An Interview with Laureen Vonnegut

by Julie Stewart


Laureen’s new book, Twin Lies, is about an identical mirror twin, who accidentally causes the death of her sister and takes over her sister’s identity at the age of seventeen.  Years later she finds she cannot continue to live as her sister and she must break out on her own, even if it means destroying the life she has built, including her own family.

What is the origin of your idea for Twin Lies? Are there twins in your family?

I have some cousins who are twins, but they had nothing to do with piquing my interest in twins. Years ago I worked for a law firm and two of the partners were identical twins. They had so many stories about swapping identities and mistaken identities that I became fascinated with the whole concept.

What was the most challenging part of writing Twin Lies?

Sitting down and actually working on the damn thing every day. I don’t like the novel writing process. It’s daunting to start a project as big as a novel. Short stories are much more my style. That’s why Twin Lies is written from multiple points of view, it allows me to sort of cheat and feel as though I’m writing short stories.  Hmm, maybe it’s an attention span thing.

Oasis, your first book was written from a single point of view, Twin Lies from multiple…

Sort of, it (Oasis) was written in the past and present, in oscillating chapters, a first person and third person narrative.

Is it harder to do good characterization with several characters than w/one strong character?

Yes. Much harder. Because your natural tendency as a writer is to think in a particular voice. When you have to switch voices within the same book and the characters are involved in the exact same story, it can be really difficult.  There are certain tricks you as a writer can use, dialogue tics etc, but they don’t substitute a totally different voice.

How important to the novel were your travels to the various locations in which the Twin Lies story is set?

I never intend to set scenes in exotic locations, but when I travel, the chapters seem to relocate themselves to those unusual locales.

So, when you’re in the gestation/creation period, how does it work for you?

I usually go away somewhere by myself. I can’t be around anyone I know – too distracting.  For example with Twin Lies I went to Zanzibar for two months and basically thought about what I wanted to write and sketched out kind of very simple outline. I hadn’t even thought about including Zanzibar in the book, but of course when I was there, it jumped right in.

As a writer based in Mérida, Mexico, tell us a little about the writing process and working environment in Merida?

What is different about a Mérida lifestyle is the heat of early summer. I’ve learned to plan my day: out early to run errands, back to write, indulge in a siesta (I’ve become a big siesta fan), more afternoon writing, and then out for drinks or dinner. The sultry nights are incredible.

Do you find Mérida in itself inspiring? In addition to Mexico and your home country, USA, you’ve lived in several other countries around the world – Romania, England, Holland, Hungary, Bulgaria – and traveled extensively. Has this international lifestyle affected the way you write and think, and if so, how?

Usually when someone is exposed to cultures outside their own, especially if they live within them, their horizons expand exponentially. One of the most disturbing things I see is foreigners who don’t embrace the country they are in. They dismiss the culture as less advanced or less sophisticated or even frightening, ignoring traditions and influences that make that culture so unique.

The way that I find Mérida inspiring is that it’s a different country. I find that if I’m in a different country, my senses are more alert, whereas if I’m living somewhere that I’ve lived that’s too familiar, my senses are deadened. So, in that sense, yes, but Mérida as a city to write about, in that way inspiring?  Not really.  Or maybe I should say…not yet.

Which writers inspire you?

Barry Unsworth, he’s British and every book he writes is so different, yet equally good. He’s able to switch subjects and keep his style.  The same with Ian McEwan, each book is a little gem, they are just fantastic writers.

Joy Williams, in my opinion, writes like a man, her prose is very sparse. There’s not a lot written about what the characters think, you have to read between the lines to understand what they’re thinking, which I like. I don’t like wordy books and she’s very good at that.

Cormac McCarthy invents words.  He also takes unknown archaic words that you don’t think are words until you look them up and sure enough they are…it all works within his writing, I think he’s a word master and almost a poet, I find a lot of poetry in his writing.

Whose books are currently on your nightstand?

I read four or five books at once. Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules by David Sedaris, and The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner.

Are you currently working on any other projects? Do you have a third novel in the works?

I am concentrating on a series of short stories and will be spending a month in New York to workshop my theater play called, The Porcini Test.

Can you tell us more about the play?

It was a reaction to a play called Hurly Burly by David Rabe.  I liked the play, it was also made in to a movie, but it was quite misogynist and I wanted to write a play with three strong female characters who have known each other for ages.  There’s a lot of cursing and trauma, but it also has a lot of humor.  In New York they are calling it a comedy…not sure I agree.  A black comedy maybe…

I don’t understand the process of producing a play so I’m going to New York to try figure it all out.  I have absolutely no idea how it works.

You made films, right?   Directed?  Wrote?  Everything?

Wrote, directed short films, several. Co-produced. Yeah, just did a lot of things. Theater is a new medium to explore.  I don’t know what’ll happen when I actually hear professional actors in New York read it, you know, I may think Ah! It’s terrible! But from the reading I had here, a relaxed around the table reading, I was really happy with it. So, we’ll see. I’ve always loved theater. It’s an amazing thing for a writer to write something and then actually see it visually like on a screen, or an actor speaking it, it’s incredible. It just blows your mind. Writing is so solitary that if you can mix it with something social – film making or theater or singing songs, it’s always a bonus. Otherwise you just sit in a damn room by yourself.

Do you see the story and the characters a different way because you’ve done it in a different medium?

I think I naturally write filmic books or filmic short stories – people tell me I write visually.  I don’t know.  I love dialog.  Writing a script is like writing a skeleton of a book.  No flesh.  This theater play, I wrote it incredibly fast. I wrote the first half in probably a week and a half and the second maybe in two weeks.

Kind of like the difference between writing poetry and then going out and singing your own songs and having the audience…

Yes, absolutely.  Except that I don’t have to perform.  I’m a mess when I do readings.  Although, I suppose that’s the thing about readings, you do get audience feedback. You feel people are supporting you. Well, I’ve never had anybody boo yet, but you never know…I’m waiting. It’ll happen.