Vendela Vida is a little bit tired, which is understandable. It’s the day after the presidential election. The night before this interview she stayed up until three in the morning watching the results come in from a neighbor’s backyard in the Bay Area. At the time, she thought she might go to sleep knowing who the next president was. That didn’t happen, but they ate “lots of cheese and drank two gin and tonics each,” she says, “and that’s basically how our evening went, yeah.”
Vida, 49, remains “cautiously hopeful” about the state of America, in part because she doesn’t want her son and daughter, who are 11 and 15, to feel her anxiety. “It’s just very hard to try to comfort your kids during this time, so that’s what my main goal is today,” she says. So far, that’s involved doing electoral college math with her son while checking the New York Times home page every 10 minutes, though she’s taking a break for this interview about her sixth novel, We Run the Tides, due out in February from Ecco. (She’s also written a nonfiction book, 2000’s Girls on the Verge, as well as a screenplay with her husband, author Dave Eggers, that became the 2009 movie Away We Go.)
“It’s really funny that we’re talking today,” Vida begins, “because this book started the day after the 2016 election.” Back then, it was a nonfiction book about lying, a subject she had become obsessed with after rereading Swedish philosopher Sissela Bok’s 1978 work, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. “If one person starts lying, especially someone in power, it just bleeds into society and everyone starts lying,” she explains. “It’s kind of like a cesspool.”
As Vida pondered the ways in which lying contaminates a community, a novel featuring teenage girls in a 1980s seaside community in San Francisco slowly arose. “I feel like for every book I write, there’s kind of the dead twin book that doesn’t make it into the world,” she says.
We Run the Tides starts with friendship—the best friendship between protagonist Eulabee, an astute observer with a keen, often misunderstood sense of humor, and Maria Fabiola, a charismatic beauty who insists on spinning a web of deceit that captivates peers and adults alike. When Maria Fabiola tells a story about something Eulabee knows is not true, Eulabee refuses to go along with her, and in a moment, everything changes. What comes to pass is an exploration not only of truth and fiction but also of the cruelty and power of teenage girls, the male gaze and its subversion, and what happens when a city loses its bohemian soul.
In a 2011 interview, Vida told the Guardian that as a teen, she used to lie often. One whopper involved telling her neighbors that her parents had adopted a newly orphaned friend. Eulabee, too, offers up that lie early on in We Run the Tides.
But the novel isn’t based on its author or her experience, Vida insists. Yes, she grew up in the Bay Area in the ’80s, like Eulabee, with a Hungarian father and a Swedish mother. The two share a certain sensibility and sense of humor, she notes, but how could they not? Characters are an extension of a writer’s truth, even when the characters are not based on anyone.
“Maria Fabiola: it really started with her name,” Vida says. “I thought, who would this person be?” We all have Maria Fabiolas in our lives, she adds. “But for me, Maria Fabiola is completely a fabrication.”
A novel, itself a fabrication, can’t exist without poignant truths that spring to the surface through plot and characterization and detail, and Vida is excellent at details so specific and resonant as to be breathtaking. “The book is fiction, and it doesn’t even have a lot of details of things that really happened to me, but the sensibility and the sensory details are very real to me,” she explains. While writing, “it was incredible how many details came flooding back. I remembered how important the Esprit outlet was to us, in San Francisco in the ’80s. The colors of the clothes there really inspired a lot of what we did, and also inspired the book cover.” Another memory was the sound of skateboard wheels on the cement: “That was definitely a Proustian Madeleine moment, because obviously there are a lot of skateboarders in San Francisco now, but the cement is smoother and it’s just a different sound.”
And so, even though the world in which Eulabee and Maria Fabiola exist is a creation—there is no actual “Sea Cliff” community—it feels real. (The made-up schools in the book are named for Edith Wharton characters.) The novel, which is imbued with that hauntingly melancholic but strangely delicious sense of looking back that will resonate with any adult who has ever been a teen (i.e., everyone), even features a dedication noting that the characters and story in the book are not real.
Three years ago, Vida sold the Believer, the literary magazine she started in 2003 with her Columbia grad school friends Heidi Julavitz and Ed Park, to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As founding editor, she now applauds the magazine from the sidelines, which frees her up to give more time to her own writing. Recently, she rented what she generously describes as a “studio space”—a room in an establishment that used to rent hot tubs by the hour. (Given the current global pandemic, the hot tubs have been removed.)
Vida says she plans to start a new book in her new “tiled hot tub room with no hot tub.” It’s too new, the creative balloon too fragile, to be discussed. But she reveals that her books begin with “an idea that won’t go away—if there’s something I keep thinking about, there’s something there.”
In We Run the Tides, Eulabee’s father shares two important truths: that hard work conquers all obstacles, and that good triumphs over evil, which is always lurking. Knowing what we do now—about society, about human nature, even about writing—how true are those lessons? Vida still believes in them, she says. “It’s funny to be saying that today, on this day, while we’re waiting for the election results. But yeah, I do believe that.”
At the same time, lying isn’t always bad. For a teenager, the act of making up stories offers a special power. “You’re creating different futures for yourself, right?” Vida asks. “You’re trying on different hats, different personalities, and different looks or different sports. You’re trying to figure out your identity. I think that’s part of your adolescent development. The problem arises when you don’t stop lying, when it actually becomes a compulsion.”
The twist, perhaps, is that teenagers grow up, but novelists, if they’re lucky, get to keep telling stories their whole lives—and those stories change not only those who read them, but those who write them, in multiple ways. “Now it’s actually funny, because when I look at the book, I can’t even remember a little bit of what happened to me and what happened to the character,” Vida says. “It sounds very strange, but it’s kind of merged.”
Of course, in a novel, that’s not a lie. It’s just good writing
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.