Invent New Rules: Lara Vapnyar Interviewed by Rebecca Schiff

The writer on creating a legend about her mother, breaking the fourth wall, and Elena Ferrante’s honesty.

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Lara Vapnyar is direct. She tells me she’s afraid she’ll look like a cow if she takes a yoga class. She talks about how far she was into her first marriage when she fell out of love with her husband. She tells me and my boyfriend that we seem like a great couple, even though she just met him. But I believe her. Vapnyar has that penetrating vision some writers have, where she can’t stop seeing things and confiding in you what she sees. She does the same thing on the page. Since 2003, she’s published four novels and two story collections, all defined by frankness, sorrow, and what I think of as a Soviet-Jewish sense of humor. I remember crying on an airplane after I read her short story “Deaf and Blind” in the New Yorker. In it, a girl watches her divorced mother become jealous of a friend who’s fallen in love, and winds up learning something unexpected and painful about attachment of all kinds. Vapynar returns to love, grief, and mother-daughter relationships in her new novel Divide Me By Zero (Tin House). The result is arresting, risky, playful, moving—one of the greatest books of the last decade.  

–Rebecca Schiff

Rebecca Schiff A couple of years ago, we were having a drink and you said you thought Divide Me by Zero was your best book so far. I got very excited to read it after that (because I love your previous books, too) and of course I wound up agreeing with you. I wonder, what do you think makes this your best book?

Lara Vapnyar That’s a tough question, but in the best possible way. I first conceived this novel as a simple and honest story about a turbulent time in one woman’s life. There were certain things that I understood about love, and life, and death, certain insights I wanted to share, which seems like an easy enough task. I started writing it, but soon realized that something strange was going on, I was overpowered by my own story, I felt like I couldn’t control it—it was pushing me to go places I wasn’t prepared to go, both emotionally and in terms of pure writer skill. I was drowning in my own novel. I even went as far as to invent a legend about how my late mother’s spirit come to haunt me through this novel, and I almost believed it.

I tried to resist being overwhelmed, but it wasn’t working. So I gave up, and let the novel guide me. I would write whatever came into my head, without questioning its wisdom. I was really scared to write like that, because I thought the end result would be a horrible mess. And it was. For a long time, it didn’t even feel like a novel. 

But then, suddenly, it all came together, the jokes and childhood memories, and all the moments of unbearable shame and pain. I saw that all the random bits actually belonged together, and I saw the beautiful structure coming through, complicated and messy, but perfectly logical.

I can’t really explain why and how it works (the way I feel when I teach other writers), but I’m strangely confident that it does work. I’ve never felt that way about my other novels.

RS It gives me hope when writers say they tried to write one novel and then had no choice but to write another. Many of the best books come from abandoning a plan, I think, letting things be messy until they reveal what they’re supposed to be. Donald Barthelme talks about this in his essay “Not-Knowing,” where he says that “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Through the process of figuring it out, we’re able to invent the style necessary for our task. How did the idea of starting each chapter with notes from Katya’s mother’s hypothetical math textbook take hold? 

LV I love that Barthelme quote. But it takes enormous courage to be able to write not knowing what you’re getting into, and enormous confidence to believe that you’ll eventually emerge from under that mess with something wonderful.

I used to be too timid as a writer, too self-aware and too dependent on the opinion of others.  The “notes to the reader” is my way to conquer that. I don’t write for myself, I write for the reader. I consider making a connection with the reader to be one of the most important tasks of the writer. That’s both my and Katya’s stance in the novel. Like she says, “I am what I am, and while I long for love and acceptance, I’m not going to change.”

This struggle also reflects Katya’s relationship with her mother, her dependence on her mother’s guidance and her fight for independence throughout her life. With her mother’s death, Katya feels that her world is crumbling, and “the math notes” from her mother’s book is her desperate attempt to prolong that guidance. I place the math notes in the beginning of each chapter to demonstrate that Katya’s trying to “solve” her life with the help of the notes as if it was a math problem. Katya wants to see the notes as having something to do with her life, as providing some answers or clues. But with each chapter Katya is getting more and more aware of how futile and crazy that is, and by the end of the novel, her mother’s notes fall away, and that signifies that Katya is on her own now, learning to take full responsibility of her life.

Lara Vapnyar By Mark Gurevich Cmyk

Photo of Lara Vapnyar by Mark Gurevich.

RS So Katya and the book both become independent of her mother’s guidance. That’s so smart. 

You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but are the math notes in your late mother’s handwriting?

LV This was one of the solutions that was suggested by the novel itself.

RS Another parallel between your life and Katya’s is that you’re both fiction writers from the former Soviet Union who began writing in English not long after moving here. There’s a moment where Katya describes writing her first story in her second language: “The English words that I knew effortlessly rushed to my mind, and I found that I rarely needed the words I didn’t know.” This line made me wish that I could have a non-native speaker’s mind, at least while I write. What was writing in English like at first and how has it changed over time?

LV I can’t imagine what it’s like to write in your native language, because I’ve never tried. It must be a very different experience, or perhaps, not so much. A really lucky thing for me was that my English was getting better just as I was growing as a writer. The very limited English I had, when I started writing, was enough for what I wanted to accomplish. And by the time I felt ready for more complexity, for experiments with style, my English had become sophisticated enough. I remember a strange but moving compliment my mother once gave me: “I used to understand your stories much easier before, now your English is getting too complex for me.”

I’m aware that it will never be perfect though. And I doubt that I can write prose in Russian, because I’ve never done that, and I’m afraid that I’ve lost touch with my contemporary Russian. The Russian I know is the outdated language of the Soviet Union. I can still appreciate Russian prose, but I wouldn’t be able to write a beautiful sentence.

RS What makes a sentence beautiful to you? 

LV The combination of how it sounds and an image it represents. Or a complex thought expressed in an elegant, accessible way.

RS Who are some writers whose sentences you admire? Did any of them influence you when writing Divide Me By Zero?

LV Proust, Chekhov, Munro, Baldwin, Petrushevskaya, but most of all Lorrie Moore. 

It’s hard to judge how much I was influenced by them, but I once used part of Alice Munro’s sentence in my story without realizing it. I honestly thought I just came up with it, but it must have been hiding somewhere deep in my mind.

RS (laughter) Me too for Lorrie Moore. I started reading her in high school so her writing taught me so much at an early age. 

Divide Me By Zero at times reminded me of Elena Ferrante and Philip Roth, while being wholly yours. I was trying to understand what you and those writers have in common and I think it was the honesty about how swept up we can be by love (Ferrante) and how much our parents matter (Roth). And, of course, your book uses humor to deal with heartbreak and grief. 

Both Ferrante and Roth also write about writers, even use alter egos. What were some of the pleasures and challenges of writing a novel with a fiction writer as the central character?

LV I could see a little bit of Lorrie Moore in your stories! Deadpan humor, and the ability to see a situation from the inside and the outside at the same time.

I’ve thought so much about Ferrante’s honesty. This is what I really wanted to achieve—total honesty, writing only about what I truly knew and understood (that’s why I couldn’t think of any other profession to be except for a writer and a teacher). But I felt inhibited by not being anonymous. There are people in my life that I just can’t hurt.  

I was devastated when Ferrante’s identity became known. I can’t imagine how she can write with this degree of honesty from now on.

RS You achieved it! This is one of the most honest books I’ve read, maybe ever. Your earlier books are honest, too, and you’re very honest in person, but do think your mother’s death gave you permission to be even more honest on the page? 

LV Well, to be completely honest, it was my divorce (which coincided with my mother’s death). It’s hard to write fully honest works when you’re living a lie.

RS Wow. So living more honestly led to writing more honestly. One moment that stayed with me from this book is the scene where Katya first says she doesn’t want to be married to Len anymore and her mother starts screaming at her that she’s being childish. Mothers sometimes encourage daughters to “settle,” but I wondered if you have ideas about Katya’s mother’s specific reasons for wanting her daughter to stay in an unhappy marriage.

LV I can answer this as a mother, every-mother or any-mother, not as Katya’s mother, but I think it would be true for her as well. Mothers can’t stand it when their children are sick, it’s incredibly distressing and even torturous to see or imagine your child in pain. So we subconsciously push our children to the less exciting, more stable choice, where there is little opportunity for heartbreak, and heartbreak signifies sickness and pain. So, we prefer that our kids lead stable and bland lives, rather than ones full of tumultuous excitement and pain. I became aware of that while writing this novel, and now I have to really struggle with myself not to push safer choices on my children.

RS Yes, my mother hates to see me suffer and was always upset when I went through bad breakups. Though she also likes to say, “Better alone than in bad company.” And she’s been alone since my dad died (decades ago). So I also connected to Katya’s burden of being the child to a mother left alone after the death of a great love. Because of all this, I sometimes felt like the book was being written to me. 

At one point you wrote: “Note to my best readers. Postmodernism, the fourth wall, what bullshit. I started writing fiction out of loneliness and desperation, as an attempt to connect to other people … ” Was the fact that this note was technically a moment of “breaking the fourth wall” intended to be provocative? Were you playing with your readers/critics? Or just trying another approach to connecting with people?

LV It wasn’t provocative, it was an emotional choice. It was both reaching out and hoping for a connection, because this is one of the main reasons I write. People could be playful or serious when they’re looking for connection, and that’s why they are different in tone. In some cases it was to shield myself and Katya from pain—I’d break the fourth wall then, when I thought that Katya (or I) just couldn’t handle being serious at the moment. But some of those moments are supposed to be defiant: “Don’t you dare judge Katya, she’s a flawed human being, but so are you.”

RS Yes, I see playfulness and defiance in that note, and I think playfulness is a beautiful and underrated way to connect with readers. I really enjoyed some of the playful insertions in the novel, like the Bush’s thighs picture. 

LV Oh, the power of Bush’s thighs … 

RS One last question—what did the process of working on this book teach you about writing that you hadn’t known before?

LV I learned to rely on my intuition more. When it turns out that the rules you believe in don’t fit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your novel is wrong, it could be that you have to invent new rules. It’s such an obvious lesson, but so few writers are confident enough to follow it. I used to be a timid writer. Not anymore! 

Rebecca Schiff is the author of the story collection The Bed Moved. Her fiction has appeared in Electric Literature, The Guardian, n+1, and Washington Square, and was anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2017. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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