The Books Interview: Vendela Vida

Your novel The Lovers follows a widow on her travels. Why did you choose Turkey?
My husband [the author Dave Eggers] and I wanted to go. I never planned on writing about it, and I didn't take any notes while we were there. When we got home, I started to try to write another book and it just wasn't happening. All that kept coming to mind was this time in Turkey.

Two years later I went with two friends - it's a lot easier trying to convince friends to go with you on a trip to Turkey on the coast than it is to go to the Arctic Circle [the location of Vida's second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name]. I'd told them so much about this town where we'd been, and had happy memories of being there. I took my friends and it was shocking how different it was. They couldn't understand its appeal.

I started thinking about the discrepancy between my impressions of the first and second trips. That was part of the story - someone coming back to a town and being disappointed to see how much has changed.

How do you set about conjuring a place?
I think it's hard to write about a place when you're in it. People always ask me: why don't you write more about San Francisco, where you live? But you're too distracted by the day-to-day details. I like to have the whole story in my head and then be very removed from it and write about it from a distance.

Your central character travels alone. Did you want to emphasise the solitude of grief?
I've always been interested in women travelling alone abroad. I love E M Forster novels - anything that puts someone out of their environment. That was something that was a deliberate choice for me. I think it heightens the sense of loneliness, but there are also things you can discover about yourself when you're somewhere else that you can't discover when you're at home, in a place where you're comfortable.

You worked at the Paris Review and founded and edit the Believer, a literary journal. Does being an editor shape you as a writer?
It definitely makes me more aware of trends in writing. If anything, I react to them and become more old-fashioned. When I'm writing, I'm very conscious of reading older books, books that have appealed to me in the past. I keep the ones that are most important to me on my desk at all times when I'm writing. Having them there is a reminder to me of what kind of book I'm trying to write.

Do you notice the influence of Master of Fine Arts programmes when you're reading the submissions you receive?
It's startling how many people have short story collections out there. It's difficult to workshop a novel, so everyone is encouraged to perfect the short story form. It's helpful in terms of getting people to tell a story, and perfecting sentences, but I think it's hard, because a lot of people are left with short story collections that they have to sell, and publishers don't really want the collection, they want the novel.

What role does the plethora of literary journals play in American writing life?
I love these journals. They find an audience for writers who might not necessarily have a huge audience. George Saunders said that it doesn't matter how many people you reach: if you reach one person and you make a difference in one reader's life, that's the whole point of being a writer. I think that's what journals do. Even if they're not widely read, they allow a place - especially for newer or experimental writers. First-time writers can have a hard time getting published and experimental writers don't get out there as much as I wish they would.

You set up the 826 Valencia literary project for young people with Dave Eggers. Do you like to engage in social work to counter-balance the singular life of a writer?
There's a mythology that a writer needs to sit at their desk all day and have all this time alone. When I was fortunate enough to do that for a couple of months - after my first novel, And Now You Can Go - it was disastrous. I felt very lonely and not very productive. When you don't have as much time to work with, you use your hours a little more efficiently. At least I do. I also felt very selfish. When you have all day to write, you have to believe that your thoughts are important. It's very solipsistic and it wears on you. You should possess a certain amount of humbleness.

Interview by Sophie Elmhirst

Vendela Vida's "The Lovers" is published by Atlantic Books (£14.99)