Ven­dela Vida turns up in Casablanca

Los Angeles Times - - F5 - By J.C. Ga­bel en­joy writ­ing and read­ing hu­mor­ous scenes. Ga­bel is a writer, edi­tor and small pub­lisher in Los An­ge­les.

Ven­dela Vida has for more than a decade pub­lished nov­els cen­tered on women in cri­sis. Set in for­eign lands, her sto­ries push the bound­aries of pre­con­structed fe­male iden­ti­ties.

Vida’s fourth — and most ac­com­plished — novel, “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty” (Ecco: 216 pp., $25.99), is a page-turn­ing thriller with a sub­tle, satir­i­cal bent; it fol­lows an un­named nar­ra­tor through the streets of Casablanca as she tries to es­cape a failed re­la­tion­ship and restart her life.

In the open­ing pages, her back­pack, con­tain­ing pass­port, money and com­puter, is stolen from the ho­tel where she is stay­ing. Vida’s hero­ine ends up tak­ing on sev­eral iden­ti­ties not her own and be­gins to mold her per­son­al­ity from them; in part, to keep from be­ing caught but more prac­ti­cally to sur­vive.

By hap­pen­stance, she is of­fered a job on a movie set as a stand-in for a fa­mous actress, and this de­vice sets the book’s break-neck cin­e­matic pace. I talked with Vida about the novel and her in­spi­ra­tions, in­clud­ing travel, film and get­ting school credit for ly­ing. Your ti­tle, “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” comes from a Rumi poem, which you re­pro­duce in its en­tirety. Did you know that was go­ing to be the ti­tle all along?

It was some­thing I came to later. Martin Amis once said there are two kinds of ti­tles: The ti­tle you have in the very be­gin­ning or the one you have at the end, and if you fig­ure out the ti­tle in the be­gin­ning, it creeps into the nar­ra­tive as you’re writ­ing it. For me, it’s the op­po­site; I like to stum­ble upon the ti­tle af­ter I’ve writ­ten a lengthy draft and shared it with oth­ers. In the case of “Diver’s Clothes,” I was show­ing parts of the book to a writ­ing group I’ve been a part of for the last 10 years, and one of the writ­ers said, “Isn’t there that great Rumi poem about a diver?” Af­ter­ward, I went to Dog-Eared Books in San Fran­cisco and found a book of Rumi po­ems, and as soon as I found the poem and read it I knew it was go­ing to work as the ti­tle of my book. You’ve said that you read a lot of other au­thors’ books when pre­par­ing to write your own. What other me­dia do you rely on for in­spi­ra­tion?

I do read a lot of nov­els when I’m gear­ing up to write a novel. But when I’m writ­ing the book it­self, I tend to read a lot of po­etry. I love the at­ten­tion to de­tail po­ets have. I find that help­ful. When I was writ­ing this new book, I didn’t ac­tu­ally let my­self read many other books; in­stead I turned to film. I had a pro­fes­sor when I was in grad school say that if you ever get stuck writ­ing a book, try to imag­ine it in a dif­fer­ent medium. So for the open­ing of a book, what would it look like if it were a film? Or a play? Any­how, I watch a lot of movies that are re­lated to the book when I’m writ­ing it. What are some ex­am­ples in re­la­tion to “The Diver’s Clothes”?

The Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni film “The Pas­sen­ger” is one. It’s not set in Morocco, but there’s this idea of us­ing some­one else’s pass­port and tak­ing on some­one else’s iden­tity — that was fas­ci­nat­ing to me. I also watched “The Tal­ented Mr. Ri­p­ley.” Any films about iden­tity that also had a thriller com­po­nent were re­ally use­ful. The Amer­i­can actress in the book is por­trayed satir­i­cally, but she is never named. Are there de­tails that, in your view, are bet­ter left un­said?

Years ago, I was in­ter­view­ing Shirley Haz­zard for the Be­liever [mag­a­zine], and in her book, “The Great Fire,” she has a char­ac­ter on a train read­ing a book, and she never says what the book is, but she gives snip­pets or hints. The book is “War and Peace,” which she con­firmed with me when I in­ter­viewed her. But I re­ally ad­mired the way she did that: She didn’t tell the reader what the book was, but it helped you get in­side the char­ac­ter’s mind. I loved that tech­nique, and I’ve used it a cou­ple of times now. This slight skew­er­ing of Hol­ly­wood: Was it some­thing you orig­i­nally in­tended, or did it sur­face in the writ­ing?

I think it was al­ways present. My other books have come off a lit­tle bit dark at times. With this new book, I wanted to make sure I kept it light enough so that I could in­ject hu­mor when needed. I didn’t set out to write a satire, per se, but I wanted to have the ca­pac­ity, this time around, to use hu­mor. I re­ally When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I knew I wanted to be a writer at a young age. My par­ents weren’t big read­ers, but they did have a great col­lec­tion of books, in part be­cause my fa­ther had an an­tiques busi­ness and gallery. He had this big, beau­ti­ful old book­shelf, and he had to fill it with books, which I think he got at a garage or es­tate sale. So my sis­ter and I would take th­ese books down and read them, even though we prob­a­bly were too young. I re­mem­ber lov­ing Som­er­set Maugham’s books, even though, look­ing back now, it’s un­clear how much I truly un­der­stood at the time.

Also, I would get into trou­ble for ly­ing when I was younger. I was al­ways ly­ing. I re­mem­ber once telling a bunch of neigh­bors that my fam­ily had adopted my friend, who was vis­it­ing, and that she was go­ing to live with us. News made it around the neigh­bor­hood, and the con­se­quences were ter­ri­ble. I re­mem­ber be­ing grounded in my room, hav­ing to call ev­ery­one and apol­o­gize for mak­ing this story up.

Later, when I was 10 or 11, I wrote a short story in school and it dawned on me that this might be a way to lie and get away with it. And what’s bet­ter, I was get­ting credit in school for com­ing up with th­ese tall tales.

Chloe Af­tel As­so­ci­ated Press

VEN­DELA VIDA in­jected hu­mor into her fourth novel.

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