Victoria Patterson is the author of THIS VACANT PARADISE, a contemporary novel that is earning praise from places like The New York Times. This is her first published novel, although she has a short fiction collection out, called Drift, and her short fiction has been published in a variety of places, including The Florida Review, The Southern Review, and The Santa Monica Review. She spent a few weeks trading emails with me about her story.
To get started, please tell us about THIS VACANT PARADISE. In your own words, what is it about and what was your inspiration for it?
This Vacant Paradise is about Esther Wilson, a woman who has been raised to marry a rich husband. She lives in Newport Beach and it’s the mid-90s. She’s very beautiful and emotionally aware, but every time she’s about to land her man, she self-sabotages. There’s quite a bit of back-story and intrigue as well, complex family dynamics, and a love story. I imagined the novel as a modern day House of Mirth (by Edith Wharton), which is one of my favorite books. I read everything I could by Edith Wharton and Henry James. I was very inspired by these two writers.
Were you similarly inspired by a particular Henry James title?
There wasn’t a specific Henry James title that inspired me. I read The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, The Turn of the Screw, Washington Square, and more. By immersing myself, I developed these sort of swooping Henry James-like sentences, which contrast with the subject matter. It gave the subject matter a formality and elegance.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a mom–two sons, 13 and almost 11. Right now I have the flu–caught it from my youngest son! I’ve been writing since I was in the 2nd grade, mainly keeping journals, recording my life. I always wanted to be a writer. I waited tables for many years to support my writing. My husband is also an artist–a painter. I’m 41. We have a basset hound named Lucky Gus. He’s lying on the bed with me as I type.
Why did you choose to set the novel in Newport Beach? And why the 90s?
I always knew that I’d write about Newport Beach. I lived in Newport during junior high and high school, and I swore to myself that I’d write about it one day. So I’m fulfilling a promise I made to myself all those years before. My first book, Drift, also takes place in Newport Beach. It’s an area that has been portrayed on TV and in movies. The area has been sort of mythologized and castigated; but it hasn’t been written about in the way that I envision it.
The 1990s seemed especially ripe for writing, and I wanted to include the OJ Simpson trial.
I’m intrigued about how the OJ Simpson trial plays into it–but I won’t ask you to give us a spoiler! We’ll just leave it as a tease … unless you care to add something more.
The OJ Simpson trial is tangential to the story line–but it provides a cultural framework. Everyone is hyper-aware of OJ’s guilt, and it’s a community sport to discuss it.
Was it difficult to sell a novel that took place in the recent past?
It’s always difficult to sell a novel! But the time period didn’t seem to be an obstacle. I tried not to think about the commercial prospects of the book while writing it. Nothing will sink my work quicker than if it’s got the whiff of desperation or money on it. I’m at my best when I write like I don’t care.
I understand you are also a short fiction writer. Please tell us about your growth as a writer and your journey to publication.
I just began documenting my life in a journal and kept going. I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how to go about it. I’d never really met a writer before. In college, I took a creative writing class and I was not very good. But I kept writing. All the journals and years of writing were necessary. I have many, many rejections from over the years, and I was impatient to be published. But at some point, I really understood that whether I was published or not, I could honestly call myself a writer because I wrote every day. I knew that I’d continue to write whether I was published or not. I waited tables for over fifteen years to support my family and myself while I continued to write. My husband supported my writing and encouraged me to go back to graduate school, which I did in 2004. I got my MFA from UC Riverside in 2006. It was incredibly helpful to have a concentrated amount of time devoted to my writing–to me as a writer. I hadn’t had that freedom before. In the summer of 2006, I received a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I met my agent Michael Carlisle. Eight months later he sold my story collection to Houghton Mifflin. I worked on the collection over a three-year period before its publication in 2009. I also began my novel. But, just so you know, I’d buried two novels before this one, and countless stories.
We always love learning about how many books it took to make that sale, so thanks for anticipating that question. There are a lot of writers on my blog–what would your number one piece of advice be, other than to keep writing?
I would tell other writers not to let the rejections stop them from writing. It can be disconcerting to get so many rejections, but it’s just the nature of the business.
Thanks for your patience during this interview, Victoria!
See–we do all kinds of retellings here, not just fairy tales. If you could retell a classic tale, which one would it be? I’ll give it some thought and answer my own question in the comments. Please join me!