RACHEL BARENBAUM: Ivy, this book sucked me in. I couldn’t put it down. And I can’t wait to ask you about the role art and artists play in this novel. Giving art such a central role is completely unexpected in a serial killer story. Why art? Why place a performance artist and a photographer at the center?
IVY POCHODA: Well, I’ve taught in Skid Row for nearly seven years and I’ve come to appreciate the constant convergence of art and violence. They are never far from one another. (I sense this is not unique to Skid Row, of course.) So many of the artists in the studio where I work have been the victims (or even the perpetrators) of violence. And I’ve witnessed how essential art is to overcoming, expressing, and processing the challenges of the violence that is all around them (or even us). Art provides a canvas for the artist to convey things which she might not be able to express verbally, putting distance between herself, the subject matter, and the person experiencing it — the viewer or spectator. But also, for the viewer, art provides a sometimes necessary buffer to process things which are shocking. You can approach a painting or a photograph or a video installation at your leisure — look away for a moment — taking your time with it. It doesn’t have the violence of words, the bombardment of story. Both the artists in my book are struggling with extreme violence in their everyday life — sexual, emotional, physical. Art is their way to process things which are out of their control. It also, of course, serves another purpose for it allows me, a writer, to dramatize their inner lives, to show that there is more to the women I’ve conjured and who are traditionally dismissed. Using art as a medium to portray inner complexities is, in this book, an essential device to access interiority without belaboring it.
Why do they converge at the end — in one exhibition? Why does one steal the other’s work?
Well, ask Harold Bloom! Isn’t everything borrowed from something else? That’s just the way it goes. So much of culture is theft, either accidental or blatant. Sometimes this theft is a tribute, but others (too many others) it is a crime of appropriation. Especially at this moment in literature where our own voices are rightfully coming to the forefront, we are becoming increasingly aware of how much is appropriated from the voiceless, the disenfranchised, and the disregarded. This is precisely what happens in These Women, although of course the thief isn’t entirely aware of the consequences and the implications of what she has done. The reason she does it, if she were going to level with you, is that she is secretly powerless to dramatize the anger, hurt, and fear inside her through her art and when she sees that someone else has been able to do this, she takes it for herself.
Sticking to this epic scene, the art exhibition, a man appears and declares about the subjects of Marella’s artwork, “These women don’t belong here. They don’t belong anywhere.” Those are heavy words — that terrified me. Can you talk about them?
You know, he sure does have his own reasons for thinking that, which I’ll let the reader discover. But he’s giving voice to what I see as a more conventional attitude toward the type of women represented in the show — women on the edge of society, women who are fast, possibly loose, sexy and sexual. He is speaking what so many people think about women like Julianna, that women who are strippers or exotic dancers or prostitutes have no place anywhere, not in art, not in society, not even on the streets. They are not worthy of our attention, they are not capable of having thoughts or minds or lives beyond the outwardly lascivious. They are just a cut above animal. I’m exaggerating a bit here. But I do live in the neighborhood where I set These Women and for a while I served on my neighborhood council. And while there were many issues that divided us, one that united many of the members was the question of prostitution. Everyone seemed to want to blame and shame the women. Even the kindest committee members seemed to hold the prostitutes accountable for ruining the street with their trade. It shocked me the way they talked about the women who work Western Avenue, how easily they dismissed them without thinking of their circumstances and situation and considering they might have lives beyond prostitution. This disregard was what I exaggerated and put into the mouth of the male spectator at the art show. He is the voice of convention.
“No one believed her,” you wrote referring to Feelia, a former hooker who was left for dead by the serial killer. She has critical information to help the investigation, but the police repeatedly dismiss her. I’m guessing there is a larger message there. Can you talk about this?
Let’s see. Writing about Theme is a death knell for a book. Putting theme first will sink even the most exciting plot. But this is the theme of These Women. The novel is told from the perspective of six women across different classes of society, who grew up in different places and under different circumstances, and are different races and ages. Some are professionals, some are just clinging to the edge of society, some are, or should be, young and invincible. But what unites them is that time and again, in fact too many times to count, they have not been believed. Their words have been tossed away, their ideas and experiences dismissed. Feelia is perhaps the most overt example of this. She doesn’t even know that she has information about this case because she doesn’t know what happened to her. No one bothered to take her attack seriously. She wasn’t considered human enough to be given the facts of her own experience. Her life wasn’t worthy of investigating or taking seriously. What it boils down to is that no one even believed she was a person deserving of attention.
Power is a central theme of this book. I underlined dozens of scenes and pieces of dialogue where power is at stake. Questions around who has it, who doesn’t, and why come up again and again. Can you tell us how you thought about power as you wrote this book?
I guess it’s the flip side of the question above. Deciding whether or not to believe someone, having the ability to make that decision, is power. It’s powerful to be able to dismiss a person and have others follow along. I mean, come on, this is what we are seeing all day, every day in every news cycle. Skipping over politics (and don’t get me started on the issues of power/belief there) take a look at the most infamous current examples: Weinstein and Cosby. These are powerful men whose power was derived from putting women’s experience into question. From convincing people that women were not to be believed. And it worked for decades. It’s a very simplistic power grab. I’m loath to use the overhyped phrase “gaslighting” here, but when I think about power in These Women, it is this one thing: the power to convince others that someone else isn’t telling the truth or is thinking incorrectly or is beneath the capability of rational thought.
Your characters make a clear distinction between what they call living “around the life,” and living in it. For example, a cocktail waitress who works at the Fast Rabbit works around it while a prostitute on the streets works in it. Why do your characters go out of the way to make this distinction? Why is it so important for the novel?
Well, in truth they are lying to themselves. They are all on a slippery slope of denial. I’m interested in these liminal junctures — where does one thing give way to another? When do you cross the invisible line you drew for yourself? How long before you do the thing you swore you wouldn’t do? What does that take? It’s a question I’ve been grappling with since I wrote Visitation Street and one that is certainly central to Wonder Valley. The women in These Women who work in some aspect of the sex trade are holding on to a self-defined sense of hierarchy for their personal survival regardless of the fact that people in the straight world tend to write them all off as the same sort of degenerate. I’m a pretty progressive person when it comes to prostitution. It doesn’t really bother me and it doesn’t change my opinion of a woman who engages in it. I know many women who work or have worked in some aspect of the business (high-class escorts as well as street prostitutes on Skid Row) and I’m aware they hold these distinctions. I am also aware that there is more depth and complexity to them than sex work. But I’m also aware that these sometimes artificial distinctions often don’t matter when it comes to how the outside world views these women. Of course, we all have to tell ourselves certain things to survive. (I think someone else might have said something similar once…) Denial can be a potent drug and a necessary one, although one that will ultimately have disastrous consequences.
Let’s talk about dialogue. You are a master when it comes to dialogue in this book. Any tips? How did you write it so well? How did you figure out how each character would speak?
We all have voices or a voice in our head, no? The voice that nags, obsesses, narrates. The voice that is our own personal newscaster or storyteller, the one that supports us but also criticizes. Well, when I created each character I decided that she would have an obsession — art, puzzles, prayer — that she would filter her inner voice through. And from there I began to hear these women talk to me. I’m a huge eavesdropper in general. I have an inability to tune out conversations around me. So instead I listen. I love hearing the way people talk and listening for their speech patterns — those unique and personal word repetitions. Once I’ve grabbed these, I heighten them. As James Wood said in his brilliant review of Richard Price’s Lush Life, (a review that should be essential for all novelists) most people sound more like boring old Charles Bovary than not, so good dialogue is naturally heightened if you want it to sing. And it’s used sparingly too. When you use dialogue you are telling someone to sit up and pay attention. The prose is the nice smooth highway your story is proceeding down. The dialogue is the hairpin turn or the steep incline when you suddenly have to focus. I learned this from Doug Bauer, one of the best instructors of creative writing. (His chapter on dialogue in The Stuff of Fiction should also be required reading.) So when you use it, it better be both important and meaningful — more like well-crafted poetry than banal chit-chat.
Sticking to craft, how did this book come together? How did you create all the disparate stories and characters? Did you work with an outline?
Gosh. This one is an outlier. Normally I have zero idea of what I’m doing when I write. But for some reason this entire book leapt out at me. I knew I wanted to write another multi-perspective novel. I also knew that I wanted a different structure than my previous two, which bounced around from character to character. So I decided I’d write in “blocks” — each character having a discrete, self-contained section. I wanted to limit the scope of the book to a short time period (a few days). So I knew each story would have to follow the previous one. The major change between drafts was the addition of the detective, Essie. I’m slightly wary of adding hardcore crime elements to my work and creating a detective was a huge challenge for me. My editor, Zack Wagman, insisted and he was right. Talking to him, I realized that what I was afraid of was not the detective herself but digging into the nitty-gritty police work. It’s neither my strength nor my style. So I decided I could foreground her personal struggles and let the case be a way to explore these and that is when the book finally came together.
Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
I just finished Jaquira Díaz’s extraordinary memoir Ordinary Girls, which astonished me. It is one of the best explorations of the inner and surprising lives and intelligence of teenage girls (an obsession of mine) that I’ve read. Over the last months, I’ve been trying to find books that reflect the mood of violence, extremism, lawlessness, and wild abandon, not to mention depravity and poverty leaking into and sometimes swamping our world. And this led me back to narratives of the West. I just re-reread Blood Meridian, a book which I know many people are conflicted about. But it’s one that I love and can turn to endlessly for its remarkable (and remarkably and delightfully fucked up) marriage of the poetic and the violent, something like a Homeric acid trip. I also just discovered a lesser known Western novel called Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams that I found remarkable. It’s a brutal and beautifully measured book about excess and survival with some of the best writing about nature I’ve ever come across.
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.