The final images — not giving much, if anything away — feel like the end of a vast journey, the thoughts you’d have when you’ve run out of places to run … so, so good. But there’s something else that probably carried over from classics and that is the fact that I don’t run away from large events — big movements — the kind of things that tip a story from a quiet literary novel into something that might be considered genre-y. And the more I discuss Wonder Valley, the more ready I am to move on. Maybe it’s just bare-knuckle creativity, but some writers are hedgehogs — diving deeper and deeper into their own obsessions, neuroses, belly buttons. You see, Wonder Valley is my third novel. You do a lot in that setup — introducing us to Los Angeles and the characters — but your signal achievement is what a lyrical performance it is. Her writing has never been more assured. But I will say that the “agon” in my case was with myself. What ideas or books or notions did you struggle with? As a former classicist myself, I am dying to know if your experience was anything like mine. Vegas, Brooklyn, and now, in Wonder Valley, Los Angeles and the California desert. It occurred to me that everyone trapped in their cars is getting this report, everyone is listening, a city of frustrated strangers is paying attention, experiencing the same thing through individual filters. I won’t even try, perhaps because it’s too personal, too engrained in me. Genre be damned. I often think of writing as a kind of contest — in the classical sense of an “agon” very much akin to sports. A friend of a friend, after a super late night and a cocktail of who knows what (I do, but I’m not saying) ran naked across the Brooklyn Bridge and was hit by a car and killed. So the “agon” was self-reflexive, which made it somewhat agonizing. It’s so hard to write about sports well. ¤
SMITH HENDERSON: I think one of my favorite things about your stuff — your language, your insights, your subjects large and small — is your rather fearless range. Maybe this is only apparent to me, or maybe others see it. I remember finishing my book and expecting to feel exultant or relieved or something. And I have to say, I loved the ending. For sure on the squash court, if you are only good at one thing, let’s say hitting the ball deep in the court over and over, your success will be limited. But we are carried along by your vivid prose. We take a tour of the stands, meeting famous faces, witness racial tensions, joy, and despair. I admire this creative restlessness. Well, even those non-classicists playing along at home will probably note that “agon” is the root of agony! So what you need to do is mix it up — lull your opponent into a comfortable rhythm and then dazzle her or surprise her with a spectacular kill shot. And in many ways starting a new book, at least for me, I was made to make peace with the previous one. My first, The Art of Disappearing, was wild and undisciplined and wildly undisciplined. Okay, I’m going to geek out here, sorry. I’m not going to be one of those writers who will bemoan the agony of the endeavor, however. It’s propositional (“There is a chance you envy him”). Let’s just look at the Iliad for a second — you get both the action packed Death of Hector and the lyrical caesura of the Shield of Achilles. And suddenly, because that novel was “successful” I began to worry about letting my imagination loose, about unbridling myself. But here’s the thing — my guiding principle — not every book has to be conventionally uplifting. Oh, hot damn … we are going to have to talk Aeschylus, Homer, and how great it was that J-Lo got a first edition of the Iliad in The Boy Next Door … but later. But I was just lonesome. More reflective of the wild flights of fancy and the thoughts and obsessions that consumed me for my first 27 years. There were all these bizarre things — a dead hawk, invented folktales, sympathetic criminals — that kept popping up. I love telescoping large events into something you can nearly hold in the palm of your hand. But if you are only good at the flashy stuff — the groovy put-aways and crazy angles, your game will also let you down. Though there is the tremendous consolation of the point you’re at now, where you’re sharing the book. It’s a 50-page novella about the famous Shot Heard Round the World. But when I discuss it, I have to think about these things and in doing so I can imagine writing a new book. I heard about it on the news. The prologue’s first paragraph introduces us to a naked man running on the jammed Hollywood freeway. I was interested in the many ways I heard this story. There’s something about discussing my work, analyzing it from a distance, that gives me the confidence and inspiration to start over again. Regardless, it came from years of squinting at tiny Greek words. I heard about it from my friends who had been with this guy before he took off, and I heard about it from some rather preppy women from my squash club who had witnessed this guy’s death as they took an early morning jog across the Brooklyn Bridge (in the pedestrian lane of course). What’s exciting to me is the unexpected combinations, say of poetry and violence, or action and humor. I was raised on the stuff. But over or against or in allegiance to what? It feels like a victory. Now, this is a story I remember from high school. Man, J-Lo’s character was such a lucky lady. And what better way than a man running against traffic, making it worse. But all of your stuff is so literary.
I have a theory (or part of one) for why that is: you studied Classics at Harvard! I think the thing that I gleaned most from ancient tragedies and epic poems is a sense of almost visual structure. I wanna ask about violence, action, poetry, and humor in Wonder Valley. I also had to quiet the voices of the very few people who read the book early (I rarely share my work) who said it was too dark and even too male-oriented. You’re working on a project with Kobe Bryant, who sought you out in part because you’re an athlete and were once a world-ranked squash player … so do you think maybe this is the source of your work’s kinetic essence? What’s it like to face a new blank page at this point? JANUARY 1, 2018
OVER THE COURSE of three novels, Ivy Pochoda has ranged fearlessly through genres, landscapes, and psychologies. In fact (sidebar) when several readers raised this issue, I held up your book, Fourth of July Creek, as an example of something both dark and beautiful, and told my critics to stuff it. Just when you have your reader in a comfort zone, pull something unexpected out — a surprise redirection. Though there were edits and revisions to come, it was no longer alive for me. And I’m excited. We can only follow them where they lead us and if that is somewhere imperfect, so be it. I began to saddle myself with the task of writing Serious Fiction or Conventional Crime. I was, and always have been and will continue to be, inspired by Don DeLillo’s “Pafko at the Wall,” which is the opening to Underworld. I never really think about what I’m doing when I’m writing. But then it must contain a major action, the murder of Agamemnon or the sacrifice of Iphigenia. And we do want our stories to end well, but also realistically. Athenian spectators also got to watch poets compete. My question: Where’d this inspired prologue come from? There’s a shape or a call-and-response I see in my own work that I suspect came from studying ring structure in the Iliad or the formal structure of ancient drama. For that reason, I love that book. In many ways, my second novel, Visitation Street, was more conventional — not in terms of structure and character and location — but in terms of story. You need to vary your pace and even vary the length of your sentences. How do your athletic exploits inform your work and process? Or were you drawn to that stuff because of some other, more personal reason?
IVY POCHODA: First of all, this is an awesome question. And I worried that I was once more veering into something too wild, too strange, too far afield from Serious Fiction. So I wanted to directly address this stagnant frustration. And I have to admit, I’m guilty of trying to keep it alive as long as possible. A big, juicy action in the midst of something lyrical. So when I started to write, I wanted my own Pafko moment. A man jogs after him, is arrested. I think to be a great athlete in most sports requires both variety and creativity. You can already hear the critics champing at the bit! But the process of talking about a novel, in interviews or on a tour, manages to put that novel firmly into the past tense. If I couldn’t get it entirely perfect, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown. Did reading such ancient poetry, philosophy, drama, and history create a kind of indifference to genre conventions? For instance, an ancient Greek play is poem, right? In what way was this book an “agon” for you? But I had to fight back the impulse to edit myself and to cram my story into a box. Otherwise, you are going to lose your reader or give your game away too soon. But more important — how come we have never discussed being ex-classicists? At the same time it was more imaginative — more crazy — than my other two books. (No, I didn’t want to stare helplessly over the outfield fence at a home run I couldn’t catch.) But I wanted an event that captured the attention of the entire city, put it as DeLillo said, in a “stranglehold.” So I came up with a traffic jam — the great Los Angeles traffic jam. She set aside time to chat with me in the midst of our book tour — and gave us both more fodder for when she’s back in Los Angeles, the city she so richly depicts in Wonder Valley. I totally dug studying classics — at least the story part. Right. As long as I don’t start a new book, the one I’ve most recently finished still manages to breathe, at least for me. Which is exactly what you need to do on the page, at least as far as I’m concerned. Yet what was emerging on the pages of Wonder Valley was weird. It’s an entire panorama reduced to a pinprick. I don’t think about process, craft, technique. It’s imagistic, dream-like. I love that. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Brooklyn and didn’t commute, but when I got to Los Angeles and started driving regularly, I became way more tuned into the morning news and the constant refrain of the traffic conditions. This appeals to me more than the story per se. And then how it was forgotten. And I also love the idea of a prologue that both sets the story in motion but can also function as independent from the story. To address things I could’ve done better, things I’d like to dive deeper into, and visit places I didn’t dare go. You’ve written a love story, a crime novel, and now a book that I guess falls into the thriller category. Through this one event we see thousands of different anxieties unfolding, from those directly to do with the game, to larger global, even nuclear ones. Preach! It’s so interesting that you bring up that portion from Underworld — and makes perfect sense, but not just on a stylistic, performative level. So I guess I’m getting ready. It was quite different. I see an additional correspondence in the spectacle of sport. That’s a hard thing to process. ¤
Smith Henderson is the author of Fourth of July Creek. She needed to take that book on Antiques Roadshow for an evaluation. After all, the ancient Olympics were comprised of more than decathlons and wrestling. How’d you feel hitting the end of your third book? Another man watching him is his brother. We could have been the only people in Tony’s Saloon to have ever discussed Aeschylus. When I was competing and playing well, I liked to think about the various shots and strategies I employed as a sort of tool kit and as a writer, especially a “literary” writer, you need to draw on the same sort of tool kit. Books are rife with tensions and conflicts, psychological and emotional battles with other books or cultural items. In Wonder Valley, Britt and Tony are ex-college athletes … and instead of staring helplessly, they are drawn after the naked runner. DeLillo uses the framework of a ball game to draw the attention of an entire city — an entire nation. Okay, so full disclosure, the idea for the prologue wasn’t exactly mine. There is such a sense of sadness. That said, sports, specifically my sport squash, really do inform my writing. (I really don’t want to confuse structure with plot here.) I like to envision the shape of my books — the way the chapters come together. Her latest, Wonder Valley, is a gripping, gritty, and deeply humane novel of flights and collisions, rich with the profound mistakes and redemptive urges of a wonderfully interlinked cast of characters. I am really curious about the battle of Wonder Valley — you have written yet another genre-bending novel, with a robust and very real cast of characters, set in outcast communities in Los Angeles (Skid Row) and in a desert cult, all of which winds up being a very exciting, insightful, heartfelt achievement. I like a structure that hides in plain sight but is also an essential scaffold to the story that is unfolding. Endings, in my opinion, are inherently sad. In three books you’ve tackled different places, subject matter, conflicts, and, frankly, genres. Ever. You are totally correct that part of my initial attraction to Pafko is the fact that it is about sports. You’re more the fox, ranging. It fascinated me the way this event moved across Brooklyn, touching people in different ways, summoning different reactions, momentarily capturing everyone’s attention.