Friday, July 08, 2011

Q+A with Karolina Waclawiak

We just signed a new novel, a debut by an exceptionally talented writer named Karolina Waclawiak. The book, How To Get Into the Twin Palms (summer 2012), puts a hilarious twist on the typical immigrant story, where Anya, a young Polish-American woman living in a Russian neighborhood in Los Angeles, decides to try to pass as a Russian rather than assimilate into American culture.

"It was a strange choice to decide to pass as a Russian. But it was a question of proximity and level of allure."

The mecca of Russian-ness in her neighborhood is a nightclub called the Twin Palms. It is Anya's goal to gain entrance to this club.

Cutting right to the chase: Is the Twin Palms a real Russian nightclub? And the natural follow-up: Have you ever made it inside?

KW: The Twin Palms was a nightclub on Fairfax that seemed to exist there forever. I’m pretty certain it was a mobster establishment as they were hardly ever open for business. I was completely mesmerized by it and when there were actually parties there the surrounding streets would be filled with idling taxis and Russian men smoking cigarettes. I was dying to know what went on in there. I didn’t get a chance until a few years after I left Los Angeles and was already writing the book. By then it was under new ownership and called Maxim’s. The doorman said he’d let us into the private party going on (maybe a Sweet 16???) for $100. It was tempting but I didn’t do it. So, I guess, I’ve actually never been inside. Just in the stairwell. He let me peek through a small hole in the frosted glass of the ballroom door entrance. There were a lot of flashing lights. Not at all as I had imagined it

Los Angeles is a real and vibrant character in the book with the city literally smoldering to the ground surrounding Anya – how did you set out to personify the city, and also it’s Russian and Polish communities?

KW: Los Angeles, to me, is a mythical place. I’d been wanting to run away there from the 5th grade when I discovered hair metal and the Sunset Strip. It just seemed so exciting. Much more exciting than my cul-de-sac and suburban world. I ended up getting on a plane when I was 18 and moving there. At first, I hated it. It seemed impenetrable to me because I didn’t have a car. I eventually found native Angelenos who showed me small pockets of the city that most people didn’t go to. Mainly around East LA. I always felt like we were trapped from all sides and was strangely comforted by this fact. Mountains, ocean, desert and Orange County. Trapped. It was interesting that the people I sought out were essentially all natives when there are so many people who run there and are just wandering around and looking for their place in Los Angeles. I felt like I needed to get some kind of inside track to really know and understand the city.

The seminal book about Los Angeles, for me, is The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. The anger at the city, the feelings of alienation, the desert trying to purge itself of the city, were all things that I frequently thought about when there and I wanted to write about it. But, Los Angeles, being Los Angeles, the city has been written about so much and so well, (for the most part) that it seemed really daunting to find a new way to write about LA. Enter the Russians. Los Angeles has a giant Russian community and living there, as a Polish person, was interesting. I moved around a bunch and finally ended up living in the Melrose/Fairfax area which is sort of the epicenter of the now fading Russian community. I initially wanted to capture a time and landscape that I was worried would disappear with all the old shops on Fairfax closing and being replaced with skate shops and hip restaurants. I wanted people to see it how I saw it.

I really felt like an observer, rather than a participant living there. Everyone was just watching each other from their windows with those white crocheted Eastern European curtains. I guess I transferred my fetishizing this “other” into my book. I didn’t start writing the book until I moved to New York and was really missing my old neighborhood . I requested weekly updates on the goings on of Clinton Street from my old roommate.

Anya used to work placing workers at a temp agency but survives off unemployment checks and the $50 a week she gets paid for calling numbers at Bingo at the Polish church, which feels like a very true scene – have you ever hosted Bingo at the church?

KW: I haven’t hosted bingo at a church but I am big, big fan of bingo. I called numbers at a bar bingo in Los Angeles once and think I fared pretty well. It was when I was a regular at a Sunday night bingo in Eagle Rock. When I moved to Brooklyn I started going to a bingo game on Friday nights at St. Cecilia’s church with my 82-year-old neighbor. She plays about twenty bingo boards and doesn’t use a blotter. She just goes on memory. I didn’t believe she really could do it but she was pointing out numbers I was missing and then I was a believer. Friday night at St. Cecilia’s is a very cut throat bingo match. Those ladies don’t miss a thing. And there’s mass hysteria if someone calls bingo incorrectly. I definitely don’t have the guts to call bingo at that game. Although I am proud to say that I was asked call numbers there.

I think bingo is a really therapeutic game. You shut your brain off and just focus on the numbers for three hours. A lot of those ladies, it’s the only time they get out of the house besides doctor visits, so it’s a huge deal. They respect it and you have to too.

Your background is split between screenwriting and creative writing – what are some of the differences between crafting the two?

KW: I think screenwriting is much easier, for me. The parameters are so strict because you really only have 120 pages to work with and you have to hit certain beats on certain pages. To me it’s a puzzle and fun problem solving. Find a story, create the moving parts and making those pieces fit on the board. Writing a book, I approached it similarly but felt it was much more daunting. Who are my characters, what’s the location, what’s the “problem” the main character is facing and what’s she going to do to fix it. Well, I eventually tried to get away from the structure that I’ve come to depend on with screenplays and ended up with an essentially plotless novel. It’s as vast and wandering as I think Los Angeles is. I was tired of hearing about character and story arc and character redemption and just let the narrator take me where she wanted to. Hopefully, to some interesting places people haven’t seen before.

Your family came to the U.S. in the ‘80s. Much of the book is about what you’ve referred to as the 1.5 generation – children of immigrants who are torn between assimilation and retaining their parents’ culture. In Twin Palms, Anya resorts to a third option, the Russian option; if you could fold into any culture yourself, which would it be?

KW: I honestly prefer to be an outside observer. A culture tourist.

To request a galley, write to Eric Obenauf at eric[at]
Pre-order a copy of the book.

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