I have been a fan of Karolina Waclawiak’s work ever since her debut novel How to Get into the Twin Palms was published in 2012 and proceeded to rock my world with its rawness, desperation, and simultaneous hope. If it hasn’t already become clear, I read a lot of immigrant literature, but that isn’t the only reason why I liked Twin Palms. I loved it because of the language, the form, the story, and the female character. All of these elements combined left me thrilled to hear that Waclawiak’s second novel, The Invaders was being published this summer, as I previously mentioned here. The Invaders is not an immigrant novel, but it is still very much concerned with similar themes – identity, displacement, fitting in, and family relationships – all of which are portrayed with a dark, compelling tone that hovers like a summer storm cloud, appropriate since the book takes place in a Connecticut beach town. It follows two protagonists, Cheryl and her stepson Teddy, as they try to make sense of their place in the community and subsequently discover things about themselves, about one another, and about the setting in which their lives take place. I was more than excited to interview Karolina Waclawiak, and the following conversation took place via email. Be sure to check out The Invaders, available July 7, 2015 from Regan Arts.
Blue Mesa Review: If I’m remembering correctly, when you wrote Twin Palms you were living on the east coast, in New York, or at least you’d gotten your MFA there. But Twin Palms takes place in Los Angeles where you’d lived previously. You’ve since moved back to LA, but The Invaders takes place back on the east coast. Does your place or where you’re living influence your writing process?
Karolina Waclawiak: I actually started writing The Invaders while I was on the east coast (in NY) and finished it out here in LA. For me, I usually I can’t write about a place when I’m there. I have to have some distance from it. Though, I often went back to LA while I was writing How to Get Into the Twin Palms to get the feel of the city again. I did the same thing for The Invaders, traveling to Connecticut to get a feel for the Connecticut Shoreline in order to get small details right – how the beaches look, what summer feels like there, how the house look. Often, when I write about a place, it’s a place in my mind from a time that doesn’t feel current anymore. The streets I was writing about in Twin Palms are now filled with fashionable boutiques and restaurants, for instance. So that books function as a sort of time capsule of place. The Invaders takes place now, but it could be ten years ago or twenty.
BMR: Why the Connecticut seashore for The Invaders? I’m from Connecticut and people don’t necessarily think of it as a glitzy coastal spot like they do something like Cape Cod. Was it just for personal biographical reasons or was there more to that decision?
KW: That’s funny. When I think of Connecticut, I think of towns like Greenwich or New Canaan. Towns I didn’t grow up in, but towns that I’ve been to or had interaction with when I was growing up. I always felt like there were small pockets of extreme wealth in Connecticut and then normal family towns, small cities, and farms. I haven’t been to Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard so I can’t speak to how they look or feel, but I waited on people driving from New York to those places when I was a teenager. I decided to write about Connecticut because I think there’s a vast gap between the wealthy areas and everyone else, and that was something that stuck with me after growing up there.
BMR: Twin Palms is about a displaced immigrant, and a lot of interviewers seemed to ask you about that novel’s place in the immigrant writing tradition when it was published. And some more recent commenters have noted that both female characters are obsessed with fitting in. That being said, The Invaders isn’t an “immigrant novel,” and I think a lot of authors who write that novel continue to explore it in later works or get labeled as immigrant writers. Why did you choose to move away from those overt themes? Or did you not see it as a move away?
KW: I moved away from the immigrant novel because I didn’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed into being known as a writer who only focuses on the immigrant experience. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever write about that part of my life again. I’ve been thinking about writing something about my grandfather, but that requires me going to Poland for a month or two and I don’t have the option of doing that right now. I had actually written about Cheryl and Teddy’s world before Twin Palms, but as a short story. Those two characters have been nagging at me for many, many years, and I finally figured out how I could approach writing about wealth and belonging in an interesting way as a novel. I don’t remember who said it, but I think it’s true that writers are often trying to solve the same problem over the course of many novels. Perhaps the theme I will always wrestle with will be one of belonging – whether it is in the immigrant community or WASP society, or somewhere completely different.
BMR: Neither of the novels are written in traditional narrative formats. What draws you to this kind of experimentation with chapter structure and narration?
KW: Good question. I knew with Twin Palms there was no way I could get away with Anya’s deadpan voice in long chapters or a long book, so I opted for short and choppy. In that way, I was thinking about the reader’s experience. For The Invaders, I had originally written the short story all from Teddy’s perspective, but I didn’t think he’d work as the narrator of the whole book. That’s asking a lot from the reader. In the short story, Cheryl occupied a small space but she really haunted me. Because I didn’t want to lose either of their perspectives I chose to include both. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with traditional novels. Maybe I just don’t know how to write them.
BMR: I couldn’t help pick up on trends in the novel that are also topics of conversation in the contemporary discourse, especially about women—including motherhood, aging, friendship, and character likeability – and what that all means in real life and its representation in fiction. That being said, would you consider this a feminist novel?
KW: Because I’m a feminist, I think everything I write has some element of feminism in it. That being said, I’m sure people would call Cheryl a bad feminist because of some of her actions. I bristle at the question of character likeability because I think it’s so unimportant. No one’s perfect and everyone’s trying their best. Who cares if a character is likeable? Claire Messud said it perfectly, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” The topics you picked up in my novel are in there not necessarily because they’re trendy right now, but because they’re what I’m thinking about a lot and talking to my friends about a lot. I’m reaching the age where soon motherhood will not be an option, so I wanted to look at a character that made certain choices in her life, which she might now regret. I think the most pervasive feeling in this book might be regret. Or, more directly, the question of Was any of this even worth it?
BMR: And yet, the other half of the novel is told from the perspective of a young privileged male. Did you mean for the story to be equally theirs, to be more one than the other, or more about the broken pieces of the family as a whole? To me, it felt more like Cheryl’s story, but I might be biased as a reader more drawn to works by and about women and, moreover, the novel begins and ends with Cheryl.
KW: My main concern with this novel was to take people you think you know – a trophy wife and a privileged white male – and subvert your expectations. I think the book is both their stories and also one of them finding understanding with one another. I have always been fascinated with people who come from privileged backgrounds who can’t seem to make it on their own. I have empathy for them in a weird way, because everyone is judging them and it’s possible that they’ll never be as successful as their parents and that’s got to hurt. I have deep empathy for both of my characters and I had to search for that within myself while writing their stories. I had to defy my own expectations of who they are and hopefully readers will do the same.
BMR: Both of your novels end with “natural” disasters. In Twin Palms, the fire is partly made by heat, dry brush, and drought, and partly stoked by humanity and Anya, the main character. In The Invaders, a hurricane is obviously a natural phenomenon but one many people see as avoidable with enough notice. But both the characters gravitate toward these disasters. Cheryl says “I’m staying until the end” (209) even though she hasn’t been in Little Neck Cove since the beginning (she is Jeffrey’s second wife) according to many of her neighbors. This may seem like a trivial question, but given these disasters and the darkness of The Invaders – with some dark humor, of course – do you see the book as having some sort of “happy” ending? Or at least some other “positively connoted adjective” ending? Redemptive? Hopeful? At least thought provoking? It made me think, in part, of the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the meaning of which people have been debating for a century at least.
KW: I do think it’s a hopeful ending! I wanted it to be a hopeful ending, anyway. I mean, it’s a question of escape. And perhaps it feels a bit of a nihilist way to escape, but it’s a means of escaping. I also felt like it was one of the only times Cheryl was somewhat in control of her life. I’ll stop right there though. I’d be happy with a debate about the end. I’m curious how people will take it. I wanted to get it right and so I tinkered with it a lot – for years.
BMR: I also wanted to ask you about one of the more minor characters – Tuck, who very often provides comic relief and can be seen as one of the only mostly “good” characters. Is this the case because he’s minor? Why include this neighbor?
KW: I love Tuck because he’s old money and he’s the only one not obsessed with money. I think when writing dark work there has to be a comedic element involved and for me, that’s Tuck. He’s just doing his thing and trying to have a good time. He wants to protect that good time when things start getting out of hand, though. Which is understandable. When main characters are going through a lot of turmoil, I think it’s important to have someone acting as a decompression valve. Tuck is Little Neck Cove’s fun zone.
BMR: Off the subject of your novels specifically, does being an editor and working on The Believer influence your personal writing process? How? Or do you keep them separate?
KW: It’s been really interesting editing nonfiction because it’s taught me a lot about story structure. I also know that if I were editing fiction I would probably have a hard time writing it. For some reason, I don’t burn out doing both because in a way they’re using different parts of my brain. It certainly has helped my writing in a big way. I’m really lucky to be editing fantastic, brilliant writers at The Believer and it’s made me work harder in my fiction to get on par with that level of storytelling.
BMR: What’s next for you? What projects are you working on? Is another novel brewing?
KW: I’m in the middle of writing another novel right now. It’s about miracles and the first chapter is going to show up in the summer issue of VQR. The first chapter is set in California, but most of the novel takes place in Texas. I’m trying to be a bit more fun, but it might be my darkest one yet because it deals with religion and beliefs.
Karolina Waclawiak received her BFA in Screenwriting from USC School of Cinematic Arts and her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her first novel, How to Get into the Twin Palms, was published by Two Dollar Radio in 2012. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, and The Believer (where she is also an editor). She lives in Los Angeles.
Diana Filar is the editorial assistant at Blue Mesa Review