Laureen Vonnegut lives in a cookie factory. She also writes like a motherfucker.*
I had been orbiting the planet Laureen ever since I was introduced to her at a bar in Merida. Seduced by her winsome good looks, her New York style and, let’s face it, her 2 degrees of separation from literary royalty, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her. My first chica cantina crawl in Merida broke the ice, and I secretly hoped she would remember my name next time we met. That said, we had a bona fide writer, filmmaker and playwright in our midst and I wasn’t about to wait around for an invitation. I kicked my inner wallflower to the curb and approached Laureen at a recent film event. She graciously remembered me, and even more graciously accepted my request for an interview. Not only was I going to have a serious mano a mano conversation with an accomplished writer, I was going to see the infamous cookie factory.
Merida via Romania
Laureen studied Business Management and Computer Sciences, and used to have a 9 to 5 job in a law office in Oakland. The first thing she ever wrote was a book her mother still has because Laureen wrote it when she was five years old. At 15 pages and carefully inscribed ‘Written and Published by Laureen Vonnegut’, I believe it could be considered Laureen’s first short story.
Writing may have been in her DNA but it was not in Laureen’s life, at least not in 1992. After hitting the glass ceiling at the law firm, she decided to take a sabbatical, rent a house in Puerto Angel, Oaxaca and start writing for 6 months. The country seduced her and she finished over a dozen short stores.
Ruby thought her husband looked ridiculously like an oversized praying mantis. He stood in front of the mirror shaving, his gaunt frame arched over the sink toward his reflection. His bloodless shoulder blades extended like wings, a green towel wrapped around his waist and his skinny, pallid legs disappeared into narrow brown socks. (Excerpt from ‘Blueprints’)
A: You’ve said that short stories are your first love…why is that?
L: Short stories for me, contain a subconscious brilliance, a flash of connected nuances that somehow appear in the words. They are less contrived than a novel, so the writing is often more fluid and every word counts. If short stories weren’t less financially viable than novels, I would spend all my time writing short stories.
A: How did you end up in Romania?
L: I went to visit my brother in Bulgaria. From there I lived in London, Holland, Portugal, Hungary and finally Romania. I stayed in Romania for seven years where I wrote my first novel, ‘Oasis’.
She tumbled onto the ground and shut her eyes tight against the unforgiving Sahara sun.
Gypsy bitch, he yelled.
He slammed the car door, the motor roared and her face was stung with sand propelled from the tires. She lay there on the ground until she could no longer hear the engine in the distance. No crying, she told herself, no crying. She opened her eyes and cried anyway.
Miles and miles of flat, pale sand interspersed by a few tenacious bushes. Tire tracks in the sand, but no road, no sign of civilization. Far in the distance loomed the Atlas Mountains. Behind her was a tall, rusted fence laced with weeds and shredded plastic. The fence enclosed a pile of stones and a mud structure that had partially collapsed and now tilted in odd directions. Mounds of sand obscured the carcass of an old truck.
Fucking Arab, she whispered. (Excerpt from ‘Oasis’)
On how to be a writer
Laureen shows me her office, which has double doors that open out to the pool and garden. Her dogs Fred and Chupacabra laze around in the hot sun, ignoring the shade only inches away. True Mexican dogs. The two cats are nowhere to be found. True Mexican cats. We talk about process and how hard it is to write amidst obligation and distraction. “Writing is a lonely business,” Laureen said when I asked her how she works. “When I write, I need to remove myself from the day to day demands of real life. With my novel Twin Lies, I went to Zanzibar because I wanted someplace exotic and lonely. I picked a hotel where I could get fed day and night,” she laughs, “and wrote my brains out for two months. I guess you could say that’s my process.”
I am a liar.
And I don’t mean little white lies. These are lies of vast proportions, lies about the vital parts of life…the worst lies a person can tell, the highest betrayal. And Toby suspects nothing. The magnitude of what I have done strikes me and a cloud descends over my vision.
I throw open the door and take deep breaths of chilly air. I lean against the garden wall, and in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge floats above a layer of opaque white clouds. Next to me, my prize irises rise, straight and strong. I rub a blue-black petal between my fingertips and it gleams disturbingly in the early sunlight. The softness feels so pure, so real that tears drop down my cheeks. My neighbors can see me, but I can’t stop crying. I snap off the flower and run into the kitchen. Juice oozes out of the torn end into the palm of my hand.
I take the shears and press the tip of the blade into my skin, slowly drawing the blade along my arm. A red line appears, the skin splits and a thin line of blood runs down to the underside of my arm. A drop falls to the countertop, red against the white tile. It hurts, I want it to hurt. When there is pain, I know which twin has been left alive and which one lays buried beneath the grey marble stone. (Excerpt from ‘Twin Lies’)
We wander back to the main house, still cool under the harsh Merida sun, and settle in to the oversize living room. I can’t help feel I’m in some fabulous boutique hotel. Her partner has been travelling to Africa every five weeks for business, and the room is being prepped for a collection of photographs, artifacts and masks.
I ask about her latest project, her first play. Laureen wrote The Porcini Test while skiing in Tahoe for a month (I love a woman who can multitask), and it’s clear after talking to her that ‘the play’ has usurped ‘the short story’ as her one true love.
A: Without giving away any spoiler alerts, what is ‘The Porcini Test’ about?
L: Well… it’s not kid friendly, what with the swearing, drugs, and bad behavior. In a nutshell, it’s about three women over 40 whose lives unravel in one night. It’s a messy play. I consider it to be a female response to Hurly Burly (laughs). And you’re right, I love the format because I love writing dialog—I’m already working on my next play.
A: You’re wearing all kinds of hats with this production; writer, producer, director, casting agent. Is there a role that is particularly gratifying?
L: I’d have to say casting the actors, all of whom are incredible, was a very rewarding experience. I had goosebumps when I heard my words spoken for the first time, by actors who really got what I had written. I can hardly wait for our full rehearsals to start later this month.
A: Opening night jitters? Have you watched Birdman?
L: Funny you should say that. I’ve watched that movie more than once and I think I need to STOP watching it. I’m going to tell actors, “Please, nobody go Ed Norton on me!”
At my behest, Laureen talked a little of her relationship with Kurt, technically a cousin but who was more like an Uncle to her. “Visiting Kurt was always one of the best parts of going to NYC. He was very supportive of me and my writing, and when Oasis was published, all he wanted to do was talk to me about my book.” Apparently, the question she gets asked most is whether Kurt Vonnegut influenced her own writing. “I can’t say he influenced my writing directly,” Laureen responded thoughtfully. “But growing up with his books around the house, and knowing that someone in my family was actually making a living as a writer, was very inspiring to me.”
I looked around at the oasis that Laureen has created for herself in Merida, and hoped the magic of the Yucatan would quell her wanderlust for a while. On a personal level, I had one more question to ask her.
A: What would you say to someone who aspires to write, and to write well?
L: When you write, never think about your mother, father or brother reading it. If you do, you’ll be dead in your tracks. Just write what’s in your head and screw any criticisms from the peanut gallery, they are your words, coming from your head so just keep ‘em coming…don’t stop.
*Or, as Cheryl Strayed so eloquently put it…write like a motherfucker.
The Porcini Test opens on July 17th at the Promenade Playhouse, 1404 3rd Street, Santa Monica, California