Vendela Vida on Finding Humor in the Darker Side of
The Author of We Run the Tides Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Vendela Vida writes fiction about women whose lives are disrupted by violence: her first novel, And Now You Can Go (2003), begins, “It was 2:15 in the afternoon of December 2 when a man holding a gun approached me in Riverside Park.” And her characters often face crises of identity. After her father dies, Clarissa journeys to Lapland in search of her mother and her real father’s identity (Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, 2007). Yvonne, a newly widowed woman in the early stages of grief, returns to the Turkish village where she spent her honeymoon (The Lovers, 2010). Vida’s tone is lighter, sometimes tender, in her sixth novel. We Run the Tides is set in her hometown, San Francisco, where she lives now with her husband (Dave Eggers), son, and daughter. It’s a nuanced and authentic meditation on teenage friendship (especially among girls), lying, fabricating, overdramatizing, and growing into the concept of consequences.
I read We Run the Tides in one intensive session. It was a great distraction from ongoing dramas of 2021, including COVID lockdowns and vaccinations and the impeachment narrative in the Capitol. Plus, I remember San Francisco in the 1980s—Baker Beach before Burning Man, before Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey bought side-by-side Sea Cliff mansions. It was a time when Robin Williams showed up at Green Apple Books on Clement Street just to browse. We Run the Tides captures San Francisco in that lull of an era, beginning with Vida’s intriguing choice of point of view.
Jane Ciabattari: Your 2015 novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is set in what I call “the risky second-person” in my review for BBC Culture. We Run the Tides begins in first person plural: “We are thirteen, almost fourteen, and these streets of Sea Cliff are ours. We walk these streets to our school perched high over the Pacific, and we run these streets to the beaches, which are cold, windswept, full of fishermen and freaks.” This “we” is a group of four teenagers who are friends and eighth-grade classmates at Spragg, an all girls’ school; two of them, Maria Fabiola and Eulabee, have been closest friends since kindergarten. They have the most adventures together, and then they have a complicated falling out. After that, Eulabee’s first-person point of view takes over. How did you arrive at this approach?
Vendela Vida: It can take me months to figure out the start of a book. I circle it and circle it, and then once I hear the rhythm of the first sentence in my head, the opening chapters take shape. One day I wrote the sentence “We are thirteen, almost fourteen, and these streets of Sea Cliff are ours,” and the first person plural instantly made sense to me.
So I started writing about four girls—Eulabee, Maria Fabiola, Julia and Faith—who have the same perspective and derive confidence from their collective point of view. Then, a few chapters into the book, two of the girls witness a horrible act on the way to school—or think they do—but Eulabee can’t support their version of events. As a result, Eulabee is ostracized from the group. So the “we” turns into an “I” and the rest of the novel is told from Eulabee’s perspective, as she moves through the world alone.
JC: Your title is inspired by Baker Beach and China Beach on the Pacific cliffs on the northwest edge of San Francisco, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Eulabee and Maria Fabiola know how to time it so they can run from one beach to the other at low tide, navigating the slippery rocks and making “a mad dash around the bluff.” But when the tide is in, that run can be fatal. What led you to pick this title, and this particular metaphor?
VV: This novel went through a couple different titles—one was inspired by a 1923 poem about San Francisco (The Sea-Maid’s Children) and another by a painting, The Raft of the Medusa. But ultimately neither of them worked. They were hard to remember, or seemed to be trying too hard. Then my daughter read the book in manuscript form and out of the blue she came up with We Run the Tides. I liked the sound of it, the rush of it—almost like when a wave breaks on a flat shore. And it speaks to that power you feel when you’re thirteen. Climbing those cliffs, knowing the tides—it felt very proprietary.
JC: Eulabee and Maria Fabiola are kept in separate classrooms at Spragg. “Separately, we are good girls. We behave. Together some strange alchemy occurs and we are trouble.” What creates that dynamic? Have you experienced it yourself? Witnessed it in action?
VV: I’ve had this dynamic with several friends in my life and at every age—even now. Separately we are ourselves, polite and reasonable, but once together, there’s this unspoken new charge that happens. I know I should give examples here, but I really don’t want to get anyone in trouble. I think everyone has at least one person in their life who’s an accelerant to giddy mischief.
JC: Speaking of Spragg, there are subtle undernotes of Edith Wharton throughout this novel. Was she an influence?
VV: In 2019, just before the pandemic, I was reading a lot of Wharton, and Undine Spragg, the antiheroine of The Custom of the Country, was particularly intriguing to me. Wharton’s depiction of Undine’s single-minded focus on social advancement helped me define the character of Maria Fabiola. Maria Fabiola is magnetic and attention-seeking and, to me, both hilarious and tragic. A bit like Undine.
I named all the schools in We Run the Tides after Wharton protagonists from various novels—Spragg, Viner, Olenska. It’s a shame that high schoolers have so often been forced to read Ethan Frome, which is such a grim novel. In my opinion, Wharton’s best work is The Custom of the Country, which is bright and wickedly funny and the perfect satire of American ambition.
JC: We Run the Tides has been compared to Elena Ferrante’s work. How do you know so much about the emotional experience of teenage girls? From your own memories? Did you keep diaries? Mementoes? Does being around your teenage daughter help?
VV: A friend with grown children said to me that when you have kids you relive each year of your life as they’re living it. So maybe it was my daughter becoming a teenager that helped focus my memories. It’s not that I remembered specific details but I distinctly remembered the feeling of being thirteen—that sense of heightened drama that surrounds every event and sensation.We grew up in the shadows of legendary musicians and writers and activists, and in the wake of more interesting times. So we had to re-create our own intrigue.
My mom recently gave me an old diary of mine she came across and I found this entry from when I was twelve. It read: “I hope to have lots of lovers in high school. It’s great to be in love as long as it doesn’t affect your grades.” I was a very romantic nerd.
JC: Lying, and the damage done by lies, is at the heart of this novel. What inspired this theme? How does lying by teenagers differ from lying by adults?
VV: I started writing the first incarnation of what became this book the day after the 2016 election. I became obsessed with Trump’s lies and with the Swedish-born philosopher Sissela Bok’s excellent books on lying. For a while I planned to write a nonfiction book about lying. After almost a year of research, it turned into a fictional exploration of the pollution that one lie can create. And choosing teenage protagonists made sense: When you’re a teenager you’re trying on new identities, and lying is, to some extent, part of that shape-shifting. The trick is to eventually be able to tell the truth about yourself.
JC: You’ve set novels in Casablanca, Lapland, New York, the Philippines, Turkey. Is this your first novel set in San Francisco, where you grew up and live now? What drew you to this hometown setting—and particularly to Sea Cliff, the foggy coastal neighborhood which is less well-known to outsiders than, say, North Beach, or the Mission, the Marina or the Sunset?
VV: It’s really hard to pinpoint why I’m drawn to particular settings at particular times. Maybe I was drawn to writing about Sea Cliff because I hadn’t seen it described much in literature before. Rachel Kushner writes so incredibly well about the Sunset, Michelle Tea has written beautifully about the Mission, and I feel like the Beats had North Beach. But Sea Cliff was a place I hadn’t seen described much outside of real estate brochures. And as staid and safe as the neighborhood seems, as kids we thought it was a very precarious and mysterious place, socked in by fog and smashed day and night by the Pacific tides.
JC: Why set this novel in the 1980s? As opposed to, say, the Summer of Love, or the Beat era, or the Tech Boom era?
VV: Growing up in the 1980s in San Francisco meant growing up with the assumption that you had missed out on everything significant. We grew up in the shadows of legendary musicians and writers and activists, and in the wake of more interesting times. So we had to re-create our own intrigue. I wanted the girls in the book and their changing bodies and lives to be a metaphor for San Francisco and the transformation it was going through. The book does end in the tech boom era, though none of the characters are personally involved in that industry. They grew up in this anonymous period, neither here nor there.
JC: Did you intend to include the 2019 “update” to your story from the beginning? Or did that come up later in your work on the novel?
VV: It came pretty late in the process. The rest of the book sat, more or less finished, for a few months, before the notion of leaping ahead in time came to me. I wanted to show how much the girls had changed as they entered middle age, though the same chemical reaction happens when certain combinations of the now-women occur.Maybe I was drawn to writing about Sea Cliff because I hadn’t seen it described much in literature before.
JC: You mention lots of “real people” who lived in San Francisco—the Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner and China, his daughter by Grace Slick, and Carter the Magician, who live in Sea Cliff; Dianne Feinstein, and others, plus there’s a cameo by Robin Williams (Eulabee knows him as the Mork and Mindy star). Were the kidnappings in your novel also real?
VV: The kidnappings are completely fabricated, but I remember having a deep fear of kidnappers when I was young. I was always so worried about the kids whose faces were on the backs of milk cartons, and I would spend a lot of time memorizing their appearances so that I could help find them—I expected to see at least one of them, and was shocked that I never did.
JC: You wrote a triptych of novels involving violence against women. The Diver’s Clothes is lighter. We Run the Tides has moments that are truly funny. Is this shift in tone intentional? Or did it just happen?
VV: The change in tone in We Run the Tides was definitely intentional. When I was writing Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, I was able to suffuse the beginning of the book with dark humor, but there was a certain point in the plot, after a certain terrible revelation, when the book couldn’t sustain humor. I had a piece of paper taped above my desk that said: “Nothing’s funny after that.”
My husband is my first reader and often encourages me to apply my particular sense of humor to my writing when I can. Sometimes you just need someone to give you permission to be funny in your work, and in this case, he was the one. So when I set out to write We Run the Tides and decided it would be fiction, I knew I wanted it to have a palette, so to speak, that allowed for humor throughout the book. An all-girls school in San Francisco in the 1980s seemed a particularly ripe setting.
JC: You mention that your husband, Dave Eggers, is your first reader. How do you two navigate a universe in which you are both writers? How do you give each other space, and support each other’s work?
VV: Dave and I are each other’s first readers, and have been for twenty years, so by now we have the space-and-navigating down. I have an office that resembles an adult’s workplace, and he has a filthy garage that looks like the scene of a recent crime. We have a system where when we give each other a draft to read we specify what kind of read we want. Do we want a “This is working—keep going” kind of read? Or do we want a roll-up-your-sleeves line edit? I think it’s important that whoever your first reader is understands the extent of comments you want at that particular point in the writing process.