Author reflects on the taste of reindeer blood and other things that thrive in the cold
Vendela Vida drank reindeer blood in the living room of a Sami healer on her third trip to Lapland. “It tastes like electricity,” she writes in her fast, dark second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which she’ll read from at Harvard Book Store this Tuesday night, February 6. “That’s what it reminded me of,” she says from California, comparing it to the way she remembers frigid poles tasting in winter, when she’d test to see if her tongue really would get stuck.
“Writing, to me, is a little bit like method acting,” she says, explaining why she made the trip to northern Scandinavia where much of the book is set. The journey proved crucial for the novel: Vida — co-editor of The Believer magazine and a teacher with San Francisco’s youth writing organization, 826 Valencia — had gotten plot-stuck in the middle of Northern Lights. To find her way through to the rest of the book, she traced the path her protagonist Clarissa follows. After her father dies of a heart attack, Clarissa discovers that he was not, in fact, her real father, and, subsequently, that she is not who she thought she was. She leaves her New York life, including the fiancé who’d kept the truth about her father from her, flies to Helsinki, and on to the far, dark north to trace her Sami roots. The writing is marked by both urgency and a leaden sense of loss. “I wanted to be really true to what Clarissa was going through as she traveled,” Vida says.
Northern Lights is the second in a planned triad of novels exploring violence and forgiveness. “It’s liberating,” she says of having a thematic map, “but also a constraint.” Her first novel, And Now You Can Go (2003), was a sharp, fast-moving book exploring how a New York City grad student lives with having had a gun put to her head. And if the first novel, about the aftershocks of threatened violence, was fueled by adrenaline, the second runs on something deeper, colder, more isolating, and longer-lived — the result not of threat but of betrayal, of violence against identity. “In some ways,” Vida says, “it’s a suspense story, since [Clarissa] is figuring things out as she travels. I wanted there to be a lot more narrative tension in this novel than the last.”
Vendela Vida reads from Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name on February 6 at 6:30 pm at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, in Cambridge. Call 800.542.READ.
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