Devil’s Lake


Interview with Pamela Erens

The Virgins is modest in its chronology: one short year at an elite boarding school. It describes the romance between two outcasts Aviva, the Jewish girl in a felt hat and Seung her acid dropping Korean boyfriend. The book might be about sex in all its tenderness and cruelty. Or it might be about loneliness. Or the many things we must lose growing up. The little book with rough-cut pages is just the right size to hide under a pillow. It is the book we should have had when we were their age. Pamela Erens was kind enough to talk about the writing of it.

Q: Many writers feel jittery approaching sex scenes. They’re afraid to seem over eager and yet afraid to seem disgusting. Do you have any advice?

Perhaps all that we writers can do is try to convey as honestly and clearly what the characters in the scene might be doing and feeling. Sex scenes are only "disgusting," I think, when leached of all emotion or when the emotion is falsified. With sex scenes it’s so important to SLOW DOWN. See the physical movements of the characters, and how those make them feel. Describe these things in very plain language, at least at first, to help detach the writing from all of the bad cliches (people panting, "bolts of ecstasy," etc.). How do the characters respond to being touched, gently or roughly, in this way or that? Maybe it would help to pretend that one is describing wrestling or boxing or ice skating rather than sex. It might enable one to be more neutral about it all, more able to watch the action frame by frame. Of course, sex usually involves feelings that are more intimate than those in sport. But it would be a place to start.

Q: The Virgins is such a tender novel. There is something light of touch and loving about the way it handles each of its fragile characters. Can I ask was there one you loved in particular?

When you see pain in a character, its hard not to empathize in some way.

I’m glad you see it as tender. I feel there is a good deal of tenderness in it, but not all readers agree with me. I have to say I am fond of all the characters, even the "not nice" ones, like Bruce and his father. I see a lot of pain in Bruce. When you see pain in a character, its hard not to empathize in some way. That said, I have a certain special feeling for Marshall, Aviva’s younger brother. He simply appeared to me as this angel child, this somewhat mysterious creature, and I enjoyed watching him flower on the page.

Q: You do a wonderful job of showing how categories such as race, gender, and class shape the experience of your characters, without ever letting them be pigeonholed. Did you expect the novel to be read along socio-political lines as you were writing it?

When I’m writing, I don’t really envision an audience. If I did, it would probably inhibit me. I guess I do envision some sort of ideally demanding reader who wants me to keep things clear and compelling, who pipes up when I’m getting vague or self-indulgent. That "reader" keeps me on my toes and makes me edit myself heavily. But in terms of real people out there reading the book—or whole groups of them—no.

Q: Asian American men are do not often appear in novels as protagonists; something the novel, or at least Bruce, seems aware of. Describing Seung, you chose to break some stereotypes and play to others. How did you go about making these choices?

I’m always more interested in characters who don’t match up with a stereotype, so I gravitated that way with Seung. With all the characters, I hope. Also, it would have been hard for Aviva and Seung to be this flamboyant couple if Seung had been solving math equations day and night. On the other hand, I wanted all of the characters to be suffering some stresses related to their family situation. So in that case it was more useful for Seung to have the somewhat typical Asian immigrant parents who are focused above all on having him succeed at school and do them proud, and who are suspicious of a non-Asian interloper like Aviva.

Q: Speaking of forced categories, were you worried The Virgins would be perceived as a Young Adult novel, or a women’s novel?

I really wasn’t. To me, it’s a book about an adult looking back at what was, coming ever new understandings as the years pass. I see The Virgins as a book for grownups about recollecting adolescence. And because the central consciousness is male, and two of the three main characters are male, it never occurred to me that it might be seen as a "women’s novel." And it hasn’t been.

Q: Do you have any general advice for hopeful novelists? Anything you wish you knew starting The Virgins or your first novel The Understory?

For an incredibly long time, I wrote misshapen, unartful, confused, inert fiction.

Q: Please, please, please, please hold on to your faith in yourself and your belief that it’s OK to choose the writing life. For an incredibly long time (I don’t even want to say how long), I wrote misshapen, unartful, confused, inert fiction. (I still do, much of the time.) For most of us, it’s a very long learning process. Be incredibly patient, and don’t feel that your shortcomings mean anything in the long run. We all have them. They don’t predict what will happen in the future. It’s been said before, but stick-to-it-ive-ness and reading a lot and a desire to learn about craft matters more than some elusive quality called "talent." Also, if you are waiting for external validation—someone to tell you you’re good enough—you may never get it. Don’t wait for that. You don’t need any other reason to do this than that you want to do.

I’ll answer the second question in a perverse way. I’m glad I didn’t know with The Virgins or The Understory how long it would take to get them right. If I had, I would have been very discouraged.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August. Her debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Erens’s short fiction and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications.