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)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis