If the idea of a trilogy offers authors an organising principle and a formal constraint, it offers readers the reassuring promise of more where the first book came from. Vendela Vida’s trilogy began in 2003 with “And Now You Can Go”, a starkly witty exploration of a young woman’s travels after a trauma, and continued with “Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name” (2007), whose young heroine unravels the question of her parentage over the course of a journey in far north Lapland. Vida’s newest offering, “The Lovers”, concludes the series by entering the consciousness of an older and decidedly wiser (though no less adrift) presence. The novel concerns a widow, Yvonne, who returns to the scene of her honeymoon and discovers, in the gently decomposing old town, several new ways of thinking about her marriage and herself, not all of them a comfort.
Vida, who is also a founding co-editor at the Believer, spoke with More Intelligent Life about “The Lovers”.
More Intelligent Life: "The Lovers" takes place on the coast of Turkey, with the narrator revisiting the town where she honeymooned with her deceased
husband. What about this landscape attracted you for this story?"
Vendela Vida: I originally went to Turkey to finish my last novel, "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name". I wanted to be far away from day-to-day distractions, and far away from anyone I knew. I also wanted to be far away from the landscape of Lapland in winter, which is where "Northern Lights" is set. So I typed in the words “Turkey”, “rental”, “beach” and “cheap” into a search engine and this house in Datça, Turkey appeared. Nobody I knew had been there, and no guidebook I consulted spent more than a page on it, so I was immediately intrigued: I’ve always been drawn to places that aren’t prone to tourism.
My husband and I ended up spending a month in Datça in 2005, and I did, in fact, almost finish "Northern Lights" there. I had no intention of writing about Turkey, and in fact, took no notes when I was there, but when I sat down to write my next book, this town—so old, so sweet—and this odd house—the owners left many things out: a sex swing, for one—continued to present themselves to me. Before long, I found myself setting a story there, but because I hadn’t taken any notes, I wanted to go back.
I did return to Datça in 2007, and I found it much different than I remembered it. It was still small and with its promenade and faded paint had a feel of old Europe—but it was also much louder and hotter and more seedy than I recalled it. I was very confused about how much a town could change in two years, and began to wonder how much I had glamorised it during my initial visit. But the disparity between how I remembered it and how I saw it when I returned ended up influencing the story and, in particular, Yvonne’s character. I began to think, “What kind of person would return to a town they’d once visited, and be disappointed to find it wasn’t as it once was.” A widow who had honeymooned there, I thought. And that set off the plot.
MIL: "The Lovers" is the third novel in a trilogy exploring themes of women submerged in conflict, chaos, or grief. The narrator of "The Lovers" is a middle-aged woman, while the women of "And Now You Can Go" and "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" were in their 20s. How does it feel to write about a (slightly) older woman?
VV: A reader once asked me if I thought writing got easier after a couple books, and I feel that, in some ways, it does get easier—you know how to avoid certain mistakes before you commit them to paper. But it also gets harder because you don’t want to repeat yourself. I've always written books about women eight-to-ten years younger than I was at the time of writing the books, and knew from the start of "The Lovers" that I wanted to challenge myself by writing about a woman who was older than I am. (I'm now 38 and Yvonne, the protagonist of "The Lovers" is 53). By choosing to write about Yvonne, I was forced to write about new experiences. Widowhood, for one. I talked to a lot of women who had lost their husbands, and they all said it got incredibly more difficult after the second year. The other topic I researched a lot, even thought it didn’t make it into the book (aside from one line), was menopause. I interviewed a lot of older friends of mine about menopause. I now have such a vast knowledge of homeopathic remedies for it that I could open a clinic.
I feel very fortunate because I'm in a writing group with several other writers, and half of them happen to be around 50, give or take a few years. This wasn't something I originally realised, but it turned out to be a blessing to have people who were around Yvonne's age giving me feedback on early drafts. Mostly, I was relieved to learn that I'd captured her age well, in their opinion. I did make one crucial addition based on their feedback, though. There's a scene in the novel when Yvonne drives a considerable distance to a beach, goes for a long swim, drives home, and ends up ruining her car. A woman in my writing group said, "That's fine, she can do all that, but just make sure that at the end of that day it's clear she's exhausted."
MIL: A few things about the book—the presence of water, memory, a return to previous sites of happiness—reminded me of John Cheever's "The Swimmer". Did you have any particular touchstones in mind when writing the book?
VV: Five books were really important to me while I was writing "The Lovers", and I kept them on my desk while working on the novel: "The Lover" by Marguerite Duras; "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles; Camus's "The Stranger"; J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" (it's my favourite book and I always have it on my desk regardless of what I'm working on); and E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India". I didn't end up rereading "A Passage to India" until I was approaching the end of "The Lovers", and after I reread the scene that takes place in a cave, I knew I wanted Yvonne to travel to Cappadocia, the cave district of Turkey. I felt that she was in such a strange place emotionally that a cave seemed a fitting location for the resolution. Also, she and her husband, Peter, originally met in front of a cave in Florence, Italy, so I wanted to echo that.
The problem was, I had never been to Cappadocia. I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with my second child and I got on a plane while I was still allowed to fly. At one point the only dress that fit me (and that was appropriate for the 110-degree heat) was this bright fuchsia maternity dress. I remember being on a bus going to the cave district, and everyone around me was dressed in black and grey, pretty conservatively, and they just stared at me in this bright pink dress, this American who was hugely pregnant and travelling alone. I looked like I was running away from something. I'm sure everyone thought I was going to go give birth in a cave. So "A Passage to India" ended up having a much bigger effect on me and the book than I ever anticipated.
MIL: "Away We Go", a critically successful film directed by Sam Mendes, was based on a screenplay you wrote with your husband, Dave Eggers. Any plans for more screenwriting?
VV: I'm working on the script of my last novel, "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name". It's a completely different process—turning a story you've written as a novel into a screenplay as opposed to a writing an original screenplay from scratch, but I'm enjoying it. Three years have passed since "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" was published, so I have a little distance from it, which is helpful. If I'd attempted to write the script right after I'd written the book, I think I would have been too attached to every detail. I'd think, "I can't cut that description of snow—I spent an entire day trying to get it right." But now it's fun to look back at that novel and visualise it as a film—I can almost approach it as though someone else wrote it. Almost.
“The Lovers“ (Ecco) by Vendela Vida is out now