On Writing a Character Who Confronts Middle Age and the Necessity of Change
Laura van den Berg and Karolina Waclawiak in Conversation
Karolina Waclawiak, author of Life Events, and Laura van den Berg, author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, connected to talk about writing characters at a pivotal moment in their lives, the centrality of female relationships in their books, and confronting grief during the revision process.
Karolina Waclawiak: In reading your stories, I get a sense that a lot of your characters are women who feel like they’re ghosts in their own lives. They haven’t quite found their way into their own lives, they haven’t taken traditional paths. It feels in conversation with my character Evelyn’s own journey to navigate alternative life paths and being unsuccessful. I’m curious why you find these kinds of characters interesting to write about? These sort of never-do-wells.
Laura van den Berg: A straight-forward answer would be to say I’m drawn to sources of tension. For a lot of these characters, the story is finding them at moments where they have misperceived something pretty significant about their own reality.
I think we all have moments where something we’ve perceived is revealed as false. And that can be a very destabilizing experience. I was interested in looking at that with these women—in some cases, the misapprehension is destabilizing in a way that is not destructive. In other ways, the misapprehension is more serious or more destructive. What happens when a foundational perspective is upended or disrupted?
KW: It feels like it’s almost an investigation into the ways that we cope. And the lies we construct for ourselves. And not necessarily lies, again, I feel like there are negative connotations to that, but looking at our coping mechanisms and what works for us until it doesn’t is a really interesting way to look at how people move through the world.
Evelyn’s reaching this critical age where she’s constructed ways of coping and moving through her life that felt like, “OK, I can do this. This is functional.” But so much of the way we function is dysfunctional at a certain point. Having an about-face in your life to find healthier coping mechanisms is really difficult. A lot of people don’t do it. This book is about Evelyn facing herself and facing her coping mechanisms and saying, “How do I want to move forward in the next phase of my life, if the ways I’ve moved through the world are really unsustainable in the long-term?”
LV: That dimension of her character resonates so much. That is what got me back into therapy three years ago, after having been in therapy when I was younger and then on a long hiatus. But so often the coping mechanisms that we have that allow us to not only survive but in some cases to really succeed in our chosen sort of path at a certain point turn on us and become, at best, limiting and, at worst, harmful.“It’s a middle-age thing, right? You still have enough time to make a change that could actually be meaningful.”
I think that turn, if it is going to happen for people, often happens in that mid, late-30s, early-40s kind of juncture. I was interested in writing women who are about that age. Am I remembering correctly that Evelyn is in her late 30s?
KW: She’s 37. I noticed that as I was reading your stories. It’s a middle-age thing, right? You still have enough time to make a change that could actually be meaningful. But it’s scary to be like, “OK, I’ve had some successes or I’ve hit some milestones, but I’m still unhappy. What now?”
LV: I read a book recently that had a character who’s 37, and there was a phrase used at one point: “The nervous condition of being 37.” Our books have overlap there for sure—characters who are at this age where they’re still young in some ways, but also they’re aware that time is not infinite, and they can feel mortality breathing down their neck.
KW: This now or never feeling that’s the beat of a drum in the background. I was really taken by how much Florida is a character in your stories, too. Specifically “The Pitch,” “Last Night.” There’s an uncanny element of Florida. There’s such an idea of what Florida is in popular culture, Florida man and stuff like that. But I’m interested in how you captured the weirdness of Florida while also subverting expectations.
LV: You’re in LA, right?
LV: Florida bears similarity to California in that it’s a very large state, and the regions are really different. And even within the broad grouping of south Florida, central Florida, north Florida, you have worlds stacked upon worlds. In popular culture and in the media, there’s a flattening of the state into a ridiculous caricature. The profound complexity and multi-dimensionality of the place isn’t really engaged at all. I lived in Florida until my early 20s. It would be an understatement to say I was ready to go. As much as I love my family, I had recurring nightmares when I would come back that I lost my driver’s license or that the airport would be closed indefinitely.
I’m in Florida now and will be here for the next year. I’m in a part of central Florida where there are a lot of wilderness preserves, which has been amazing during the pandemic if you’re trying to be outside and socially distanced. I’m like, “Oh, this is so cool. I can take a hike through a cypress swamp. How did I not see the sort of strange, hallucinatory beauty of this?”
I still can viscerally remember the role that the fires played [in your first novel, How to Get Into the Twin Palms] and how evocative that was. And when I think of the west coast—I think of the geological instability with earthquakes and fires. That’s like we have had here, too. Not with earthquakes and fires, but a kind of extremity of weather, and also extremity of landscape, too.
How do you think that awareness of landscape or that sort of extremity of landscape has influenced your work over time?
KW: I have now written about California twice in books. I’ve always had this idea that LA is a city that should never have worked. I was doing research for this book and driving around in desert communities—there’s some near Death Valley that are just like, “How does this still exist?” Everything is dusty, and in what world did anyone think this was a good idea to build anything here. And yet people march on and still try to build community.
Desert landscapes feel so extreme, and for Evelyn, I think being in those places feel right, because you’re sort of you against the world, which is already her mentality anyway. The idea of survival and then thinking about how any of us survive anyway. And then thriving in extreme conditions.
I felt like your stories, there’s so much of women reckoning with relationships they have with other women. So much of the tension of some of these stories have a covetous feeling to it. Sisters who want their sisters’ lives, or are trying to insert themselves into someone else’s life. What’s interesting in these women-to-women relationships?
LV: In thinking about my previous collections, a lot of those stories had women dealing with the men in their lives. And I wanted to pivot away from that in Wolf and to center women-to-women relationships and relationships between sisters, neighbors, friendship, which I think is this endlessly vast, complex landscape in fiction.
I think of your work as being very women-centric as well. What dimension of experience were you interested in writing into Life Events?
KW: Evelyn has these relationships with older women—it’s almost like she’s searching for another mother in a way. She has a mother, in the book she attempts to navigate what it would feel like to have someone who’s a similar age to her mother die, so she could sort of, and I don’t mean to sound crass, game out what it would look like—to desensitize herself. Even with the woman who runs the exit guide program, Bethanny, she’s looking for knowledge and wisdom from women who have already done this. Walked through life, so to speak.
She wants to be a receptacle for knowledge and experience. She wants to be told, “Just do these things and you’ll be OK.” She doesn’t want to have to do this without a roadmap. This being life. She’s looking for someone to teach her. And I think that’s interesting when you’re searching for something from somebody who is unwilling to give it, especially if it’s woman-to-woman and you’re not necessarily getting a nurturing relationship there.
LV: There’s a lot of intimacy in some cases between the women in the stories. There is a tremendous amount of fraught feeling as well.
KW: Well, that’s something else that I noticed in your stories, too—this quiet violence. It’s never at the forefront of the action. In some of these stories, it felt like the violence had happened off-camera and the characters are living with the reverberation of these acts. In Your Second Wife, the violence is the core action. But even in that story, I felt like the character had a cool detachment from the violence. How do you navigate writing about violence, especially violence against women?
LV: Your Second Wife was an interesting experiment because, for me, that’s the funniest story in the collection. It’s also the story where there’s the most overt violence. The character is abducted by a serial killer, which is super not funny. But I think the detachment in that character makes sense to me because this is happening to her. The events in the story shock her back into herself. Her job has been impersonating dead wives. It’s happening to her and not happening to her, so she’s able to narrate it with some remove. By the time we get to the end, that remove has kind of collapsed somewhat, and she is shocked back into herself.“I think for most of us, we hit late 30s, we’ve been through some shit.”
And that’s the story of thinking about the women-to-women relationships—she has a sister who lives in Australia. So they don’t have an IRL relationship, but they have a virtual relationship. Her sister is paranoid about her job and is sending her these videos.
KW: Survival techniques.
LV: I think of that as one of the more nurturing relationships in the story, where it’s like, “I’m trying to teach you how to survive in this world that you’ve created for yourself.”
But I think that age piece that we were talking about earlier: that we’re meeting by and large women who are in their late 30, of course all our lives are so varied, people lose parents or siblings or endure trauma as children, so certainly not to make any kind of universal generalizations, I think for most of us, we hit late 30s, we’ve been through some shit. I think that death and violence and grief has left its mark on most of us by the time we hit that age. And that’s absolutely true for the characters in the stories, and they’re in that “What now?” space of kind of grief and recovery and how do you rebuild after something destabilizing or traumatic has happened in your life?
KW: That’s so true. As I was working on this book, my mother got sick and her health was getting worse. I could not have written this book without feeling the impending doom of grief coming. I had no conception of what that grief would look like and feel like, even though I’ve had people close to me die. It just felt like this thing that starts happening around our age, and trying to process that loss became an obsession with me that I had to write my way into without having clear answers.
But it does feel like this preoccupation had to come in time. This was the right age to start having awareness of losing people who are fundamental to the core of your existence, and thinking about how any of us go on.
LV: My dad died in February 2019, while I was finishing edits.
KW: My mom died as I was finishing edits.
LV: I’m sorry.
KW: I know, I’m so sorry. It’s such a surreal experience, too.
LV: 100 percent. And in my dad’s case, it sounds like your mother had been ill as well—I was unprepared for how shocking it was. And even though I understand it’s not the same shock as a parent that was killed in a car accident or something that comes completely out of left field, in the case of my father, he had been sick and had a terminal lung condition. But he had been given a diagnosis of two-ish years. And then he was dead three months later. He went into the hospital and one thing went wrong and then another thing went wrong and another thing went wrong. He didn’t come back out.
I don’t think I will ever recover from the raw shock of his absence from earth. I had a colleague who wrote this beautiful note that she left in my mailbox. She had lost both of her parents at different times. She said it’s like the world tilts on this axis. The world tilts on its axis because you’ve only known life with them in it. That felt so true to me.
KW: I feel like I suffer many losses throughout the day. And I think it’s when something comes up and I don’t have my mother to call, or I feel her absence acutely in many different ways. It feels like I’m always feeling her loss. And I think I’ll never recover. And somehow we’re forced to go on. It feels psychotic.
LV: A recovery-resistant state.
KW: Are you writing in the pandemic?
LV: I am writing. Focus is a challenge. Writing takes an extra amount of energy than it would have before I’m working on two different projects, which I don’t normally do. I’ve never tried to write two books at the same time, but I think one thing that’s been really helpful about that is that if I have trouble focusing on one, I switch over to the other.
I’ve tried to release any expectation of what a finished thing might look like, when it might happen, and be in process and to be like, the thing that matters now is continuing. I think at a different time I may be like, “OK, I’d really like to have finished draft of one of these in six months or a year” but to release any sense of timeline, and to be in that space of process. When I keep myself pointed in that direction, it feels possible to keep putting words on the page.
KW: I’m having a realignment of values. I think the world is feeling a before-and-after and wrestling with wanting to go to the before time and having to come to terms with the fact that we’re never going back to the way it was. To me, that feels akin to the grief of losing someone very close to you. It will never be the way it was before. We have to move forward and live in a new kind of way. We don’t know what that looks like.
But it’s not going back to the way it was. And being okay with that there were things that I was doing before that don’t serve me anymore. Can I be okay with losing them? How do I want to rebuild my life in this new world?
Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg are available via FSG.