Ivy Pochoda is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Visitation Street, which was chosen as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, Amazon Best Book of 2013, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Huffington Post, Self, and House & Garden. Her first novel, The Art of Disappearing (St. Martin’s Press 2009). She has a BA from Harvard College in Classical Greek and an MFA from Bennington College in fiction. Ivy grew up in Brooklyn, NY and currently lives in downtown Los Angeles with her husband Justin Nowell.
This interview was conducted over the phone and transcribed by Interview Editor Kira Assad. Of the process, she said, “I was so excited to have the opportunity to speak with Ivy Pochoda over the phone. She is such a passionate person and I enjoyed reading her novels.” In this interview, Ivy discusses her work with magical realism, finding her “balloon accident," and sharing her writing space with her three rabbits.
Superstition Review: In both of your novels, you use music to characterize actions and surroundings: for example, Mel in The Art of Disappearing who can hear music in used clothes and Jonathan in Visitation Street who is a musician. What made you decide to use music this way?
Ivy Pochoda: I’m not exactly sure. I don’t really know a lot about music and I am not really a musical person. I kind of failed out of my piano lessons and my flute lessons when I was younger. I can’t really read music either. I don’t really know what’s drawn me to write about it, which seems kind of fraudulent. I wish I understood music better. It just seems like a really interesting way to be able to categorize and describe the world. It’s odd because everyone comments on how successful those elements are in the book. It seems to be something that is a good allegory for the way these characters relate to the world around them. I think that it’s kind of tangible, in a way, that using poetry or art is not. You do hear sounds around you all the time, and you try to collate that or adapt it into the kind of frame of musical reference that you have. I am really not musically inclined whatsoever. I tried to read a lot of books on music and I just figured I would just let it go. But Jonathan’s music is sort of based on my high school music appreciation class and it led to that. Sometimes I find it really relaxing to write about something that I don’t know a ton about because I don’t have to worry if I got it perfectly right. You know, I’m a professional athlete and if I had to write about what it was like to compete, because I sometimes write essays about being a Squash player, I get really stressed out. I feel like I have to make it perfect since it is so important to me. With music it was fun for me to write about because it could be whatever I wanted it to be, and I didn’t worry about getting it wrong.
SR: The Art of Disappearing is full of mysticism where you blur reality and imagination; yet, you also explore unhappiness, death, and loneliness. How did you negotiate between magic and reality?
IP: I wrote that book a really long time ago, and I hope I did an okay job negotiating between magic and reality. I think it should have had a more basis in reality, but I tried to use some magical realism as an emotional extension of what the characters were going through. I don’t know if I rounded it properly. I think magical realism is very dangerous. It can’t be a way to get someone from point A to point B. I did want to use magic to be a true reflection of Toby’s struggle and his dreams, or what Mel was going through, missing her brother and hearing him in the fabric. If I really think about it, it’s sort of the same in Visitation Street with Gloria. Can she really talk to Marcus? I know the answer to that in my heart, but I’m not telling anybody. I think it’s open to interpretation. It is a great coping mechanism for her, the same with Monique. Can she hear June? I think the same, to a certain extent, is said for Mel in The Art of Disappearing. She is really searching for her brother everywhere to where she thinks she hears him in the fabric. I hope it’s true for her sake. I think you want to leave a bit open to interpretation without having to tell the reader that it is necessarily so. She could also be working very hard to bring him to life herself.
SR: Where did the idea of The Art of Disappearing first come from?
IP: Let’s see. The truth is, in 12th grade 1994, I had to do a writing assignment that for some reason, I can’t remember why, but it was about a magician who cut a woman in half. I started thinking about why magicians did this trick, and if there was any real desire behind it or if it was just pure magic. That’s where it sort of came from, a magician trying to create a perfect woman out of two halves. It was stuck in my head for like 10 years, and when I was like “Oh, I’m going to write a book” that was the first thing that popped into my mind. A woman who marries a magician and then he has this desire to saw women in half for real. I changed it because that is kind of bloody and disgusting, but that was the original idea.
SR: Toby decides to disappear and leave Mel at the end of The Art of Disappearing. How did you choose this course of action for this character?
IP: It surprised me too to be honest. I really wanted it to be a happy ending, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. It didn’t seen honest. When I was approaching the end of the book, somebody asked me, “Over what period of time did your book take place?” and I thought a year or two. But then I really looked at it, and it actually took more like three months or less. They got married kind of the day after they met and they don’t really know each other. They just have this brief interception, and he was just so lost in that other world. He tried to come back from it for Mel, but it didn’t seem realistic that after three months he would be able to leave that behind entirely. I was trying to imply that he is passing through different worlds and he tried to stay in this one, but it just didn’t work out. And I was desperate for a happy ending. For me, it kind of is a happy ending in it’s own way because they both got something out of it. They tried really hard. And they’re still young. As much as I wanted it to be happy it just didn’t seem realistic. That’s something that happens when you write. When you really want an outcome, but you have to follow your characters where they lead you. I really did want a good ending for Mel and June, but I knew that was not going to happen.
SR: Your novel Visitation Street jumps to a different character's perspective each chapter. What technical accommodations or practical considerations did you have to address to create these shifting perspectives?
IP: It was tricky because there were times when I was writing it and I was very worried it was not going to come together. And then there were times when I was forcing it to come together, like, here comes Jonathan’s chapter and here comes Monique, and they are all here together at one time. You walk down the street and you would see everybody. Then I realized, this is so false, but I had to figure out a way that all the stories were going to come together. And when I realized that not everybody was going to be intimately involved with everyone else’s story it made it a lot easier. For instance, Cree doesn’t hang out with Jonathan all that much. Once I realized that the thread of the book was going to be June’s disappearance then everyone could have their own reaction. I didn’t have to make the story so minutely linked. So, at the end, I could bring them all together under one juncture.
I do think the story has two different stories. One is Val and Jonathan’s story, and Cree and Val have a little bit of intersection at the beginning, but I thought it was the Val and Jonathan story. And then I thought of it as the Cree, Fadi and Ren story. But it was tricky. There were days when I was like this is never going to work, and I’m not going to know what is going to happen to these people. I just kept thinking that I’m pushing these characters farther away from each other. But then, it worked out.
SR: In both The Art of Disappearing and Visitation Street a character disappears. Could you discuss the notion of human erasure in your work?
IP: I’m not sure. I get asked this all the time and I can never quite figure it out. There is just something about disappearance, which allows your characters to have something to react to, like a murder or a death. There are a lot of reactions, but it’s a closed circle. You know, you queve or get angry. It’s like a black hole where you can put all these hopes and dreams. It creates this whirlwind of possibilities and intrigue. Also, in our modern age, it’s so hard to disappear. There is so much technology. GPS, google maps, etc. that I think the idea of actually getting away from everyone you know is so impossible. I used to travel a lot for Squash and you end up in places that doesn’t support cell phones, and I would think, no one can even find me now when I’m on this train platform in Belgium. I love that idea. It’s so cool. In fact, I would like to write a book from the perspective of the person that has disappeared. I’m just interested in how disappearance creates this industry around it.
SR: You use the death of June in Visitation Street to mark a change for all of the characters. How did you decide to use that moment as a catalyst for your story?
IP: I had written a different version of the book. I had written 8 chapters in which all of the characters were older. Val was 25, Jonathan was the same age, but Cree was 22, they were all older. I wrote it sort of about me and my friends in Red Hook. Everyone was partying real late and hanging out at this bar, and I was trying to capture the essence of the neighborhood through what I had experienced there. And then I realized, this is just not working. I just needed something to start it off with a bang. I thought of two things. First of all, I grew up in Brooklyn, not Red Hook, and I realized I didn’t have to write about myself. Then I remembered this book by Ian McEwan Enduring Love that opens with this balloon accident, and the whole first chapter is about this balloon accident. And I was like, that is so great! First you are watching this big, horrible thing happen, and it’s the starting point of the book, but the book doesn’t necessarily ever refer to that accident. The main character meets somebody at the side of the accident. And I was like, I just need to write something, it doesn’t matter what it is. It has to be something that I am not working on, and for some reason, I thought about those girls going off on the raft. I realized that’s my balloon accident. It may not have anything to do with the rest of the story, but something liberated me and I realized that everybody in my story should be younger. But I was just looking for something to break me out of the bad cycle of trying to write like a tough, cool chick. People partying and ending friendship is really boring. So, that’s why I did it.
SR: The setting you chose to use in Visitation Street was Red Hook in Brooklyn, which you wrote in beautiful detail. How did you first go about preparing to describe Red Hook? What was your process?
IP: I lived there at the time and it wasn’t very hard. I grew up in Brooklyn, I’m very familiar with that neighborhood, and I was writing the book while I was there. It was outside my window that I decided to describe what was happening and I actually lived in an apartment. In the book, I technically live above that Greek restaurant, and I could see into the bar and I could see into Jonathan’s apartment. I just started describing what was going on, and that was why I was jumping from character to character because I wasn’t really sure where the story was. I was trying to figure out where it was and who I was going to follow closely. It was really just an exercise where I was describing the people who were passing by outside.
SR: You discuss in the video on your website that Valentino Pier was the perfect place for you to “explore that borderline between beauty and sinister, between menace and possibility.” Can you explain this idea further? How did you find this balance between the two in your novel?
IP: So, the waterfront is sort of unknowable and it is kind of scary at night. It’s hard to know what is going on down there, but it’s also very beautiful, it’s scenic and there’s water. The pier was sort of this borderline. It was where June and Val washed up. Red Hook is very much a place of contradictions. It’s very beautiful, but it’s unknowable. It used to be very dangerous, now it’s become more and more safe. So, I think that the pier really represents that because it is a place that people who don’t live in the neighborhood feel comfortable going during the day, but no one will go there at night. I think the pier is sort of the one place that represented the cross section of the neighborhood. The water is a little scary down there and the currents are scary, but it’s also one of the main attractions of the neighborhood because it’s on the waterfront. I think it represents the duality of Red Hook in a way to me.
SR: You also discuss the things you witnessed in a nearby bar, and how that inspired Visitation Street. What are some specific instances where the experiences you viewed in the bar translated to your novel?
IP: Yes, a lot of that actually happened. Some of it didn’t make it into the final edit of the book, which is why I have to be careful what I say. You know, a lot of the stuff in the bar is really inspired by things that actually transpired. Especially the little things, like: people passed out, people staying up all night, people drawing on each other with a magic marker, this constant confrontation between the old timers and the artistic newcomers, that was all there. The whole panorama was there. We had a lot of late nights and people did really weird things, not bad things, just weird things. None of the real story was inspired by anything that happened, none of the Jonathan or the Val or the Fadi stuff, that was all sort of invention or me reading into how I hoped or imagined people were. Though, I don’t really know.
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
IP: I just really enjoyed writing. I was always afraid to admit to anyone that I wanted to be a writer because it just seemed like a clique. You know, it’s really hard, even my writing students tell me they want to be a writer and I just think, God that’s such a terrible idea. I think you have to write for a ton of years to become a writer. I guess the answer is, I didn’t know why I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with it for so long and had to teach myself a lot about it. Then I went to graduate school and I realized I really was a writer because I liked to think about fiction and think about the way books are made, constructed and put together. A writer isn’t just about writing books, it’s about being like an engineer. I love to read, but I’m not delusional enough to think that one can just be a writer and not do anything else. I just really love the art and craft of fiction. I also feel that books are really underrated these days. It’s terrible and really frustrating. Stuff like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, those are writers, but I don’t know if they really appreciate that deeper craft. I grew up in a very literary household. My mom was a magazine editor and my dad was a book publisher, so deep down I kind of thought it would be somewhere I would go with my life. But oh my God, it was such a long journey.
SR: One of your other passions has been playing the game Squash. You played professionally for more than four years on the women's world tour in the Netherlands. Why did this game become such an important aspect in your life? Would you ever write a novel based on the sport?
IP: Well, way more than that. I played professional Squash, let’s see, I started right after college when I was 21 and I played my last tournament when I was 30. Ya, the last time I played a tournament was in 2008. I started playing when I was 8 and I was immediately really good at it. I don’t know why. It was a really strange coincidence on how I found the sport that was just perfect for me. I played in a bunch of tournaments when I was 12 and I became one of the best Squash players in the country. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. It’s always been a really good balance for me. I think it kept me sane in high school. All my friends were rushing off and misbehaving. I was too, but I played tournaments all the time and I understood if I stuck with my sport it would help me have a more balanced and healthy life style. Anyone who reads that will know that that is a total lie. In my head it did. I really love the fact that you have to become so self reliant when you play a sport. You have to take care of yourself, and for me, because Squash is an individual sport, I find it very creative. I think it is the perfect balance with writing because Squash is so visceral and sweaty while writing is so quiet and you do it by yourself. For me, these are the two constants in my life since I was in high school. I just can’t imagine life without Squash, which is kind of sad, but it’s true. It’s what makes you different and special from everybody else.
No, I wouldn’t ever write a novel based on Squash because I have a lot of difficulty with the Squash role as a whole in America. As much as I love the sport, it’s changing a lot now. It would probably not do me many favors or make me many friends if I wrote what I thought about it. Also, I don’t think Squash is interesting to other people. I often think that I would write a short story about two young players fighting over their coach, which is something that for some reason I’m interested in. But I’ll stick to personal essays about my struggle with the sport and nervous issues. I would write about my personal struggles playing and the fun parts, but I don’t think I would write fiction about it. I wouldn’t inflict that on anybody.
SR: How have your parents or other writers influenced your process?
IP: You know my parents were incredibly encouraging, but also incredibly realistic, which I think was really helpful to me. I think that if they hadn’t been as realistic, I wouldn’t have been as tough on myself. It taught me a lot. They loved what I was doing and they were critical of it, but they were also very encouraging to push myself harder. Ultimately they loved the end product.
I didn’t really know any writers until I went to graduate school and until my second book came out. I was really just outside of that world. So, I didn’t grow up with any influences at all. The writer who has the most impact on me, who I know now, is Jonathan Lethem who wrote Fortress of Solitude. When I read Fortress of Solitude it changed my life. It’s set in the neighborhood of Brooklyn where I grew up and I was like, he wrote entire book about a neighborhood in Brooklyn and this is great! It doesn’t have to be the wild story about all these crazy places and it was just so real, so reflective of the way I grew up. I thought I want to do that too. It just changed my whole opinion about writing and what a book could be.
SR: What is some advice you give to new and aspiring writers?
IP: I tell my students the advice I had to give myself in graduate school. They try to get you to write a very specific type of book, very literary, and when I tried to write Visitation Street in grad school there was some of this ghostliness and other supernatural stuff that my teachers were upset about it. I just thought to myself, write the book you want to read, and it is the best advice. Right now I’m working on some things, a book, and it sounds like this guy has the power of healing touch. So I was like, that is so ridiculous, no one wants to read that. It’s not what modern literature is about. And then I was like, screw it, I want to read it. I want to read about a guy who can actually heal people by touching them. I don’t care if it’s not realistic. I think writing the book you want to read is something I remind myself every day about. I used to think The Art of Disappearing was so out there and I had no right to do a lot of that stuff because it was so wild. No one told me no, which is really cool. Visitation Street I got a little pushed back and I realized this is crazy. I had take out all of the ghost stuff and I was like, I’m putting it back in.
SR: What is the next project you are working on?
IP: I am writing a book that I don’t know too much about. I’m about 9 chapters in. I actually just finished a chapter before you called. It’s set in LA. Right now I live in Skid Row in LA and I volunteer at Skid Row Creative Writing. So, it’s a book set in and around Skid Row. That’s about all I know about it so far. Again, probably multi perspective characters and stuff like that.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
IP: I live in an open plan loft in LA. So, it’s a cordoned off section in my loft. My husband and I bought a bunch of vintage barn doors from New Hampshire where his family live, and he made me a partition out of four of these old, wooden doors. And I have three pet rabbits who sit in the next little partition. So, I share with my three bunnies.