Karolina Waclawiak

Interviewed by Zola Acker

How To Get Into the Twin Palms is an entertaining read. It focuses on the story of a young Polish woman living in LA who decides to try to pass as Russian. It also deals with an extreme sense of isolation, and the intimate and often conflicted moments of desire. There’s a moment in the book where the main character, Anya, puts glittery body lotion between her legs in anticipation of a man’s attention. I liked this moment, not only for the wonderful detail of it, but also because it is too rare a moment in fiction. There are countless places where male authors take a paragraph, or an entire page, to describe how their characters are highly aware of their bodies. I always enjoyed with curiosity these little asides, recognitions of the body not for eroticism but for how it influences a personality, yet I rarely find them in female characters. What Karolina has done with such precision in this book is show a character who is still in her body, however conflicted she may be emotionally.

I met Karolina at Franklin Park, a bar in Crown Heights, after seeing her in their monthly reading series. It was packed, standing room only, and Karolina’s reading got a good number of laughs. Afterwards, I sat down with her to chat about the book.

I know that you’re a screenwriter as well as a fiction writer. In the early stages, how do you figure out if something is going to be a novel or a screenplay?

Originally when I was writing scripts they weren’t selling, so I started researching what did sell, and it was comic book movies and book adaptations. I’d never written a book before, and I was like, “I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to write a book and then I’m going to adapt it.”

When I started writing this book I really didn’t see it as a script at all, like I can’t see it working, so it was sort of like my plan failed, but people started approaching me and saying, “You write visually, I can really see this.” I guess I was so close that I couldn’t, which is a really interesting thing, because I’m always thinking, anything I read, “This would be a great movie, or this would be a great short.” So, to look at my own work and not see that was really jarring. Right now I’m trying to do an adaptation project of it, we’ll see what happens. The second book that I’m writing right now I’ve had in mind how it will be either a TV show or a film as I was writing, so I was very conscious of that. The third project that I’m developing right now is also very much geared towards, “How do I made this a TV show as well as a novel?”

ZA:  This book has been described often with the words “isolation” and “displacement” was that the effect you were going for when writing it?

KW: When I was thinking about this book I’d just moved to New York, and I was feeling quite lonely. I was thinking about when I lived in Los Angeles, and how that was such a different kind of loneliness, because as much as you’re in a city, you’re so cut off from other people. You’re in your car, in your own bubble of personal space. You might be stuck on a freeway next to thousands of other people but you have no interaction whatever, whereas in New York you’re in everyone’s face all the time. I started thinking about being so disconnected in a city like Los Angeles, where people don’t even walk the streets, so how do you seek people out if everyone’s sort of hidden away? So I was trying to tackle that kind of problem, but I was thinking also about how an immigrant would be thinking, in this very  disconnected, disassociated way. Someone wrote like, “She can’t even commit to telling the story in a larger space than a very short chapter.”

ZA: Yeah, I felt that when I was reading it, the episodic quality of it.

Like, “I can’t take this anymore, I can’t be in this space anymore,  I have to move on to the next thing.” It’s funny because people have found it to be really funny, and I was surprised.

ZA: Yeah, you were getting some good laughs tonight.

KW: I didn’t find it funny at all when I was writing, and my publisher was like, “This is hilarious.” I was like, “This is my book you’re talking about?” And you know, I see it now but it’s laughing at uncomfortable stuff, like you don’t know how to react except to laugh. Like when you’re forced to think about older women whose husbands are long dead who still want to have sex, you can’t help but laugh because the opposite of it is, like, this is terrifying. Like, I’m going to be 95 and still horny, that is a horrible thought.

ZA: Yeah, it is. I found it really interesting how Anya, the narrator, seemed to be very aware of her sexuality and its effect in some parts of the book, and in other parts she didn’t seem to be very aware of it at all, in contrast to Mary who seemed like she was so aware.

KW: Uninhibited, yeah.

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ZA: There wasn’t a lot of intimacy with Anya, and she didn’t seem to feel like she had any control over attracting her guy.

KW: It’s like, “I have you when you’re here, but I’m not here.” That’s such a hurdle for her to overcome, and she’s looking around at everyone who’s had this great love or whatever, especially Mary.

She’s thinking, “I’m completely incapable of that, like, I don’t even know how to go about love.” And I think it’s a new thing. I thought a lot about shame and how women today show their sexuality, and it’s extremely overt, but there’s still this sense of like, I’m putting myself out there but I’m really uncomfortable with what I’m putting out there, but this is what I’m supposed to be doing so I’ll do it. Just trying to find that balance of how to be a woman today, to me it’s really interesting.

I’m really interested in what it means to be a woman today, and shame versus being hyper-sexual and seeing, like, this is how you get a man, this is what you’re supposed to do, but nothing about this feels right, but here I have a man and I don’t know what to do with him, and I don’t feel anything I’m supposed to feel for him, but I know I should feel pleased that I’ve got him.

ZA: I felt like this was a “bad girl” kind of narrator, in that she’s not taking care of anyone else, she’s really in her own head, and it’s a great read.

KW: It’s interesting because people do not like her. I’ve been saying this so often, I’m really surprised, I feel like it’s a female writer problem and a female narrator problem where you have to like the person, but who gives Cormac McCarthy shit for his characters he’s created?

I mean, no one is saying, “These narrators in his books are really bad guys, and I don’t want to read this, and I don’t know where to stand morally here.” People take that as it is. I couldn’t get this picked up, I had notes saying, “She has to be more likable or you’ll never sell this.” I can’t imagine a guy ever getting that – tell me who and I will talk to them – but I think if it wasn’t a female narrator and frankly a female writer doing this – there’re parameters on you, on what kind of stories you can tell and what kind of characters you can represent. Someone who has issues , trying to figure it out, non-apologetic, not over analyzing themselves or saying like, “I shouldn’t be behaving in this way but I am and looking for some kind of salvation.” is really uncomfortable to read about.

ZA: I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival this summer and there was actually a whole panel called “Enduring Unlikable Women” and there were two female authors and one male graphic-novelist who primarily drew sexy, full-figured female characters, and everyone on the panel was not quite sure why they were put on the panel, but they all had female characters who were in some form called unlikable!

ZA: Yeah, it was really interesting because no one knew why the panel was titled the way it was.

KW: It’s a fascinating problem to me, because if you look at it, there’s been a slew of books that have been coming out by indie presses where the female narrator is unlikable, and I’m not sure there’s been one in the big houses, I’m not sure anyone wants to take the risk. I feel like if it’s a compelling character it shouldn’t matter if you like her, if you want to have slumber party with her or if you just want to know what she’s going to do next.

ZA: So, that brings me to ask, what is your next project?

KW: I’m revising a book that I hope to take out in the spring, and it’s, I’m trying to make her a little more likeable but it’s an aging trophy wife in a small CT town who falls for her would-be attacker because he’s the only person who pays attention to her. It’s about a female at that age where you become invisible as a female. I guess, the lengths you’ll go to, to be visible

ZA: Looking forward to that. Thank you!

Karolina Waclawiak lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and while there, received her BFA in Screenwriting from USC. She moved to New York in 2008 to pursue an MFA in Fiction at Columbia and completed her first novel, How to Get Into The Twin Palms. She is currently the deputy editor of the Believer and is working on a second novel and several screenplays, including one in development. Her last name is pronounced Vahts-Slav-iak.

Zola Acker studied creative writing and gender studies at NYU. Her non-fiction has been published online at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. She has read work as part of the Red Lemonade reading series, and was awarded a scholarship to attend the SLICE Literary Conference in 2012. Her current job as an executive assistant is truly stranger than fiction. She lives and writes in Brooklyn.