Interview with Victoria Patterson, Author of This Vacant Paradise

In 2008, I was just a lowly undergrad at UC Riverside, finishing up my senior year. I was a creative writing major, and I had Victoria Patterson for one of my craft classes. Patterson was awaiting the publication of her first short story collection, Drift (Mariner Books), which she had worked on while in the MFA program at UCR. She quickly became one of my favorite professors, due to her assigning us really devastating novels (The House of Mirth, Revolutionary Road) while still managing to maintain a sense of humor about it all (see this example).

Since then, I’ve kept tabs on my former professor. Drift received glowing reviews for its stunning portrayal of outsiders in the gleaming, cutthroat town of Newport Beach, and the collection was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2009. Drift was followed by This Vacant Paradise (Counterpoint), Patterson’s first novel, which told the story of Esther, a beautiful-yet-flawed thirty-something living in Orange County in the ‘90s.

Having grown up in Southern California, never feeling like I completely fit in, the book really resonated with me. Patterson is an author who writes about what I’m thinking, taking a scalpel to the golden façade that is life in Southern California and exposing it for what it really is: contradictory, complicated, and brutal, but still sometimes beautiful. Esther, for all her faults, was someone I empathized with and related to, with her simultaneous entanglement with the world of designer clothes and marrying for money, while searching — and hoping — for something more. In the end, This Vacant Paradise is a novel that is just as devastating and multifaceted as the books she taught us in class.

The novel was released in paperback earlier this month, and so I was delighted to do an interview with my former professor in celebration.

JJ: This Vacant Paradise is, of course, loosely modeled on The House of Mirth, and its parallels are numerous and obvious. But rather than focusing on the similarities, I’m more interested in what happened in the writing process that surprised you. What did you add that had absolutely nothing to do with THOM? What did you want to include, but couldn’t find room? Did anything neatly correspond with THOM unintentionally?

VP: I alternated between reading Henry James and Edith Wharton while working on This Vacant Paradise, and I was surprised by how much their social commentary applied to current times, especially regarding class anxiety — it’s all there, unapologetically. Both writers had a sharper edge than I remembered. For instance, Undine Spragg in Wharton’s Custom of the Country is such a compelling and unsympathetic female protagonist. Dark and funny and unrelenting. I benefitted and began to assess my characters and Newport Beach on the page in a way that I couldn’t have without these writers.

There’s so much in This Vacant Paradise that doesn’t correspond with The House of Mirth. I quickly discovered that if I held too close to an adaptation, the work felt forced and disingenuous.

There’s a scene in the first chapter of THOM where Lily Bart has to gather her skirt and pass a charwoman scrubbing the floor on her knees, and Lily’s reaction is complicated, loaded, and selfish. Unlike, say, Jane Eyre, Lily Bart is morally ambiguous, selfish, contradictory, complicated, emotionally intelligent, and helplessly dependent. I tried to write Esther with that same complexity. Esther’s honesty, self-awareness, and evolution — I hope — make her human, and she’s very much inspired by Lily Bart.

Drift: Stories

by Victoria Patterson

JJ: In This Vacant Paradise, and in a good deal of your short stories, you’re especially hard on the protagonist, in terms of how things turn out for them. Is this intentional? Why do you feel that this is necessary for you?

VP: First of all, I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s just the way I write. It’s not intentional. I don’t think I’m a sad and fatalistic person, though my writing can be dark and sad. I don’t try to write deliberately dark fiction, which I tend to notice in writers: look how dark my world is — how deep I am. That being said, I did begin TVP knowing that Esther would have a fall from grace — but I didn’t know how, or if her fate would be as tragic as Lily Bart’s.

I’ve been asked this question in one form or another most of my writing life. I wonder whether male writers get asked this question? Whether they feel pressure to make their work more optimistic? I doubt it.

I’m trying to write from a place of emotional honesty where I don’t ultimately have control. It’s just the way I write. It’s intuitive, which is also one of the reasons why I avoid Facebook and Twitter. I don’t want my writing to be steered toward crowd-pleasing.

JJ: The point you bring up about reactions to men’s writing in comparison to women’s is really provocative. Why do you think works by male writers aren’t perceived as bleak as those written by females? It’s definitely an interesting topic.

VP: At book clubs and Q and As, readers always ask me why I’m so depressing. Also, in reader reviews I get that. If I wrote sunnier fiction, I’d probably be more reader-popular. I do think that there’s a huge reader bias toward women writing anything but that sort of liberal-minded let me feel good and connected to the oppressed without any humor or bite or that sort of no sex or violence and very lyrical and ultra-neutered feel good writing. It just seems to me, off the top of my head, that male writers such as, say, Donald Ray Pollock, Philip Roth, Chuck Pahluh-how-do-you-spell-last-nume uhk, Bret Easton Ellis, TC Boyle, Cormac McCarthy, etc. etc, are praised for their less than cheerful subject matter — their bleakness or whatever. But then I was listening to Brad Listi’s podcast yesterday and hearing Alan Heathcock talking about how readers at book clubs didn’t know how to respond to his work because of its depressing and intense subject matter — so maybe it’s not as delineated as I thought?? So not sure. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that the writing world very much leans toward men — like the movie industry, etc. It’s pretty bad. But I might possibly be overreacting. And really, I am trying to write from that place that’s risky because I’m trying to do deep, expose something, so it’s this weird thing where I don’t really know what I’m doing, and maybe wish I could be something else. I don’t know. Writing is so weird. You have to have control and craft and be deliberate, but at the same time, if it’s really going anywhere, you have to risk.

JJ: I know that my relationship with Southern California is complicated: I love it, because it is beautiful and magical and it’s home. But it’s also full of superficial people, fake body parts, conservative Christians, prescription drug abuse, assholes with money wearing Juicy Couture, etc. etc. etc. I also kinda feel about California how most people do about their mother, in that I can badmouth it all I want, but if some East Coaster says something disparaging I feel personally insulted. I suspect that your relationship must be complicated as well, considering your books are more or less scathing commentaries of Southern California, yet you still live there. Can you expound on how California can be simultaneously so repelling and attractive?

VP: My relationship with SoCal is complicated. It’s not like I made the choice to live here from desire — it’s been economic-based, reality-based. Only recently have I allowed myself to even think about moving.

I don’t think SoCal is either good or bad. Like most things, it’s both.

For me, the family/SoCal analogy is a good one. It’s far too easy and simplistic to make fun of my family. They’re conservative Christians. They listen to Rush Limbaugh. They watch sports religiously. They’re a part of me. I love my family even though fundamentally and deeply we’re at odds, which tends to be painful for everyone, and which is why I thank them in my acknowledgments for making me a writer.

JJ: On that note, do you do anything to safeguard your sons against the Horrors that make up SoCal? I visited my mom’s school recently (she teaches elementary school at a wealthy public school in San Diego) and was appalled that apparently these $150 backpacks are in style. Who the hell buys their kid $150 backpacks? It made me feel that if I had kids, I’d want to lock them up with books, off-brand cereal, and a gunny sack in home school. But then again, I don’t have kids, and I no longer live in California.

VP:My sons are fourteen and eleven now. We’re fortunate to live in South Pasadena. I’ve lived here for over seventeen years. It’s a great town with fantastic public schools — far more economically and racially diverse than Newport Beach. My sons have grown up with two artist-parents, so they know not to ask for $150 backpacks. I do worry about them, but I worry about everything when it comes to my kids.

JJ: I’m always curious to hear how writers with spouses and children and jobs manage to fit writing in. Do you adhere to a schedule? What’s your process like? Any tips for keeping sane?

VP:I went to an Aimee Bender reading a long time ago and she said — I’m paraphrasing — that she wrote in the mornings to have it done with; her writing was motivated by dread and guilt. As soon as she got the writing over with, she could continue her day with less anxiety. I’m similar. I’m disciplined. When I’m not writing, I’m really uncomfortable.When my kids were younger, it was far more challenging. I wrote an article about how I used to drop them off at church daycare and then ditch church to write.

I used to feel guilty, especially before I was published because the writing compulsion had no concrete proof of its worth. At one point, I even spoke with a priest about it. He didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, I have no other hobbies, and my husband is supportive.

JJ: You teach at Antioch University in addition to UCR. Are there any major differences in the way that either school approaches fiction writing? And if you could impress one moral/lesson onto your students, what would it be?

VP:At UCR I teach undergraduates and at Antioch, graduate students. Both UCR and Antioch have a refreshing approach to the writing career as larger than publication — a social component and long-view approach.I care about my students. I’m not sure I can express one lesson or moral. I hope my passion for reading and writing triggers more potential and possibilities in them.

JJ: What are you working on now?

VP:Short stories. I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking and note taking and research and reading for a novel based on a real person. I have novel-jitters, not willing to commit yet.

JJ: Have you read anything amazing lately?

VP: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Trust me: read the fist chapter. His protagonist gets drunk at a fair and accidentally sells his wife and child, all in the first chapter.

Also, I love Dana Johnson’s forthcoming novel Elsewhere, California and Jim Gavin’s forthcoming story collection Middle Men.

This Vacant Paradise

by Victoria Patterson

— Victoria Patterson is the author of the novel This Vacant Paradise, selected as an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times Book Review. Drift, her collection of interlinked short stories, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the 2009 Story Prize. The San Francisco Chronicle selected Drift as one of the best books of 2009. Her work has appeared in various publications and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at the Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program and as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Riverside.

— Julia Jackson is a fiction writer and the Events Editor for The Outlet.

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