The Red Car follows a young woman named Leah back to San Francisco, where she used to live, for the funeral of her former boss and friend. Her boss has willed Leah her prized possession: the red sports car she died in. The car might be cursed (it magically seems to fix itself), but it might also be exactly what Leah needs. She takes her inheritance and sets off on a road trip, rethinking her life along the way.
MATTHEW SALESSES: Since I hate how the question about other writers is always put last, I’d love to start by asking about other books and authors, especially those you feel are in conversation with The Red Car or were helpful to you in shaping it. At what point during the creative process do you find reading enters most urgently?
MARCY DERMANSKY: The Red Car is my attempt to write a Haruki Murakami novel. A Murakami novel set in the United States, with a female protagonist, written by me, an American woman. This book started out as a writing exercise really — a joke — almost a dare to myself to write an internationally respected, best-selling novel. But at a certain point, the book took on a life of its own, which is what I hoped would happen.
Of course, I love Murakami. I have read everything he has written that has been translated into English. And there are, of course, a lot of references to his works in The Red Car.
Writing this novel, I think I was also subconsciously influenced by Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. I read them when I was right out of college and their books really spoke to me about the kind of risks you could take in writing fiction, blending autobiography with the extraordinary. Especially Hustvedt’s The Blindfold and Auster’s The New York Trilogy. These are intensely personal narratives that focus on those years right out of college — when you are broke and lost and also open to almost anything, actively trying to figure yourself out and getting into strange situations.
That is what Leah is doing, too, in The Red Car. She is figuring herself out. And then, in addition to the sometimes already surreal circumstances of everyday life, she’s got that red car. I may have lifted the idea of a car with sinister properties straight of Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance.
I pitched my next novel as an American Murakami book! There’s a way in which the weirdness of American culture comes through in Murakami’s Japan. At the end of the 1Q84 audiobook, the two English translators are interviewed and they talk about how they will come to something in the Japanese that sounds like an American idiom, and how it adds to the strangeness in the original version, but translating it directly would make it seem normal in American English, so what do they do? What were the complications, did you find, of setting that kind of story in the United States with a white female narrator? How did the book start to take on a life of its own — through that differentiation or others?
I didn’t actually pitch my book as the next Murakami. Maybe it’s more subtle. I don’t think a lot of readers will even catch on to it and that’s fine. For me, the greatest challenge of going into Murakami territory was the surreal. I worried, hard as I tried, that I could not get weird enough. But I like where the need to go surreal took me. The red car in my novel, for instance, can regenerate itself. One of the things that I love and admire most about the strangeness of Murakami’s books is how rooted they are in the everyday. Making spaghetti and swimming laps.
In the end, I didn’t really experience complications setting the story in the United States or writing about a woman, because I went my own way. I started out with Murakami, and then midway through, I sort of forgot. I was writing my own book, I had no rules to follow. I was not accountable. Honestly, I was so happy to be writing, grateful that a story had taken hold and the story told me where to go. I love that — not knowing where a book will go. I had no idea, for instance, when I started writing that so much of my book would be set in California.
Has California been an important place to you? The setting does seem to play a large role — even a kind of mythic conception of California. Paris played a similar role in Bad Marie. How do you come to your settings?
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but California actually is sort of a mythic place to me. It is so beautiful. When I think about it, I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t live somewhere crazy beautiful. But that is difficult. A part of me knows that I will never have a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment on Haight Street with big bay windows and a dining room for $550 a month; I will never be that young again. It’s also been a long time since I have been back to San Francisco. I didn’t know many of the details of the place stuck with me until I started writing. I also think it’s possible that I can’t properly write about a place until after I have left.
So much of Bad Marie took place in Paris, but I only went there once, essentially for a long weekend. But I did go through a period where I watched French films compulsively. I wanted life to be more like a French film. While technically a novel, Bad Marie was my attempt to write a French film.
Do you usually set this kind of project goal — to write your version of x? What appeals to you about this kind of “prompt”? There’s a great sense of doing something just outside the American “norm” in your writing. Is that an aesthetic choice?
I love being in the middle of a novel more than just about anything, but after I finish a book, or a short story even, I don’t know how to begin again. I definitely like making up games, or prompts, to trick myself back into writing. I wish I could receive fiction assignments. I once got an assignment from Salon.com, to write a short story about Occupy Wall Street, and that was the best. I have written a series of short stories based on someone’s Facebook posts.
I also love the idea that I am actually doing just outside the American norm. Thank you. I honestly had no idea. I feel like I make many choices when writing, but they are almost always at the sentence level. The sentence that I am writing is the most important. I actually describe part of my writing process in The Red Car, but so much of what I do, otherwise, is unconscious.
Are you referring to the part in The Red Car where Leah messes around with commas and writes the same sentence she already wrote? Leah also mentions her surprise at coming to the end of her novel. Is that what happened for you? How close are Leah’s thoughts on writing to your own?
Yes, I am always adding commas to sentences and then taking them back out. Writing the same sentence. The flow of the words matters a lot to me; every time I go back into my own work, I hear it a little bit differently, so I change things that don’t need to be changed, and sometimes I berate myself for doing this, but I am also used to it.
I enjoyed writing about writing: making Leah into a writer and exploring what that is like. This is a first for me. While there aren’t rules for writing, per se, I have always heard these two things constantly repeated: write what you know and never write about writers. Kind of a big contradiction. I have also read so many novels where the main character is an artist of sorts — a painter or a photographer or an architect — and this always strikes me as the author’s way of not writing about a writer.
With this book, I really let myself do what I wanted: the road trip, a talking dead person, sea lions. I remember worrying: Am I really allowed to put sea lions in two consecutive novels? I decided I could. And yes, the ending of this novel totally took me by surprise. I woke up early, thinking I had the whole day ahead of me, and then an hour later, I wrote the last paragraph of what turned out to be the last scene, and I realized that I might be done. It was the first day of a new year and that felt so incredibly good. Writing can be extraordinarily hard, but it can also be effortless, almost wondrous.
The sense that you’re having fun is one of the things I really admire about your writing. Sometimes I wonder why I used to like those big, difficult books that seem like nobody’s supposed to have any fun. Was The Red Car one of the easier projects for you to write or one of the harder ones?
I know what you mean about the big difficult books. I think they are often valued more. As a reader, you often feel like you deserve a prize just for getting through.
The Red Car was strangely easy for me to write. The first draft took me six months; it was sort of written on the sly. Of course there was revision, but nothing major. The last line of the book and the ones preceding it came on the first try and were never changed.
There was also a lot of time spent not writing before this novel. Years, really. And an attempt at a science fiction novel that didn’t quite pan out. I feel like the time spent not writing counts as part of the actual writing time, if that makes sense.
Do you plan? Outline? What does the not writing/thinking about the book look like?
I don’t plan and I don’t outline, which can definitely get me into trouble. I got stuck in a couple of places where I found myself taking a few days off. In this case, the Murakami framework really helped, because when I did feel stuck, I realized I could and should jump ahead in time, just like Murakami did in A Wild Sheep Chase. Or I could put my main character into her red car and have her drive somewhere else, like when she went down to Big Sur.
I definitely had some vague themes in my head, too — things that I was thinking about in my own life and wanted to work out through my writing. Small things, like the nature of happiness. I have reread parts of The Red Car where Leah will feel something and I will recognize how she feels and think to myself, wow, that is so amazing, and then I remember that I wrote the book and so maybe it’s not that crazy after all. There is always the idea of writing the book that you want to read.
Are there certain things you’re paying more attention to as you work through the sentences? Anything you’re reminding yourself to do? You always seem to have such a good sense of who your characters are, even or especially when they seem to act in a way an observer might call “not like themselves.”
I am always aware of rhythm when I am writing my sentences. It is important to me how my sentences flow, how the words run into each other and I will worry about those commas, semicolons, and periods. I will even fight for them. My copyeditor with this book was always putting em dashes into my sentences and I kept on taking them back out, because I wanted the commas. I remember the same exact thing happened with my other two novels. It feels as if I don’t have the best command of grammar, but it works for me.
My characters, they just seem to do what they want to do. Sometimes, when you read something and it’s already published, it feels as if what happens on the page is preordained. You assume the writer knows exactly what she is doing. For instance, in one scene in The Red Car, Judy tells Leah to follow the signs and not long after, Leah reads an article about an old boyfriend on the internet. Boom, she is driving to Palo Alto. But I didn’t know she was going to go to Palo Alto until the moment she did. I think the reason that trip happened was not because Leah was following the signs. It was because I had found myself stuck. I thought, what do I do now, and then I realized I hadn’t written about Jonathan Beene in a long time, so I threw him back into the novel. In that way, I am following my own signs, always reaching back into what I have written to show me the way.