news. I heard about it from my friends who had been with this guy before he took off, and I heard about it from some rather preppy women from my squash club who had witnessed this guy’s death as they took an early morning jog across the Brooklyn Bridge (in the pedestrian lane of course). It fascinated me the way this event moved across Brooklyn, touching people in different ways, summoning different reactions, momentarily capturing everyone’s attention. And then how it was forgotten.
It’s so interesting that you bring up that portion from Underworld — and makes perfect sense, but not just on a stylistic, performative level. I see an additional correspondence in the spectacle of sport. In Wonder Valley, Britt and Tony are ex-college athletes … and instead of staring helplessly, they are drawn after the naked runner. You’re working on a project with Kobe Bryant, who sought you out in part because you’re an athlete and were once a world-ranked squash player … so do you think maybe this is the source of your work’s kinetic essence? How do your athletic exploits inform your work and process?
You are totally correct that part of my initial attraction to Pafko is the fact that it is about sports. It’s so hard to write about sports well. I won’t even try, perhaps because it’s too personal, too engrained in me. If I couldn’t get it entirely perfect, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown. That said, sports, specifically my sport squash, really do inform my writing. I think to be a great athlete in most sports requires both variety and creativity. For sure on the squash court, if you are only good at one thing, let’s say hitting the ball deep in the court over and over, your success will be limited. But if you are only good at the flashy stuff — the groovy put-aways and crazy angles, your game will also let you down. So what you need to do is mix it up — lull your opponent into a comfortable rhythm and then dazzle her or surprise her with a spectacular kill shot. Which is exactly what you need to do on the page, at least as far as I’m concerned. You need to vary your pace and even vary the length of your sentences. Just when you have your reader in a comfort zone, pull something unexpected out — a surprise redirection. When I was competing and playing well, I liked to think about the various shots and strategies I employed as a sort of tool kit and as a writer, especially a “literary” writer, you need to draw on the same sort of tool kit. Otherwise, you are going to lose your reader or give your game away too soon.
Right. I often think of writing as a kind of contest — in the classical sense of an “agon” very much akin to sports. After all, the ancient Olympics were comprised of more than decathlons and wrestling. Athenian spectators also got to watch poets compete. Books are rife with tensions and conflicts, psychological and emotional battles with other books or cultural items. I am really curious about the battle of Wonder Valley — you have written yet another genre-bending novel, with a robust and very real cast of characters, set in outcast communities in Los Angeles (Skid Row) and in a desert cult, all of which winds up being a very exciting, insightful, heartfelt achievement. It feels like a victory. But over or against or in allegiance to what? What ideas or books or notions did you struggle with? In what way was this book an “agon” for you?
Well, even those non-classicists playing along at home will probably note that “agon” is the root of agony! I’m not going to be one of those writers who will bemoan the agony of the endeavor, however. But I will say that the “agon” in my case was with myself. You see, Wonder Valley is my third novel. My first, The Art of Disappearing, was wild and undisciplined and wildly undisciplined. At the same time it was more imaginative — more crazy — than my other two books. More reflective of the wild flights of fancy and the thoughts and obsessions that consumed me for my first 27 years. For that reason, I love that book. In many ways, my second novel, Visitation Street, was more conventional — not in terms of structure and character and location — but in terms of story. And suddenly, because that novel was “successful” I began to worry about letting my imagination loose, about unbridling myself. I began to saddle myself with the task of writing Serious Fiction or Conventional Crime. Yet what was emerging on the pages of Wonder Valley was weird. It was quite different. There were all these bizarre things — a dead hawk, invented folktales, sympathetic criminals — that kept popping up. And I worried that I was once more veering into something too wild, too strange, too far afield from Serious Fiction. But I had to fight back the impulse to edit myself and to cram my story into a box. I also had to quiet the voices of the very few people who read the book early (I rarely share my work) who said it was too dark and even too male-oriented. In fact (sidebar) when several readers raised this issue, I held up your book, Fourth of July Creek, as an example of something both dark and beautiful, and told my critics to stuff it. So the “agon” was self-reflexive, which made it somewhat agonizing. But here’s the thing — my guiding principle — not every book has to be conventionally uplifting. That’s a hard thing to process. You can already hear the critics champing at the bit! And we do want our stories to end well, but also realistically. We can only follow them where they lead us and if that is somewhere imperfect, so be it.
Endings, in my opinion, are inherently sad. I remember finishing my book and expecting to feel exultant or relieved or something. But I was just lonesome. Though there were edits and revisions to come, it was no longer alive for me. Though there is the tremendous consolation of the point you’re at now, where you’re sharing the book. And I have to say, I loved the ending. The final images — not giving much, if anything away — feel like the end of a vast journey, the thoughts you’d have when you’ve run out of places to run … so, so good. How’d you feel hitting the end of your third book? What’s it like to face a new blank page at this point?
There is such a sense of sadness. And I have to admit, I’m guilty of trying to keep it alive as long as possible. As long as I don’t start a new book, the one I’ve most recently finished still manages to breathe, at least for me. But the process of talking about a novel, in interviews or on a tour, manages to put that novel firmly into the past tense. And the more I discuss Wonder Valley, the more ready I am to move on. There’s something about discussing my work, analyzing it from a distance, that gives me the confidence and inspiration to start over again. I never really think about what I’m doing when I’m writing. I don’t think about process, craft, technique. But when I discuss it, I have to think about these things and in doing so I can imagine writing a new book. So I guess I’m getting ready. And I’m excited. And in many ways starting a new book, at least for me, I was made to make peace with the previous one. To address things I could’ve done better, things I’d like to dive deeper into, and visit places I didn’t dare go.