Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Armchair Novel Review - Vaclav & Lena

Vaclav & Lena
by Haley Tanner
Hardcover, 304 pages
Also available as an unabridged audio CD, unabridged audiobook download and an eBook

Two things that are a harder sell for me - novels written from a child's perspective, and novels in any kind of vernacular. So when Vaclav & Lena was recommended to me, I was somewhat intrigued... but not overly hopeful about a book that is about two 10-year-old Russian immigrant children. 

I was wrong. It happens.

Vaclav & Lena is the first novel from author Haley Tanner and it totally blew me away. Lovely and wonderful in its almost poetic simplicity, yet deep and engrossing at the same time. Once I got going I found it hard to put down, and I found myself thinking about the characters long after I finished. 

Vaclav is 10 years old. He is the son of two hard-working Russian immigrants in Brooklyn. They have come to America to give him a better life. He knows two things - that he is going to be a world-famous magician and that his best friend Lena will be his beautiful assistant. 
Lena is an orphan, one month younger than Vaclav and living with her aunt. She is petite and shy and struggles with the language. Vaclav looks out for her and is fiercely protective. They spend all their free time working on the magic act and planning their future.
One day Lena just disappears. 
Years later they find each other again, and Vaclav has to learn the truth about who his friend is and what has happened to her. 

The book is about love and friendship and magic and is well worth reading.

A conversation with Haley Tanner 

Tell us about your new novel, Vaclav & Lena.

Vaclav & Lena is the story of two children growing up in the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Vaclav is a precocious boy who has dreams of becoming a famous magician and Lena – who he is certain will be his best friend forever – is a troubled girl, imprisoned by her lack of an English vocabulary. Vaclav’s caring mother, Rasia, discovers a tragic secret about Lena’s home life and the two children are torn apart for several years. It is a story about how they navigate their lives away from each other and if and how they can acclimate to a life where they are reunited.

Vaclav, Lena and Rasia first appeared in a short story you wrote while getting your MFA in Creative Writing at The New School in 2007. How did that short story evolve into Vaclav & Lena? Did the characters change when the format did?

I wrote the short story for a class. It was, I think roughly ten pages, and it centered around this one moment in this little family – Vaclav and Lena performing a magic act for his parents. I just loved the atmosphere and the situation and to me, there was just a hint of a story to come. Then, when I was supposed to be moving on to other things, writing other stories for classes or workshops, I just kept coming back to Vaclav and Lena. I couldn’t leave them frozen at the beginning of their story. They had more things to do – I didn’t know what – and I had to find out.

There absolutely is a character that changed as the story became a novel. I never planned for Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, to be a main character or such a presence. She was in the original story as an obstacle to Vaclav and Lena’s plans and then, as I continued to write the novel, she kept barging into the story, insisting on getting whole chapters, and I completely fell in love with her.

How did you choose to make magic part of the story? Why does Houdini resonate so strongly with Vaclav and why does professional sword swallower Heather Holliday resonate so strongly with Lena?

It wasn’t a conscious choice for Vaclav to become a magician. It was just how I saw him – as a precocious little boy with a passion for an art that is widely considered to be outdated or out of fashion. However, once I thought about it a bit more I came to the conclusion that when writing books, there are things that just appear (“out of thin air” as Vaclav would say) and then acquire meaning later. Magicians are like story-tellers in that we all know that the quarter does not disappear, that the woman is not sliced in half, but we suspend our disbelief for a time and allow ourselves to be carried away. It is the same thing we do when we read a novel about a character we know to be fictional, but we cry and laugh and love along with them anyway.

Houdini is a perfect role model for Vaclav – there is the obvious parallel in his family’s journey to America and their ages upon arrival here – but there is also a power that comes from sheer stubbornness and determination. Houdini was a self-made man, and had a magical ability to perform and command large audiences. Vaclav, as a powerless little boy with an imperfect command of his new language, yearns for that power, for that status.

Lena and Heather…Heather is strong, beautiful, and she is in perfect control of her own sexuality. She is also (according to her stage persona) a runaway – and she’s made it! She’s survived, and is powerful like a superhero.

We hear Heather Holliday is a real person. Have you seen her perform?

She is a real person! She’s fantastic! I’ve seen her perform at the Sideshow Theatre, and it’s brilliant. Her act is, as Rasia says, perfectly revolting, and perfectly lovely. Everyone should get to the Sideshow Theatre – or wherever she’s performing (I heard she travels) – to see her.

Vaclav & Lena brings to life the Russian émigré community of Brighton Beach so vividly – what is your experience with the Brighton Beach community and how did you decide to write a novel around it?

The characters – Vaclav and Lena – came to me first, and their life was colored by what I was experiencing at the time. I was tutoring in Brighton Beach, and I sat at kitchen tables and helped these kids struggle over their synonyms, while their mothers walked in the door at 7:30, weighed down by shopping bags, and plopped the frozen block of borscht into a hot pot on the stove. All of that setting sort of seeped in to the story, and became part of who the characters were, but my interest was in the people first, and their ethnicity and their neighborhood were secondary. I was so focused on Vaclav and Lena, and who they were inside that it was only after I finished the book that I realized that the Russian community in Brighton Beach had become such a strong force in the book..

What kind of research, if any, did you do while writing Vaclav & Lena?

Almost none, aside from what crept into my mind through osmosis. I was making notes for the book while standing on subway platforms in Brighton Beach, waiting for the Q. People like Vaclav, Lena, Olga and Rasia were walking around me, and the supermarket smells were all around me – so I didn’t realize I was doing research – I just thought I was making notes for my book..

The voices of Vaclav, Lena, and Rasia are distinct and each beautifully done. Who was your favorite to write? Any that did not come easily?

Oh, Vaclav and Rasia are a pleasure to write – both of their voice came so easily. They’re such powerful, outspoken people with so much to say! Lena doesn’t find her voice for a long time, so she was tricky in her own very specific way. I’m also very protective of Lena, and very careful with her. I have an easier time writing anything that is as far from my experience as possible and as such, Vaclav and Rasia, were easy. However, Lena, especially as she grew older, became very difficult. I enjoy writing most when my imagination is engaged, so writing a seventeen-year old girl was difficult, because I just have far too much first-hand experience.

What writers have influenced you and did any specific books influence Vaclav & Lena?

My favorite writers are J.D. Salinger and Tom Robbins. I wouldn’t dare claim that either influenced Vaclav and Lena, but I know that J.D. Salinger (from Franny’s very first martini on her dreadfully boring date) made me want to write, and made me love creating characters. Tom Robbins inspired me to unhinge language and free words and metaphors from their dusty old cages. I can’t claim that I’ve done either, but those two made me think that writing books sounded worthy and like a pretty good thing to do.

Early readers of Vaclav & Lena have identified unconditional love as a theme – or even the theme – of the novel. Do you agree with that reading? Do you have particular thoughts on how that idea found its way organically into the novel.

I didn’t intend for there to be a theme; I think a lot of writers would say this: I just wanted to tell a good story. But it doesn’t surprise me that unconditional love stands out, or became a dominant thread. Just as I would wait for subway in Brighton Beach without realizing I was “doing research,” at the time I wrote the novel, I was living my own love story with my husband. Now I can see that it’s on every single page.