Sunday, January 23, 2011

Arin talks about her new book, silly clothes, and an exorcism in court

I first met Arin Greenwood at a blogger meetup on Saipan in 2006. Those blogger meetups weren’t really meetups in the sense that we would hold actual meetings with agendas and things like that, a bunch of us would just go to Java Joe’s and nibble on chicken nuggets while we IM’ed each other and avoided making eye contact.

Arin just published her first novel, Tropical Depression, which is loosely based on her five years practicing law in the Northern Mariana Islands. I was recently able to catch up with Arin over a cup of coffee and a blueberry scone in Washington, DC. After comparing notes on life after Saipan, we had the chance to talk about her new book.

Angelo O’Connor Villagomez: Can I just start by saying that I really love this book? I read it from cover to cover on a flight from Detroit to Tokyo. I loved it so much, in fact, that after a short nap I opened the book back up and read it again.

Arin Greenwood: That’s about the nicest compliment I could ask for – thank you! And I must say: I love a captive audience.

AOV: No, really. Nina’s story just sucked me in. I don’t know if you’ll appreciate this comparison, but I haven’t enjoyed a book this much since I read the first Harry Potter book about 11 years ago.

AG: Now THAT is the nicest compliment I could ask for!

AOV: So let’s talk about the book. The main character, Nina, is a twenty-something neurotic non-practicing Jewish vegetarian from the East Coast. How did you come up with this character?

AG: It was a real stretch, despite that I was in fact a twenty-something neurotic non-practicing Jewish vegetarian from the East Coast when I started writing the book. By the time I finished writing it I was well into my thirties, though, and was a little less neurotic. Only a little though.

AOV: So would you be offended if I say that I wanted to break up with Nina about half way through the second chapter?

AG: No way. She was a mess. You’d have been completely right to break up with her.

AOV: One of the things about this book is that it’s not quite memoir, not quite fully fiction. What made you decide to take this middle ground?

AG: I didn’t want to write a memoir because, thankfully, my own life isn’t interesting enough to turn into a memoir. Also, I wanted to be able to make things up. As for why it isn’t entirely fiction – it actually is mostly fiction. I mean, I’m not imaginative enough to write sci-fi or historical fiction, or to write about people or places that I’ve got no experience with whatsoever, so my characters and stories will always have some element of real life in them. But the book really is fiction!

The book went through about a hundred drafts and revisions, and early versions were much more autobiographical and non-fictional than how the final book turned out. I had this idea that I wanted to write a book that was like life – the word I used to describe what I was trying to do, in the early drafts, was “drifty.” I wanted people to drift in and out in the book, the way they do in life.

But I was working with an agent who convinced me – correctly, I think – that all the characters got confusing and a little bit boring, and that the book needed more of a clear narrative arc. So by the time the agent thought Tropical Depression was ready to go out to possible publishers, it had been turned into something that – while still clearly rooted in real life – was most definitely fiction.

AOV: So how much of the book is based in experience and how much is fictionalized memoir? I mean, is the nudist lawyer Nina meets on her first night on Miramar in the Bitter Haole (Miramar’s most popular watering hole for ex-pats) a metaphor for something else, or are there really pot-bellied naked haoles running around that I don’t know about?

AG: I never met a nudist in Saipan. Except at the strip clubs, and I’m not sure that counts. For sure I never met a nudist lawyer, sadly. Sadly?

As for the Bitter Haole – mostly that was just supposed to be funny.

AOV: Let’s discuss the characters some more. Most of the characters seem like caricatures, with an Alice in Wonderland quality to them. Is everyone on Miramar mad?

AG: No comment. You know, on a side note, I now live with a man, who I’m marrying soon, who doesn’t believe in the concept of madness. He thinks the mind is a metaphor and therefore can’t be “sick” the way that a physical body part could be sick. My mother, who has an MA in psychology, is just thrilled at his analysis, as you can imagine.

AOV: The character I liked the most was Captain Joe. To me he was the only voice of sanity in the entire book. What’s the story with him?

AG: I love that character. He was based on a few people I’ve known, in different places. One was a guy I knew in Florida – and, actually, the apartment building where Nina lives in Tropical Depression, was based on an apartment building I lived in Naples, Florida, when my college boyfriend and I decided to drop out of school for a while and live at the beach for a while. It was this great run-down old building, a few blocks from a pier where people would go fishing and pelicans would fly around to try to get the fish off the lines, where working people would live nine months of the year, then would get kicked out during the high season. There were lots of characters who lived in the building, including a boat captain I got to know, who I always thought would make a wonderful character.

Captain Joe is also based on some people I met in Micronesia – some really amazing people I met in Guam and Saipan when I was working on a story about Carolinian star navigators for ANA’s inflight magazine. He’s also a little bit based on another person I met in Saipan, who was in fact searching for a rare starfish he’d spotted once and then had never seen again.

So that character, like almost all the characters, is a composite character – he shares qualities with some real people, and has a lot of made up stuff about him, and it’s mixed together into a fictional, hopefully lovable, character.

AOV: Nina’s fashion sense (or lack thereof) plays a big role in the story. You go to great lengths to describe just about every single article of clothing Nina wears during her year in Miramar. Were you channeling Memoirs of a Geisha for goth vegetarians?

AG: Ha. No. So for Nina, I think she feels like her clothes are supposed to be her outward manifestation of who she really is. But she obviously has terrible fashion sense. So the clothes, in a way, are supposed to show that while she considers herself to be so self-aware, she’s really displaying in full show what a mess she is on the inside. I think she’s also trying to use clothes to make herself feel comfortable in her own skin – they are supposed to be her skin, in a way. But of course by dressing in this silly way she makes herself uncomfortable, in the end, because she’s not dressed appropriately for her situation. She’s wearing silly dresses to serious jobs, for example – but in a way I think she’s trying to make herself uncomfortable in these situations. Like, she could just go out and buy herself a suit and wear a suit to work, right? But instead she purposely doesn’t wear a suit – she wants the world to know that she doesn’t belong in any of the worlds where she’s found herself. But she’s also looking for a world where she can be herself, and have that be all right. See – actually, the whole clothes thing is very deep!

AOV: You were a practicing attorney on Saipan for five years. How closely do Miramar’s courts resemble real life?

AG: Well, some of the more surreal parts of the Tropical Depression courts actually are true to life. There really was an exorcism at the court, after a law clerk died there, for example. The prosecutors really did complain that witch doctors would come to trials, and intimidate witnesses and jurors. There really was a case where an inmate escaped from jail, repeatedly, after the guards left his cell door open, and claimed he couldn’t be sent back because he was too claustrophobic. I wish I could have made this stuff up, but I’m just not that creative.

And, just being serious for a second, I think that there really is an issue in Saipan – as in all small communities – about how it is possible for justice, which presumes objectivity, to be meted out when everyone knows everyone. I actually have thought about applying for a Fulbright or some other fancy grant to study juries and justice in small communities. One day perhaps I’ll go beyond just thinking about it?

But I never heard judges or justices use personal connections with people as a reason to decide a case one way or another – that part of it is made up. And while there was quite a lot of talk about Spam at the court, no one ever actually tricked me into eating it; I was far, far too clever to fall for that. There was a lot of cha-cha at the court, though – that part is true.

AOV: And now for my last question: So who gets to play Nina in the movie?

AG: Is this the part where I get to be wildly optimistic? My mom thinks that Natalie Portman should play Nina. I think my fiancé would like it if Mila Kunis played Nina. I think either of them would make an excellent choice for the role. Who do you think should play Nina?

AOV: Well, after watching Black Swan I have to admit I’d go see just about any movie with those two. However, they might not be kooky enough. How about space cowboy turned robot assassin turned crime-fighting blogger Summer Glau? Christina Ricci would also be great, too. She’s does weirdo like nobody else.

Angelo O’Connor Villagomez is a regular contributor for the Saipan Tribune. You can keep up with him on The Saipan Blog, Saipan’s most popular blog since ever since. Tropical Depression is available in paperback and for Kindle on

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