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I Love the Unexplained: A Conversation with Ivy Pochoda

by Brendan Dowling on September 23, 2013

Entertainment Weekly hailed Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street as “gravely tense and beautiful” and Barnes and Noble named Pochoda as one of their Fall 2013 Discover Great New Writers Selections. Visitation Street takes place in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. One night, two bored high school girls, Val and June, try to escape the summer heat by rafting in the nearby bay. The next morning, only Val returns, unconscious in the weeds with no memory of what happened the night before. The novel centers around several characters left reeling from June’s disappearance, including Jonathan, the alcoholic music teacher who discovered Val’s unconscious body; Cree, a recent high school graduate who lives in the nearby housing projects; and Monique, Cree’s cousin and onetime friend of Val and June. Pochoda, who lived in Red Hook while writing the novel, delivers a panoramic view of Red Hook, including the bar where the locals converge, the convenience store where neighbors exchange news and gossip, and the docks along the bay. Pochoda talked with Brendan Dowling via telephone on August 27th, 2013.

Public Libraries: In a lot of ways Visitation Street is a coming of age novel, where different characters have to grow up or have to let go of their past. What drew you to characters who are at such transitional points of their lives?

Ivy Pochoda: Val and June definitely represent two sides of my own personality and two things I had to contend with growing up. I had a very good friend who didn’t want to let go of our childhood, and she really wanted us to stay kids forever. She didn’t want us to become teenagers or adults. I felt incredibly guilty because I wanted to flirt with boys, drink, and sneak cigarettes. I could feel that was a divisive moment in our friendship. However, I was also on the receiving end of that more often than you’d imagine. I had tons of friends racing towards adulthood and doing things I didn’t understand. So in the opening chapter, I really wanted to create that moment in Val and June’s friendship when everything is on the line.

It’s a sad thing that happens to girls more than boys. You really do grow apart. You mature at different ages. Girls’ friendships are very fraught and very complicated. That’s where [Val and June’s] relationship came from—exploring what it was like to be in different relationships with my girlfriends growing up.

As for Cree, I’m not sure where that [struggle] came from. He has more of a traditional crisis, that high school has ended and he doesn’t know what to do. That’s just something I think a lot of people struggle with. I struggled with that more after college—I just had no idea. No one tells you what to do.

PL: Even a lot of the adults are emotionally stuck and don’t seem to know what to do next.

IP: With Jonathan, I really relate to him. There’s always that threat in your life that you’re going to give up or not ask anything of yourself. Some people just get stuck at a point where they don’t push themselves harder or they don’t take advantage of the things available to them. Jonathan just made a lot of mistakes, and it wasn’t his fault. I feel like I’m drawn to people who are stuck at a crossroads because I never know what I’m going to do next. I don’t know how the average person is so decisive on what he or she wants to do on a regular basis. (laughs) I have no idea what I’m going to do next week!

Jonathan is just a victim of that inability to make a decision. He’s also just trapped by his past. All of these characters are trapped by their pasts.

Ivy Pochoda from Dolly Li on Vimeo.

PL: Going back to what you were saying about the girls’ relationship, the push and pull of their friendship, you see that on both ends, where the adult world looks so appealing to the kids—

IP: Yeah, it’s really not so hot.

PL: But Monique is really yearning for that simpler time, too.

IP: Exactly. With Monique it’s a little trickier because there’s something about the lifestyle I created for the characters in the housing project where they’re not really allowed to be kids. They’re supposed to be fancy and flirtatious and smoking and drinking. So that’s what’s expected of them. It’s unusual for a girl like her to yearn for simplicity and make believe.

PL: At least unusual to be so open about it.

IP: Exactly. I loved stuff like that until tenth grade. I loved dressing up and playing games with my friends, although I also loved going to bars, too, which was confusing to my parents. I fell on both sides of that equation so I can see it from both ends.

As I’ve gotten older, I realize nobody has the answers. I see adults behaving badly, and the older I get, I think, “God, that person’s behaving like a total moron. I thought adults didn’t do this.” But [some people] never graduate from high school, I guess. The culture of thebar [in the book] is very much like high school, even though they’re adults. Some people are in, some people are out. There’s a clique.

PL: Another part of the story’s heartbreak is the characters who recognize what other people need but they can’t give it to them.

IP: I guess the thing is in Red Hook, people are very close to one another. There was this superficial camaraderie, and I was trying to explore how deep it actually went. If you legitimately needed something, would these people who you saw in the bar, or on the street, whose name you knew, people you knew certain things about, would they actually give you what you need? Were they going to help you?

The fact was that we all seemed to be friends [when I lived there] and we all socialized, but how deep does it go? When the night is over are these people your friends in the morning? After you buy your cup of coffee from the store owner and talk to him for an hour, will he be there for you when you need it? Is that relationship reciprocal?

PL: And Jonathan recognizes so much of himself in Val but he can’t do that work for her.

IP: I think he does help her. But she’s too young to understand how he’s helping her and she’s hurt by him. He really does see himself in Val—that moment where she’s at that crossroads.

I saw kids I went to high school with and I thought, “My God, I see the way you’re living now could actually affect the rest of your life.” And then you see kids who were fuckups in high school who become lawyers and do really great stuff. Everyone matures at different levels. But I did see people who decided that it wasn’t worth it to expect anything of themselves or to do any more than hang out or socialize. I think that’s a real pitfall for girls. I work with a lot of girls. I mentor girls for sports—I used to play squash professionally. There’s this moment when girls are around fourteen, [where you have to] get them to understand that they are valuable above socializing and they’re important beyond having boys like them, and that sports will help them think highly of themselves. It’s really important because there’s such a danger of living your life based on the way you look to other people, and that’s really not great for young women.

PL: This is switching gears a little bit, but it seems that even though we learn so much about the five central characters in the book, the story is also marked by the characters whom we don’t meet, like Val’s mother, June’s grandmother, and the officers working on June’s case. Was that a deliberate choice on your part?

IP: You know it’s funny, I had a little more of both the mother and grandmother in earlier versions, and they just didn’t work. I just didn’t do a very good job writing them. They seemed a little caricaturish, a little flat.

There’s more information about June’s grandmother in my head, but there wasn’t room for everybody. When I was writing Val’s mother, she just seemed to be an unfair caricature of an Italian mother so I thought I’d just push her to the background. And then the book just had a lot of characters.

With the police, it was a conscious decision. I have been mugged in New York and I’ve been in a lineup, but that’s the extent of my information about police. The rest is all taken from Law and Order—I’m not going to lie. (laughs)

I didn’t want to write a police procedural. I wanted to write about the police the way I experienced them in Red Hook. You’d see them, they’d roll around in their squad cars, they’d go straight to the projects, and they’d ignore the white people. I wanted to create that feeling that they were there, but you didn’t really know them.

PL: One surprising aspect of the novel is its magic realism, where certain characters can talk to the dead. How did that element find its way into the story?

IP: My mind tends to wander into that place pretty easily. I love the unexplained. Red Hook has this weird feeling that if you walk through it, there are all these signs of this other neighborhood that no longer exists. Like the docks are crumbling, the sugar refineries have been taken down, the warehouses are all empty. When they built the housing projects, they apparently razed all these beautiful frame houses. There’s just a ghost of this other neighborhood that’s been built over or just been ignored. There’s a certain ghostliness to Red Hook naturally.

[With Cree’s mother] Gloria, I’m not sure whether she could talk to the dead. What I was hoping to do was that it was open to interpretation. I believe she believes she can do that, but I’m not going to tell you whether she can or not.

PL: You mentioned in a previous interview that writing Visitation Street was easier in some ways because you were able to avoid some of the bad habits you had writing your first book, The Art of Disappearing. I was wondering what were those bad habits?

IP: Well, it wasn’t easier, but I became a better writer. I love my first book, but it’s very strange. It has a lot of technical flaws. No one taught me about the nuts and bolts of writing and the craft of fiction. I used a ton of adverbs, and a lot of people “hissing” and “sighing” and “nodding” and “groaning” and “whispering.”

I think the writing of this went a little more smoothly because I was able to weed out the technical faults in writing although it still took me two and a half years to write. It was stressful in the sense that I now knew what to expect. I had a lot of critics in my head, teachers and people who had taught me about writing, but it was more enjoyable knowing that the prose was a little smoother. But I love my first book, although it’s super crazy. I’m so thrilled that that first book got published because it’s the weirdest thing on earth.

PL: You were talking about the nuts and bolts of writing. The authorial voice of Visitation Street is so distinctive and is told in the present tense. What made you choose to tell it that way?

IP: My first book was written in the first person past tense. And I thought there were so many limitations in the first person, And for some reason I ascribed those limitations to the first person past tense. So when I started to write a new book, I thought, “I’m going to do it in the third person present tense because it’s not the first person past tense.”

I love the present tense. I think it’s really exciting to write in the present tense, because then you can write flashbacks in the past tense. And you don’t have to write “has had,” you don’t have to write flashbacks in the pluperfect or whatever (laughs)

I naturally write in the present tense now. I haven’t thought about that. I’ve tried writing a book since I’ve written this book, and—let me see I have it on my desk right now—all of the things in this folder that says “False Starts” are in the present tense. Maybe I should write in the second person past tense. That would be awful. (laughs)

PL: You had mentioned earlier you had been a professional squash player. What effect, if any, has that had on your writing?

IP: It’s interesting, both squash and writing [require you to] to have a lot of belief that whatever you do, it’s going to work out. I’ve become very self-reliant and accustomed to spending a lot of time alone.

They’re really complements to one another. Writing is such a long haul. Sure, some days you’re like, “Oh great, I wrote this awesome chapter and that’s a really big win.” But squash you can go out out on the court and be like, “I totally beat her and that was awesome.” You can enjoy the short term victory of squash. It’s also a good way to work off steam after sitting at your desk all day.  But, you know, they just happen to be the two things I’ve always loved doing.

PL: And finally, what has been your experience with public libraries?

IP: I grew up in Brooklyn and there was a public library on my street that I used to like to go to, the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. But more exciting than that was the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza. It was this destination. I would come up with fake research projects, just so I could take the subway there. It was a huge beautiful building across the street from Prospect Park. To go there was very exciting and you felt very mature. It felt like a big fantasy.

My other favorite library is in Lyme, New Hampshire, the town where my dad lives. I wrote the final draft of the book there. I was visiting my dad for three weeks and I had to type all of my editor’s notes and queries and I worked there every day. It was fantastic.

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