In early December, the writer and blogger Chris Rice Cooper interviewed Adair V on her current work. The interview is reproduced here.
What is the name of your current work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us?
The previous title was MadDog and his Fleas. My original idea was to explore sibling relationships in a dysfunctional family. MadDog is the older brother, and his sisters were affectionately referred to as his “fleas” by his group of friends. As the story evolved, each of the siblings emerged with their own voices, and it seemed wrong that the sisters were mediated by this secondary “appellation”. As I was writing, the California coastal fog became a character in its own right. And since photography plays a big role in the story, there are a lot of images that recede in the distance or appear in the dark room. In the same way, the real meaning of much of the action is effaced, obscured, veiled and then suddenly revealed. I like the idea of a title that captures the tension between opacity and transparency. So I am now playing around with the idea of Scrim as a working title. It’s extremely likely I will expand this at some point. It will come to me all at once and then seem like it couldn’t be anything else.
How do you characterize the work? And how many pages long?
It’s literary fiction. Around 280 pages so far.
When did you begin writing it and when do you expect to finish?
In June 2018, I was coming to the end of a manuscript I’d spent more than five years writing. It always makes me nervous to be ‘without a project’. My mind began to drift towards this fragment of an idea I’d long nurtured: to tell a story of what it was like growing up in southern California in the 1970s, where money and drugs were too accessible and where young girls were unprepared for what was expected of their bodies. I spent three weeks creating the characters, outlining the story, capturing the voices. Before I knew it, I had written 30,000 words.
I think writing a novel is like creating a painting. First, you put down a few lines just to create the overall shape. Next, you determine the features that are going to be emphasized, decide on the tone, and begin to shade. After a lot of this, it’s time to add the color and poetic brushstrokes.
For example, I have a plot that is completely outlined. When a character enters the room, I know exactly where everything is, where she goes, where she drops her school books, how she needs to skirt the dining room table to get to the kitchen. But this is just for me as the writer and doesn’t really matter to the reader. It is part of the scaffolding of the story. So, once I have all of this established, I go back and essentially write over what’s there. I take out what I call “the stage directions” and replace it with more descriptive language, more psychological motivation, more interiority. This is where I’m at in this project. I’m always hopeful I’ll finish soon, but in my experience a story seems to have its own agency about when it’s fully and finally done.
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work?
I have a big, wonderful, overstuffed sofa and a mosaic coffee table I made myself. It’s large and sturdy, with plenty of room for my tea pot, candle, notebooks, art supplies — and cat!. Most of the time, I sit back on the sofa with my computer on my lap, my legs stretched out on the table, and I tap away.
If I get stuck, I sketch or paint a watercolor or create a collage. Of course, I often scour the Internet for interesting photos, which is a distraction I try to make inspiring. Since I’m writing about the place I grew up in, I look on Google Earth to reacquaint myself with the town or to discover how things have changed.
I currently live in downtown Portland, a lively city where it’s a hassle to own a car (so I don’t). This means I do a lot of walking every day. I find this is useful ‘imagination time’ and consider it to be part of my writing practice.
What are your writing habits?
I follow the ‘Hemingway rule’: I write around 1000 words every day and stop writing while I still have something to say. That way, when I start the next day, I have a place to begin, and often the story has been writing itself in the deep recesses of my brain while I run errands, make dinner, or sleep. I find a word count quota to be a good way to keep momentum. A thousand words isn’t a lot. If you do just that much every day, then you can have the first draft of a novel in two or three months.
I utilize an array of methods and stick with whatever’s working. If it’s writing in a notebook, that’s what I do. If it’s writing on my computer with news on in the background, I do that. When something stops working, I switch it up. There are a few cafes I go to when I find being at home too distracting. This particular book has been pretty easy, since I’ve been thinking about it for so long. I spent three weeks ferociously writing an outline. Now I’m taking my second pass, writing with more deliberation and creating more interiority for each of the main voices.
I’m inspired by art, and when I begin a project I often create a notebook filled with images that inspire me. Because this book is set in a real time and place, I’ve done a lot of research and printed out photos of the way Dana Point looked in the 1970s. I have a general idea of how I want my characters to look. When I come across pictures that resemble my ideas for each of them, I cut them out from magazines or print them if I’ve found them online.
For example, I had this idea that I wanted Veda to have classically beautiful features even though she is a naive 15-year old beach girl. I saw a painting by William Bouguereau, a 19th Century French painter, of a beautiful young woman, and I thought it was exactly how I wanted Veda to look. If I ever get stuck, I look at the pictures I’ve collected and usually the words begin to flow.
Because two of my characters are photographers, and photography is the way Veda is seduced, I have researched the subject quite a bit. Two of my favorite photographers have helped shape how I imagine the different aesthetics of Marcus and Veda.
Bill Henson’s dark style is how I imagine Marcus’s work, perfect for a man trying to seduce a 15-year old girl.
And Veda’s style is in the manner of Francesca Woodman, light but with something emotional about it.
Can you summarize your work?
In the sleepy surf town of Dana Point in the 1970s, the Gregor kids are often left unsupervised by their young hippie mother, intent on enjoying herself even if it happens at their expense. Veda, the middle child, succumbs to the attentions of her much older teacher. Confused, she imagines she’s in love, but the desolation of his exploitative seduction creeps in. Eury, the youngest, is thrust into a world she is also unprepared for. Finn, her older brother, persuades her to ditch school one day, and she is unexpectedly assaulted, an event that leads to catastrophe. Decades later, Veda and Finn meet in an altered Dana Point in order to resolve the tragedy of their youth.
Will you share an excerpt with us?
[Page 79] Time slowed. It became something she found new ways to measure. It wasn’t only the ticking of her watch when she pressed it against her ear, counting out the seconds since it happened. It was a tangible thing she could see and smell and taste as she recalled what was now between them. That first night, after her shower, she wiped the steam from the mirror with her hand and watched her naked image emerge in the glass. The time it took for this newly-made person to appear before her became a way to measure the hour that had just passed. She trailed a finger across her forehead, along her jawline to her chin, then to her neck, down her sternum, across her abdomen and further down too. Just like he did. A long slow caress, its own languorous unit. When she closed her eyes, she could smell his aftershave, the sweetness of the wine on his breath, and something else, something animal. Sweat maybe, but not the sweat of heat and exercise. The sweat of sex. All of this in the time it took to fill her lungs. And then, letting go, the air passing from inside her body into the steamy room, blending with the wet air, swirling around her, fogging the mirror again and obscuring her new body, reminding her in that moment of the secret she must keep.
And now, there would be two weeks when she wouldn’t see him. School was out and there were holiday plans that would keep them apart. She later thought this break created a longing that shoved aside any possible misgivings. In that time, she didn’t think about what would happen next between them, only that she loved him. This feeling bloomed inside her. His eyes on her, his fingertips as they danced across her skin, his deep kisses, the tender words he breathed into her neck, the emotion in his face as he moved inside her, the thrill of all that overwhelmed her.
She hugged herself. She was now a woman.
In front of the mirror again, she grinned at her reflection, leaned in and kissed the upturned lips. Was this what he saw when he kissed her? Dark brows. Long neck. Eyes half closed.
It had been inevitable. Inevitable. The syllables formed a refrain, a beat that thrummed through her many times a day. All the weeks they had spent together, the glances, the closeness in the dark room, that first kiss, accidental touches, each leading to what had just happened. She marveled that lying there with him could feel familiar. How could it be natural to feel his naked limbs entwined with hers? Natural when he rested a hand on her breast, on her thigh? How could it seem normal for him to stalk naked across the studio and return with a glass of water? She had never seen a man naked. He held her in his arms and put the glass to her lips, tipped it just so to help her drink. It had spilled a little and they laughed, and then he had licked the dripping water from her breast. He made love to her a second time then, less urgently, with practiced touches, his curiosity apparent. Like an explorer, she thought afterward.
Having a secret of this magnitude placed a veil between her and the world. She rode home that first evening, her hair flying behind her, heart beating wildly as she pedaled up the long hill, filled with the idea that something significant to her life had just happened. She wasn’t the same Veda anymore. The fatherless girl alone on the beach, the good girl who went to school and paid attention and always turned in her homework, the forgotten middle child in her sad, damaged family, that girl seemed far away to her now. Marcus loved her and she loved him. That was all that mattered.
Can you give us just enough information to understand what is going on in the excerpt?
Veda is a fifteen-year-old girl navigating the attention of those struck by her sudden beauty. Marcus Ingram, her high school photography teacher is immediately drawn to her. He takes his time, seducing her over several months with skill and deliberation. By the time they make love — her first sexual experience — she is emotionally invested in what she imagines is a consensual relationship.
Why is this excerpt so emotional for you? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt?
Although this experience isn’t my own, a high school friend of mine had an affair with a married teacher. I was her confidante, which was extremely confusing for me. I never once thought of telling the principal or the school counsellor — or anyone even. I’ve often wondered about this teenage ‘conspiracy of silence’.
Then, when I was 20, I was seduced by someone who was 22 years older than me. While this relationship was perfectly ‘legal’, over many years I came to see how inappropriate and harmful it was. I wanted to capture the experience of a ‘willing’ victim. I wanted to investigate the psychology of a young girl coming to think of a relationship with a much older man as something desirable. And I wanted to explore how the inevitable desolation creeps in, exposing the cracks in the illusion.
In the 1970s and 1980s, young women inherited the legacy of the 1960s free love movement. There was nothing to protect us. If something bad happened, there was no one to turn to. We found ourselves pushing these experiences deep inside, never speaking about them and even denying them to ourselves.
Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us?
I work a lot on my computer — though not exclusively. In this case, however, there aren’t any major changes. Aside from a couple of small lexical changes, the only thing I changed from the first draft was that the following sentences were expanded to the first paragraph in the excerpt above:
She spent the first week of the Christmas vacation with Dale in San Diego, and Marcus was away for the second. Two weeks when she wouldn’t see him.
What other works you have published?
I have worked as a writer for over fifteen years, publishing regularly — articles, reviews, short stories, and essays.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would just encourage anyone interested in writing not to be afraid to get your work out in the world. Submit to journals, enter competitions, look for opportunities. And don’t be discouraged by rejections. They are a badge of honor. Every single successful writer has had a share of rejections. It’s just that they stuck with it when others gave up. (I say this as much to myself as to anyone else!)
CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.