The Bombardment of Story: An Interview with Ivy Pochoda

RACHEL BARENBAUM: Ivy, this book sucked me in. The voice that nags, obsesses, narrates. The world ignores them, but Pochoda draws them in all their splendor, and they stayed with me long after I put the book down. These are powerful men whose power was derived from putting women’s experience into question. What it boils down to is that no one even believed she was a person deserving of attention. But I’m also aware that these sometimes artificial distinctions often don’t matter when it comes to how the outside world views these women. The novel is told from the perspective of six women across different classes of society, who grew up in different places and under different circumstances, and are different races and ages. She has critical information to help the investigation, but the police repeatedly dismiss her. Why art? So I knew each story would have to follow the previous one. But I do live in the neighborhood where I set These Women and for a while I served on my neighborhood council. Normally I have zero idea of what I’m doing when I write. So I decided I could foreground her personal struggles and let the case be a way to explore these and that is when the book finally came together. You know, he sure does have his own reasons for thinking that, which I’ll let the reader discover. I know many women who work or have worked in some aspect of the business (high-class escorts as well as street prostitutes on Skid Row) and I’m aware they hold these distinctions.   For example, a cocktail waitress who works at the Fast Rabbit works around it while a prostitute on the streets works in it. Why does one steal the other’s work? Writing about Theme is a death knell for a book. Did you work with an outline? The prose is the nice smooth highway your story is proceeding down. Some are professionals, some are just clinging to the edge of society, some are, or should be, young and invincible. They are never far from one another. Can you talk about them? What books do you recommend? These bold characters are each distinct, and this is where Pochoda shines: creating brilliant characters who are as flawed as they are raw. Any tips? I learned this from Doug Bauer, one of the best instructors of creative writing. They are not worthy of our attention, they are not capable of having thoughts or minds or lives beyond the outwardly lascivious. He is speaking what so many people think about women like Julianna, that women who are strippers or exotic dancers or prostitutes have no place anywhere, not in art, not in society, not even on the streets. Sticking to craft, how did this book come together? You can approach a painting or a photograph or a video installation at your leisure — look away for a moment — taking your time with it. I’m exaggerating a bit here. This is precisely what happens in These Women, although of course the thief isn’t entirely aware of the consequences and the implications of what she has done. (I sense this is not unique to Skid Row, of course.) So many of the artists in the studio where I work have been the victims (or even the perpetrators) of violence. Over the last months, I’ve been trying to find books that reflect the mood of violence, extremism, lawlessness, and wild abandon, not to mention depravity and poverty leaking into and sometimes swamping our world. Using art as a medium to portray inner complexities is, in this book, an essential device to access interiority without belaboring it. Why place a performance artist and a photographer at the center? I just finished Jaquira Díaz’s extraordinary memoir Ordinary Girls, which astonished me. It shocked me the way they talked about the women who work Western Avenue, how easily they dismissed them without thinking of their circumstances and situation and considering they might have lives beyond prostitution. It doesn’t really bother me and it doesn’t change my opinion of a woman who engages in it. Sticking to this epic scene, the art exhibition, a man appears and declares about the subjects of Marella’s artwork, “These women don’t belong here. From convincing people that women were not to be believed. The major change between drafts was the addition of the detective, Essie. Let’s see. I’m loath to use the overhyped phrase “gaslighting” here, but when I think about power in These Women, it is this one thing: the power to convince others that someone else isn’t telling the truth or is thinking incorrectly or is beneath the capability of rational thought. I love hearing the way people talk and listening for their speech patterns — those unique and personal word repetitions. It’s a very simplistic power grab. Gosh. I have an inability to tune out conversations around me. Art provides a canvas for the artist to convey things which she might not be able to express verbally, putting distance between herself, the subject matter, and the person experiencing it — the viewer or spectator. How long before you do the thing you swore you wouldn’t do? You are a master when it comes to dialogue in this book. How did you figure out how each character would speak? (I think someone else might have said something similar once…) Denial can be a potent drug and a necessary one, although one that will ultimately have disastrous consequences. My editor, Zack Wagman, insisted and he was right. And I can’t wait to ask you about the role art and artists play in this novel. Instead of fetishizing the male perpetrator, Pochoda turns her lens on a constellation of women impacted by the killer. They don’t belong anywhere.” Those are heavy words — that terrified me. Isn’t everything borrowed from something else? Your characters make a clear distinction between what they call living “around the life,” and living in it. Once I’ve grabbed these, I heighten them. IVY POCHODA: Well, I’ve taught in Skid Row for nearly seven years and I’ve come to appreciate the constant convergence of art and violence. He is the voice of convention. (His chapter on dialogue in The Stuff of Fiction should also be required reading.) So when you use it, it better be both important and meaningful — more like well-crafted poetry than banal chit-chat. I couldn’t put it down. I also knew that I wanted a different structure than my previous two, which bounced around from character to character. Questions around who has it, who doesn’t, and why come up again and again. Their words have been tossed away, their ideas and experiences dismissed. Can you tell us how you thought about power as you wrote this book? I also just discovered a lesser known Western novel called Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams that I found remarkable. Skipping over politics (and don’t get me started on the issues of power/belief there) take a look at the most infamous current examples: Weinstein and Cosby. They are all on a slippery slope of denial. So much of culture is theft, either accidental or blatant. And it’s used sparingly too. When you use dialogue you are telling someone to sit up and pay attention. Finally, let’s get personal. I wanted to limit the scope of the book to a short time period (a few days). What does that take? It’s powerful to be able to dismiss a person and have others follow along. Of course, we all have to tell ourselves certain things to survive. So instead I listen. No one bothered to take her attack seriously. It’s a question I’ve been grappling with since I wrote Visitation Street and one that is certainly central to Wonder Valley. I am also aware that there is more depth and complexity to them than sex work. So I decided I’d write in “blocks” — each character having a discrete, self-contained section. And it worked for decades. Feelia is perhaps the most overt example of this. I knew I wanted to write another multi-perspective novel. How did you create all the disparate stories and characters? Why do they converge at the end — in one exhibition? Deciding whether or not to believe someone, having the ability to make that decision, is power. When do you cross the invisible line you drew for yourself? Giving art such a central role is completely unexpected in a serial killer story. It’s a brutal and beautifully measured book about excess and survival with some of the best writing about nature I’ve ever come across. I underlined dozens of scenes and pieces of dialogue where power is at stake. It also, of course, serves another purpose for it allows me, a writer, to dramatize their inner lives, to show that there is more to the women I’ve conjured and who are traditionally dismissed. Let’s talk about dialogue. They are prostitutes, artists, and detectives; they live in the shadows of the West Adams district of Los Angeles. The women in These Women who work in some aspect of the sex trade are holding on to a self-defined sense of hierarchy for their personal survival regardless of the fact that people in the straight world tend to write them all off as the same sort of degenerate. Talking to him, I realized that what I was afraid of was not the detective herself but digging into the nitty-gritty police work. I’m slightly wary of adding hardcore crime elements to my work and creating a detective was a huge challenge for me. I’m guessing there is a larger message there. Even the kindest committee members seemed to hold the prostitutes accountable for ruining the street with their trade. The dialogue is the hairpin turn or the steep incline when you suddenly have to focus. I just re-reread Blood Meridian, a book which I know many people are conflicted about. She doesn’t even know that she has information about this case because she doesn’t know what happened to her. It’s neither my strength nor my style. Her life wasn’t worthy of investigating or taking seriously. And while there were many issues that divided us, one that united many of the members was the question of prostitution. And this led me back to narratives of the West. Both the artists in my book are struggling with extreme violence in their everyday life — sexual, emotional, physical. I mean, come on, this is what we are seeing all day, every day in every news cycle. But for some reason this entire book leapt out at me. I’m a huge eavesdropper in general. She wasn’t considered human enough to be given the facts of her own experience. The reason she does it, if she were going to level with you, is that she is secretly powerless to dramatize the anger, hurt, and fear inside her through her art and when she sees that someone else has been able to do this, she takes it for herself. Power is a central theme of this book. Can you talk about this? Why is it so important for the novel? Everyone seemed to want to blame and shame the women. What are you reading now? It is one of the best explorations of the inner and surprising lives and intelligence of teenage girls (an obsession of mine) that I’ve read. Sometimes this theft is a tribute, but others (too many others) it is a crime of appropriation. The voice that is our own personal newscaster or storyteller, the one that supports us but also criticizes. Why do your characters go out of the way to make this distinction? I’m interested in these liminal junctures — where does one thing give way to another? But he’s giving voice to what I see as a more conventional attitude toward the type of women represented in the show — women on the edge of society, women who are fast, possibly loose, sexy and sexual. JUNE 9, 2020

IVY POCHODA’S LATEST mesmerizing novel, These Women, is a vivid and terrifying serial killer story that turns the traditional narrative on its head. And from there I began to hear these women talk to me. Putting theme first will sink even the most exciting plot. Well, when I created each character I decided that she would have an obsession — art, puzzles, prayer — that she would filter her inner voice through. “No one believed her,” you wrote referring to Feelia, a former hooker who was left for dead by the serial killer. I’m a pretty progressive person when it comes to prostitution. As James Wood said in his brilliant review of Richard Price’s Lush Life, (a review that should be essential for all novelists) most people sound more like boring old Charles Bovary than not, so good dialogue is naturally heightened if you want it to sing. It doesn’t have the violence of words, the bombardment of story. That’s just the way it goes. Well, ask Harold Bloom! I guess it’s the flip side of the question above. But what unites them is that time and again, in fact too many times to count, they have not been believed. How did you write it so well? ¤
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars. But it’s one that I love and can turn to endlessly for its remarkable (and remarkably and delightfully fucked up) marriage of the poetic and the violent, something like a Homeric acid trip. And I’ve witnessed how essential art is to overcoming, expressing, and processing the challenges of the violence that is all around them (or even us). We all have voices or a voice in our head, no? But this is the theme of These Women. But also, for the viewer, art provides a sometimes necessary buffer to process things which are shocking. Well, in truth they are lying to themselves. Especially at this moment in literature where our own voices are rightfully coming to the forefront, we are becoming increasingly aware of how much is appropriated from the voiceless, the disenfranchised, and the disregarded. They are just a cut above animal. This one is an outlier. Art is their way to process things which are out of their control. This disregard was what I exaggerated and put into the mouth of the male spectator at the art show.