Rufi Thorpe on Finding a Narrator, Teenage Love and That Critical Writing Advice She Got about Tuna…
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I first discovered Rufi Thorpe last summer, after hearing a co-worker rave about The Girls From Corona Del Mar, Thorpe’s first book. It’s a testament to Thorpe’s writing that, despite starting the book during one of the busiest times of my life — leaving a job, moving apartments — I devoured it in two days. It was miss-your-subway-stop good. It was tell-everyone-you-know-and-even-some-people-you-don’t-to-read-this-book good. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Thorpe’s second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, would be coming out this spring (out May 24 from Knopf).
Dear Fang, With Love is about Lucas, a young father, who takes Vera, his teenage daughter, to Vilnius, Lithuania in the wake of Vera’s recent psychotic episode at a high school party. Once again, Thorpe’s voice, language, and attention to detail sucked me into the world she’s created. Thorpe manages to tackle dark issues — estranged families, mental illness, and failed relationships — with a unique sense of humor and big-hearted empathy.
I got the chance to speak to Rufi over the phone about Dear Fang, With Love, how writing a second novel is different from a debut, and the writing advice Ann Beattie gave to her.
Michelle King: I want to begin by talking about the structure of the book. The book is told from Lucas’s perspective, with emails and journal entries from Vera starting each chapter. I’d love to hear how you settled on this particular structure. Did you always know that Lucas would be the narrator?
Rufi Thorpe: The book actually started out entirely from Lucas’s point-of-view, with none of Vera’s perspective. But she’s a weed, that girl. She pops up. At times, it was difficult to keep her from taking over the whole book because she’s so addictive to write. But part of the book’s narrative relies on [the reader] not knowing certain things, so she couldn’t be the narrator entirely of the book or it would become a very different book. One of the themes of the book is outside/inside — how we seem to others versus how we seem to ourselves. So, that tension between Lucas and Vera and between their two realities is really where the heart of the book is.
MK: How late into the process of writing did Vera’s voice come into the book so directly?
RT: As a writer, I’m prone to drafting a lot and throwing away a lot. I wrote a whole version of this book from Lucas’s point of view and my agent was like, “It’s terrible!” [Laughs] And then I threw it away and I wrote a version from Lucas’s point of view and my agent was like, “It’s perfect!” And then my editor and she was like, “What about allowing Vera to have more of a voice on the page?” That required a complete restructuring, but when I started writing her pages, I could tell it was what the book needed. It just enlivened the book so much. It was really structurally tricky to get all the information you need to open a book and get it running with two narrators — that’s always technically challenging. Over the course of the two and a half years I spent writing the book, Vera was only a narrator for the last year and a half.
MK: I read in another interview that you said Lucas is the closest thing you’ve come to writing a self-portrait and that trying to look at yourself became easier to do so when it was a character who isn’t female. Why do you think that is?
RT: Oh gosh. I think that, in part — and it’s something that I hope that I’m outgrowing as a person — but whenever I would try to write autobiographical material where I would write a version of myself as a woman, I would be so weirdly distant but also judgmental and mean to myself as a character. And, so, something about the lens of otherness — of making it a different gender — gave me enough distance that I could be more “author-ly.” I could extend my author’s affection. I needed the character to be more distant.
I think that female authors often dress in drag in order to have a little bit more freedom…
I also think that there’s a slightly different…I don’t know. I feel like there’s a lot of women who like to imagine themselves as men. You know, I love Moby Dick. Anything Melville wrote. I just find him fascinating and fun. And hilarious. And, so, I was very excited to make my very good friend read Moby Dick and she was just so furious and I was like, “What’s making you so mad?” And she said, “Because I can never go on a whaling trip! Women have never been allowed to be that free and it makes me so insanely jealous to read about it!” I think that female authors often dress in drag in order to have a little bit more freedom, whether that’s freedom in terms of the kind of adventures characters get to go on or other kinds of freedoms. Lucas is allowed to be a little bit sad and it’s not the same kind of problem it would be if he were a female character who was a little bit sad. It doesn’t limit his romantic prospects. It’s not about his self-esteem, exactly. He’s allowed to be an unhealthy animal in a way that I don’t think he could be if he were written as a female character.
MK: That’s really interesting. In both of your novels you write so well about teenage girls, with such respect and such generosity. What was your character development process like for Vera?
RT: Well, it’s funny. Now I’m 31, so I recognize that I’m not exactly a teenage girl anymore, but I think we all still feel like our teen selves. For me, the memory of what it’s like to be a teenage girl is like oppressively fresh. Time is not going to dampen it. But, in terms of making sure Vera didn’t sound like a 90s teen girl, I did have to be aware of that. For instance, there’s a reference to her Pokemon collection. Originally, I had written it as a Beanie Baby collection. But readers were like, “She wouldn’t have Beanie Babies.” And I had to be like, “Oooooh. What would teen girls have now?”
MK: Mental illness plays a large role in this book. In writing a book that is at least in part about bipolar disorder, I wonder what you felt you were up against, in terms of having to be careful with the topic.
RT: The thing that I most wanted to do was not try to glamorize bipolar disorder, because I think it does a real disservice to people who are actually struggling with it. That being said, I think that one of the things that people with bipolar disorder struggle with is the glamour of their disorder, and the fact that, at times, they feel like Jesus and feel so good. So, my experience with mental illness is that I had a long-term relationship with a man who was Bipolar I and I have a very close female friend who was diagnosed Bipolar I. I got to see exactly what life had in store. The biggest struggle for me, in terms of originally framing the book, was that I wanted to write about Vera when she was older, when those questions about her future were not just theoretical, but were pressing. But I felt like I couldn’t legitimately write a Lucas who was all that much older. So, then I thought, Well, maybe I’ll make them younger. And Vera just came alive. There were enough reasons to set it earlier, but I did feel like I gave up talking about what’s really hard about living longterm with mental illness. I would love to write a book someday about 30-year-old Vera and 50-year-old Lucas.
MK: I want to discuss watching Vera’s disorder develop. [Warning: Spoiler] A great deal of the tension in the novel is whether or not Vera does, in fact, have bipolar disorder or if her episode at the party was the result of something else. When it was revealed that she does have bipolar disorder, I was surprised, but then realized, Well, of course she does. And thought of all these signs peppered throughout. I want to hear about how you held back information and what decisions you made and how.
RT: Oh, it was torturous. You don’t want to be too obvious, but you also don’t want it to come out of nowhere. People are always going to notice slightly different things. Some of the details are super obvious to people who are familiar with mental illness and, if you’re not familiar with mental illness, you’re just like, Weird that she’s not brushing her teeth! I just tried to walk the line the best that I could.
MK: I want to talk about the character of Fang. He’s such a big part of the book and, yet, we only hear his voice a handful of times and we don’t really know that much about him or his life outside of Vera. I’d love to hear you talk about what you see as his function in the novel.
RT: I think I’m drawn to outsider men with interesting ideas who are not quite who you expect them to be. That’s a character I love to write. I have a tremendous and passionate fondness for Fang. If Vera had some very ordinary boyfriend, it would longer the stakes of the whole situation. Fang is as good a chance as she has of finding a match. I know that they’re only in high school, but there is some way in which they’re really suited to each other. I wanted to bring up the thought experiment of ‘even in a best case scenario, what all is going to get in the way?’ Not only dealing with mental illness, but also just dealing with a teenager and growing up. How do we hold on to the good stuff that we’re given?
I also think that I wanted some kind of parallel to [Vera’s parents] Lucas and Katya’s high school romance. You know, I think about first loves both ways. I flip back and forth. Sometimes I think those first loves are real loves and are every bit as passionate as the ones that turn into marriages or that last for 50 years, and then other times they seem like trivial puppy love and of course they broke. They weren’t real and it was just being young and having a lot of hormones. That kind of optical illusion, where it means everything, it means nothing, it means everything, that’s what I was trying to get at with both relationships.
MK: My next question is about Katya and Lucas’s relationship. There was a part of me that was rooting for them to get back together —
RT: I know.
MK: And I know they shouldn’t! But…
RT: I know. Maybe they will! Life is long.
MK: I hope. But I was so pleased that, by the end of the book, they understood each other more. You answered it a bit in the last question, but I would like to hear about what in their relationship was compelling to you. What did you want to tease out? Ugh. Their relationship just broke my heart in half.
That kind of flirtation with danger is inevitable for me.
RT: I know, I know. It’s so hard. It’s just so sad that it wound up happening exactly how it did, because it so easily could have happened another way but, at the same time, it feels inevitable. Kat was another character that just sort of just took over. She’s so ferocious and easy to write, and she just does things. I love it. I find her fascinating. I think that, in some sense, if Lucas is me, there is something to people like Kat — that brazenness and that flirtation with distraction — that I am drawn to. That kind of flirtation with danger is inevitable for me. In the push and pull between them and the decisions they’re making — she really does want to abandon real, regular, normal life and he wants to play-act abandoning real, regular, normal life — and that’s the main conflict in their relationship. He thought they were just pretending and then all of the sudden it got really real. Real enough that another person was going to be born. And he wussed out. I think that’s interesting. A lot of writers with the pull between some sort of dream world or a realer reality and your socially mandated “social self.”
MK: I would like to shift gears a bit and discuss the role of location. In the acknowledgments, you talk about going to Vilnius before you had ever published a word. What was that trip like? And why, after publishing many words, did you decide to set a story — specifically this story — there?
RT: So, I was waitressing at a 1950s themed diner on the end of a pier. And it was a horrible — well, it was actually kind of a fun job, but it was obviously not being-a-published-writer job. It was being-a-waitress-in-a-burger-joint job and hoping-to-one-day-be-a-published-writer job. I had already gotten my MFA and I hadn’t really published any short stories. I’m bad at writing short stories, and it’s really hard to get bad short stories published. [Laughs] I was just sort of endlessly looking for contests to enter and submitting things and was just always getting rejected. It was the cycle. And, so, I randomly wound up getting a notification that I had gotten a second place in a contest that I could not even remember entering. But it enabled me to go away with Summer Literary Seminars, which is an amazing program. I wound up going to Lithuania when I knew literally nothing about Lithuania. I went because I could go. It was the most incredible place. During that trip, I was writing what wound up becoming The Girls From Corona Del Mar. And, so, it was an important trip for me artistically, but it was also an important trip for me personally, just in terms of evaluating where my life was and where I wanted it to go and what sort of person I wanted to be and how to become that person. It’s a city that was very formative for me. I thought of it as the place that transformations happened. When my characters needed to be transformed, it was the natural place to be transformed.
MK: One of the things that always impresses me about your writing is your attention to detail. These small details illuminate so much in your story and so much about your characters. Does attention to detail come naturally to you? Are their writers you look to who you’ve found instructive in this regard?
RT: Oh, yeah. A famous writer told me something that helped make my work better and it was about details. It was Ann Beattie. She was teaching at UVA’s MFA program when I was there and she was mad because — well, she hated me. [Laughs] She didn’t like my work very much, which is understandable because my work at the time was pretty bad. Like I said, I’m not very good at writing short stories. But [in one workshop story] I had these two girl characters eating tuna fish sandwiches and she was like, “And, Jesus, they could be eating anything.” And I was just like, “What is wrong with tuna fish sandwiches?” And she was like, “You can do it all for free. You’re not a painter. You don’t have to go buy expensive paint. You’re not a sculptor. You don’t have to go buy a huge hunk of marble. You just say ‘lo mein,’ and bam! They’re eating lo mein. Tuna fish sandwiches just does nothing to this scene. Having them eat it is lazy. Everything is at your fingertips. You can just snap your fingers and change a detail to a scene, so all of your details need to be serving the story and serving the moment and serving your characters and putting pressure on them.” And it’s absolutely true. She was right.
MK: Something you said — and you’ve said it a few times now — is that you’re bad at writing short stories. As a younger writer, that’s something that’s really inspiring for me to hear. It’s easy to get bogged down by the idea that you have to be good at everything. You have to write short stories and you have to write a novel. Do you have any advice — not even for young writers, but for aspiring writers in general — who feel they might be bad at short stories, but they would love to write a novel? Or that they might be bad at a certain thing and that discourages them?
If you love books more than anything else, that’s probably the number one requirement for being a writer.
RT: Totally. The thing is, I don’t think that storytelling is all that elite of a skill. I think there’s an evolutionary argument to be made that in any band of twenty or more homosapiens, it’s adventatious for one of them to be able to tell a good yarn. So, I think that anyone who wants to be a writer bad enough will subject themselves to how insanely hard and stupid it is to begin to have a career and make money [through writing]. If you can survive that and you can survive everyone telling you no, I think anyone can do it. The very fact that you want to is probably the sign that you can. If you love books more than anything else, that’s probably the number one requirement for being a writer.
In terms of having things you’re bad at, I do think some writers are good at both [short stories and novel-writing]. Sometimes you’ll even see the rare triple crown, where someone can write poetry, short stories, and novels, but I think that there are lots of examples of people who are great short story writers, but their novels don’t quite work or vice-versa. I feel like there’s something fundamental about short stories that I still don’t understand. I love reading short stories, but for whatever reasons, the ideas I want to write about are just way too big for the short story. I never find an idea that’s there right size, where I’m like, Ah, yes. This can be accomplished in 12 to 15 pages.
MK: Did you find yourself approaching the writing process differently with your second novel? Or even just how you think about having a book out in the world? Is it different when it’s the second one?
RT: Totally. I wrote the whole first draft before The Girls From Corona Del Mar came out because I just didn’t know how publication was going to affect me — if it was going to make me scared, or I was going to get really bad reviews that would make me doubt myself. I wrote it because I was terrified that something would happen to mess me up. Having a novel published is just…it’s terrifying and wonderful. It’s emotionally intense, but in a kind of useless way. It’s sort of like having a crush when you’re 12. You can’t stop thinking about it, but there’s really nothing there to think about. [Laughs] At least, that’s what pub week is like. Having actual readers reach out to you and say, “This book meant something to me” is something I hadn’t anticipated. That’s such a gift and it’s something you can’t really imagine until it’s actually happening. But the whole thing of “my book is in a bookstore” feels unreal. It’s also super stimulating. Writers are introverts, and I would just prefer to sit in a room by myself thinking about imaginary people. [Laughs] That’s why I’m a writer. But the second time around, you know a little bit more of what to expect. The whole thing is a little bit less fraught, so I’m able to enjoy it more. I now know that when a bookstore asks you to come read, that’s because a real person read my book and liked it and wants me to come to the store they work in. It all feels so much more tangible, and therefore I’m much more grateful for it. The whole publishing industry is sort of amazing in that way. It really is just a bunch of book nerds who love books. I think the first time around I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t get it.
MK: I sort of hate to end the interview with this question because you just wrote a book. So, it seems rude to be like, “So, what else are you doing?”
MK: But…are you working on anything else at the moment? I think I’m just asking because I want you to be. [Laughs]
RT: Well, indeed I am. I hit a point of not writing and my husband was like, “I think you should start a book.” [Laughs] It’s a book and I can’t talk about it too much, because I don’t want to wreck it. But it involves boats, it involves families, and it involves women who are not very good at being women. It has more to do with siblings and family dynamics than anything I’ve written. But I can’t even say what it’s going to turn into because it just keeps going and going.
MK: Well, you had me at women not being very good at being women. Wait. Did you say it involves boats?
RT: Boats. Yeah. One of my characters is into sailing, and sailing is the kind of thing…I was like, “Oh, I’ll just read some books about sailing and it’ll be all good.” But A. It’s really hard to make yourself memorize sailing terminology if you’re not sailing and B. It’s just clear that it’s too hard to fake. So, I’m going to have to take some sailing classes, about which I am thrilled.