I knew nothing about Vendela Vida before I spoke with her a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with the release of her first film Away We Go which she co-wrote with husband Dave Eggers. (The film opens Friday and I liked it very much.) I very much enjoyed the conversation and am now going to make sure I read all her books which includes And Now You Can Go and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. She also co-edits The Believer magazine.
Women & Hollywood: Talk about how the idea for writing this film came about.
Vendela Vida: It started in 2005 and I was pregnant with our first (we now have 2 children) and I basically started taking notes. As a writer that's how I process the world. I go out and take notes of things that have happened. I was basically surprised when I was pregnant at how much it was an invitation to start talking to me about their experiences with pregnancy and birth and give me advice that I hadn't necessarily asked for on how to raise my child. It was basically my way of processing other people's reactions to pregnancy and also my own reaction.
I was taking these notes and a lot of them were about funny stuff I had overheard, conversations I had or things I read in books and didn't quite know what to do with. I would come home and tell Dave and we would laugh about it and say that would be a funny scene in a movie so we just started experimenting with dialogue for these two characters. We knew the material lent itself more to a movie than a novel because there was so much dialogue. It felt very cinematic to us. We started writing scenes not expecting it to evolve into something we were just trying to make each other laugh. It kind of just went from there.
W&H: Had the two of you ever written together before?
VV: No. The screenplay format seemed to lend itself to the collaboration much more so than obviously a novel.
W&H: Did you write Verona intentionally as a mixed race woman?
VV: Yes we did and we wrote her with Maya Rudolph in mind. It was important to me that she be mixed race and it was also important that she and her partner not have any conversations between the two of them of her being mixed race. Other people could comment on it but it's never an issue between Burt and Verona.
W&H: What's the difference between writing fiction, non-fiction and film?
VV: I love writing dialogue and with film the pleasure and difficulty is that you are constricted by space. In a film you have to make sure the dialogue is advancing the plot. With a screenplay you are writing a skeletal outline and you know that the director and actors are going to bring so much more, whereas when you are writing a novel it is all on you. Every period is one you. Every quote is on you. It's fun to do a collaboration especially because when you are writing a novel you are spending so much time with yourself in your room with your thoughts. I do love novels and they will always be my first love but this was a great experience especially because we started writing after I finished my novel Northern Lights Erase Your Name which is set in the Arctic circle. It's kind of a dark novel in many ways so it was refreshing to write something more lighthearted.
W&H: I was intrigued that you write the non-fiction book Girls on the Verge (about girl gangs.) Why were you so drawn to that world?
VV: It kind of came about by accident. I wrote one essay in grad school about a female gang initiation ritual I had observed in San Francisco and people suggested that I write another and pretty soon I had a book. I wrote the book when I was a lot younger and I don't know if I would have written it the same way now but I am very proud of it.
Non-fiction is a lot harder than fiction because you have to be so true to facts. I remember being in a small apartment in NY with all these files and transcripts wishing this person had said this. But you can't tinker with facts. That's why I turned to fiction because you so have the opportunity to make things up.
W&H: Women's novels gets pegged as chick lit just like women's films get pegged as chick flicks. Any thoughts on that?
VV: It's hard for me to say because I always look for films and books by women so for me they don't feel pigeon-holed because I am actively seeking them out. I have Wendy & Lucy in front of me. Whenever there is a female writer or director I go out of my way to find their work.
W&H: Do you have any advice for women writers?
VV: Write female characters that you feel are strong and real. That was the one thing we were trying to do when we wrote Verona. We wanted to make her as real as possible and make her have moments when she was happy and moments when she was not. You have to make female characters as well rounded and representative of the women you know in real life. I don't think I am in a position to give anyone advice but I look to make female characters real and that's the responsibility we share as women writers.
W&H: You do so many different things in your life is that how you balance writing novels by yourself?
VV: When you write you are very solipsistic. I am by myself trying to create something and it feels very detached from the rest of the world. So for me one of the most important things is teaching. I teach at 826 Valencia. I teach a number of classes but my favorite one is writing the college essay in October. It is the most rewarding class because you're helping kids get into college and helping them see themselves in a way they might not realize is unique.
W&H: Do you have an amount of hours you write each day?
VV: I do it by the word count. I used to do it by the hour but I would find that 3 hours and 45 minutes would pass and then I would get to work for 15 minutes. That has been the solution for me. Word count can vary between where you are in the book. It's always something that's realistic but is still pushing myself a little.
W&H: What's next for you?
VV: I'm finishing up a novel that's set in Turkey about a woman who is 48 has two kids and her husband has passed away. She goes to Turkey to revisit where her marriage started. I have to turn in the final version this week.
Away We Go opens Friday and will roll out across the country over the next few weeks.