Interview with Ivy Pochoda
THE ART OF WRITING
A Conversation with IVY POCHODA
Author of VISITATION STREET
Ivy Pochoda is someone you can’t miss in a room full of people. She stands out with her confidence and energy. She is someone that you would definitely want to talk to. Ivy just published her second book, Visitation Street, from Dennis Lehane Books. Like Ivy, it’s a book that instantly grabs your attention. From the very first page with its carefully written prose, to the unfolding mystery that takes you along to its compelling and unexpected end. This is a book that is hard to put down. I met with Ivy at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles one Sunday afternoon not long ago. Although she is in the midst of a long book tour, going from city to city on both coasts, she still made time to sit down with us and talk about her writing. Ivy is very serious about her work, but she also has a great sense of humor. A former professional squash player, Ivy is a writer with a competitive edge.
The Writing Disorder: Thank you for meeting with me today. Can you talk about your new book, Visitation Street, and how you came up with the concept for the story.
Ivy Pochoda: I was living in Red Hook at the time, which is where the book is set. And I was struggling with another project—I think I will always struggle at the beginning of a book—that was set in Vienna, and I have never been to Vienna, which wasn’t going very well at the time. And I was talking to my mom on the phone one day and she said, why don’t you write about something that’s going on right outside your window. And I took it quite literally. So I just started writing about people who passed by my window in Red Hook. I lived right across the street from a bar. And there’s a lot of activity there. So I just started describing a lot of the activity inside. The bar there is actually called The Bait & Tackle. So that’s how it began. And eventually I expanded it into different areas of Red Hook, the housing projects and other locations. And I made a lot of the characters younger, because there’s a lot of drugs and drinking, and a longing to grow up quickly. So it came from where I was living and that’s where it began.
The Writing Disorder: Is that where you grew up?
Ivy Pochoda: I grew up in Cobble Hill, which is a few miles away from Red Hook. And it’s very different. The way Cobble Hill is now, it’s pretty gentrified. But when I was growing up there, it was more like the way Red Hook is in the book. So it reminded me of the way it was when I was growing up.
The Writing Disorder: Are any of the characters in your book based on people you knew and grew up with?
Ivy Pochoda: Every character began as someone I saw on the street, or perhaps someone I drank with at the bar, or met at the bodega. A lot of the background characters are based on real people, except the more I wrote them, the more I changed them. People may think they recognize themselves. One person is definitely right, he knows who he is. But I don’t know a lot of these people very well, so I had to make up a lot of the details about them. One of the characters is based on someone I went to high school with, another was a teacher I knew. Things like that.
The Writing Disorder: And the two female characters?
Ivy Pochoda: I think those are based on friends I grew up with, and they’re based on me at different stages of my life. I had a friend growing up and I was always the dominant one, always wanting to go out and drink, and she didn’t want to. But I’ve also been in the other position, where I felt left out. So I wanted to dramatize those friendships because that’s what it was like for me growing up. It was important for me to portray that.
The Writing Disorder: Was it difficult to lose one of your characters early on?
Ivy Pochoda: No, it was difficult to decide whether or not to bring that character back. I kept coming up with different scenarios. But I knew deep down what that character’s fate was, and I had to remain true to that feeling.
It was also a way to open up the story, to make one of the characters go missing. And in my mind, whenever I got upset about the character not being there, I would think of some of the more negative aspects of her personality, and that would make it easier for me to deal with. That’s true with most female relationships, girls hate each other, girls are so mean. They don’t mean to be, but they can’t help it.
The Writing Disorder: Your prose is so careful and precisely written. It’s almost as if every word is carefully chosen. It’s very beautiful the way you write.
Ivy Pochoda: I read and edit a lot of books and I’m always shocked how language is almost the last thing people think about. For me, it’s the first thing. That’s why it’s so hard for me to write right now. Language for me is the best part of writing. I mean plot is always difficult. I find the language kind of easy. I have to hear it. And I know when I’m doing a bad job, so I usually just stop. But I don’t like fancy language, either, pretty or over written stories.
The Writing Disorder: So how is life for you now, compared to when your first book was published?
Ivy Pochoda: Well this book has gotten a lot more attention. The first book came out and nothing really happened with it. It was through a publisher that puts out a lot of books, and they try to see what sticks and what doesn’t. So there wasn’t a lot of publicity behind it. By the time it came out, they were on to the next thing. But this book has been great. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities. It’s like a night and day situation, where now I feel like a real writer. But now I have to write another book. (haha) I don’t have to, but I probably should.
The Writing Disorder: You’ve had a lot of people come out for your book signings, like at The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. And you’ve been on a book tour. How has that been?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes, we’re about to start up again. We’re going to San Francisco, and New England, where my father lives. And we’re going to New York as well. I also did a reading at the bar where the story is set. And that was quite harrowing. But it worked out well in the end. And there will be a few more stops in the fall, like the Brooklyn Book Festival, which is a very big deal for me. That will be fun, and perhaps the L.A. Times Festival of Books next year.
The Writing Disorder: Can you talk a little about your family life growing up.
Ivy Pochoda: Sure, I grew up in Brooklyn in a place called Cobble Hill. My mother was a magazine editor. She was the book editor at The Nation magazine for a long time. She’s worked at a lot of different magazines over the years. She worked at Vanity Fair, also The Post and Entertainment Weekly. Currently she’s the editor of a magazine called The Magazine Antiques. My father worked in publishing at a lot of the big publishing companies like Random House, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster. He had his own agency for a while, and now he’s doing university publishing. He lived in Michigan for a while, but now he’s back in New Hampshire. My parents are divorced. Growing up, our house was full of books. I didn’t even watch television until the sixth grade — then I made up for lost time, and watched a lot of it. I go through fits and starts. I either watch a lot or zero TV. There’s so many choices these days that I don’t watch anything. I lived in Holland for six years and there was nothing on TV, so I used to watch anything I could. But now, with hundreds of channels, I don’t watch anything — really strange.
My childhood was very literary, but my parents never encouraged me to become a writer. I wrote a lot of poetry. I have no brothers or sisters. So I played squash a lot, and other sports.
The Writing Disorder: What attracted you to squash, as apposed to basketball or baseball or some other sport?
Ivy Pochoda: Nothing in particular, my parents had a membership to this fake country club in the city. So they signed me up for lessons, when I was eight or nine. I started playing once a week, and then I did summer camp and I got really good really quickly. My school didn’t have a lot of sports, it was a very artsy school. So I played squash like three to five days a week. I really enjoyed it.
The Writing Disorder: Do you still play?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes, I still enjoy it. There’s a club nearby where I play. And my husband plays as well. I give him lessons on occasion.
The Writing Disorder: Were there a lot of writers around your home growing up?
Ivy Pochoda: Mostly journalists. I don’t remember a lot of novelists. I remember one who was a science fiction writer. My mom had a lot of friends who were writers, but we wouldn’t see them on a regular basis. Most of her friends were writers, but a lot of them were journalists — my parents had a lot of weird friends.
The Writing Disorder: What books did you read growing up?
Ivy Pochoda: I read everything. Every summer my mom would buy me like ten books. But I can’t think of anyone specifically.
The Writing Disorder: Who influenced your work?
Ivy Pochoda: I read a lot of modern fiction in college, it was the farthest thing you could get from reading Ancient Greek. I like reading long books. I thought I was going to write a long book. I love books like War and Peace. I read a lot of Willa Cather growing up. My dad bought me books by Kurt Vonnegut and James Ellroy, Steppenwolf, a lot of ‘60s books as well. My mom got me a lot of Henry James. But I read a lot of mysteries as well. I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes when I was little. I think I read all of them.
The Writing Disorder: When did you first start writing?
Ivy Pochoda: I started writing in high school and in college and it was great. I wrote poetry all through middle school and high school. After college I was living in Amsterdam and I was playing professional squash. It wasn’t all that satisfying, and my parents were harassing me about doing something constructive with my life. So I decided to write a book. But I didn’t think I would make any money from it, so I started another book called The Art of Disappearing, which was initially called The Art of Losing, after a poem, but we had to change that. So I just taught myself to write. And after I sold that book, I went to graduate school, and I realized I needed a little help.
The Writing Disorder: With your parent’s background in publishing, and your reading and writing a lot as a kid, it seems like maybe you were meant to be a writer.
Ivy Pochoda: I just knew that I didn’t really want a regular job, so I’ve gone out of my way to figure out ways that I didn’t have to. And being a writer seemed like a very reasonable one. I had one office job in my life. And it was fun. But I didn’t want a regular life. I wouldn’t mind teaching, though.
The Writing Disorder: You’ve been successful in squash, and you’ve been successful in writing. What are you working on now?
Ivy Pochoda: I’m ghost writing a celebrity biography for a TV/Hollywood actress. They are mostly based on interviews. My agent keeps telling me to stop doing them. But I like the work and it pays the bills. I did a biography on Rhoda, Valerie Harper. And I recently wrote a book on a polygamous Mormon family with four sister wives. I wrote their book, called Becoming Sister Wives. I went out to Las Vegas for ten days and interviewed them. No comment on the sister wives.
The Writing Disorder: And your husband is a filmmaker.
Ivy Pochoda: Yes, he’s made some short films, written some screenplays, and he currently works in TV.
The Writing Disorder: Has there been any talk of turning your book into a film?
Ivy Pochoda: There’s been some interest, so we’ll see.
The Writing Disorder: How did you come up with the structure for your novel?
Ivy Pochoda: When I started writing this book I was in graduate school and I went to a low-residency program — which means you go to class a few times a year and you send your work in. And you turn in your work every month for about five or six months. Each month is about 20-30 pages of writing and four essays on books I’ve read. And I didn’t know where I was going yet. So instead of going from chapter to chapter and following one character, I kept switching perspectives. It made it so I thought of each chapter as a short story. And once I came up with the idea of the two girls on the raft, I made that the through line. For me it’s a very easy and very hard way to write a novel, not knowing if it’s all going to come together in the end. I thought that maybe I would try that again in another book, but maybe not.
The Writing Disorder: Where did the visual idea of two girls on a raft come from?
Ivy Pochoda: It just came to me. I wanted something that would open it up like a prologue, something that would set the stage for a hot summer. I recently read Ian McEwan’s, Enduring Love, that opens with a balloon accident, and the accident — it’s such a dynamic chapter. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the plot, but someone that the main couple meets during it, becomes this stalker character and it changes their lives. So I thought it would be interesting to have an isolated incident to set a story in motion, but my initial idea was that it would just be a stand alone piece, but then it became the backbone of the story.
The Writing Disorder: There’s a hint of a supernatural element in your book.
Ivy Pochoda: You can read it however you want. Do some of the characters really hear voices? That’s up to the reader to decide. I have my own opinion, but I think it can be read different ways. The city does have a certain ghostliness to it. The old city lying underneath the new one. There’s definitely a ghost city shimmering under the surface. There was a lot of violence there in the 1980s. People grieve in different ways. I can only imagine how many people died there over the years. So I wanted to dramatize that in a psychological way.
The Writing Disorder: Does a cruise ship really dock in the city?
Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, the Queen Mary docked there when I was living there. We all went down there at five in the morning to see it, thinking it would bring a lot of change to the city, but it came and went and that was it.
The Writing Disorder: So everyone thought it would change the city.
Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, all these businesses made all these changes, to their names, etc. — and nothing happened. One Swedish tourist wandered off the boat. That was it.
The Writing Disorder: What is your writing process like, or what is a day of writing like for you?
Ivy Pochoda: In an ideal world I will start writing at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m., and write until 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. But I know that during that time, I will do a whole bunch of other stuff. But I try to get at least three solid hours of real writing done. If I can get three pages a day, that’s fine. If I can get five pages, that’s amazing. If I write more that that, I might consider taking the next day off (haha). I set myself goals, though. Like today I need to get my character from point A to point B. I always try to have a goal in mind for what I’m going to write about. I write on a computer and I have notebook next to it. I only write at my desk — nowhere else. I can’t write in a coffee shop, or a restaurant or on a plane.
The Writing Disorder: Who reads your work first?
Ivy Pochoda: Nobody. I don’t let anyone read something until it’s completely done. I might let my mom read something. She’s a really good editor. She’ll tell me if I’m being lazy or if I’ve overdone stuff — I tend to overdo things. She’ll say, “We get it, they’re ghosts,” or whatever. Towards the end of a project I’ll let someone read it. I let someone read this at sixteen chapters, when I had a problem with certain things. And I got one good note on it. But I think I know those answers all along. I don’t really love feedback – about plot.
The Writing Disorder: And your husband doesn’t read your work as you’re writing it?
Ivy Pochoda: No. He only read Visitation Street a few weeks ago. It would make me crazy to have him read it while I was working on something — not that I don’t value his opinion. He’s very smart, but he’s very plot-driven.
The Writing Disorder: Do you write any poetry?
Ivy Pochoda: I used to, but that was back in high school. And I don’t play any musical instruments. I can barely turn on the stereo.
The Writing Disorder: What was it like playing squash competitively, and living overseas as a professional squash player?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes, it was really fun. I’m not sure if I should have done more of it or less. I had figured out that when I got up to my highest (world) ranking, which was 38, that I can get in the top 20, I know I can, but I don’t want to, I’m not going to put in the work that it would take to reach that goal. It was also not lost upon me that living in Amsterdam and playing professional squash was a very strange decision. But I wanted to travel in Europe and I wanted to have a job. So I tried to do both, go out and have a life, and play squash. I was really good at it. I always wanted to win the U.S. National Championship, and it kind of bothers me.
I also know that when I was training my hardest and putting in the most amount work and hours – playing twice a day, six days a week, and not drinking — that it wasn’t really satisfying. But I love to socialize and go out with friends.
I also was a head case. Like I would train all year, and then at the tournament I would be totally ready to win, but then I couldn’t even tie my shoes, and I wanted to throw up. So I made a pact with myself that I would mentally let go of winning a national squash championship — if I sold a novel. That I would never be nervous about writing a book. I put all the belief that I didn’t have in squash, I put that into becoming a writer and writing — which is silly because writing was in other people’s hands, but squash was in my hands. But that’s okay. But I loved playing on the U.S. National Team. I always played well in team events. Two of my best friends were on the team. One of them because an artist and the other published a novel. The three of us went to El Salvador together for a tournament, and Colombia. It was really fun, and it’s great to travel with your friends. We all went to Harvard. So after a tournament we would go back to the hotel and hang out, and no one would talk about sports.
And my senior year in college I won the college individual championship squash title. That was the big one. See that I wanted, and that I killed myself to win because I wanted it so badly. That’s all I wanted. I can still remember it. The three years leading up to that, my team was the national championship team, we were the women’s team champions. And I got to the finals when I was a sophomore. So I came back the two years later and won it. It was great. I remember everything about it — every detail. I have a videotape of the match that I won. You should see the outfits we wore. I cried afterwards. It’s not an Olympic sport yet, it’s still in contention — the vote is coming up — but it doesn’t really televise well.
The Writing Disorder: Have you ever thought about coaching?
Ivy Pochoda: Oh yes, I’ve coached for a long time. When I was working on my first book, I got a job at the Harvard Club of New York coaching squash. I thought I would be there for about a year and I ended up coaching there for about four years. I’m a good coach but I get frustrated and impatient sometimes. I loved training the U.S. National Junior Team.
The Writing Disorder: You have a really great website by the way. What do you do when you’re not writing or working on a book?
Ivy Pochoda: I basically do three things: I write, play squash and cook/eat/drink. I love to cook. I had a horrible experience playing squash when I was 23. I trained all year for the national championship, but I had a complete meltdown in the first round. I was so upset. And that was the time my parents said to come back home. So I stayed with my mom for a few days. And I remember being in the kitchen I saw these two cookbooks one for Indian food and one for Thai food. So I got home, and I said I’m not going to play squash for about two months, so I cooked everything in those two books. I practiced so hard. And now I still prefer to cook either Thai or Indian food. That’s what I like to do. And I think I’m pretty good at it. It’s all about the seasonings.
The Writing Disorder: What are you working on now, or do you know what your next project is going to be?
Ivy Pochoda: No. I sold my current book in the summer of 2012. And normally a book takes over a year and a half to come out. But I finished the edits in October of that year. There’s a lot of work you have to do once you turn a book in. You have to keep editing it. And its been a sort of whirlwind ever since. You know selling a book, along with the publicity, which started in March of this year. And we did this pre-publicity tour. So I just haven’t really had a moment to take a break and relax. I tried to write something, but I think I just need to take a breath. I’ll start writing again. I did three ghost writing projects while I wrote Visitation Street, so I need a break. And I just started a creative writing program at The LAMP Lodge on Skid Row. So I’m going to be working on that. I live right near there and pass by everyday and I thought I wanted to do something for the community. I did some research and emailed a few people, and I found out about LAMP, and they have a really good LGBT community. So I’m really excited about the project. They have art and music facilities — it’s better than some high schools. We’re going to do a two-hour workshop once a week. And we want to do a newsletter, or a literary magazine. The people that I’ve met there are phenomenal.
The Writing Disorder: What kind of music do you listen to, and what kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Ivy Pochoda: I don’t listen to a lot of music. And when I write I need absolute silence. I like The Clash, Elvis Costello or Tom Waits. But my musical education has been hampered by a few things. My parents listened to a lot of music, so I listened to their music — Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, things like that. But they never thought to engage me with radio or others kids music. I never thought to go outside their interests. I wasn’t a normal kid. Then, in college I listened dance music. But when I moved to Holland, before Napster, music was so expensive there. I could barely pay my rent. But even if I did have money to spend, it was not to buy CDs. So I missed about six years of TV and six years of music. And it’s hard to catch up.
But when I’m writing, I demand silence.
The Writing Disorder: How did you go from writing your first book, to getting it published?
Ivy Pochoda: Through my agent.
The Writing Disorder: How did you get an agent?
Ivy Pochoda: Well, I have some friends in publishing. And when I finished my first book, I sent it to a few of them to read. And one woman actually read the book, and thought it was good. So she suggested that I send the book out to five or six agents that she suggested, and that I had to contact them on my own, but I could mention her name — and just see what happens. So I sent it out to everyone, it was actually eight agents, two of them men and six of them women — and all the women accepted it, and the men did not. So I went with the first person who accepted it, and she turned out to be the best agent. I love her so much.
The Writing Disorder: Is she still your agent today?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes. So she said that first book wasn’t ready to publish yet, and gave me some extensive notes to work on. And so I revised it and she sent it out ten times over eight months, and it was rejected by everyone. Then she did a second pass, and sent it out twenty times, and it was rejected again. So she said we could do two things, that I could either start a new book and put this one aside, or I could do another rewrite and submit it again. So I rewrote it again, and she submitted again ten times and it was rejected again. And I thought, Oh, my God. So I did one more rewrite and she sent it out again, and she got the tiniest offer, and we took it. But I don’t know if anyone else would have gone through all that. So after that I decided to go to graduate school, that I never wanted to go through that again. And this next book was a totally different story. We sold it in like two days. Thank God, because I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. I was nervous everyday to do this book, so it was a pretty bad start.
The Writing Disorder: Do you spend a lot of time on the internet, like Twitter and Facebook?
Ivy Pochoda: I can be on the internet for hours — nothing constructive, though. But there are so many cool writers on twitter and we start talking. And someone might be talking about my book, or vice versa, and they might say let’s get together. It’s great. I don’t know any other way to meet writers like that. It’s kind of cool.
The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of friends who are writers?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes. I have a lot of writer friends like in the last two weeks. But seriously, I have made a lot more writer friends since I became a writer. And I have a lot of squash friends, too. Half the material on my Facebook page is about writing, and the other stuff is about squash, or food-related stuff.
The Writing Disorder: Have you written any short stories?
Ivy Pochoda: I wrote one short story, and it was published, in a magazine nobody has heard of. But I was really excited at the time. And they spelled my name wrong. I think I’ll probably stick with novel writing for now.
The Writing Disorder: Have you thought about taking this story or these characters further?
Ivy Pochoda: No. I think that’s it for them. They don’t need me anymore. I think we’re done.
The Writing Disorder: Do you ever write with a pen and paper?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes, a lot. I don’t have great handwriting, but sometimes I like to write things in longhand. Like when I get an idea, I’ll usually write in out on paper first. I always keep a paper note pad by my computer. And I’m very particular about the pen I use. I’d like to have nice handwriting, but sometimes it’s indecipherable. But I can make it look nice when I want.
The Writing Disorder: What are your impressions of Los Angeles? Was it a big adjustment from life in Brooklyn?
Ivy Pochoda: Yes and no. I mean, my life didn’t change a whole hell of a lot. I work from home and I go and play squash. I do enjoy driving however, and I get a particular thrill when I encounter something uniquely Los Angeles, like the neon lights on Sunset Boulevard. All in all, I like it here. But part of me wants to move back to Red Hook.
The Writing Disorder: What are some of your favorite places in Los Angeles, or favorite things to do here?
Ivy Pochoda: I love my neighborhood, The Arts District and I like all the abandoned warehouses nearby. I love downtown as well. When I lived in Echo Park, I really enjoyed walking the loop in Elysian Park. Oh, and I love Thai Town. I eat there all the time.
The Writing Disorder: Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure meeting and talking with you. Thanks again.
To follow Ivy Pochoda on Twitter, visit: Twitter
For details about her book, visit: Visitation Street