Vendela Vida is beaming in by Zoom from a hot tub in San Francisco. Well, it's her office, which was formerly a hot tub.
"During Covid, I was writing at home but my kids and husband (writer Dave Eggers) were also at home and I was just making a lot of snacks and lunches and it was not conducive to work. So I got an office. It's a place you could rent hot tubs by the hour, but when Covid happened, they took the hot tubs out and made them into studios. The funny thing is I hate hot tubs. But I like my studio."
When a new Vendela Vida novel comes out, you ditch everything on your "to be read pile" and bump it straight to the top. Her last novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty (2015), was a beguiling absurdist comedy wrapped in a mystery. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith novels were funny.
Her new novel, We Run the Tides, is a coming-of-age story set in affluent San Francisco suburb Sea Cliff in the mid-1980s. It's a love letter to San Francisco during a time of seachange for both the book's adolescent characters and the city itself, as it moves out of its idealistic hippie dream and into Silicon Valley's tech boom.
We Run the Tides started as a nonfiction book about lying, Vida beginning work on it the day after Trump was elected in 2016. "I became very obsessed with what happens to a culture when someone at the top is lying and is a sexist bully. And how it becomes poisonous and infiltrates the culture and pollutes it," she says.
"Then one day I thought, 'what if I made this into fiction?' And who better to embody lies than teenage girls, who are just naturally shapeshifters and always trying on new identities."
It's one of the most authentic and vividly realised studies of female friendship I've ever read.
Following the antics of Eulabee and her best friend, Maria Fabiola, it examines the exhausting and, at times, comical labour of keeping track of outlandish lies, and the consequences of not only telling lies but what happens when an adolescent girl refuses to go along with one and is ostracised from her peer group as a result. It's funny, it's tender, it has a dark edge and it's a strong period piece.
Vida, who only recently got the internet at home during Covid ("too distracting"), says she has no plans to revisit her nonfiction idea because she lost her original files.
"After I finished We Run the Tides my computer crashed so I had to get a new one. I lost everything. Everything. I don't back things up and I don't use the Cloud. So I lost that nonfiction book. In some ways, it was liberating."
Vida's novels are vividly evoked in terms of character and place. The Guardian once compared Vida to Katherine Mansfield, in that they share a gift for "needling into the corners of experiences so familiar that a less careful writer might choose to ignore them".
"I'm just very interested in the small, small details about someone's life," she says. "Like the way someone walks and how that informs their character. I like to work out the small details first and then the story comes."
Vida shows me a Metropolitan Museum of Art diary from her teenage years that her mother recently found while clearing her attic. "It's funny, I made a point to not look at my diaries when I was writing this book because I didn't want to be influenced. I didn't want it to be about me," she says, before reading out a diary entry.
"I wrote here in green, 'I hope to have a lot of lovers in high school. It's great to be in love as long as it doesn't affect your grades.' It made me laugh so much reading that in my diary because it made me realise how in the novel, I'd got the age so right! This person is such a nerd and has all these fantastical ideas. Also, the fact that I used the word 'lovers'. Like, I was 12 or 13."
The novel beautifully explores the quicksilver, often ephemeral nature of adolescent female friendships, and how at that age, the particulars of what you are going to wear to a party mean more than going to the party itself.
"You could write a whole novel about a girl getting ready for a party," says Vida. "Actually, that'd be an interesting challenge as a writer. Just writing about a teenager getting ready to go on a date. It would be like a Virginia Woolf novel."