Searching for Origin Stories: Karolina Waclawiak Interviewed by Diane Cook

On trying to pre-grieve, the expansiveness of the desert, and writing the book she wanted to write.

Life Events2

Karolina Waclawiak was the person in my graduate workshop that I wanted to impress. When she shuffled my story to the top of her pile, I just knew she would not put up with any bullshit. There was nothing cruel in this. It was a gift. I knew, and I imagine others did as well, not to waste the opportunity to be read well, critically, and honestly. The characters in her three excellent novels share a similar honest intensity. They cut the fat away from life with the sharpest blade. They show the world as it is, in its unease and ugliness, its loneliness but also its strange beauty. They offer a glimpse of the ache and the camaraderie we find in places and people we never expected. She’s taken us to hidden Russian night clubs, desperately tony East Coast beach burbs, and now, with her newest book, Life Events (FSG), into the desert homes of the dying in Southern California. Evelyn, our guide, is stealing herself against impending loss by upending her own life, breaking it before it can break her. It’s as clear-eyed and precise a look at grief as I’ve ever read.

–Diane Cook 

 

Diane Cook I remember talking to you a few years ago about what you were working on, and it was something about deserts and miracles. Life Events holds remnants of that project but is something else entirely. How did this book come to be?

Karolina Waclawiak Good memory! When we spoke, I was trying to find my way into a book about the Virgin Mary appearing in the American West and why we believe what we believe—our relationship with faith and religion, which are sort of separate entities for me—but it never quite gelled. I wrote a first draft, knew it was wrong, and felt entirely disconnected from it. It wasn’t the book I had intended to write. An editor passed on it, and that confirmed my fears. 

So, I tossed all but the name of the main character, Evelyn, and what she did for a living, kept about four pages, and started over. I had initially started this book after listening to a podcast called Criminal in 2015 (co-created by another Columbia classmate), and it featured a woman talking about being an exit guide. I became really interested in the idea of guides who help people die—why and how. I started doing research and even took some classes on how to be a death doula (which is a totally separate thing from a person who assists suicides). I immersed myself in different death communities and started writing again.  

I was thinking a lot about endings at that time, and starting your life over, and how we as a culture handle grief, or largely try to avoid it. I don’t really mean just with death and dying. I mean big life changes and all sorts of endings, like divorce too. I started exchanging pages with a friend I went to grad school with, and that back and forth really pushed me to go deeper and take risks and finish another draft. I was writing my way into different kinds of grief in order to investigate how I personally navigated it. Honestly, I was so scared of feeling grief for anything that I really didn’t have any kind of relationship with it. And I knew I had to stop avoiding it, because my mom also got sick with cancer again in 2015. I was full of fear, and I wanted to face it in my writing because I was having a hard time facing it in my life. 

DC Numbness is so interesting—it can be misunderstood for not feeling anything, when really, maybe more so, you feel too much, or you feel something you think you shouldn’t feel, and so you tamp it down, compress it into something so manageable you end up losing yourself to it. Is that where Evelyn’s numbness comes from? 

KW Ah, you articulate the feeling perfectly. Evelyn’s problem is absolutely that she feels too much. She’s overwhelmed by how affected she is by everything, and so she tries to manage it by doing everything she can to numb herself. She’s so scared of anything she can’t control that she makes her life very small and manageable. She’s afraid of all the feelings that come with living. But that also makes her feel like someone who walks through the world not knowing how to be a person. In not wanting to feel anything, Evelyn feels like she completely loses access to herself. She’s looking for a new feeling to revive her. She looks for it in the clients she helps, even while running from the feelings they bring up in her. But at least she’s trying to get away from the numbness, because she starts to realize being numb all the time doesn’t really serve her anymore.

When I was writing the book, I had no real conception of what the grief of losing a parent would feel like. I had an idea, but it’s an incomprehensible kind of loss. That grief is not just emotional; it’s physical too. My mom died in September 2019, and there were times when I felt numb, but also times where I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I still feel that way. Like I’m going to cross over into a place of grief that I can’t come back from. It was more acute right after she died, but I still feel immense grief, and every day is different. It’s something you absolutely have no control over at all. Don’t even try.

Karolina Waclawiak

Photo of Karolina Waclawiak by Rosson Crow.

DC What’s especially fascinating about Evelyn is that she hasn’t actually experienced a quote-unquote big loss. It’s just that she is closer to the reality of it now than ever before. I was thinking about how interesting this was just as I came upon this moment: “As the vast expanse of parched land whizzed by me, I kept wondering why I was so intent on trying to pre-grieve. Why I thought it would work.” Can you talk about the concept of pre-grief? It’s such a fascinating and true idea, but I hadn’t thought to assign terminology to it before. 

KW That pre-grieving was exactly what I was trying to do with writing this book. It was really painful to write, because I was leaning into everything I was afraid of. Evelyn thought if she worked with these clients and was around death, she could feel her own parents’ death a little less. I thought if I could investigate death and grief before my mother’s death I could understand how to handle it better. But what is “better” exactly? You can’t desensitize yourself like Evelyn wants to. And there’s no real best practices on how to handle grief except to not suppress it. 

The project of the book wasn’t to capture the aftermath of losing a parent, because there was no way for me to understand what that was like until I actually felt it for myself. You just can’t imagine it. I tried to imagine it, but I was way off. And it’s difficult to describe. I had taken care of my grandfather as he was dying, but taking care of my mother as she was dying was a different experience, and the loss of her feels absolutely primal in many ways. It’s the kind of loss that brought me to my knees. 

DC I wanted to ask you what the desert means to you creatively? To Evelyn? I have to admit that I’m not familiar with Los Angeles’s geography, but I imagine there are forests around to drive to. Why does Evelyn seek the desert spaces?

KW During the pandemic I’ve actually been spending more time in the Angeles Forest, which is near Los Angeles. Even though the popular trails were closed, it seemed like the only place to escape to that was still open and away from people. The forest is beautiful, but for me it doesn’t hold the same expansive—and yes, I’ll say it—magical properties that the desert does. Los Angeles essentially sprung out of the desert and only exists because William Mulholland stole water from the Owens Valley, which Evelyn drives to on her way to Death Valley. She’s searching for origin stories of herself as much as she is for the place she lives in. I think you can’t tell the story of Los Angeles without looking at the desert that surrounds it. 

I’m about to sound really California woo woo here, but there’s just a different energy to the desert. I think it’s the quiet stillness and the fact that you can see forever. But it’s also the kind of wilderness that feels as hazardous as it does calming. I love the opening of the Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas for that reason. Watching Harry Dean Stanton look absolutely parched while trying to traverse the desert, you know he’s going to die if he doesn’t reach a town and a doctor and some water, but he also had to take to the desert to find himself. I’ve always seen it as a place to find clarity. I think Evelyn seeks out the desert because it’s a place where no one expects anything of her and she can be fully alone. I think it’s also in line with her obsession with decay. The desert ages everything very quickly, and you have to endure all these extreme elements in order to survive. She’s an extreme person in many ways, so it feels comforting to her.

DC Toward the end of the book, there’s a section where Evelyn sequesters herself in a derelict rental in the desert and while she does it on purpose for her own peace of mind, she is terrified to be there too, feels like she’s being watched during a walk, locks all the windows and doors, and reaches for her pepper spray at night. She thinks, “This was the desert for me—vast and free in the light, terrifying and claustrophobic in the dark.”

I have done this kind of thing my whole life. Wanted to be alone in faraway, wild or otherwise solitary places, and then been terrified by being there. Yearned for and put in motion a thing that in the end undoes me. It feels very…female to me. I don’t know exactly why I’m saying that except to acknowledge that wildness and wild spaces are so often designated for men, especially in literature, and especially as adventure narratives. I think they are female spaces, but for very different reasons. There is a female need for solitude, wildness and also a fear of it. How does this push/pull of yearning and fear connect with Evelyn’s grief or with what she is seeking out?

KW I was reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and thinking a lot about trying to capture what it feels like to walk through these wild open spaces. But my experience is always going to be different than a man’s experience, because as women we’re born to always be on the lookout for threats. At one point, Evelyn is in Death Valley and she acknowledges that there’s a difference between being a woman alone and a man alone. That’s of course true when women are alone traveling. But we’re looking for that same sense of solitude and freedom in the West that men are. 

I have become more adventurous in my solitary travels over the last few years, especially traversing the west, and the impetus for that was doing research for this book. I took trips alone to the Mojave to see what it would feel like to be alone in the desert for days. And there is a sense of fear sometimes. Not all the time. But there’s a wildness to the desert—and a wonderful freedom to wandering it alone. Evelyn doesn’t want fear to get in the way of experiencing life. She drives farther and farther each time she ventures out alone. She’s testing herself, seeing what her limits are. I think she tests herself on how free she allows herself to be just as she tests herself to see how much pain she can endure. Both are vehicles to get closer to who she actually is and further away from the ideas she has about herself.

DC I’ve loved all your books. But this one really soars. It reaches another level, and I wonder if you felt that way writing it. I recognize this is a funny kind of compliment, as it naturally infers a ranking of your books, and yet we are all trying to get better as writers and hope our work grows with experience, right? 

KW Is it weird to say that I knew this was the best thing (book or otherwise) I’ve ever written when I finished it? 

DC I think it’s awesome to say that!

KW I just felt like I got to something bigger with this one. I got closer to answering the questions I’ve been trying to answer in my life through writing this book. I also think throwing away the first draft helped a lot. I got out of my book contract for my third book and felt really trapped by it. 

Once I was able to get out of it and was free from any expectations, I said, “Fuck it” and just started writing and taking risks. I just went all in. I wrote without any self-consciousness, and I feel a great sense of satisfaction with this book. I couldn’t have written it without the life experience it took to be able to be more honest with myself about things I am afraid of. I just have nothing to hide really. I cried a lot writing this book. It was painful. But I’m proud of the writing and the fearlessness of it. I didn’t leave anything off the page. Even when I was doing final copy edits on it, of course there were small changes, but I didn’t ever feel like I wished I had done something else on the page. This was exactly the book I wanted to write, and I did it. I really hope people connect with it. It’s not a depressing book, even though the subject matter is heavy. I wanted readers to leave with a sense of hope. I felt a sense of hope after finishing it!

Life Events is available for purchase here.

Diane Cook is the author of the forthcoming novel The New Wilderness, out in August 2020, and the story collection Man v. Nature, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and included in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a former producer for the radio program This American Life, and was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Laura van den Berg & Karolina Waclawiak: Hosted by R.O. Kwon
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