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How A Stolen Backpack In Casablanca Inspired A Novel About Shifting Identity


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, writer Vendela Vida, is the co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer. Her husband, Dave Eggers, founded the literary journal McSweeney's. Vida's new novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," was one of the four books our critic, Maureen Corrigan, recommended for early summer reading. Maureen described it as both a travel cautionary tale and a fantasy about the infinite possibility that travel offers. The main character is a woman who has left her husband and wants to get far away. When the novel opens, she's on a plane to Morocco. As soon as she checks into her hotel in Casablanca, her backpack is stolen and she's left without credit cards, passport or any form of ID. The police investigating the theft give her a backpack, but it's not hers. She keeps it anyways, uses the passport inside and assumes the identity of the person it belongs to, which leads to deeper shifts in her sense of self.

Vendela Vida, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think, for so many of us, you know, when we travel to another place - particularly if it's a foreign country - there's this feeling of dislocation when you get off, in the plane, in a place you've never been to and you're so tired and disoriented from the long plane ride and the time zone change and the cultural differences, and you sometimes just ask yourself, what am I doing here?

So, I want to start with a reading that I think kind of captures that sensation (laughter).


GROSS: So would you start with the reading that we've talked about, from the first chapter of your book?

VIDA: Sounds good. (Reading) You can't wait to check into your hotel room. You pass by an upscale Regency Hotel, an expensive-looking Sofitel, and when the driver says your hotel is close, you're happy because you think your hotel might be on par with these other tall, glassy buildings. You've been told your hotel, the Golden Tulip, is comfortable, and you've been looking forward to this comfort on the plane and in the van. But as you approach, you're disappointed. The Golden Tulip has a glossy, black entrance with two long banners - one advertising its restaurant and another advertising its pool. It looks like a typical tourist hotel, the kind that large groups might stay at for two nights before going to the next city on their itinerary. As a driver pulls up, you see and hear American and British tourists emerging from the front door. You're deflated, but what did you expect, that it would be full of locals? It's a hotel.

The driver opens the side door of the van and retrieves your suitcase from the rear. You tip him in U.S. dollars because it's all you have. You took out $300 at Miami International because you've learned from your travels to countries like Cuba and Argentina how valuable it can be to have U.S. cash. You tip the driver with a $20 bill. Later, you will wonder if this was your initial mistake. You pass through a security portal as you enter the hotel, the kind you go through at an airport, but you keep your backpack on and hold the handle of your suitcase. Bellboys offer to take your bags and you tell them you can manage. Or rather, you smile and say, no, it's OK. I'm OK.

GROSS: Of course, as we'll hear in a second, it's really not OK (laughter).

VIDA: (Laughter) It's not OK.

GROSS: Things are not good. But let's talk about that feeling - because so many people are traveling now, it's summer - that feeling when you get off the plane and you're going to a hotel and you don't know what to expect and you're tired and exhausted and disoriented. Do you get that when you travel, this kind of feeling?

VIDA: Definitely. I feel like, you know, you get off the plane and the physical you has arrived, but it takes a while for the emotional and mental you to catch up. And you literally, sometimes, don't even have the currency of the country at hand. You know, you might have a credit card, but you don't actually have the actual cash currency that will help you navigate this new terrain.

GROSS: And, like, your character has asked for early check-in, and of course a room isn't ready and...

VIDA: Right.

GROSS: ...The guy at the registry desk says it will take five minutes. And she says, five actual minutes? (Laughter).

VIDA: Right.

GROSS: And he says...

VIDA: There is this sense of time when you're traveling, that the time is not how you know it, but how a country knows it.

GROSS: Yes, and he says, five American minutes (laughter).

VIDA: Right. He's confirming her hypothesis, yeah.

GROSS: So after your character puts down her bags and doesn't let, you know, the bellboy or anybody else, like, carry them for her and she says, it's OK, I'm OK - things aren't OK 'cause when she puts it down, her backpack is stolen, and that gets the whole plot in motion. And I know you had an experience of having something stolen when you were in Casablanca, but I don't know what that thing was.

VIDA: A couple years ago, my husband and I were traveling to Morocco, and we had a similar experience in that we were checking in to a hotel called the Golden Tulip - which I, you know, I definitely put that in the book because I felt that they should take some responsibility. But anyway (laughter), we were checking into the Golden Tulip, which is just an average tourist hotel, and while we were checking-in and filling out the passport forms, my backpack was stolen. And it had everything in it. It had a laptop computer with my book I was currently working on, which I hadn't been very good about backing-up. It had, you know, my wallet. It had everything I wanted for the trip. I had my passport in my hand, so fortunately - unlike the protagonist in my book - I did have my passport still.

GROSS: In the book, the police chief tells your character not to worry, he's a hundred percent confident that the police will catch the thief. And she thinks, not 95 percent, even? Like, a hundred percent - like, how can you be a hundred percent confident? And he ends up giving her...

VIDA: Well, it's...

GROSS: Yeah?

VIDA: It was funny, 'cause when we checked in - when we did talk to the police chief, you know, my husband and I found ourselves watching the surveillance camera of the - in the hotel, seeing what had happened. It was actually really interesting. I really recommend the experience - not of having your stuff stolen in a foreign country - that experience, I do not recommend. But if you do have that experience, I highly recommend watching the surveillance video because it's really interesting to see how - it was really interesting for me to see how the backpack was stolen and how it was actually a ring of three people who were working together. They were all wearing suits and badges so they would look official and like they were part of a conference at the hotel. And seeing myself on the surveillance camera, being completely unaware of everything going on around me was really intriguing. I also had a similar experience...

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you there 'cause this happens your character, except the people at the hotel don't even know how to work the security camera playback system so she has to (laughter) figure it out for them.

VIDA: She has to help them, that is true. I will say the book is entirely fictional, but I did use the opening - the opening of the book is very much based on what happened to me, and the rest of the book just takes off into a fictional world.

GROSS: So, did you have to play back your own surveillance footage?

VIDA: I did have to play back my own surveillance.

GROSS: (Laughter) Great.

VIDA: There were seven security people in the room and I had to play it back, and at first I didn't even recognize myself on the surveillance camera. You know, I even saw the moment where I looked down and my backpack wasn't there and I looked at my husband, and he said, where's your backpack? Did you forget it in the van? And so, we ended up going to the Casablanca police station and while I was there I was interviewed by three detectives who all sat like detectives. You know how detectives in, like, 1970s movies don't really sit in chairs or desks, they actually kind of lean against tables and desks?

GROSS: (Laughter).

VIDA: That's what these detectives were doing, and they all had the requisite little spiral notebooks that detectives have in movies. And they were asking me all sorts of really irrelevant questions, like, what was the profession of your great-great-grandfather? So questions that would really help, you know, secure the location of my backpack as soon as possible.

And while I was sitting there, Terry, I had the funniest experience. And at first, I was just - I was so upset. We'd just arrived, everything was gone, this book I'd been working on was gone. And - but while I was sitting there, answering all these very irrelevant questions, I started thinking about this novel idea I'd had - this idea for this novel I'd about the malleability of identity. And it's this novel that's been circling in my head for a few years and I'd written passages, but I'd never known exactly how the book would start. I hadn't found my way into the book, you know, the entree into it. And so while I was sitting there with these detectives, I suddenly realized that this was my opening - a woman arriving in Casablanca and having her stuff stolen and, you know, in this case, the protagonist having her passport stolen. And so suddenly I became the happiest person, I think, the police station had ever seen. And my mood - I just became elated. I answered every one of the detectives' questions - you know, it was just elation and pure joy, and I think my attitude really confused the detectives and the chief of police.

GROSS: Well, the way this sets off - this shift in identity for your main character is, the chief of police - who's assured her that there's a hundred percent chance that they're going to, you know, return her backpack - the chief of police eventually turns over a backpack. And he doesn't use words like, your backpack - it's like, here's the backpack, or, here's a backpack. And he doesn't really claim that it's hers, but he expects her to accept that, and she does. She accepts it and she takes this, like, stranger's passport and IDs and credit card, and tries to work with that. And it just opens up all these possibilities for her to take on different identities and, you know, play with who she is. I doubt your story had that kind of outcome.

VIDA: My story did not have that kind of outcome, despite the police chief's assurances that it was a hundred percent likely I would get my backpack back, I did not.

GROSS: He really said that?

VIDA: He really said it. Someone else told me recently that if he had really been serious, he would've said 150 percent, but he was giving himself some leeway (laughter) by saying a hundred percent. But that's - you know, I'm really influenced by films when I'm writing, and I - you know, I really love the film, "The Passenger" by Antonioni, and I was thinking that this would be a pivotal moment in the novel where she would take someone else's identity, much like Jack Nicholson's character in "The Passenger" takes on someone else's identity. And that's how the fictional adventure in "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" begins.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Vendela Vida. Her new novel is called, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty." She's also the co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Vendela Vida. She has a new novel called "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty." She's also the co-founder of the literary magazine, The Believer.

I know your father had an antique store, so did you grow up with a lot of old books?

VIDA: My father grew up really poor in the Mission district and he had many jobs that, you know, he worked to get himself out of poverty, and he did reinvent himself a number of times while always staying true to who we was. His main job when I was growing up was working at an antique store that he owned, and he - one day he brought home this really beautiful Italian bookcase to our house, and it kind of stood right in the entryway. But there was a problem - that was that we that didn't have books to put in the bookshelf. Both my parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college, and they didn't have the opportunity to really collect a lot of books in their lives. So my father and I - actually I think I was with him at this time - I remember being with him at an estate sale and just buying all these beautiful old books. I mean, he didn't even really necessarily care what the titles were, he just wanted to fill this beautiful bookcase with beautiful-looking books, and these were old hardcovers. And so it's kind of amazing, the impact that that these books had on my life and on my sister's life. I have a younger sister, she's five years younger, and we would turn to these books all the time when we were bored, and, you know, we were bored a lot as children because our parents I think were really good at not over-parenting and they let us - they allowed us to be bored a lot, and we would pull down these books from the bookshelf and read them. And I remember being obsessed with W. Somerset Maugham's books from a very young age. I would, you know, I think from, like, age of 9, I just - I think I really just love the name Somerset - but I would read all his books and every book report I did in school from the age of 9 on was about W. Somerset Maugham. And I highly doubt I understood that much of what was going on, but I read those books, you know, at a young age.

GROSS: So as somebody who loves books as much as you do - reading them and writing them - you have this, like, odd almost - I don't know how to describe - you have an odd moment in one of your books that I don't think I have this much belief in (laughter) literature. You have a novel called, "And Now You Can Go," and at the beginning of the book, a young woman is walking through Riverside Park in Manhattan and someone behind her calls out to her using the word ma'am, and she turns around. It turns out he has a gun, and he tells her he doesn't want to die alone, and he seems to want to take her life along with his so he can die in company. Of course, she is in a panic to try to find a reason to give him to keep living, and she does it because she loves books. She does it by trying to convince him that there's, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I'm thinking, like, are you kidding?


GROSS: Do you really think that somebody - a stranger in a park on the verge of suicide might be stirred by the idea of a poem that is - that they haven't read yet? And I'm wondering what you thought about when you thought that she could really disarm him - which she does, which she does.

VIDA: Which she does. The opening scene to "And Now You Can Go," I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and I was approached - like the protagonist in the book - by a man who didn't want to die alone, and he had a gun. And he led me over to a bench and there were - I should say there were people around, but they were mostly nannies with small kids, and so I knew I couldn't appeal to them for help - you know, mothers or nannies, I don't know. I just remember there were a lot of babies around. So there was no one there who I could really, you know, yell to for help. Also, you know, this man had a gun. And so he sat me down on a bench and told me that he didn't want to die alone, and I remember looking at him and looking at his gun, and looking - you know, he was wearing a leather jacket. And I could smell the leather of his jacket, and I noticed the side of his glasses said, Giorgio Armani, and I thought, I'm going to be killed by a man wearing Giorgio Armani glasses - what am I going to do? And I think there's a strange adrenaline that kicks-in when you're in a situation like that. I remember being in science class in eighth grade and learning about adrenaline, and seeing a picture of a mother lifting a, you know, car that's about to run over her baby. And, you know, just, the book was saying that - explaining how adrenaline could make it possible that this mother, who only weighed, you know, whatever she weighed - in the sketch, she looked like she weighed 130 pounds - how this woman could lift a car. But it wasn't until I was in that situation in Riverside Park that I really understood what adrenaline was. And so my brain started working in a way that, you know, brains do under pressure, and I started thinking that my main objective is to get this man out of this park and up to Broadway Street, where there are people and maybe policemen, and I can appeal to somebody for help. And so I thought about this bookstore that I went to a lot on Broadway Street called - I can't remember the name of the bookstore now, and I don't think it exists any longer - but I thought, I just want to get him there because I've seen the pay phone. I've seen the phone they have behind the counter and I want to - they can call. And so I started saying to him, you know, there's so much great stuff out there. There's poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man. I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another - anything. I said, let's go to the bookstore and let's go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn't know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man's eyes, and he said, OK, let's go to the bookstore. And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I've made a terrible mistake. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.

And so as fictitious as the beginning of that novel can seem, it actually is based on something that happened to me, and the rest of the book is fictional, but this first - I think it's nine or 10 pages are based almost exactly on my experience.

GROSS: Well, I want to apologize for making it seem like believing that you could disarm him by talking about poetry was preposterous. It saved your life.

VIDA: Oh, there's no need to apologize, Terry. No, it seems - it is - it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone's life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.

GROSS: Did you report him to the police afterwards?

VIDA: I did, yes. I reported him to the police, and I don't know if he was - he was never caught, no.

GROSS: How did that change your life and your sense of security?

VIDA: You know, I think for a few months after that, I was definitely shaken up. I still have a reaction to this day, you know, I don't think about it very often at all. But to this day, I still have a reaction that when someone reaches inside of their jacket to pull out a pack of cigarettes, I still - there's a little part of me that jumps because that's exactly what the man in the park did that day. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out the gun from inside of his jacket pocket. But other than that, I don't think of it very often. I did write a letter to Mark Strand several years ago - he passed away last year - but I wrote a letter to him several years ago telling him what had happened because I thought, you know, I really want a chance to - it's something that had been on my to-do list for a long time. I really wanted to tell Mark Strand what had happened. So we shared an editor and a publisher, Dan Halpern at Ecco, and so I obtained his mailing address and I wrote him a letter about what had happened and how his poetry had helped me and what it had done for me, and it was definitely an odd letter to write. You know, I wanted to really take my time writing it. And I sent it to him, and I'm sure it was a very odd letter to receive. But he wrote me back within, you know, I think a day or two - you know, it was a mailed letter - and we had a really interesting correspondence and, you know, his letter meant the world to me.

GROSS: I bet what you told him meant the world to him. Not every poet gets to feel like they've saved somebody's life like that. Your character thinks, well, maybe she'll make a run for it, but then she thinks, and then maybe he'll shoot her in the back and she'll be either dead or paralyzed. How much kind of mental calculation did you do? You know, you often hear that - from people who've been in situations like that, that reflex just takes over. It's not that you think your way through it that, you know, reflex just - you just act. But it sounds like you didn't just act - you thought.

VIDA: I think time really slows down when you're in a situation like that, and you do have time to think. Every second is an eternity. And so I wrote the book many years later, and it was interesting, Terry, because I still remembered every single detail. I remembered the length of his eyelashes. I remembered the Giorgio Armani on his glasses. I remembered exactly what he said. I, you know, I remember how right before I heard him say, ma'am, I, you know, saw a penny on the ground. I was thinking about whether I was going to pick it up. You know, there are all these details that come back to you, and I think the same thing happens when you're in that situation where just, like, time just slows down and you do have time to think and your adrenaline is rushing, and you make these choices and these decisions that later can really surprise you.

GROSS: Well, Vendela Vida, thank you very much for talking with us.

VIDA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Vendela Vida is the author of the new novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," and she's the co-founder of the literary magazine, The Believer. After we take a short break, Jerry Douglas brings his dobro to the studio. He's performed on more than 1,600 albums. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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