ON THE COUCH ... Nina VIDA
ERIC FORBES talks to NINA VIDA, the author of The Texicans and Goodbye, Saigon, among other novels
NINA VIDA is the author of seven novels: Scam, Return from Darkness, Maximillian’s Garden, Goodbye, Saigon, Between Sisters, The End of Marriage, The Texicans, and the forthcoming Lilli. She began writing in 1975 while working on a degree in English. She lives with her husband Marvin who is a lawyer in Huntington Beach, California. Check out Nina’s website at ninavida.com.
Tell me something about yourself.
I’m a native Californian, married to an attorney. We married very young. It wasn’t until later on that my husband went to law school and I got a university degree in English. Our two children are grown now and have successful careers; our daughter is a partner in an international accounting firm and our son is a partner in a large law firm. We live in the house where our children grew up, not far from the beach. Growing up I thought I would be a concert pianist. I still play the piano, but it has taken a back seat to my writing.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I was always a facile writer, composed pretty sentences for English class in high school, but never, ever for one single, solitary moment thought of writing a story or poem or essay on my own. I thought of writers as magical beings who from the cradle were touched by the writing muse. But like all things in life, there is no program for what becomes of us. There is no instruction booklet on how to proceed in life. Everything is serendipitous—sort of. By my forties I still hadn’t shown any inclination to strike out as a writer, although if one could read the tea leaves, all my life I was in training to become one. Meanwhile I busied myself with home and children, became a small authority on Asian porcelain, gardened my brains out, and read and read and read. A happy life indeed.
It was an essay I wrote for an English class in college. My husband, who had been a Navy journalist, read it, and prodded me to try my hand at a novel. I balked at the idea. The prospect of putting my own thoughts on paper for others to read and criticise filled me with fear—but at the same time, what an intriguing concept—me, a writer. Wow. What did a writer do? What did a writer write? I began by writing on a yellow legal pad. I thought it made me think better to see the words being formed in ink on a page. That was the beginning.
What do you do when you are not writing? Do you write full-time?
I don’t write on a schedule. When I’m working on a book, I write pretty much every day, emptying out onto the page what’s occurred to me since the day before. There comes a point during the writing portion of the day when I know it’s time to stop, not to push on, but to let it rest. In the afternoon, my husband, who’s semi-retired, and I go for a stroll on the beach. We walk on the pier, check out the tame pelican that roosts on the rail of the pier every afternoon waiting for the fishermen to offer him some fish bait and for the tourists to take his picture. Then we head down to Main Street and sit at a sidewalk table at Starbucks, listen to the locals argue politics and watch people go by. But the book is always with me, poised, waiting. I jot notes on scraps of paper. At night in my dreams I go over and over what I’ve written. I hear the words in my sleep. An inelegant phrase or inaccurate word can wake me up and send me upstairs to my computer.
Was there much difficulty in getting your first novel published? Did it get any easier with your subsequent novels? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
It took me two years to get my first agent, who submitted my first novel, Scam, to 26 publishers before it was accepted by Macmillan. I have had a total of seven agents. All of us parted amicably. Some of my novels have been harder to sell than others. The easiest one was Goodbye, Saigon, which found a publisher in two weeks. The film rights were optioned by Dick Zanuck and purchased by MGM. There has been no movie made yet, but there’s always hope!
What kinds of books did you read during your formative years or when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? Why?
I loved adventure stories when I was growing up. Swordplay and pirates. I remember Rafael Sabatini as a favourite writer. And, of course, Louisa May Alcott.
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I read a lot of nonfiction now. Some fiction. I’ve read all of Anne Tyler, because of her attention to people’s foibles and her gentleness with them. I read Don DeLillo for his words and sentences. I read Saul Bellow for his elegant, somewhat removed, style. I read Jane Austen for her wisdom. I read Flannery O’Connor for her fearlessness.
Could you tell me a bit about The Texicans and your new novel Lilli?
The Texicans is a novel of unexpectedness. We’re all familiar with the western template, the cattle rustling and Indian raids. I chose to focus on what the rigours of frontier life does to the lives of ordinary people, how they change and grow, prosper or fail, in short, how they surprise us. The new novel, Lilli, is a story of the Jewish refugees from Hitler who found a haven in Shanghai. Again, I’m interested in the stories of individuals, how they behave under stress, how catastrophe brings out the best and worst of character.
What are some of the common themes you dealt with in some of your novels? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the novels?
I was not conscious of any themes in my work when I first began to write. I felt lucky to get words down on paper that wouldn’t embarrass me. But I’ve been writing for a long time. At first I was concerned mostly with craft, the mechanics of learning to write, of moving a person from one room to another, of not falling into bad habits, of not using an adverb after every “he said,” “she said,” of not using too many “saids” in the first place, of trying to find original, beautiful, even gorgeous ways of saying commonplace things, of trying not to be so cute no one could understand what I was writing, of not wanting to distance myself from the reader with arcane lists, of not substituting loops of scenery for human insights. My theme, if there is one, is the idea that we think we know people, but we only know them in the way we see them in ordinary life. We don’t always get to know them when critical decisions have to be made, when they’re stressed beyond comprehension, when the mask slips and true emotion is revealed. That’s what fascinates me. That’s what a lot of my writing is about.
How do you go about editing your work before sending it off to the publisher?
I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. When the point comes that I’ve rewritten to my satisfaction, I send it off to my agent, who will no doubt have suggestions for revision. I love that. Suggestions, criticisms, all of them. It sparks whole new ways of looking at what I’ve written and sends me off on even more frenzies of rewriting. And, of course, when the book is sold, the editor has her own suggestions to make, which enriches the book even further.
Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
Right now I’m been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I read lots of news magazines. I’m sort of a politics junkie.
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
History does not write the best stories. History is always being revised. Good writers interpret history for us, make sense of it, put their spin on it, allow us to agree or disagree. Writers make the best stories out of history, which is a living construct, ever changing, always interesting, always new.
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
In my opinion, it isn’t enough for a book to give us questions to enjoy. What I want as a reader is the resolution to a problem, even if it’s a fictional resolution, because I want to see the author’s mind at work, want to be surprised and grateful that the author has been brave enough to have a viewpoint for me to examine and mull over.
Do you think more competitions or creative-writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I have no opinion on writing competitions or creative-writing courses, except that from what I’ve observed more notice is taken of writers who win competitions and graduate from prestigious creative-writing programs and are involved in the politics of publishing.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
The essentials of good fiction are a distinctive voice, a mastery of craft, an idiosyncratic approach to language that tickles in its inventiveness but doesn’t overwhelm, an original approach to story that intrigues but doesn’t abdicate the writer’s responsibility to tell a story without gaps, misdirection and inconsistencies.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m working on a novel about the Vietnamese refugee community in California.