Victoria Patterson Will Not be Silent and Compliant

The author of ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ on writing to be defiant

I first met Victoria Patterson a decade ago. She was my teacher when I was an undergraduate at UC Riverside, while she was finishing up her MFA. I don’t remember the exact course, but it was one of those classes that you fantasize about taking while you’re in high school (well, at least you do if you’re obsessed with reading): she had us read great books and then we sat around and talk about them. She was one of those professors you fantasize about as a high schooler, too — endlessly supportive, treating us as more like peers than lowly undergrads.

The very next year, Patterson’s debut collection Drift was published to much acclaim, and was nominated for numerous awards, including the Story Prize. In the years since, she’s published three novels: This Vacant Paradise, an exploration of class and gender, set in Newport Beach; The Peerless Four, about the first women’s Olympic track and field team; and The Little Brother, based on the real-life case of a teen girl’s rape at the hands of her classmates, and its social and emotional aftermath.

The Secret Habit of Sorrow, published last month by Counterpoint, marks Patterson’s return to the short story. The subjects and scenarios of each story vary widely, but there’s a connective tissue running throughout — each character suffers from a type of loneliness, a type of loss. Like any story collection worth its salt, most of them are deeply flawed, but in Patterson’s writing there is an underlying bigheartedness and compassion, which feels somewhat revolutionary in today’s polarized world. The result is a collection that takes the reader to unexpected places, in language that is both precise and lyrical.

Patterson and I discussed addiction, process, and the benefits of having a writer’s group over a Google doc.

Juliet Escoria: One thing that really impressed me about this book is how it is told from the viewpoint of people in all walks of life — divorced dads, young pregnant women, people in recovery, people in active addiction, busboys, grad students — in a way that is always compassionate and nuanced. Was this something you were conscious of as you were writing the book? How did you get into the mindset of so many different types of people?

Victoria Patterson: These stories range from ten to fifteen years ago (“Johnny Hitman,” “Half-Truth) to the very recent (“Visitations,” “How to Lose”), though the older stories have been rewritten over the years and on in to the last few years, because I can’t seem to leave them alone. So I didn’t consciously try to have a wide range of viewpoints — it’s just how the stories happened. Each time I write a story, it’s like diving into the ocean. I get to enter an alternate world and become other people. It’s daunting and exciting.

JE: I thought it was refreshing and interesting that you showed so many sides to addiction; I feel like it’s so easy and much more common to look exclusively at active addiction. It was making me think about how the set of personality traits that often come with being an addict also often overlap with being an effective writer. Do your own addictive traits feed into your writing?

VP: Yes. Probably.

I got sober four months before my twenty-first birthday. Twenty-nine years of sobriety later, I’m aware of all that space around addiction that’s ripe for material, along with all the ways I can hurt myself without taking a drink or a drug. These traits are deeply ingrained. I can’t seem to rid myself of them completely. I get one tapped down, only for it to pop back up in another form, like a vicious game of whack a mole. In my writing, I’m grappling with these everlasting demons, along with knowing what it’s like to love someone who is actively destroying himself/herself, which, I believe, is one of the most painful things to witness. I have compassion for those who suffer, knowing directly what I go through/have gone through myself. I feel like I’m often writing about secrets, shame, and the struggle for relief.

My starting point often comes from defiance and an urgency to document and disrupt, because I’m supposed to be compliant and silent.

I suppose one could equate writing to an addiction, like that thing Joyce Carol Oates has, where she can’t stop writing, what’s it called? I’ve got that to some degree. I’m always writing or needing to write. But for me, it has more to do with life and survival than death, whereas my alcoholism veers toward death.

At one point I did go to a priest and ask him about my writing — this was a few years before I’d published Drift — because I was concerned by my absolute drive to write. I was sneaking off to write, very much like an addiction, when my kids were young. The priest tried to understand what I was saying, and then he told me about how he’d been really into jogging, and then he’d had to stop when his knees went out, suggesting that what I was describing might be similar. It made me feel strangely better, knowing that this writing thing wasn’t quite like his jogging thing. It’s bigger than an addiction.

JE: I’m always interested in a writer’s process, just because they can vary so much, and often seem to reflect qualities about the writer’s writing in general. What are some things you do with every story? Can you take us through a particular story, from initial idea to final draft?

VP: Each story has to percolate, sometimes for years and years, before it’s ready. Each story usually has my writer group’s influential thumbprint, since I trust them. They spot things I cannot, question me, push me to go deeper when I don’t want to. It’s like when you’ve lived with some flaw for so long, you no longer see it. You’re just used to it. But then someone else comes in and points it out, and it was right there all along. So while I’d like to not need help, by now I know that I do. I want my work to be as good as I can make it, so I submit it to this evaluation process.

Otherwise, each story’s development is distinct. Some begin with an image, others with an idea, others with a character. For instance, my story “DC” began when a friend invited me to go swimming at her apartment complex, and she left a brick to keep the gate parted, so she wouldn’t have to buzz me inside. The entire story started from that brick. Whereas a story like “Johnny Hitman” came from my character Linda, who I knew so well. “Visitations,” on the other hand, was my exploration of family secrets, what we tell and don’t tell, and how these secrets bloom no matter what.

JE: How did your writer’s group form? I want a writer’s group! The description of yours sounds amazing.

VP: I’m so fortunate. It’s helpful in so many ways. I met Dana Johnson when she was my professor at UC Riverside. After I graduated, she asked if I’d be interested in a writers group that was just forming. This was in 2007. We’ve had the group since — there are four of us. One member, Veronica Gonzalez Pena, moved to New York. Now there are four again: me, Dana, Danzy Senna, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Michelle Huneven is also a valued reader for me.

JE: I’ve been thinking a lot about different writer’s motivations and obligations: how a poet’s is different than a novelist, and somebody who writes about their own life is different than someone who completely invents new worlds, etc. What makes you feel the need to write? What is something you feel like your writing has to do?

VP: These questions are difficult to answer! As far as one thing I hope my writing does: make a reader feel less alone. I’m working on this essay right now, and it’s about a lot of things, but it’s also about my need to write, how it’s connected to my survival. I talk about how I filled out my own baby book when I was seven, since I’d found it empty! How it began as a survival mechanism, for self-representation, and to excavate my own birth family’s prodigious amount of secrets. Here’s a passage:

I’ll write what I’m not supposed to write, I decided. I’ll tell what I’ve been told doesn’t exist, because it does. I’ll show proof. To this day, my starting point often comes from defiance and an urgency to document and disrupt, because I’m supposed to be compliant and silent.

Yet in daily life, I’d rather go unnoticed. What I project is not who I am, or how I feel myself to be. I was trained in girlhood to be quiet, pretty, accommodating, and this was how I received attention. My pen name’s different than what people know and call me, Tory (what I go by) a nickname for Victoria. On the page, Victoria is braver, smarter, and more openly defiant than I am.

JE: That makes a lot of sense to me. Your writing seems very much like the work of a person who prefers to be unnoticed in daily life — a quiet observer — who also has a sense of defiance in their interior life. A lot of your work is about more underexplored elements of Southern California. I wouldn’t call it “the underbelly” (although that label occasionally fits), so much as the less examined. One thing I was happy to read about is that very specific type of Southern Californian Christianity — I feel like a lot of people imagine California as a hotbed of liberal values, when in reality, it can be quite conservative. What are some things you feel like most people get wrong about Southern California?

VP: The whole notion that everybody’s laid back! People are just as insecure and uptight here as anywhere else. It’s just sunnier!

JE: You (somewhat) recently got a Twitter account, after having no social media presence for a long time. What caused you to get one?

Each time I write a story, it’s like diving into the ocean. I get to enter an alternate world and become other people. It’s daunting and exciting.

VP: I joined under an alias initially — to poke around, get my feet wet. When Trump was elected, I decided to stop hiding behind my alias. It was one of my venting sources. I find it helpful to get news/information. I’m inept at social media and that’s ok, since that way I don’t get caught up in it. I joined Instagram as well. Initially my sons had to show me how to post. I’m really bad at it. With anything that requires more than rudimentary basic knowledge, they post for me.

JE: Sometimes I look at books I’ve read and loved, and wish I hadn’t yet read them, simply so I could once again have the pleasure of reading them for the first time. What are some books you wish you could relive reading?

VP: Like wanting to be a virgin again! I’m not sure. But I loved reading The Collected Stories of William Trevor. I carted that huge book around with me everywhere when my kids were young — to swim lessons, doctor appointments. I felt like it was my secret friend. There it was in the open with me, but no one could comprehend the intense, intimate relationship I was having with it.

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