We're pleased to offer a special guest interview today from occasional TEV contributor Kate Durbin, in which she chats with Victoria Patterson, author of Drift, a collection of interlinked short stories, published in June 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various literary journals, including The Southern Review, Santa Monica Review and The Florida Review.
Victoria Patterson’s Drift, a collection of short stories set in the glittering spiritual wasteland of her native Newport Beach, is just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book features a cast of social misfits—from a lonely transvestite to an alcoholic heir to a dwindling fortune—and revolves around a central character, Rosie, a sensitive and sometimes self-destructive teenager.
Patterson and I conversed via email about de-mythologizing the O.C., and lauding the outcasts—among other topics—in her sharp and affecting first book.
KD: Let’s begin with your personal history. I know you spent your teenage years in Newport Beach. How much of Drift is autobiographical, and in what way? How did you survive Newport while you were living there?
VP: We moved quite a bit when I was a child: Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Texas—but mostly we lived in Mexico City. Spanish was my first language, and my parents and brother are fluent in Spanish. My family settled in Yorba Linda, California when I was in second grade. And we stayed there until I was entering seventh grade, when we moved to Newport Beach. I went through Junior High and High School in Newport Beach, and before that, my family visited Newport often, where my grandparents had built a home on the bay the same year I was born. So, in a way, Newport is synonymous with my childhood, in sort of a magical respect having to do with getting to explore the bay as a child—being connected to the ocean; but I didn’t really know what it was like to live there until those pivotal years of adolescence and beyond. And it was during those years that the decision solidified in me that I wanted to be a writer, and specifically that I would write about Newport. I made a promise to write about it, which is one of the ways I coped. I felt stifled by the environment and sought other sources of refuge. Recently, a friend reminded me that I used to take her to Quince Años celebrations in Santa Ana. I was curious about how other people lived, and rejected the scene of my peers—the expectations. I was pretty wild and lost some close friends. There was a free spirit component, and a healthy rebellion, but there was also a self-destructiveness that became increasingly difficult to contain. So, while the spirit of Drift is autobiographical, the stories are fictional—not as it happened. But there are elements of autobiography, certainly.
KD: Drift begins with a scathing epigraph by Bertrand Russell: “To be out of harmony with ones surroundings is of course a misfortune, but it is not always a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. Where the environment is stupid or prejudiced or cruel it is a sign of merit to be out of harmony with it.” How important is cultural critique to you as a writer?
VP: I’m fortunate in that I’m burning up with my need to write. In my work, the cultural critique is a force—it’s really driving me. Angry, and with a chip on my shoulder—or more like a boulder. I remember when my agent asked me about what I was going to write next, and I told him I wasn’t done with Newport. I felt like a dog with a rag-doll in my mouth, slamming it to the left and right. I’m not done. But even though anger is a large motivation for my writing, I want to fill my characters and even the town with humanity, struggle, love, empathy, and depth, so that my work, in many ways, hopefully "corrects" the clichéd notion of Newport as only the home of shallow and superficial people. Ultimately, I’d like my work to humanize them in a sense to the reader.
KD: Do you think affluent communities always hide a sordid reality beneath a surface of shiny exteriors, or is there something particular about Orange County—I’m thinking of Disneyland, of women with fake boobs, and the knock-off French paintings in the restaurants in your stories—that makes it singularly artificial, and therefore tougher for those characters, like Rosie and many of the other misfits in your book, who cannot seem to successfully “fake” it?
KD: Many of the characters in Drift work in restaurants, often as waiters or waitresses or servers. The restaurant becomes a revealing space, wherein the screwed up power dynamics between citizens in Newport Beach are played out. What drew you to using the restaurant in your fiction?
VP: I write about restaurants and serving and being served because I’m so familiar with that world. It’s ironic that as a child and adolescent, I spent so much time at restaurants and the country club with my family, being served, and I always wondered what was going on behind the scenes. I was always more curious about those who were doing the serving. And then as an adult, I became a server—for years and years—so that I was all together aware of what was happening behind the scenes, and wished, on some level, to be among the served again. Being a server for so many years was a boon to my writing. A restaurant can be a microcosm of the hierarchies of the community. I remember at the restaurant I worked at during the height of the OJ Simpson trial, when I was delivering food to customers on the restaurant side, all I’d hear was outraged vocal indignation, most of the conversations revolving around OJ’s guilt. Whereas, when I’d be on the kitchen side, the mostly Latino staff were stoic and quiet and sort of just put up with all the noise about how awful OJ was. When pressed for an opinion, they voiced beliefs where the distinction between guilt and innocence was far more complex.
KD: Because your book is focused on outcasts, and the haves vs. the have-nots, I wonder how you tread that fine line between romanticizing the have-nots (whether the homeless, the disabled, etc.) and demonizing the haves?
VP: Drift is a critique of the society, not a manifesto against the haves—or a battle between the haves and the have-nots. I don’t want my work to be didactic; but, at the same time, I don’t want to shy away from fundamental inequalities and issues of race, class, and sex. It’s my belief that good fiction brings the reader into the experience, that it doesn’t have to prove a point. Having said that, if I err on the side of romanticizing, I’d much rather it be the outcasts.
KD: John Wayne is a recurring character in Drift, and he seems to me to be, on one level, a mythical representation of Orange County itself—only instead of riding horses, like his namesake, he rides a skateboard. He also seems to represent the terrible cost of the OC mystique: he’s been cast out by his family, is homeless, and was in a boating accident that damaged his brain. Can you talk a bit about the creation of this character, and what he signifies?
VP: In Newport, there’s this mystification of John Wayne the actor, and I was always confounded by it. There’s an airport named after him, complete with a statue. And his yacht—The Wild Goose—would be sailing by. And yet, the story of his life was an entirely different beast. I suppose my John Wayne was an attempt to turn this fascination on its head, make him all the things that the John Wayne of OC myth worked against, create my own hero, and, at the same time, make him visible, alive, in the very same environment that would have ignored him. The character of John Wayne is mysterious to me. He came to me, like a gift. For me, he represents all that is mysterious, including the writing of him—beyond my control, the subconscious at work. He’s a little bit of everything.
KD: I’m curious to hear you speak about the sexuality in your work. It seems that many of your characters, particularly those who are female and/or gay, experience their sexuality with an intense sense of shame, a very deep and almost religious sense of shame. Is this something you were aware of as you wrote?
VP: I had no idea I was going to write about sex, and that it would be so connected with shame. When my editor Anjali Singh pointed out the connection to me, I remember it being a revelation. For me, it was a case of not knowing what I was writing about, even as I was writing it. After my dad read the galley and digested it, he called me, and one of the first things he said was: “I know that sex is a driving force in people’s lives, that it makes people do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and that it can be a confusing and powerful motivation, a source of secrecy and shame and all sorts of things. But do you have to write about it so much?” And later, when I had thought long and hard about what my dad had said, I realized that he had nailed all the reasons why I write about it.
KD: Speaking of shame, what would you say the status of religion is in the book? Your central character, Rosie, attends a mega-church with her father in one story, the name of which bears resemblance to an actual church in the OC. The pastor looks like Perry Como, and the service is very showy and shallow.
VP: Orange County, home to mega-churches, is a leader in the American Conservative Christianity movement, second only possibly to Colorado Springs. Orange County is home to Robert Schuller: he broadcasts his "Hour of Power"--the most watched Christian television show in the world--from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove; home to the Trinity Broadcasting Network founders' Paul and Jan Crouch, who tape their show from their TBN studios in Costa Mesa; Newport Beach billionaire Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. funds Conservative Christian causes (most recently his money went to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign). So when I write about Newport Beach, it includes my interpretation of this brand of religion, because this atmosphere permeates Newport. Rosie is too much of a thinker to vocally declare her belief in Jesus Christ, as is the one simple requirement. She doesn't want to be a hypocrite. Yet enough dogma has seeped into her for her to believe that she's going to be a lifelong sinner, with no real hope for redemption. Christianity is her model for a spiritual life, and she rejects it, but, at the same time, she's damaged and shamed by it.
KD: In several of your stories, there is an interaction, usually brief, that the main character has with another character, often a total stranger but always an “outsider,” which causes the main character to see his or her self more clearly. What draws you to this type of interaction between two people?
VP: I love the idea of revelation or redemption coming from an unexpected source—in real life and in fiction. To a large degree, I believe that in order to wrest satisfaction from life, it’s necessary to stay open, to not close down. And it’s the idea that in this community where conformity is not only encouraged, but literally a means of survival, redemption comes for those outside defined notions. I don't want to ignore or deny spiritual aspects in my writing, even if (or especially if) I don't completely understand them.
KD: You attended UC Riverside’s MFA program in fiction. What was your MFA experience like?
VP: I’m glad that I didn’t know how identity-changing grad school would be—I was sort of naïve in that respect. I’m also glad that I went back when I did. I had already accrued plenty of material and I was disciplined as a writer. I was hungry for grad school after having spent the majority of my adult life working as a waitress. If I had gone back any younger, I might not have been ready. I remember my first class, at the desk next to me, a woman was talking about how she only used Pilot Extra Fine pens for writing, and I thought, Oh my God. I’m not the only one. It was revolutionary to be around other writers, to have my writing be the focus, to be identified as a writer and not as a waitress or a mom or a wife. The camaraderie—the fellowship of other writers—was a big deal. I had been isolated as a writer for years. Writers and professors have big personalities, and it was easy to get distracted. Fortunately, one of my professors, Dana Johnson (now a close friend), helped me to keep my focus on my work. I would call her or email her or have lunch with her or sit in her office and bombard her with all sorts of questions, and she would say, “How’s the work coming? How’s that story doing?” She always led me back to my work. The most challenging thing was balancing my home life. My eldest son (seven at the time) experienced difficulties at school, meaning he wanted to quit school entirely. I remember he said, “I wish you were a waitress again. I liked that better.” And I explained that when I was a waitress, I had been away from home more hours, because of my work schedule. But I knew my son was right, that even when I was home, I wasn’t home. I was constantly writing in my head. I even dreamed sentences. I remember sitting in on my son’s first grade class, trying to assess what was going on with him in the classroom. I had a story due for workshop, so I was sitting in one of those little plastic chairs, hunched over, working on my computer, writing. And these kids kept coming up, trying to read over my shoulder—“Whatcha writing? Let me see. Can I see? I want to read.” And this story, “Winter Formal: A Night of Magic”—one of the darkest and saddest stories from my collection—was partially edited in my son’s 1st grade classroom.
KD: Can you tell us about your current project? Is it set in Newport Beach?
VP: During grad school, my professor Andrew Winer once jokingly called me “The Edith Wharton of the OC.” This helped fuel my already healthy obsession with Edith Wharton, which then spilled into a reading frenzy of Henry James as well. The novel I just finished was inspired by Wharton’s House of Mirth and fed by all things Wharton and James. It is set in Newport Beach during the early 90s, and, having recently received a hearty approval from my agent, will hopefully find a home soon.