Vendela Vida

Writer Vendela Vida grew up in California, attended Middlebury College and received her MFA at Columbia University. She was an intern at the Paris Review and has published a non-fiction book on the initiation rites of American teenage girls—Girls on the Verge—that developed out of her master’s thesis. She has recently published her first novel, And Now You Can Go (volume one of a projected trilogy), and is one of the founding editors of The Believer magazine and a teacher at 826 Valencia, a volunteer tutorial program for high school students. She lives in the Bay area with her husband, writer Dave Eggers.

And Now You Can Go is the story of Columbia University Art History student Ellis and her life after she has had a gun pointed at her by a stranger in the streets of New York City. She is not robbed or physically harmed, but, of course, this incident affects her emotional equilibrium and relationship with friends and family. Joan Didion has praised this novel, "…so fast, so mesmerizing to read and so accomplished that it’s hard to think of it as a first novel."

Robert Birnbaum: I was recently reminded that Flannery O’Connor said something to the effect that there were too many writers. How do you feel about that?

Vendela Vida: I completely disagree with that. There can’t be too many. At our writing lab, 826 Valencia, we’re trying to raise all these kids to believe that they are writers–and indeed they are–and convince them that they can go around and say, "I am a writer," or, "I am a poet," at age twelve, and hopefully they will take that conviction with them the rest of their lives. So I don’t think there can ever be too many writers. That’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately–this whole idea that people have that there can only one great writer per country. I wrote about this in an article for The Believer about Javier Marias, and I went on a riff about how we just like to have one writer from each country, or one writer from each household, even. We have these glass ceilings we put on everything–which I think is unfortunate.

RB: In this country we like to focus on one writer in other countries because it relieves us of the responsibility of investigating more deeply other literary cultures.

VV: Exactly.

RB: We don’t say that about the US. Here we have two or three great writers.

VV: We have two or three per region. I feel bad for anyone from the South. I’ve been reading a lot about Cat Power, that musician whose name is Chan Marshall, and she’s often described as a Flannery O’Connor character or a William Faulkner character. It seems that every Southern person that’s written about has to be in one of those two categories.

RB: Is there a tendency to inflate the perceived size of the literary world by people who are its citizens? One is occasionally reminded how marginal and small that world is…

VV: We seem to circumscribe literature to just literary fiction. It’s easy to forget that there are other great books out there.

RB: I just got a catalogue from a new imprint and noticed that of the twelve books listed only one or two were novels. I agree with you there is perhaps a natural tendency to narrowly focus…

VV: It becomes a language that you speak. I speak Italian for example, and I am interested in everything Italian. And I am not at all interested in things Belgian.

RB: Not even chocolate?

VV: I don’t eat chocolate. I like salts. But whatever your natural inclination, your lingua franca, you are going to start wanting to absorb everything from that culture. It’s the same thing when you are a reader of literary fiction, it’s like a language that you speak, and you know more about everything else because of it because that language gives you access into other aspects of it.

RB: I hear some writers express disdain for literary or creative non-fiction or genre fiction. Why is that?

VV: Maybe because it’s a different approach to writing. Literary non-fiction has always been a hard thing to classify because it’s not journalism and it’s not fiction. I think all those arts are equal.

RB: At the heart of it all, isn’t it about storytelling?

VV: Storytelling and using language. Anything reflecting some aspect of the human condition, whether its actual reportage — through facts or invention— you still want to convey some truth that’s relevant to the world, as we know it.

RB: It seems literary non-fiction is looked down on because there is already a story or some givens provided. Therefore one doesn’t make up a story from whole cloth, and thus supposedly non-fiction is less difficult.

VV: Right. I guess that is a bias. I think it’s a lot more work. My first book was non-fiction, and that took so much work. I remember how many file cabinets I had in the smallest New York apartment. My whole floor was taken up with file cabinets of transcripts of the young women I interviewed. I thought it was hard work, in particular because you can’t make anything up. You have to stick very assiduously to quotes and sometimes you don’t want to. You think, "If only I could tweak this response, it would work perfectly with my thesis." And you can’t. So it’s a different kind of labor. They are both hard and have different challenges. For me, I knew that after I finished that non-fiction book I wanted a respite and needed to take a hiatus from that kind of work.

You go into a bookstore and there are all these sections on war and countless things that there are books about, and yet we seem to circumscribe literature to just literary fiction.

RB: What do you think of the technique of composite characters that does bend elements of the story seemingly to reach a certain conclusion?

VV: It’s okay as long as it’s addressed somewhere in the book.

RB: Vivian Gornick apparently upset a few people with her long-after-the-fact revelations about her technique that used composite characters and situations.

VV: I’m not so familiar with her work. It would have been better if she had done it in the book itself. Then the reader just trusts you more and doesn’t feel betrayed and they can just enjoy it as a story. As long as the writer is honest…

RB: A curious thing to say in light of the inside standing joke that many fiction writers will gleefully admit they are professional liars.

VV: [laughs] Yeah.

RB: I guess they are honest professional liars.

VV: Right. You have to be a professional liar who is so good that you don’t get caught. A friend of mine was telling me that the secret to being a good liar was to remember your lies. He said that the problem with many writers was that they had bad memories. Or they drink too much or do other things to obfuscate their memory.

RB: I guess the obverse is Thomas Jefferson’s observation that if you only told the truth you don’t need a memory.

VV: That’s true. [laughs]

RB: I brought up Flannery O’Connor earlier to get a context for the bush fires in the literary culture. Most recently on the issue of snarkery and perhaps a subsidiary, one which is more interesting, creating a kind of literary anonymity—that too much time is spent on personalities and extraneous things.

VV: I do like the idea of there not being any design on the book jacket and just reading every book in the same font. I do think fonts influence the way you read things. Some books by young women who are very talented—the fonts that are chosen are not the best fonts, they are too frilly, and they make you not look at the writing as seriously as the writer intended but not that the font suggests. Also, it is important to know who has written a book because you want to see what lines they are coming from.

RB: Why?

VV: For example, if I am reading a book by Sebald, I want to know that it is by him because I want to put it in the context of his experience and the context of his other books. If you are reading Mein Kampf, you want to know it’s by Hitler because you want to put it in a historical context. The name can be important and help give you clues.

RB: I find it hard to make the separation of creator and creation, but a celebrity culture does tend to make one think in that direction. Also, people do things for acknowledgement and recognition — why dismiss that very human need?

VV: Right I am reading this great novel now, Mailie Malloy’s Liars and Saints, and in there is a great scene in the convent where one of the girls in the family wants to be competitive with the other grades and say they raised the most money for orphanages in other countries. And the nun has to reprimand her and tell her you don’t brag about accomplishments and you just do them. We would be a very Catholic society of we did that. I also think that it’s also interesting that when I read a book about an Indian immigrant as in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake I want to know, it’s interesting to me that she has a name that suggests that she is from the country that she is writing about. That lends a certain authority, whether it’s bogus or not, this author is writing about something they know.

RB: What would be the threshold of irrelevance? Some things are relevant and some aren’t. I didn’t care about Martin Amis’ dental problems when they were trumpeted in articles before the publication of The Information, years ago. I think there is an attempt to apply a rule where no rule can be applied. Either we totally dismiss the back-story or we wallow in it.

VV: In the literary world there is too much talking about—this has been said before—talking about reviews of books than about the books. Or they read the reviews more than they do the book. Or there is more talk about the author within the context of their friends. That does take on too much importance. I don’t know the correct solution to mitigate that. Except… I don’t know.

RB: Except for the anonymity option.

VV: Right. It would save everyone…

RB: In a culture where it seems everyone strives for celebrity, writers have gotten it, not inappropriately but irrelevantly—meaning it has nothing to do with the content of the books or whether people have read their books.

VV: Maybe. I think that’s still very "insidery." I can’t think of that many examples.

RB: Why do some writers make it onto Page Six?

VV: That is a weird thing. That makes no sense at all.

RB: Except that one of the Page Six people is an aspiring and published novelist.

VV: It’s an irony that people who are writing about writers are using the same tools that writers are using as opposed to people who are writing about architecture. Chances are, the person who writes reviews is someone wanting to be a writer—is a writer in some form or capacity. I don’t know what the perfect approach is except to have people who are architects review books. [laughs] Let’s switch it around some how. That’s always been a big problem.

RB: That does indicate we have these cultural gatekeepers or arbiters that we assign inordinate influence. And yet as many reviewers as there are, I can’t think of more than a handful that are dependable in their intelligence and incisiveness and being without an agenda: Eder, Caldwell, Yardley, Dirda, Birkerts, Mendelsohn. There is a larger group who seem, to me, to be a large pack of yapping terriers nipping at the heels of their betters.

VV: I think of those people you mentioned, but I think more about people who do things like what you do with Identitytheory and or Michael Silverblatt with Book Worm—people who are just getting the word out there and not necessarily saying, "This is I my opinion, here you go."

RB: Let’s talk about the multitude of activities that you have taken upon yourself. It seems like a lot.

VV: I don’t sleep a lot. [laughs] Susan Straight, whom I interviewed for the first issue, writes and teaches and is a single mom with three kids. I look up to her. She says that when students turn in things late with the excuse that they didn’t have time, she says, "You didn’t have time? You’d be better off if you told me you were drinking and hung over in Tijuana than that you didn’t have time. Look who you are talking to."

RB: Susan Straight—is she known beyond the west coast?

VV: I like to think so. You are right, there are some writers that are very much California writers, and [she is] because she writes about this fictional town, Rio Seco, which is based on Riverside. In some ways she is a California writer in the best sense of the word. The way Joan Didion, especially in her earlier work, is a California writer. Those are the two I really think of as California people.

RB: You are here to talk about your book…

VV: Talking, talking…

RB: What’s it like talking about it?

VV: Sometimes it’s fun. Talking about it is interesting in that people seem to bring up the same things a lot and not things that I think are important to the book. For example, one thing is that is really important to me about the book is that this woman is named Ellis because both her parents are immigrants. Her Mom had this dream of arriving in America and blowing the Statue of Liberty a kiss. That was very essential to me in naming her. She had all kinds of incarnations. At first she was Erica—for America. It changed with every draft. A lot of friends of mine have Cuban moms and dads and Ethiopian parents and Russian parents, and many them were clueless when they were growing up because they couldn’t turn to their parents for advice.

RB: I know that experience. I am a child of immigrants. One’s parents are, in an understandable way, infantilized. They are trying to learn the rules of a new culture along with their child.

VV: Uh huh. That is a very core issue of this book, this woman who has this incident which is very much a New York incident, and the way the people react to it is very much central to New York. It would have been different, and I would have written it differently if it was in any other place.

RB: Would you have thought of placing the central incident in any other locale? It is quintessentially New York.

VV: It is a New York event. A funny thing to me, too, is that a lot of people have said it is a 9/11 event, a random attack. I wrote it before 9/11, but read it however you want. I actually I don’t mind that reference because in some ways there are similarities in feeling like a victim and not knowing what to do and the helplessness that follows and so forth. But I see 9/11 on a much grander scale, multiplied by a million degrees. It is interesting to me that not many people have brought up the fact that this is basically an immigrant story.

RB: To what do you attribute that? A failure of your writing or the reader’s imagination?

VV: People always glom on to what ever they can relate to. I know a woman, my Ethiopian friend, who liked the book because she was thinking of all the things her mom says. Ellis’ mom is always messing up expressions. My friend told me her mom would say, "You can shoot two birds with the same gun." [laughs] Of course you can. So I think that people always relate to the parts that are more similar to them and to their experiences.

RB: I found Ellis to have a kind of grasshopper mind. In that she would make these leaps or connections—which are amusing if you are reading or observing but perhaps not if you are interacting with her. There is a passage where she talks about why she wears a hat, grapefruits and where her mother lives…

VV: Grasshopper-like because of the jumps or that it’s miniature or what?

RB: In its jumps. They are almost non-sequetorial.

VV: I tried to make the book as realistic as possible, and the fact that her thoughts are fast is because they are supposed to be—she has gone through this event, and she is not thinking and meditating. Everything is action and fast. And the conversation in the book—I tried to replicate human conversation as much as possible, and that is how people talk.

RB: She seems quicker and also apt to see different connections that the other characters aren’t making. She says, "It’s odd who I tell and who I don’t. But for the most part I don’t tell anyone I know. I fantasize about telling strangers everything. I want to tell this Chinese American woman with a son at the supermarket. I want to tell the person who takes my toll at the bridge. I want to drive in search of lifeguards and fireman and tell them. I want to give the information like a baby in a bundle on a doorstep to people who will never know who I am. I can tell them and move on. Drive off and they will never hold it against me. Never try to explain future actions with what happened in the past. I do not want to be judged by this forever."

VV: It is very adrenaline-infused. Maybe that’s what you are referring to. After any heightened situation—whatever it is—you think you notice things much more clearly. You do notice things in gushes when you see someone who is missing a leg you tell the story in your head. You know it in a second, but it might take a paragraph to write down on the page. Because there are so many characters in the book —that was something else I wanted to have happen in keeping with trying to make it as a human, as lifelike as possible. You do come into contact with so many characters everyday of your life, but in fiction it is often reduced to five or six. This book has a lot of characters. There used to be more, but I combined some of them.

RB: [laughs]

VV: I wanted that to be very realistic. And that’s how you define people in your head. That is why she is giving one-paragraph back-stories when she sees a person. That’s what flashes through her head.

RB: Her descriptions of the males that spin or orbit around her—"the representative of the world"— I can only remember one male having a proper name. That was Nick…

You have to be a professional liar who is so good that you don’t get caught. A friend of mine was telling me that the secret to being a good liar was to remember your lies. He said that the problem with many writers was that they had bad memories.

VV: The fact that they are not given names—naming something is a very powerful thing. That they are not named is because she is not giving them enough credit. They are just people that she is using in the way that they might be using her for other purposes. Whether they want to save someone or entertain someone or whatever. That’s why she calls them by these shortcut descriptions.

RB: At the end of the book has she been liberated?

VV: She realizes in order to liberate herself that this is what she has to do, and this why she makes the decision that she makes. That the weight of it or the waiting is too much.

RB: So she becomes an immigrant and flies to Ireland?

VV: Yeah. I like books that are around two-hundred pages. I love Play It As It Lays. I love Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever. I am a huge fan of both those books. They are young first novels. Play It As It Lays is not a first novel, and neither is Robison’s book—what I mean is that they are first novels about this character, the first action or one action in this character’s life, you know they are going to go on and do other things. I just saw Lost in Translation, which I loved—it blew me away. Part of the reason is that the young woman character, you don’t know what is going to happen next, but you have an idea, and you know she is going to be okay. You don’t need to flash forward fifty years from now to know what’s happened to her marriage. The story kind of ends at this pivotal point, and some people might say it’s cut short, but I thought it was an interesting place for a film or a novel to end. The other book I thought of a lot was Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It’s funny, there are times you want to remember books as you remember them and not go back and reread them. I had this memory that after writing that book Joyce did leave for Trieste and I had that in the back of my head. That at the end Ellis would go somewhere new. That was the impetus for that, and I looked at it [the Joyce book] and I wanted to remember it as I remember it in my head, more perfectly.

RB: Other than for scholarship, what does it matter how we read and recall a book? I don’t reread very often, but I find it remarkable that when I do how much different a book can be from my memory. Usually, the emotional core remains…

VV: Well, for me the emotional core is, Joyce goes off to Italy. I will check that out.

RB: Are you are going to keep writing about Ellis?

VV: No. In a fact I wouldn’t come back to this character, but I envision this as the first in a trilogy about rage and violence. And now I am working on the second. The book I am working on now is hopefully part II of this trilogy. And it has entirely different characters, and half of it is told from a woman’s point of view, and there are some chapters told from a man’s point of view.

RB: You used the word ‘hopefully’?

VV: Well, I rewrote this book so many times that as I’m in the early stages of the new book, the Lapland book, I can’t promise myself that it will end up the same way I envision it now. If it goes through as many revisions as the first book, it could be entirely different. It could be set in Japan. [laughs]

RB: There is an added dimension of responsibility and anxiety in that you decide that there is a third book. Do you have a clue what that book is?

VV: Kind of. It will definitely react to the first two. I don’t think that you can just show two sides of something. I thing you have to show three. I am very inspired by Phillip Roth’s trilogy [American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain]. And I loved the looseness of the organization—these three books were about America but not having much more in common than that—than they were showing different sides of this culture.

RB: Is there a difference of feeling that you get when you read something really wonderful and when you write something that you think is wonderful?

VV: [chuckles] Yeah, the difference is that when you read something wonderful it’s usually wonderful the next day. When you write something [you think] wonderful it usually sucks the next day.

RB: [both laugh] At some point you have to decide whether it’s wonderful because you are intent on publishing it. So when you read that which you believe is ready to be seen by others, what’s that like?

VV: The best way to answer that is the original draft of this book was around 450 pages long, and I went through it, and the only part that I was at all interested in was fifteen pages in which the young woman in the book—at that time she had a different name—is held up at gun point in a park. There was something about those pages that I was really drawn to—they stood out much more than the rest of the pages. I took two years to write that book, and when I went through it I realized that I wasn’t at all happy with it. I am a very impatient reader. If I don’t like something, I put it down. It’s really sad when you are putting down your own book. [laughs] Well, it’s indicative.

RB: What happens to those four-hundred pages that you tossed?

VV: I think I got three good metaphors from them.

RB: Are they totally gone?

VV: I’ll never come back to them.

RB: Are they somewhere?

VV: Yeah, they are on a hard drive somewhere, but I have no desire to go back to them any time soon.

RB: Is that the way it goes for you—you write a lot and then pare down?

VV: I am a completely wasteful writer. I wish I could use my time better—then I could be more efficient.

RB: Is it a warm up? Is a buzz or a heightened feeling going on?

VV: I think it’s a buzz. It’s energetic, and there is something about the story that energizes you, and then hopefully the writing mirrors that, and then when you editing it you are inspired by the energy of the writing as opposed to that seminal moment. Because that is already left behind.

RB: You pour it out and then…

VV: You have to erase a lot. Sculpting it. That’s why And Now You Can Go is written in short sections with a lot of space breaks, that indicate a huge amount has been taken out right here. [laughs] There are a lot of scenes—Joyce Johnson, a teacher of mine—said when talking about writing her first novel, she said she felt she had to describe what the character did that night and when the character went to bathroom and what the character had for dinner. She realized a space break, there is this fabulous device, and for me it served me very well in terms of being able to sculpt some of the scenes.

RB: Is what you like to write and what you read the same? Is there a rule about what you like to read?

VV: I also love Thomas Bernhardt, who writes his books in one long paragraph. Which is completely opposite. And if I could do that I would have. That’s not the way I thought this character would think. Maybe a different character. His characters are more obsessive and come back to the same thoughts.

RB: As in Sebald, who I read as having written one long sentence. Is that a Germanic trait?

VV: It is more in keeping with one long thought that is being continued throughout the book and emphasizing that stylistically.

RB: Your course seems to be charted in terms of your writing life…

VV: Two more books. [laughs]

RB: You are aspiring to two more books hopefully. What is the place of the magazine in your life?

VV: In terms of what I hope for it?

RB: Yes and how much of your life it occupies.

VV: It occupies every morning. My routine when I am not travelling is waking up at eight, working on the Believer until eleven. Then I work on my novel, and then I go teach, then in the evenings I am either writing or working on Believer stuff. I write pretty late at night.

RB: That would account for you not sleeping much.

VV: I guess so. With the Believer we have just gotten our sea legs in the past couple of months. My hope for it is that our circulation keeps increasing—not for bigger numbers but because we are proud of what we do and want people to read it. We have a great audience now. We get tons of letters, and it’s exciting to create this dialogue with what we put out there and people responding to it. That’s exactly what we wanted. I hope to keep engaging people. And there are so many books and writers we want to write about and artists we want to profile. Just to get a chance to get all there in there and out there…

RB: The recognition that there is so much worthy stuff that is not being attended to flies in the face of being in it for the long haul. That creates a kind of urgency or tension…

VV: There is that urgency because every month you are working so fast you don’t even know what is going on. But the time we put an issue to press…

RB: What I am trying to say is that two things are in tension with each other that ought to work in unison.

VV: I guess they should move together, but that sense of urgency keeps people, keeps me going—whether it’s adrenaline or the sense that the clock is ticking, you…

RB: The finished product is pretty relaxed in its graphic presentation, lots of space, classic type fonts, few photos, a traditional grid…no advertising.

VV: One way that the urgency is reflected—at least in so far as the interviews are concerned [VV is the interview editor] I always try to start them off mid interview. The question that you would normally find half way through—I try to move that up. For me, it creates that urgency. I realized when I was reading that wonderful new Paris Review Anthology, the title of which I will botch because it’s all-inclusive…

RB: It’s a one paragraph title. [The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953]

It’s an irony that people who are writing about writers are using the same tools that writers are using as opposed to people who are writing about architecture.

VV: They don’t run the interviews in their entirety. They kind of have the best of, for each page. The questions were probably buried three-quarters of the way through, and that’s essentially what we try to do.

RB: Well, it does depend on what you intend—an interview, a conversation or dialogue, an oral history…in any case, the content is not fixed. What two people talk about at any given moment may not obtain on another day…

VV: It’s more artifact, which I think is really cool too.

RB: You wrote in the diary you did for Slate that 826 Valencia was expanding. Can you talk more about that?

VV: When we started April 10th of last year, our whole plan was to be a drop-in tutoring center for kids. It’s free, non-profit. I’ve learned a great deal about non-profit…

RB: [laughs] Me too.

VV: [laughs] We started getting all these incredibly talented volunteers. We now have about three hundred and fifty. Which is amazing. They are all incredibly qualified.

RB: They are writers?

VV: We have two Pulitzer Prize finalists as volunteers. Editors, Ph.D.s—we just have an amazing crop of volunteers.

RB: Would this be evidence that at least some writers think it’s their job to attempt to improve the world?

VV: I think so. It’s like anything else if you are mechanic and you can fix a tire easily and you see someone struggling on the side of a road you are doing to stop and help them.

RB: As opposed to a prevailing lifeboat mentality?

VV: [laughs] I think that the same thing applies to writers. You just want to be able to share. In some ways, especially with writing it’s such a solipsistic, selfish act in so many ways. And the only thing that makes me feel better is being able to help younger people to write. The most rewarding thing is—I teach College Entrance Essay class, and that helps even the playing field. 826 is expanding, and we are starting to go into public schools…

RB: Do all your activities meld together? Or are there discreet boundaries between your work as an editor and as teacher and writer. Is the circle of people you work with the same?

VV: Heidi and Ed are mainly writers and the people I work with at 826 are mostly from the ranks of teachers. They are blended together in that everyone wants a world of better writing. We don’t publish any negative book reviews. We are promoting writers we think are great. The same mentality is behind 826, which is a kind of kindness to writing, encouraging more writers and encouraging more people to be writers. That’s where it comes together.

RB: Do you read unkind reviews?

VV: No I don’t read reviews.

RB: Any sense of the effect(s) of Heidi Julavits’ manifesto in the first tissue of the Believer?

VV: Oh sure. It’s a funny thing, I knew this would happen. It’s like a New Yorker cartoon. Someone says, "Let’s all be nicer," and then people throw tomatoes. Because no one really wants to be nicer. I am not saying that’s what happened. Heidi fully expected it. In some ways we are happy that the word ‘snark’ is back in the lingua franca, and Heidi used that word because she is a big Lewis Carroll fan. Even the title comes from a Lewis Carroll epigraph. The Clive James comment was surprising because I think he was implying she didn’t know what she was using.

RB: Oh, I read it as implying that no one else seemed to know.

VV: Interesting.

RB: I thought James summed up the debate well.

VV: [laughs, haltingly] In some ways, yes. I am not convinced that there is a good to bad reviews or that people who shouldn’t be reviewing a book are assigned to review that book because it’s just schadenfreude.

RB: I thought James was just acknowledging that it was a fact of human nature that people were going to get nasty. And some people could say some critical but intelligent things and that they might employ snide language. That’s just the way it is.

VV: I don’t mean to be Little Miss Pangloss. I don’t think it has to be that way. That’s what we are trying to do with the Believer is change that. It doesn’t have to be that way and we are not. And that’s why people like us and like our reviews. It confuses me and it’s funny to me and it’s sad to me. But I do definitely think it’s schadenfreude.

RB: Will this issue go on forever?

VV: Oh. I don’t know about forever. I’d like I think that Believer will stamp it out. [laughs]

RB: With Snarkwatch?

VV: I like Snarkwatch. I don’t know if we will stamp it out, but it makes people more aware of it.

RB: It does seem that people pay attention more to the reviews than the books. Where’s the attention to literature?

VV: It’s very strange to me. I stay away from all that stuff. I am surprised when I hear the stuff that does go on. There is a way to isolate yourself. Not that you should. That’s what you do.

RB: It is getting tedious. I was engaged in one of those weblog threads and somebody called me a nitwit.

VV: [shouts] Don’t read it! Don’t go on line!

RB: It was amusing, and I was wondering what would move someone to be insulting in a discussion about some literary issue—and to someone they didn’t know? A lot of rage… I didn’t insult his momma. Anyway, was there a model for the Believer when it was conceived?

VV: For a while with fifty e-mails a day we would keep saying what about this and what about that. Or 110 e-mails over the course of two days because we decided everything was too long, and now those (Motels, Light) are some of my favorite sections, and Underway was started because I was always curious about what was on people’s desks when they are between books. Basically, the magazine is an extension of a conversation that Ed and Heidi and I would have if we were sitting down and spending the day together. What we talk about or people we are interested in. Or, have you heard of this or that? You are right, any conversation is the result of a time and a place and a particular day, and so every issue is like that as well. It’s much more guided by the time, place and day and the particular combination of people and people who pitch ideas to us. Some of those ideas have been the best.

RB: Kind of a sanctuary.

VV: I didn’t say sanctuary [laughs]

RB: I don’t know if that’s a loaded word.

VV: The fact that people can come to us basically over the transom. Half our contributors are people who have pitched us on the Internet. That’s how we, I met—you.

RB: Oh yeah. I’m going to cut this part out.

VV: [both laugh] I’ve never seen you before.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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