Lara Vapnyar is the acclaimed author of There Are Jews in My House, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, Memoirs of a Muse, and The Scent of Pine, which is about an unhappily married woman named Lena and her weekend affair with a man named Ben.
On a recent snowy day, Tweed’s editor Randy Rosenthal met with Vapnyar at an Upper West-Side café, where they talked about cheating, social media, and happiness.
Tweed’s: I see a lot of similar themes in The Scent of Pine as in your other work. Like many of your other protagonists, Lena is unhappy in the beginning of the book; when she was younger she felt the “inevitability of happiness,” but when she’s older she feels “the impossibility of happiness.” I’m curious what—in her mind—happiness would be? What are the things in her life that she’s missing that would make her happy?
Lara Vapnyar: I always thought that happiness was an acute state—it’s a state, it’s not a condition. It comes and goes. There is acute happiness and there is quiet happiness—when you just know that you’re on the right path in your life, and you’re in the right place. Lena hasn’t had that. I haven’t had that for years and years.
Tweed’s: Since happiness is a state that comes and goes, how does she know it’s not going to come sooner if she keeps waiting? What would be a different path for her? Getting out of her marriage?
Tweed’s: What if she gets out of her marriage and marries somebody else? She could also end up in the same, unhappy situation, right?
Lara Vapnyar: If she’s lucky, she won’t.
Tweed’s: So is happiness luck?
Lara Vapnyar: Happiness is not luck, but you have to be lucky to get anything good in life. You have to be lucky to become successful. You have to be lucky to be happy.
Tweed’s: Do you think that someone can take certain steps to create the conditions for happiness, like Lena seems to be doing? On the one hand, you can get out of a marriage. On the other hand, you can stay in the marriage and do yoga or something, or you can go to couple’s therapy.
Lara Vapnyar: In my opinion, you can get rid of obstacles in the way of happiness. For example, if you are in a dead-end marriage, you can get out of the marriage, and then you can just hope to get lucky and be happy. Happiness is not guaranteed. Unhappiness can be guaranteed if you are on the wrong path.
Tweed’s: You develop this idea of happiness throughout the book, with each character talking about their version of happiness. But it seems like just clearing away the obstacles to happiness is not enough—
Lara Vapnyar: But you are free to do things that could lead you to happiness.
Tweed’s: I don’t want to be too personal, but what would happiness be for you?
Lara Vapnyar: Actually, I am happy right now.
Tweed’s: You seem happy! But you said you haven’t been happy in a long time.
Lara Vapnyar: I went through a lot of the same stuff as Lena in the novel, so eventually I got a divorce, and I immediately felt not happier, but freer. Now, I am remarried and I am quite happy.
Tweed’s: It’s interesting that you stop the book where you do. It’s an abrupt ending—you don’t know if Lena is going to divorce her husband, or if she and Ben are going to pursue each other and be happy together, and Ben’s going to leave his wife. But from what you’re saying about your personal life, maybe that’s what’s going to happen to them?
Lara Vapnyar: I think that this ending is right for literary reasons, because I like this sort of an ending. For me, it was also important not to jinx my situation. I didn’t want to end on something particular.
Tweed’s: Your story “Buddha’s Hand” [which will be published in issue two of Tweed’s], seems to follow these characters, Lena and Ben, years after the events in The Scent of Pine takes place, when they are having marriage difficulties of their own. Or are these not the same characters?
Lara Vapnyar: You’re probably right—I’ve never thought of it this way, but in my mind, yes. This was my fantasy of what their life would be like when they married. Because in “Buddha’s Hand,” they both talk about their previous marriages when they both lied to their partners. It’s assumed that they maybe cheated on their partners. So, yeah, they do seem like the same characters.
Tweed’s: I’m seeing this cycle of unhappiness, brief happiness, but then you’re going to get into the same situation again. Is Lena going to cheat again to get out of that relationship? It’s an endless cycle of always looking for something else—this freedom, this sense of being desired.
Lara Vapnyar: One obvious solution would be don’t cheat. If you’re in a good relationship, don’t cheat.
Tweed’s: But if you’re in a bad relationship—
Lara Vapnyar: If you’re desperate, then you’re not in control. Cheat or die.
Tweed’s: Cheat or die? How about break up first? And then meet someone else?
Lara Vapnyar: Well, in some relationships, it’s just not that easy. You can’t, for various reasons—people have kids, they have a distorted sense of duty to their partner. It seems disloyal just to dump the partner, but they can’t not have love in their lives, so they cheat.
Tweed’s: So is cheating okay?
Lara Vapnyar: I absolutely don’t think it’s okay. I think it’s bad, but in some situations, it’s inevitable. It’s like a disease.
Tweed’s: Or is it a tool that somebody needs to get out of their unhappy situation?
Lara Vapnyar: Sometimes, yes, probably. For some people, it’s a disease. For other people, it’s a tool. Still for other people, it’s fun—just a distraction. But I personally don’t find it fun.
Tweed’s: In a lot of your stories—especially this one—there’s a lot of loneliness. What the main character seems to want is to be desired by somebody else, because her husband or her partner doesn’t desire her anymore. This idea of being wanted seems to be a driving, recurring theme in a lot of your work. I would think this feeling is shared by many of your readers, especially women—have you had women talk to you about how they shared this feeling?
Lara Vapnyar: It’s not just being wanted. Being wanted is very important—and also being understood. So if you have both, you’re probably happy—acutely happy or quietly happy. If you are wanted and you are understood. No, I didn’t have feedback because women usually don’t share this: “I’m not wanted, just like your main character!” So, no. A lot of women would say, “I am misunderstood, just like your main character.” But nobody would share that.
Tweed’s: What does that mean? To be understood?
Lara Vapnyar: That’s a really dumb question! I guess you just feel it, if a person gets you. Sometimes if the person gets you really well, you are not too thrilled by it, because he would know some bad sides of you, and he would understand your motivations that you would want to conceal. It’s just such an enormous pleasure, if someone gets you and understands you and doesn’t mind you. If somebody’s attracted to me and wants to be in my company, but that person doesn’t really know me, it’s not as special as somebody who knows me and still wants to be with me.
Tweed’s: So it’s almost like accepting you? I don’t know if it’s that dumb of a question.
Lara Vapnyar: I want to be first understood, and then accepted. Because I don’t want to be accepted for the wrong reasons.
Tweed’s: It seems like many of your characters are unsure about parenthood or never wanted to be a mother or don’t even like children even though they have them. Now, you’re a mother. Is this a personal fear that you had before? Why are some of your characters afraid of parenthood? They seem to be embracing the role, but also pushing it away.
Lara Vapnyar: When you are a parent, you have to accept that whatever you do, you do something wrong—and this is very difficult to accept. No matter what I do, there is no right way to be a parent. If I sacrifice too much, I lose too much pleasure in my children. If I don’t sacrifice enough, I am neglecting my children. There’s all this choice. Also, I like my children, and I love my children. I like to spend time with them. But I don’t really like other children, and I don’t like to be pressured into liking other children.
Tweed’s: So a child has to earn your trust, before you like it?
Lara Vapnyar: The child has to be mine for me to like it.
Tweed’s: That’s why I love that phrase in “Buddha’s Hand” when the dog comes up and your character says, “I never knew what to say about dogs or children. You’re supposed to say they’re cute, but in this case, it’s not true.”
Lara Vapnyar: What do you say if children are not cute? They’re so often not.
Tweed’s: They are often not. There are a lot of ugly children, surprisingly. So have you worked out all these issues, these fears of parenthood? You seem to have accepted that? I think that’s what you’re talking about. Someone doesn’t want to be a parent because they don’t want to do something wrong, but if you accept that no matter what you’re going to do is going to be wrong one way or another, does that make you comfortable as a parent?
Lara Vapnyar: Less guilt. Guilt goes with a parent who does the most terrible thing. About children in my work, I have a lot of stories set in my childhood, where I kind of base my characters of children on myself, but I almost never base characters of children on my children.
Lara Vapnyar: Because I have this impulse to protect them. When you write, even if you write fiction, you exploit your character or you expose your model. I don’t want to do it to my children, so I avoid writing about them.
Tweed’s: Some of my favorite stories of yours are when your protagonist is a child, like “Katania”—when your child characters are nasty to each other, it’s so funny. Because when adults are nasty to each other, you expect it. But when children are, it’s so surprising.
Lara Vapnyar: But children are nastier than adults because they don’t have boundaries. They don’t know how to pretend to be nice to each other.
Tweed’s: Something else I wanted to ask about is the pervading idea of a frustrated academic career. A lot of your characters were educated in Russia, but they don’t have their PhD here, like in Memories of a Muse, she wants to get her PhD here but she doesn’t really follow through. You do have a doctorate from the CUNY Grad Center, right?
Lara Vapnyar: I have my masters and I did all my work for my PhD – I passed my orals, all my requirements for my PhD. I wrote about half of my dissertation, but it was making me so unhappy, I couldn’t finish it.
Tweed’s: What was your dissertation on?
Lara Vapnyar: Immigrant writers.
Tweed’s: Not makeup in the 1800’s, or whatever Lena wanted to write her dissertation on?
Lara Vapnyar: I would so much prefer to write about makeup in the 1800’s.
Tweed’s: Do you regret at all not completing a PhD and becoming a professor?
Lara Vapnyar: I teach creative writing, and I love it. It’s really my favorite thing to do. Right now, I think I’m very good at it. I had my doubts before, but I found my way of how to teach. A lot of people teach just for money, and I do too, but I also enjoy it. My regret, I guess, is it would have helped me to find a better job, if I had a PhD.
Tweed’s: What was the change from being doubtful to being confident? Was it just experience or did something click for you, that you enjoy it much more?
Lara Vapnyar: I think I was just depressed when I started teaching. My personal life was awful, and I just didn’t have enough energy to teach. In order to be a good teacher, you need to have a lot of energy, because it’s like performing.
Tweed’s: You seem to keep a low profile, and until recently I didn’t know that you were active with social media. But I see you’re now on Facebook?
Lara Vapnyar: I know that you have to be, but it’s such a torture for me to post a little something—a sentence on Facebook.
Lara Vapnyar: I can’t explain it. I’ve always been an introvert, shy. It makes me nervous to post something on Facebook.
Tweed’s: You think people are going to judge you, or you’ll have a misspelling or something?
Lara Vapnyar: I’m worried about that, and also that nobody will “like” it—like in Facebook terms. So it’s painful.
Tweed’s: So why do you do it? Does your publisher make you?
Lara Vapnyar: My publisher makes me, and my husband makes me, my kids make me. It’s the pressure.
Tweed’s: Well something I noticed was how you posted your bad reviews. Most writers are not brave enough to say, “Let’s all talk about our bad reviews.”
Lara Vapnyar: I wanted to continue posting my bad reviews, and again I have this fear of what if it’s annoying to other people. I feel an awful lack of confidence in social media, so that’s why I don’t do it.
Tweed’s: Do you feel like it affects your readership?
Lara Vapnyar: I have no idea.
Tweed’s: A lot of writers are posting twenty times a day—they’re all about social media—but I’m not sure that translates to being more widely read.
Lara Vapnyar: I know for sure that I couldn’t possibly do that. I could do maybe one post a week, but I honestly don’t know why.
Tweed’s: It’s almost necessary for an author to be involved in social media, but the act of writing is very solitary.
Lara Vapnyar: But writers want to share anyway. We want readers. We don’t write just for ourselves. And on social media, sometimes I will get nice feedback from random readers. I love that. I find it very encouraging.
Tweed’s: So there’re benefits. Yes, you’re right. Writers want people to know about them, but you also have to sell yourself on Facebook or social media. Like, “Look at my new review!” rather than trusting your publishing company to promote it for you.
Lara Vapnyar: We can’t trust our publishing companies to do that any longer. If I could afford not to put anything on Facebook, if I had a larger reader base, I wouldn’t.
Tweed’s: So it’s a necessary evil?
Lara Vapnyar: I don’t know. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I do know that I feel very happy when I get some positive feedback. Ideally, I would love to get positive feedback without doing anything.
Tweed’s: Another thing I wanted to ask—and don’t take this the wrong way—do you not think very highly of men? Because many of your male characters are…not fools, necessarily, but not so deep or well rounded or intelligent. They’re usually oblivious. It never really feels like you like them.
Lara Vapnyar: I’ve heard that before, that I hate men.
Tweed’s: I don’t think you hate men, it just seems that you don’t think very highly of men.
Lara Vapnyar: I don’t know. I always thought that maybe it’s my weakness as a writer, not as a person—that I just don’t know how to create male characters as well as I do female characters. But I was brought up by a single mother. I was brought up in an apartment where three women lived—my grandmother, my mother, and I. My father died when I was two. My grandfather died when I was eight. And my brother got married when I was nine. And ever since then, there were three women, and it was a very special environment. One reason is that I just know women understand women better.
Tweed’s: Do you think you understand what makes men tick? How a man thinks or what a man wants or what a man needs to be happy? Because you clearly understand what a woman wants and what a woman needs to be happy. From your experience with men, I would think you would have some idea of what a man wants and how a man thinks on a more complex level.
Lara Vapnyar: With the novel that I’m writing now, I think I’m getting there. I have two very complex male characters. I think I’m finally starting to understand what makes a man tick.
Tweed’s: What’s your new novel about? If you want to say anything about it.
Lara Vapnyar: I have written one hundred and fifty pages, and it’s called Virtual Grave. It’s about the Gold Rush of Internet applications. People are trying to get rich quick through the great scheme of our age, which is to create some impressible app for iPhone or something like that. Russian immigrants who just don’t have access to other areas that can make you rich. Four characters are pursuing that ideal app that would fix the future and everything in their lives.
Tweed’s: I didn’t ask you about any Russian immigrant stories because I feel like you’ve been asked about that, or it’s the first thing that people talk about. Do you ever feel like you want to get out of that box, that you might be understood only as a writer of Russian immigrant story?
Lara Vapnyar: I really want to get out of it, and I feel like I can’t. So far, every single story that I write that doesn’t have Russian characters doesn’t get published. I’m not sure if they’re not good enough, if there is something missing about my stories with no Russian characters, or just people expect me to write a story with Russian characters.
Tweed’s: I think people look to you for that. It’d be like reading Junot Díaz story that didn’t have a Dominican character. Especially your New Yorker stories—it seems like they want this Russian experience, either Russian at home or Russian here. I don’t know if I can think of any story of yours in the New Yorker that was not a Russian story.
Lara Vapnyar: There wasn’t one.
Tweed’s: Well, The Coffin Factory published “Ode to Joy” in our third issue. That wasn’t a Russian story. And it’s one of your very best stories.
Lara Vapnyar: Yes, I conceal their ethnicity. The main characters were ethnic, but not necessarily Russian.
Tweed’s: So you don’t want to be in this box, but your next novel is about more Russian immigrants? Because that’s going to keep you in that box, right?
Lara Vapnyar: My next novel after that one—
Tweed’s: Oh, you already have another novel?
Lara Vapnyar: No. I don’t. But it will be about non-Russian characters. It’s just that I know this world so well, and it’s exciting—it’s inspiring to me. When I get together with my Russian friends, that’s what we talk about.
Tweed’s: You talk about apps?
Lara Vapnyar: We talk about apps that we could possibly create and sell them. It’s completely crazy.
Tweed’s: I’d ask you what they are, but I don’t want you to give your secrets away to everybody, so I won’t.