Even the most idyllic and sheltered towns harbor an underbelly, and the picturesque Newport Beach is no exception. As a former resident of the coastal enclave, author Victoria Patterson understands the complexities and contradictions of the city and, by extension, the region around it.
Many outsiders perceive Orange County, California, through a singular cultural narrative portrayed through reality shows and a dopey teenage television drama. Patterson, in her collection of short fiction, Drift, destabilizes this enduring, yet fragmented, representation with stories about people who seem to exist beneath Newport Beach’s tidy and immaculate surface.
Drift (Mariner Books, 2009) was one of three finalists for the Story Prize, a yearly award recognizing the exceptional collection of an author in short story form with a cash purse of $20,000. (As a runner-up Patterson received $5,000.) Patterson, who earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside, has had both her essays and fiction recently published in the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast Magazine, the Southern Review, Santa Monica Review and the Florida Review. Her story “Johnny Hitman” earned a spot on the list of 100 distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories, 2009, edited by Alice Sebold.
Patterson, who lives in Pasadena and teaches at the Univerity of California Los Angeles’ Extension Writers’ Program, recently talked with TriQuarterly Online about Newport Beach, her short-story collection, Drift, a forthcoming novel called A Vacant Paradise, and her literary influences.
TriQuarterly Online: So what exactly is your connection to the small Southern California town of Newport Beach?
Victoria Patterson: I moved there when I was in the seventh grade with my family and lived there from junior high to high school. My mom actually still lives there, so I did end up going back here and there. I knew I wanted to write about it when I lived there. I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.
TQO: When did you know the setting for your stories would be in Newport Beach?
I went about spending years and years trying to figure out how to write; and I started a family, but I always knew I was going to write about Newport. Then it started appearing on TV shows, and it started to become more culturally prominent. I knew it was an opportunity because no one was showing it the way I experienced it or the way I see it. “The Real Housewives of Orange County” came out when I started working on the collection, and I was horrified by it since it shows the extreme, the very worst of people; it was just the very surface aspects of it so it was hard to watch because it was all familiar too in terms of location. What was in the media motivated me to go at it harder because there’s so much under the surface.
TQO: Your collection contains interconnected stories and recurring characters. What compelled you to write a collection as opposed to a novel?
VP: I knew I would write a collection since short fiction best served the way these stories happened. With a collection of stories you can write about the whole perspective of an area in a way that you can’t really do in a novel. You can layer different stories and meanings; there are so many things you can do in a collection that you can’t really pull off in a novel. I read short-story collections like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which knocked me out. I wanted to do that and set it in Newport. The way stories build on each other and take on different meanings from the other stories. I love the way collections can do that.
TQO: What did you take away from your time with the University of California Riverside’s MFA program?
VP: Going to graduate school was this great release for me because I was around other writers, and I knew I wasn’t alone. I got so much feedback, so that’s when it all came together after years and years of working on my own.
TQO: What’s next for you?
VP: I have a novel coming out in February 2011 with Counterpoint Press called The Vacant Paradise. It’s set in Newport Beach, and when I wrote it there had been a three-year gap between the completion of my collection and its publication where I worked on edits. In that time I wrote like crazy and completed this novel, which I started writing when I was looking for a home for the collection. The novel takes place in the early 1990s, and it’s inspired by Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which is one of my favorite books. I love Edith Wharton as a writer. I actually read everything by her and Henry James for this novel. It’s very different from the collection; it’s not quite as dark. I feel like it’s much funnier. What helped me with this work was to really look at the structure of other novels instead of just being in the dark on my own trying to write one. So, I really studied many novels especially those of Henry James and Edith Wharton.
When I was getting my MFA at UC-Riverside, my professor once jokingly referred to me as “The Edith Wharton of the O.C.” He said, “You should write a sort of The House of Mirth set in Newport Beach.” I became consumed by the idea. I studied The House of Mirth, re-reading it many times. (Edith Wharton said this of The House of Mirth: "The answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.")
I read biographies of Edith Wharton and her autobiography. I read everything by Edith Wharton, interspersed with Henry James. Edith Wharton’s prose is so adept and sharp—so bitingly humorous and sad. I wanted to have that same leveling grasp.
Though inspired by The House of Mirth, my novel [This Vacant Paradise] took on a plot and life of its own. I learned quite a bit from studying Henry James. I wanted my protagonist to be seen from the outside through the eyes of others, or what Henry James called "the successive reflectors of consciousness." The juxtaposition between the elevated prose and the subject matter—the sort of banality and crassness of Newport Beach as chronicled in these swooping Henry Jamesian-like sentences—is what, to me, makes the novel entertaining and funny. But underlying that is a melancholy and a serious examination of the limitations and rigidity of society and family. I wrote the novel over a three-year period, in between the edits and publication of Drift; and I think back on it as a sort of writing frenzy.
TQO: Who are those writers you always come back to for inspiration?
VP: Edith Wharton, Henry James and William Trevor—I have his anthology [William Trevor: The Collected Stories] right here with me—and I carried it around with me everywhere when I was writing Drift. Sherwood Anderson—I love Winesburg, Ohio—V. S. Naipaul, Andre Dubus—his short stories knocked me out. I want to go back to them [Dubus’s stories]. I haven’t yet, but I feel like in terms of being able to get inside a character and give them dignity and an inner life, you can’t beat Dubus; for that sort of interiority and exposition, he’s the one. I also love Richard Yates; I love his short stories. Lorrie Moore. Alice Munro—I should read more of her work, since I don’t read enough of it. Chekhov, of course, I was just thinking, I need to go back and read more of Chekhov. I just love short stories, and I want to write more of them.