It’s been three years since Karolina Waclawiak‘s debut novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms was released. Now, she’s returned; her followup, The Invaders, follows a pair of lives in a wealthy waterfront Connecticut town. Cheryl, one of the novel’s two narrators, is grappling with her own aging, the slow fade of her marriage, and her increased dissatisfaction with people around her. She finds an unlikely bond with her stepson Teddy, who finds himself adrift in a very different way. Over coffee, I talked with Waclawiak about the process of writing her novel, her work as an editor at The Believer, and much more.
(Editor’s note: several questions address the ending of the novel. I’ve indicated where those questions begin.)
You were living in the Northeast and you wrote a book set in LA, and now you’re living in LA and you’ve written a book set in the Northeast. Do you need to be away from a place to write about it?
Generally, yeah. I feel like if I’m too close to the location or subject that I’m writing about, I don’t have any distance. I started writing The Invaders in New York. I would go to Connecticut for research if necessary, and all of my revisions happened in California. I couldn’t have written Twin Palms in LA, because I needed that sensation of longing and nostalgia for the city to really draw the picture that I wanted of it. I guess I feel the same way about The Invaders. I needed to figure out what lens I was going to tell the story from, and that required a distance to process everything that I had grown up with and witnessed.
How did the lens change over the course of writing it?
When I started writing this novel, I wanted to show the pettiness of living in small-town America–when you don’t have big problems, you start searching out problems. Over time, I started realizing that I needed to empathize with my characters, and I worked really hard to try to humanize them in the best way that I could, so that the reader could empathize with what they were going through, even if their lives seemed inconsequential and petty.
Especially in the last year, there’s been an increased discussion over privilege and class and race in literature. Obviously, you began this book before these discussions were being had, but it feels very relevant to a lot of what’s being talked about now. Was that always there from the beginning, or was it something that was ramped up as you revised and edited?
I always wanted to write a book about class. I don’t think it’s covered very often in novels. I especially wanted to look at women and class, and how women are able or unable to escape their class through their marriages–what you’re willing to give up, and what you’re willing to put up with to stay in your class, if you weren’t born into it. I think that was always my plan. The race issues were also in the beginning of the novel. I wasn’t looking at what was going around us and injecting that into the book later. It was always there. I think I just got really lucky with timing.
I’ll confess that I don’t know waterfront Connecticut all that well. Was the setting of the novel a real place, or more of an accumulation of real places?
The setting is a mash-up of a bunch of shoreline towns. I also think it doesn’t necessarily have to be in Connecticut. It could be anywhere where there’s such a class disparity, even within the town. The town I grew up in, there were very affluent people on the waterfront, and there were middle-class people, and there were poor people. We were all going to the same public school, except for the really affluent kids, who were sent off to boarding school. But what that looked like, even how we spent our summers, it felt present all the time, even when we were young. I remember when I was a kid, every Monday, girls would come in in brand-new outfits from the Gap. You knew who had money because they were coming in dressed like the mannequins at the Gap, which felt so rich to me. I think I always had it on my mind and wanted to write about it.
There’s a lot of history leading up to the events of the book: the way that Cheryl met her husband, and the fact that she’s not from an affluent background. Did you always have the idea that she’d be an outsider to this world, while still being familiar with it?
Originally, I had her as a hotel desk clerk, but it really wasn’t working. I wanted her to be of a working-class background. Then I started thinking about how much easier it is for you to pass class if you look a certain way. So it made perfect sense for me to put her in a Ralph Lauren outlet store, so that she had the clothes and the capabilities to pass class. Clothing, and the way you look–you can really wing it if you look a certain way. This book, much like Twin Palms, is about passing. It’s something that I’m forever obsessed with.
Is that also where the fashion show scene comes into play?
The fashion show has several functions. One is, how we dress affects how wealthy we look. I wanted to look at how older women dress. There’s such a huge thing with sexual invisibility in this book, and what women do to bring attention to themselves again, and how there’s such a care to making sure that they always look good, even as they’re aging, to try to be looked at again, even if they’re not.
Where does your interest in passing in different societies come from?
I’m really interested in identity, and the limits of identity and permeability of identity. It wasn’t until I finished this book that I had an, “Oh, shit!” moment, where I realized I was dealing with the same themes. I was talking with Jami [Attenberg], and she said, “It’s like they’re two books about getting into a club, and exclusivity.” Now, I think I’ve hit the limit of plumbing that story. But I wanted to look at women in both books trying to make a massive change in their lives, and how possible that is.
[Spoilers for The Invaders follow.]
You’d mentioned that you began writing the novel in 2011, but there’s this very catastrophic storm at the end. I wasn’t sure if that was intended to be Sandy, but I was curious about whether that had any influence on the way the novel developed.
I started writing it after Irene. I developed a deep anxiety of hurricanes. And, you know–growing up in the Northeast, we had many hurricanes, and I always thought they were very exciting. My parents now live on the water, and their whole neighborhood was flooded. I developed this crazy anxiety about hurricanes, and when Sandy hit the next year, I completely lost it. I remember talking to my parents, because they had to flee their house, about how all of this stuff we collect is so meaningless, because it can be knocked off so quickly. The stuff you’re fighting over and fighting for is utterly meaningless. It’s a nihilistic end, but it felt so right to me, especially… The whole book is about different kinds of invasions, and how you’re fighting for control over these invasions. But ultimately, nature, you have no control of, ultimately. It could just wipe everything out whenever it feels like it.
Twin Palms ends on this very firey image as well. So there are these very apocalyptic, but not supernaturally so, endings to each book, which I was really taken with. They’re very psychologically rich, very intimate stories, but the endings aren’t quiet.
It’s interesting, because Anya created her destruction, and Cheryl embraced this outside destruction.
I’m just thinking back to driving around New Jersey with my father in the aftermath of a nor’easter in the early 90s, and seeing cars submerged under a bunch of water…
And also, how frequent storms are across the country. We’re doomed. (laughs)
I was visiting friends in Minneapolis when Irene hit, so most of the effects I saw of that were seeing these huge groups of people who’d been stranded at O’Hare when I was flying home. It seemed like, for most flights, they’d be told, “Okay, we can fit ten of you on here!” And they’d get to go home after waiting there for days.
It’s the new normal.
The fact that we’re still dealing with fixing the infrastructure that Sandy damaged. If something like that hits again…
And it will. Sandy basically made me tell my husband, “We have to leave New York. I can’t handle this.” New York felt so crazy; the subways weren’t working, the gas lines… We lived near a gas station, and seeing the gas lines–it felt like a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s where my head was at, and I don’t think I could have ended the book any other way. That was so…what was happening at the time.
The infrastructure of New York falling to pieces made me realize that if something really bad happens again… I mean, that was as bad as anything that’s happened in New York for a long time. And those of us in Williamsburg didn’t get hit, which was really crazy. I remember the night of Sandy, half of Manhattan had no power. My parents were flooded, and I was freaking out that they were going to lose their house. And I walked out on Graham Avenue, and everyone was having a party. Everyone rode their bikes in from Manhattan to eat, and every restaurant ran out of food by eleven o’clock. It seemed so crazy to me that everyone was getting drunk and acting like nothing was happening, when it seemed like the world was falling apart around us. That was the world in which I was writing this novel.
I didn’t want it to be bleak, so I tried to insert a lot of humor into the novel, which I think I did through Teddy.
I found Teddy to be charming, in his own somewhat sleazy, directionless way.
I think that’s so true to those kinds of guys. Often they fail up, and I always wondered how? It’s their charm and their manipulation. It’s an addict’s charm. In this setting, there are so many addicts, functioning addicts. It makes sense, in a sociopathic way.
There’s a lot of ambiguity, too. Is Cheryl’s husband having an affair, or is he just looking at a lot of porn? There’s the question of what, exactly, the guy who gets attacked is up to–it’s clearly something gross, but it’s unclear just how gross he’s being.
I think who has the power in sexual relationships is really interesting to me. And how female desire manifests itself, and how male desire manifests itself. In the book, the male desire felt violent, but on the same side, Cheryl’s desire also took a very dark turn. I wanted to look at the kind of freedom women have to explore their sexuality that feels stifled, in many ways. I didn’t want Cheryl’s husband to be having a clear-cut affair. I wanted it to be more about just falling out of love with each other without an external force, because that seems more tragic.
The scenes where Cheryl goes to visit her mother, and the condition that the house is in–that also seemed very vivid to me.
It’s that shame of where you come from, especially when you’re trying to pass. Having a deep secret that you don’t want anyone to know. And also, feeling a cognitive dissonance: “How is this where I came from? This is not who I am, but this who I am, and I’ve been fighting it my whole life.”
Had you finished Twin Palms before you began this?
I had sold Twin Palms, and I started this on October of 2011. Twin Palms came out in July of 2012. I finished a draft in a year, and then had two years or so of rewrites and refining it. I wanted to get the story right. It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a decade, but I was writing it from Teddy’s point of view. As I got older, I realized that Cheryl’s story was one that was worth telling, too.
I was curious about that–was the dual-narrator structure there from the outset?
When I originally conceived the story, it was Teddy’s story. I really wanted to look at a kid who wouldn’t be able to afford the life that he grew up in. Then I became really interested and concerned with aging women, and how they get cast off. I didn’t want to write in the third person, because I felt that that would limit me too much, in terms of how they were feeling. For me, it was difficult to do, and I had to take the book apart and write one person’s story, and then write the other person’s story. When they started spending more time together, merge them. I think that’s why it took me so long in revisions. I had to figure it out, because it is a really difficult structure.
Have you started work on something new?
I’m writing a book about miracles. It’s third person, for the first time. VQR just published the first chapter. I’m about a third of the way through. It’s completely different from what I’ve written before.
Is it also set on one of the coasts?
It starts in California, but the whole novel is going to take place in Texas. There are three main characters, and then they join at a certain point. It’s three vignettes, sort of. I’m again playing with structure and trying to make my life difficult. (laughs) But now they’ve all come together in the same place, so it’s just flowing together. I don’t know why I keep making life difficult for myself and playing with structure. I don’t want the reader to get bored. I want to make them work a little bit.
You also have a film background; does that play into your writing as well?
I think that’s why I write so visually. I’ll see scenes pop into my head, and then I’ll write them down. I’m always seeing it first. I think it makes me really work hard with my dialogue. I want to make sure that every word counts, and that I’m getting the most out of every line. I had written this as a script first, and had met with some people who were thinking it could work as a television show. My mother just reminded me that the reason that it didn’t get picked up was that they thought that it was too similar to The Graduate.
(laughs) So I wrote it as a short story, and now it’s a book. But in writing the book, I was thinking, in the back of my head, how this could work for film or television, since that was how it started.
I studied film, and that’s also in the back of my head when I write certain things. It’s how I learned storytelling, so…
For me, when I’m building a world, I have to think about how this world can exist in a visual medium. Have I done a good enough job for you to be able to see and feel and live within this world.
Has your work with The Believer had any effect on your work as a writer?
Yeah. I would say that The Believer has been a huge education for me, as far as editing and how I look at my own work, especially in the revision process. The amount of care that I take to cut and get to the heart of everything, and just cut all of the fat out. My previous work felt a bit meandering. And because I’ve been working as an editor for so long now, I’m so conscious of what needs to be there and what needs to get out. It’s been really fascinating working in nonfiction, because I think if I was editing fiction, I’d be really burnt out and unable to work on my own work. Nonfiction uses a different part of my brain, but is also carving out a story.
When you’re reading for pleasure, what do you generally gravitate towards?
I need a page-turner. I’m not into navel-gazing or anything like that. I want a dynamic story and a really strong voice. I think a voice can carry you through anything. If I don’t feel like the voice is confident or really toned, I can’t go further. I’m reading Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars right now, and it is so pitch-perfect. And the voice is so perfectly drawn that I’m just… I read fifty pages yesterday, and I’ve had no head for anything. I’ve fallen into this world. Especially the screenwriting aspect. Living in LA, seeing all these guys and women in coffee shops working on their screenplays. I refuse to go into coffee shops now; it’s too embarrassing to see you punching up your script. It makes me feel like I’m just another asshole here trying to do this. But I’m not going to go sit in a coffee shop and work on my script. It’s the perfect thing to read right now, I think.
Has living in LA changed your writing habits at all?
I think so. I’ve been taking long walks and hikes that have allowed me to work out the problems in my narrative in a really successful way that I don’t think I was doing here. It’s really opened things up for me. I might be working, and I’ll have a problem where I can’t crack some aspect of the book. And I’ll go on a hike: put on headphones, start a discussion, and figure it out. Type notes to myself, then run home and write.
That sounds pretty great.
It’s awesome. I love LA.