Debut novelist Haley Tanner clearly has an organic approach to writing. She speaks to us about writing in a Russian accent, how Salinger's Franny & Zooey is where it's at and why it's lucky she's making it as an author. By Emma Larson
So Vaclav and Lena is about the Russian community in Brighton Beach, and I know you're from New York originally, but the opposite end. You're from the Bronx, right?
Yeah, basically I grew up in Westchester. So I did not grow up in that community and my family, [laughs] my parents are not Russian immigrants. Not at all. But when I started writing the book, I was in graduate school, I had a day job and I was tutoring ESL in Brighton Beach and I was in love, totally in love with that neighborhood.
So how did you research what it was like to be the child of Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach, since you're not from that culture?
I always think that my job as a novelist is not to do research and record facts, but to engage my imagination in whatever situation. So the most obvious one in that book that everyone wants to know about is how I could imagine life as a Russian immigrant in Brighton Beach when I haven't been one. But I also haven't been a nine-year-old boy or a mother and there's no chance I'll ever be a nine-year-old boy, so I always think my job is to try to imagine what it feels like to be inside of anyone else's mind at any moment.
Was it difﬁcult to write two main characters who were still learning English?
Oh it was so much fun! It was just incredible fun. That was my absolute favorite thing to do. Actually after that was done, I had a hard time writing anything without an accent. It gave me so much freedom and it sort of cracks open language in a very interesting way. So when you're writing someone who is new to English and is learning themselves how to use the language, then all of these new options are open to you. You know, the language is all fresh and new and it can be so, so fascinating. People who don't know the clichés can't fall back on the clichés and they have to actually ﬁnd a new way to express things and I thought that was just so much fun for me to work with.
The book deals with neglected children. Why did you want to address such a serious topic?
When I bumped into Lena, when I ﬁrst imagined her, I really just wanted to give Vaclav a lovely assistant. Then when she showed up, you know, I don't ever know where this comes from with any character, she showed up and she was just all too serious for her age. And I thought, there's something going on with this character, there's something else going on here and I want to investigate it. That was really what the character sort of expressed to me on her own and then I went and did some research about childs of neglect. It's one of these very common forms of child abuse but it doesn't get a lot of attention because it generally isn't acute. So we don't see instances of child neglect in the media. What you see are the horrible things that certainly happen to those kids because they're so very vulnerable. And the thing that's happening to Lena was sort of right under our radar and I was really interested in that situation.
So the way you speak about Lena leads into my next question, because I was going to ask what comes to you ﬁrst, the plot or the characters?
Oh yeah, it's deﬁnitely character! Yeah, the characters show up and they already have their own ideas about what they want to do and about what's going to happen and I mostly feel like it's my job to watch them go. It's really incredible fun and I've deﬁnitely had moments where I look at my characters like, what are you going to do? And then all I have to do is watch them to ﬁnd out and that's fun. I think my most important job is to not get in their way.
Do you have a process to how you write? Or when your best ideas come to you? Is there a certain time when you write?
I think that you have to show up every day. When I was writing this book, I didn't have the luxury of being home and being able to write whenever I wanted to, so I couldn't possibly be precious about where or when I wrote. And I think that was a really, really wonderful thing, to have to learn that you sit down and you do the job. So I did it wherever and whenever I could. If it was a waiting room or a subway or a noisy café, it doesn't matter, you sit down and do the work. Of course I would prefer a nice quiet space and about an hour to kill, but it can't always happen that way.
What books or authors have inﬂuenced you the most in your writing?
I'm a very big fan of J.D. Salinger and I absolutely loved Franny & Zooey. And I have to say that when I was I was a teenager it was really Tom Robbins who made me want to be a writer because he made it look fun and he made it look like being a writer was possibly close to being a rock star and I wanted to have a part of that.
Franny & Zooey is my favorite Salinger too, and you don't hear that a lot. Everyone always says Catcher in the Rye.
I know! People really miss out on Franny & Zooey. It's so good and Franny's amazing!
So I was reading your bio and you've held a lot of really different jobs, including police dispatcher, waitress, bank teller and parliamentary assistant. Have any of these experiences contributed to your writing?
Only so far as in I met a lot of different people and I've learned that I really have to stick to writing because I'm very, very bad at everything else. I was a complete failure at every single one of those jobs and I know that writing is the only way for me to go since I was so bad at any other work environment.
Well at least you're being successful at that now, so that's good!
[laughs] It's lucky, it's lucky! It's total luck and I'm a lucky girl that I get to do this one thing that I'm good at, cause really I don't have a good back-up plan.
So this is obviously your ﬁrst novel. What has the response from readers and critics been like for you?
Oh it's so much fun. I think it's really, really fun to hear what other people are thinking about these characters, who for so long I felt like they only existed in my mind and now they exist for other people as well and that's amazing. I love hearing from people who have these wild opinions about characters and it feels wonderful to know that they actually exist in everyone's mind like they existed in mine. That's great.
Are you working on a next book? Can you tell us anything about it?
I am working on another novel. I'm in the middle of it and I don't know where it's going yet, but I'm really, really enjoying it. It's enormous fun and I feel like a lot of the pressure of the ﬁrst novel is relieved and I'm just really having fun with it.
What books are you currently reading or have you recently loved?
I just have read a novel called The Adults by Alison Espach which was absolutely wonderful. It was wild and really, really honest and funny and very, very dark and really laugh-out-loud funny. It was absolutely fantastic and I can't recommend it highly enough.