WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rosalie. I really loved you book Who is Vera Kelly, and not just because I read it following a week-long binge of all of The Americans. I am curious about where the original idea came from, what sparked your interest in this subject and time period, and why you think it’s so timely today?
Rosalie Knecht: Thank you, and I hope your psyche hasn't been completely destroyed by that show. I started with the idea that I wanted to write a spy novel, and the Cold War heyday of the genre appealed to me. I think there's a feeling of freedom that you get from creating a little distance from the present moment, which allows things to unfold in a less self-conscious way. On some level I was inspired by the fact that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met because he died in an accident in 1961, worked for the CIA.
MT: How long did it take you to write your first draft of Vera Kelly? What continued to draw you back to it, despite all of the writer’s efforts—all of our efforts—to avoid the idea of fear or failing? I know myself I have avoided revisions plenty of times just because I was afraid the revised work would, in turn, be rejected.
RK: I honestly can't recall how long the first draft took, because drafts always have blurry boundaries for me, but I can tell you that I started the novel in February 2012 (because I always put the month and year at the top of the document when I open it, a practice I recommend, because you will forget otherwise) and sold it to Tin House in June 2017. That makes it lightning fast compared to my previous book, Relief Map, which I started in November 2007 and sold, also to Tin House, in December 2014.
I think everybody's afraid both of rejection and of putting immense effort into something that other people may never see. The only way to maintain the motivation to continue, I think, is to feel that the process is the reward. The actual experience of writing the book is the only guaranteed return. You have to be having a good time.
Also, there's another way to look at the rejection part. Our lives are riddled with rejection, but as I said to a friend once when I was having a hard time in some basic ways-- romantically, financially, professionally-- the thing about writing is that it can't break up with you or evict you or fire you. You can't get kicked out of it. It's yours for as long as you want it.
MT: What are the books, the movies, the stories, the television shows, anything really that inspired you to write Vera Kelly? Were there any books or authors in particular your returned to for renewed interest, either because of frustration with writing and being in between drafts, or to motivate you to keep writing?
MT: Did you ever have any problems finding a publishing house for Who is Very Kelly, and if you’re being entirely honest, what aspect of the book made it hardest to be published and what about the book finally convinced publishers, in your mind, to produce it for the world to read?
RK: I published WIVK with the same publisher as my first book, so it wasn't hard to find a publisher per se, but it was hard to find that publisher for my first book! And I can imagine that if I didn't already have a relationship with a publisher, and if Tin House wasn't such a profoundly cool place, that the book would have been a pretty hard sell. It is, after all, a novel about a spy that's paced like a literary novel and focused on relationships, all of which I thought would baffle and irritate people. But I couldn't help it, that was the book I wrote.
MT: How much research did you do before writing the book? I’ve heard different arguments on research from very different writers—those who want to research as much as possible before writing, and those who believe you research essential things as you go, and fact check later. What was the researching experience for Vera Kelly like for you?
RK: I got a subscription to the New York Times so I could have access to their digital archive, and I read about the coup in books and online, and I read some spy novels and went back to some Argentine novels I had read in college to be reminded of how things feel and smell, little things. Compared to Peron years and the Dirty War of the 1970s, there is little research readily available about what happened in 1966, so I had to dig and mostly focused on a few key details. A reader from Argentina recently wrote to me with some anachronisms and mistakes in the book, which was amazing to see, although tragically too late to fix them! I completely whiffed the exchange rate, for example, which wasn't how I depicted it until 1970.
I've heard from other writers that research can be a black hole you fall into, since everything is so fascinating if you dig a little. You can spend forever on it and end up avoiding writing your actual book. But on the other hand, you don't want to represent a time and place that isn't yours and do so in a sloppy way. I've been relieved that, details aside, the Argentine readers I've heard from have said that the Buenos Aires in the book felt familiar to them. Even if I did feature a color television in it, and Argentina had no color TV broadcast until the 1978 World Cup. Well, now I know.
MT: In your mind, what is the answer to the novel’s question, Who is Vera Kelly?—in whatever way you choose to respond to it?
RK: She's a person who wants to be left alone.
MT: Do you view Who is Vera Kellyas a largely crime novel? If not, and I know this is so limiting for such a strong and incredibly complicated book, how would you define it in terms of genre? Who were the people you wanted to target when writing the novel? I know a lot of authors, including myself, want to target “everyone” upon initially beginning and finishing a novel, but eventually who did you or your editor or agent or publisher or who have you want you to limit the audience down to?
RK: I didn't really have an audience in mind, and although I was calling it a spy novel, I knew it wasn't paced or constructed like a traditional spy novel. I think you just have to do what you're doing and hope an audience finds it. I just wanted to write something that I would like to read.
MT: Did you know how you wanted to end the novel from the very beginning? Would you mind going into some detail about your writing process and how novels and stories and ideas take form for you on the page?
RK: Oh my God, not at all. I never do. I usually start with one element-- in this case, the idea of spies; in my last book, it was the setting. I can usually only think about fifty pages ahead. At some point the ending falls into place, but I generally don't know how I'm going to get there until I actually write the pages.
MT: Rosalie, I do have to ask for the rest of our staff as well as those readers who have loved Who is Vera Kelly—what’s next for you? Do you have another novel as a work-in-progress? We’re all very hopeful get more from you soon.
RK: I'm hoping for a Vera Kelly trilogy. I have somethings I want her to sort out. I'm working on the second one now.
MT: Rosalie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your writing and about Who is Very Kelly. This was a phenomenal book that I will continue to recommend to any and every one. Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, comments, or questions you’d like to leave us with? Feel free to say anything—and, again, thank you Rosalie!
RK: Just-- thanks for reading!