1:17 pm Jul. 23, 2012
“To me the most interesting stories are about the human condition, and about how we inadvertently torture each other,” Karolina Waclawiak said recently, on a day so hot that it could have been considered a form of torture. We were at Milk and Roses in Greenpoint, talking about literature and sex and apocalyptic sunsets over sweaty glasses of Perrier.
Waclawiak knows a thing or two about the human condition. She was recently promoted to deputy editor of The Believer, where she'd started out as an intern in 2008, and in her work at the magazine she's seen—and published—her share of fascinating human tales.
“I feel really invigorated by all of these nonfiction stories people are finding,” she said. “The things writers come to us with and have uncovered are so fascinating, and I just can’t get enough. I love it so much. I’m constantly surprised by what people bring to us.”
She’s now telling her own stories, in a new book just out from Two Dollar Radio, titled How To Get Into The Twin Palms. Her deceptively slim debut novel focuses on Anya, a young Polish-born woman living—and attempting to fit in—in a mostly Russian neighborhood in Los Angeles. In many ways Anya wants what most women want: both passion and acceptance. She craves the exclusivity of a nearby nightclub: the Twin Palms. When one of the local bad-boy gangster types starts hanging around outside of her apartment, she sees a way to gain entrance to the club.
The author herself is also a Polish immigrant. She was born in 1979, and left Poland with her family in 1981. Her parents were students and activists, and after her father was questioned by the police one too many times, they realized it was time to leave their home country. Her family spent their first five years in the United States in Texas.
“Texas was such a shock to the system," Waclawiak said. "And it was so hot, and so strange. It was a very uncomfortable transition." When her father visited Connecticut, he decided it was “almost like Poland.” They ended up moving there.
It’s this immigrant experience that gave Waclawiak the inspiration for her novel. She earned her M.F.A. at Columbia University, where she took a class with Gary Shteyngart that investigated immigrant literature. She wanted to write an immigrant novel but didn’t want to write a straightforward coming-to-America narrative. Hence, the idea for Anya; an immigrant trying to pass as another kind of immigrant.
Even though the novel is, according to Waclawiak, 90 percent fiction, she did live in a Russian neighborhood in Los Angeles for some years—and she herself was very curious about the Twin Palms, an actual nightclub near her old apartment.
“It was a total gangster nightclub," she said. "It was only for private parties. People were always coming in and out.” Was it the glamour that intrigued her?
"[It was] exclusivity from a cultural perspective,” she said.
It’s this yearning that comes across in How To Get Into The Twin Palms. Anya is a woman who wants more out of her life. Most of all, she wants to not be lonely. That’s part of the reason she spends time calling out bingo numbers at a local church. The older ladies who attend provide comedic relief—they’re constantly talking about how horny they are; but they’re also sad and seeking comfort and distraction from their own problems. Anya finds herself depressed after hanging out with them.
“The ladies had made me think about sex and how I would need it forever. How I’d never be able to escape it,” Anya confesses.
One of the bingo players, Mary, is fixated on her deceased husband. At one point, Anya realizes that she would trade her own loneliness for Mary’s.
“I felt her loneliness," Anya narrates, "and wanted it. I wanted hers. I didn’t want mine anymore." It's a familiar feeling, wanting to trade out of one's problems, even for someone else's. Yet in observing these old women, their sadness, regret, desire, Anya realizes that these problems never dissipate.
Waclawiak set the book in Los Angeles not only because she'd lived there and knew it well, but because she found it to be such an isolating city. There’s a loneliness in L.A., she said, that you don’t find in New York City. There’s also an energy in New York City that you don’t find on the West Coast.
“Here I feel like everything is going to move, whether or not I am moving with it, and I will get trampled if I don’t keep going. In Los Angeles nobody’s necessarily doing anything, or you don’t see it, because you’re not surrounded by it. You’re almost in a catatonic state.”
She moved to New York City, she said, to be inspired. She hadn’t written a word in two years and felt stuck. “I was feeling so depressed.”
New York, as it turns out, is a place that suits her. She lives in Williamsburg, not far from the city's most Polish sections: Greenpoint and Ridgewood.
“I think it’s strangely comforting to be around Polish stores and to hear so much Polish,” she said. Before she moved to New York, she’d get a thrill whenever she visited and rode the L train, hearing her native language spoken.
"[I felt] like it was a secret that I knew what everyone was saying.”
While the author definitely has a generally sunny, optimistic outlook, she writes from a darker place, which she traced to an episode from her youth. She recalled trying to write something upbeat and positive, something about flowers and bumblebees. Her teacher read it and asked her to never write anything like that again.
“I am really drawn to those dark, dark stories,” she said. “It’s hard for me to come from a place of happiness or joy when I’m so attuned to everything that’s fucked up in the world, and I think maybe if I had a different upbringing I would have a much different worldview—but the fact is that we struggled so much.”
In the novel, fires are burning in the hills around L.A., ashes choking the city's swimming pools. Yet, as if to illustrate the contrast between the author and her work, when Waclawiak recalled the wildfires she'd experienced living out West, it was the image of the beautiful colors they created in the sky that she remembered best, the beautiful forged through the tragic.
“Toxic red-sky sunsets.”
Karolina Waclawiak's 'How To Get Into The Twin Palms' is out now. She will appear in conversation with Ross Simonini on Wednesday, July 25, at WORD Bookstore in Williamsburg, and with James Yeh and Tobias Carroll, on Thursday, August 2 at the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint.