“Teenagers, just by their very nature, are shapeshifters.” Acclaimed novelist Vendela Vida explains how a non-fiction book on lies became We Run the Tides. She talks with Zibby about her pandemic reading habits, writing fan mail (her first letter was to Robert Downey Jr.!), her writing center nonprofit, and more.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Vendela. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Vendela Vida: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: This is such a pleasure. I am so excited to talk to you about We Run the Tides which is amazing and made me feel like I was back to being a girl again. I actually went to an all-girls school where we wore uniforms. It just felt like I was back in it. Although, I was in New York growing up. Can you tell listeners, first, what this latest novel of yours is about? What inspired you to write it?

Vendela: I’m going to switch order and talk first about what inspired me to write the book and then what it’s about.

Zibby: You can do whatever you want. This is your half an hour. We don’t even have to talk about the book.

Vendela: We Run the Tides started actually four years ago, the day after Trump was elected in 2016, in a different form. It started as a nonfiction book about lies and the nature of lying and what causes people to lie and the pollution that lies can cause. I became very obsessed with the election and with the work of a Swedish American philosopher named Sissela Bok. I spent about a year researching a book that was about lies, a nonfiction book. Slowly, that morphed into a fictional book about young girls growing up in San Francisco. That might seem like a very far end of the spectrum. Basically, I felt like creating teenage protagonists made sense when talking about lying because I feel like teenagers, just by their very nature, are shapeshifters. They’re trying on different personalities and lying a lot. Those lies can be contagious and passed along from one person to another. The trick, of course, is eventually learning not to lie. That’s kind of what makes people become a grown-up. People ask me that sometimes. My kids ask me, “How do you know when you’re an adult?” Some people give answers like, it’s when you start making dental appointments on your own. That’s how you know you’re an adult.

Zibby: I just made a dental appointment for my husband, so I don’t know about that.

Vendela: I was wondering what that face was.

Zibby: I was like, uh, oh. We were literally in the other room talking about the dentist.

Vendela: That’s what some people say. The good news is that I actually think it’s when you stop lying to yourself and to other people. That’s my definition of when you become an adult. This book is about two young women, Eulabee and Maria Fabiola, who are growing up in San Francisco. They attend an all-girls school. They witness something on the way to school one day that might be a horrific act. It might not be. One of them thinks it is a horrific act, Maria Fabiola. Eulabee does not see anything, but she’s encouraged to lie about what she saw. When she does, she’s ostracized from her group of friends. That’s where the book starts, taking off from there.

Zibby: That horrific act, by the way, was seen all the time in New York growing up. That was par for the course. Did that happen to you? That must have happened.

Vendela: I can’t remember if it happened to me exactly, but it seemed like something that happened a lot. What it is, is they see a man in a car. I won’t go into it.

Zibby: We don’t have to give anything away.

Vendela: I think that men in cars, especially vintage cars, had this threat to you, or promise depending on how you saw it or how many times you’d watched Grease or whatever. I wanted that to be the catalyst for these lies and for the unraveling of these girls’ relationships.

Zibby: I read this piece where you were interviewed in The Guardian. It said that the part about pretending your family had adopted a friend was actually something that you had done, which is in the book. Is that true? Tell me about that.

Vendela: It is true. It’s funny that you mention that. Maria Fabiola, in the book, is the main liar, but I wanted a story that shows that Eulabee was actually a liar as well. She kind of starts this chain of lying. I do think that lying is kind of like, it’s like when you are younger and you — the only example I can think of right now is when you see your friend unhook their bra without looking, like underneath their T-shirt, and then they pass along that knowledge to somebody else and gets passed around and pretty soon, the next slumber party, everyone just acting like they’ve been doing it their whole lives even though they’ve just gotten bras. I feel like lying is passed around in the same way. Someone tells a lie about something and gets attention for it when you’re a young girl. Then the next person passes it along. Yes, I basically stole a story from myself, my own life, which I don’t really think counts as plagiarism. I self-plagiarized a story about how when I was growing up, I did pretend that there was a girl — she was a girl from this really cool hippie-ish family. We’d go to her house, and her mom and her boyfriend would have us eat fondue while sitting on pillows on the floor. I thought the whole scene was very cool, for lack of a better word. She was over at my house one time. We decided to pretend that she was my newly adopted sister. We went around the block telling everyone that my family had adopted her. That seemed really fun for about an hour. We kind of forgot about it. Then the neighbors had not forgotten about it. They all started calling my parents congratulating them. That was my first exposure to really getting in trouble for a lie and having to go back around the block and explain myself to everybody. I also learned something important in that lie or that period which was that as a liar, you get in a lot of trouble, but if you write something called fiction, you actually don’t get in trouble. I think that’s actually when I started turning to fiction as a writer more and more.

Zibby: Although, I will say, these days, you have to be careful of what you write in fiction in order to make sure you’re — you have to write about something that you have enough knowledge about in some way, that you can write as if you know about it. Do you know what I’m talking about? You can’t appropriate somebody else’s culture or race or something. There are rules, still, in fiction.

Vendela: I think if you’re plagiarizing yourself…

Zibby: No rules. All the rules are off. All bets are off. A hundred percent. For Maria Fabiola, another thing that was interesting in the book is what happens with so many groups of friends. She develops earlier than other people. She becomes this great beauty. You have this great passage where I think Jill’s mom, one of the moms, takes a picture of the three of them on the doorstep and says, “My, you guys are getting beautiful.” Eulabee’s like, “She didn’t even look at me. She was obviously not even talking about me.” What happens to a friend group as you start the same way and then time takes you off in different directions? It’s the beginning of the splintering of so many reasons. I love how you captured that. Tell me a little about that and how friendships tend to fracture.

Vendela: I have to say, that was a fun character to invent. Maria Fabiola doesn’t exist in my life and didn’t exist in my childhood, but I feel like we’ve all had Maria Fabiolas in our lives, people who just somehow become fabulous in front of our eyes. We’re watching them through someone else’s eyes. We’re like, oh, my gosh, this person is fabulous. She was someone I had a lot of fun creating. I just like the idea, too, because everyone goes through an awkward period, obviously, when you’re younger. When you see someone actually emerge from the awkwardness before everyone else does, it’s kind of incredible to witness. I have a teenager now. I have a teenage daughter. Just seeing her see her friends go through that is also really interesting. Even as a mother, seeing these girls who’ve grown up, seeing which ones are suddenly now six feet tall, it’s really amazing, for lack of a better word. It makes you feel really old, but it’s also kind of incredible. That is how I came up with Maria Fabiola’s character.

I do think there’s something about her beauty that I wanted to think about too, especially because they’re going to an all-girls school. I wanted to talk about the male gaze a lot in terms of both what they’re taught in school — they’re basically taught how to look at themselves through a man’s eyes in whatever way that might be, even in more subconscious ways by the texts that they’re assigned and the way they’re graded on the books that they’re assigned. I made up a character called Mr. London who’s a young teacher. He’s really too young to be teaching at the school because there’s not enough of an age difference, and so all the girls secretly — they’re just confused about him. He assigns books by Jack London to make people think that maybe there’s a connection there and he’s related to Jack London. He also assigns books like Salinger and Franny and Zooey. He gives Eulabee a bad grade because he doesn’t think that she understands teenage girls. That was something I was playing around with too, just the way that these girls are watching Maria Fabiola develop into this beauty at the same time that they’re being taught how to view that through literature.

Zibby: I loved that whole scene where the teacher’s like, “You’re in trouble. You have to like Franny and Zooey. It’s a masterpiece. You have to like it.” She’s like, “No, I kind of lost interest. Wasn’t my thing.” He’s like, “You can’t say that.” That was pretty funny. You’ve been writing forever. You got an MFA. You have been writing multiple novels, all different life stages, a lot about women from widows to young girls. Tell me about how you come up with all of your ideas or maybe more how you approach projects. How do you know a new one is coming? How often do you write new books? What is your schedule like? How do you think about books as they go along your life with you?

Vendela: That’s such a great question, Zibby. I wish I had a format or a formula because I would be able to produce books more often. This one took me about four years, in part because I started with this being a nonfiction book about lies. I also feel like with every book I write, there’s a book that I didn’t write or started off a different direction. I had to abandon it. It gave birth to the new one. I probably write a book every three or four years, but it doesn’t mean I’ve just been working on that book. I’ve probably been working on the early incarnation that got buried along the way. When you know you have an idea you can’t get rid of, I feel like you have to really be in love with something before you start writing it because you’re going to spend so much more time with that idea than you ever thought possible. You can’t just have a crush on something. You have to be in love with this idea and want to explore every facet of it. For example, I have a new idea for a book now. I want it to take place over the course of a weekend, so I’m reading a lot of books that take place over the course of a night like a book by Haruki Murakami or books that take place over a weekend like Peter Cameron’s The Weekend, which was a book I read twenty years ago and really, really remembering enjoying. Also, Virginia Woolf’s novels that take place in the day. Mrs Dalloway takes place in the course of a day. I’m circling this idea. Whether it will actually end up happening, I don’t know, but that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m working on this idea of a book that takes place in a condensed period of time because I’ve never done that before. There’s something fun about trying something new with every book.

Zibby: Joanna Hershon wrote a book called St. Ivo. That takes place over a weekend.

Vendela: I love Joanna Hershon. I’ll have to read that book. I saw that came out. I used to know her a long time ago in New York.

Zibby: It was really good. It was lovely.

Vendela: Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. Let me know what your next book idea is. I’ll give you some research tips. Let me use this knowledge for something. It’s useless knowledge in my head of all these books. No, not useless. I’m kidding. You’re married to a fellow author. By the way, Dave Egger is going to be on my podcast in two weeks, I don’t know if you talked about that or not, for his children’s book.

Vendela: Oh, really?

Zibby: When you are both writing or when you’re in a marriage and the two of you even have the same profession, whether you’re bankers or doctors or whatever, how do you divide the work talk and the home talk? How does that interplay with your family life, if at all? If not, then it doesn’t.

Vendela: It’s funny. I get asked that question every once in a while. I don’t know how to answer it, to be honest, because it’s the only thing I know. We’ve been together for almost twenty years. I don’t know any other way of being. The only way I can really explain it is I feel like there’s just a shorthand where we know when the other person’s going through something. For example, if he’s working really hard on something, I know not to overschedule that time period or to expect — I don’t know. I think the same goes for him. When I was finishing We Run the Tides, he gave me a lot, a lot of space to finish it. I didn’t have to do anything around the house for a long time. I didn’t have to ask. It was just an unspoken agreement that I would be able to stay at an office where I was working. It’s just unspoken. That’s why I’m having a hard time articulating how that agreement works because I think a lot of comes from just understanding and having empathy for what the other person’s going through and not having to talk it through.

Zibby: That’s great. There are many books — I could recommend some of those too like Fair Play by Eve Rodsky and many others — that are all about the division of labor inside the household and how to get people to the stage that you’re at with how to seamlessly pick up and put down when other people are — anyway, that’s very interesting. Tell me about your nonprofit. What is it? Valencia 826?

Vendela: 826 Valencia. That is a learning and writing center, mostly a writing center, for kids ages eight through eighteen, although some of them start younger, in San Francisco. I was a founding board member of 826 Valencia. It’s named after the street that it’s on, Valencia Street, which is also exciting for me personally because my father grew up in that neighborhood in the Mission District. He actually pronounces it the old way which is, in San Francisco, Va-len-cha, which is always fun for me to hear. He knew a lot about the neighborhood. My family actually used to have a vacuum cleaner store on that street, across the street, something like that. I’m really tied to that neighborhood and to the place. About twenty years ago, we started inviting students in to be tutored by people who just had a lot of free time on their hands, people who were writers. It’s really hard as a writer to work from nine to seven PM straight. If you’re doing that, you’re probably lying to somebody, probably to yourself, if you actually are saying you’re writing ten hours a day.

Zibby: Speaking of lies, this can go in the .

Vendela: It was a way to get people who had extra time but really wanted to work with words involved with helping kids on a one-on-one basis. We help support the teachers in their classrooms. Oftentimes, the teachers ask the tutors for their help and say, “I have so many students. I can’t give them the one-on-one help that they need. Can you please help?” That’s what the tutors do. Obviously, that’s been a little different now during the pandemic. There’s been a lot of Zoom tutoring. I’m really proud of the organization. I love all the people involved. That’s 826 Valencia.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What kind of books do you like to read when you’re not researching other books?

Vendela: When I’m not researching other books, it’s funny you ask that because I was thinking how much my reading habits have changed in the last year with the pandemic. I used to almost always exclusively gravitate towards books set in other countries. I still love writing books on other countries, but this last one, We Run the Tides, is one of the first books I’ve written that’s set exclusively in the United States. During the pandemic, I turned a lot to mysteries and thrillers, for example, I think in part because I just wanted an answer. I wanted to get to the end and have a solution and have a big finale at the end and know that the mystery had been solved and the book was over. I read a lot of books that were recommended by Sarah Lyall in The New York Times. Basically, every time she had a column, I would just buy all the books on her crime and thriller list and read them all. One of the best ones I read was A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen. I really loved that book, set in Venice. What else have I been reading lately? I am obsessed with Edith Wharton. I love Edith Wharton novels. I’ve been rereading a lot of her work. I read a lot of contemporary novels that come out. One of my other favorite books that came out in the past year was Lily King’s book, Writers & Lovers. That was the probably the first book I read in the pandemic.

Zibby: I loved that book so much. That is the book I stayed up until two in the morning to finish. Loved. I had her on my podcast. She came to my book club. I love her. She’s writing for my next anthology. Yes, one of my best of the year, I would say, one of the best books that came out this year. I loved it.

Vendela: I just loved it. I read it in March right when the pandemic was hitting. I feel like it was a catharsis for me too. I laughed a lot. I cried a lot. I emailed her a fan letter. I had this big plan. I said, during the pandemic, I’m just going to start writing fan letters to every author whose books move me. Then there were so many that I had to stop after a while.

Zibby: That’s so nice. There are enough people not taking the time to do that. I’m sure it means a lot. Do you get fan letters? You must get — how do you feel about people reaching out to you?

Vendela: That’s always really nice. That’s why, in some ways, with this book coming out and not being able to do readings in bookstores, it’s a little sad. You’ll hear writers talk about that. It’s sad to not do a book tour. The thing that I miss is that’s the one time as a writer that you connect with your reader one on one. Obviously, now we’re connecting, but that’s not something you do with every reader. I will miss that opportunity to actually get to meet people. It’s obviously different from being an actress where you are on stage and you see people responding to your play. It’s unlike a lot of other professions where there’s immediate feedback or response. That’s something that I miss. Whenever I get a letter, I’m really, really happy. I try to write back when I can.

Zibby: That’s so nice. That’s one of the things I realized that I had no idea of before I did this podcast or anything, was that authors are actually just people who will be replying to DMs. Authors are somehow now so accessible in a way, not all the time. I don’t mean to breach privacy or anything. When I was growing up, I used to literally write fan letters and mail them. Maybe I would hear back. Now it’s like, , heart.

Vendela: Who would you write fan letters to?

Zibby: My first fan letter was to an author, her name was Zibby Oneal. She had the same first name. I was like, oh, my gosh, my name on a book. This is what I’ve always wanted. At least my first name. I think I was ten or something. I remember my mom helped me. We called the publisher and got her address in Michigan. We were pen pals for three years. Then she came to New York and took to me to tea at The Plaza.

Vendela: That’s a great story. I love that.

Zibby: It was awesome.

Vendela: That’s much more sophisticated than — my first fan letters were to Robert Downey Jr.

Zibby: That was my literary fan letters. I also wrote Kirk Cameron fan letters, from Growing Pains, I think maybe even Ricky Schroder at one point. I don’t know. I’m probably much older than you. Those are my fan letters. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Vendela: My advice never changes when I’m teaching either at 826 or when I’m teaching students who are older. You have to put in the time every day to write even if you aren’t — I was about to say unless you’re lying to yourself about how much you’re getting done. I think just blocking out those three hours a day. Especially if you’re just coming up with an idea, three hours is plenty of time to sit by yourself and write anything. Write a paragraph. Write a page. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to use it ultimately or not. It’s just a matter of keeping yourself in training. It’s the same thing people say. You wouldn’t just go out and run a marathon without training for it. I think the same thing is true of books. You, in some ways, just have to be writing every day and put in the time because you never know when you’re going to catch onto something.

I’m thinking about the beginning of We Run the Tides. When I started writing it, I didn’t know that that day was going to be different from any other day I wrote, just sitting in my office thinking, oh, my god, do I have writer’s block? What’s happening? Why is my book not coming? It’s not coming to me. I wrote the first sentence. I don’t want to misquote myself. I was writing by hand because I always write by hand until I figure out the rhythm of the book. The first sentence is, “We are thirteen, almost fourteen, and these streets of Sea Cliff are ours.” I wrote that sentence. The rhythm of it made sense to me. Then I just kept going. I was afraid if I stopped, somehow I would lose the idea for the book. That’s what it took. It was just a normal day. I canceled all my plans that afternoon. I was like, okay, I need to actually make space now for this idea to take root. That’s what I would say, so writing every day.

Zibby: You always write by hand? That’s amazing.

Vendela: I’m not that superstitious, but I have all these things that I do. When I’m starting a book, I write by hand until I figure out the rhythm and the voice. Then once I figure out the first few pages and feel like I’ve locked into it, then I switch to — do you really want to hear this?

Zibby: I do. I actually really want to hear this.

Vendela: Then I switch to the laptop. I start typing up what I’ve written by hand so that I can get in the rhythm. Then I keep going. For the first week, I try to write a thousand words a day. Then once I’m — anyway, that’s…

Zibby: No, tell me.

Vendela: five hundred words a day. Then as I get further into it, I write a thousand words a day. Again, it doesn’t mean that those words are going to stay because clearly, my books, they’re not that long. If I kept all the words I’d written, my books would be a lot longer. I’m a big sculptor afterwards. I just go through and take out all the extra words.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really interesting. See, I almost missed that little tidbit. That was great. Awesome. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on this podcast.

Vendela: Thank you, Zibby. It was so nice talking with you.

Zibby: It was so nice talking to you too. Thank you.

Vendela: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

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