Today’s spotlight shines on the extremely talented Vanda Neveruseit. Vanda is a professor AND a professionally acclaimed playwright, so it’s no surprise that her writing brings similar applause! She is one to watch, quite literally! Without further ado, here’s…Vanda!
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Huntington Station, Long Island, but my mother would never let us call it that. She said we came from South Huntington. Saying we were from Huntington Station, according to my mother, made it sound like we came from the other side of the tracks. And, well—“Mom, we did”—and that fact has greatly influenced my writing.
As a playwright I have received a number honors, among them an Edward Albee Fellowship. My play, Vile Affections, published by Original Works was a finalist for a National Lambda Award. My play, Patient HM, which later became The Forgetting Curve, won the Pride Stage and Screen’s Women’s Playwriting Award. This play has been optioned by Theatrum Mundi. Why’d Ya Make Me Wear This, Joe, won Celebration Theater’s (where Naked Boys Singing originated) Best New LGBT Play.
How did you get started on your writing journey?
I wrote my first poem when I was fourteen. I woke up in the middle of the night and just wrote it. I’m not sure why except I had an especially inspiring English teacher that year, James Evers, who must have awakened my writing gene. Once that gene got loose I was never again free from the need to write. I wrote my first novel in Mr. Evers class. He was the first one to notice I had a flair for dialogue. Much later I began to write plays.
Are there any poets or writers who influence you? How so?
Since the majority of my writing life (more than 20 years) was spent in writing plays my major influences have been playwrights. The playwrights who have moved me the most were Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Williams for the sexuality that bubbles up just under the surface and is always in danger of exploding and O’Neill for the longing and family agony he experiences in much of his work, but especially in Long Day’s Journey into Night. I was also influenced by the novelists Tolstoy (I read War and Peace in twelfth grade) and Somerset Maugham. Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence shook me to my core so that by the end I could barely breathe.
Let’s talk about your novel! What is it about?
Juliana begins in 1941 when Alice (Al) Huffman comes from the potato fields of Long Island with her childhood friends to make it on the Broadway stage only to find she has no talent. She meets Juliana, a glamorous, perpetually-on-the-brink-of-stardom nightclub singer sing for the first time and is mesmerized.
Through Juliana Al is increasingly pulled into a secret gay underworld of men who wear dresses and women who smoke cigars, while her childhood friends continue in their “normal” lives. Al glides easily between the two worlds until these worlds begin to collide.
Where did inspiration for this come from?
I was teaching one of my classes (I teach psychology and counseling at Metropolitan College) and became aware that my students had no idea how hard or dangerous it once was to be gay. This was a classroom of primarily straight people who had gay friends and who had visited gay bars without knowing there was a time when this behavior could have gotten them arrested. I felt compelled to get our LGBT history out into the world in an entertaining (non-textbook) way. I didn’t want the story of our long struggle to freedom to get lost. We have not always been as free as we appear to be now.
Tell us a little bit about the characters? What are they like and how did you come up with them?
First, I never “come up” with characters; they appear and I have to deal with whatever they present. I also don’t analyze my characters. I feel and accept them as people in my life. I hope you’ll read the book and get to know them yourself because it would be impossible for me to explain them in this interview format.
Who do you think would like your story and what kind of readership are you aiming for?
Since the book has been out I have had readers from diverse groups telling me they’ve read the book. There are, of course, the LGBT readers, who enjoy the novel because it’s a fun way to learn about their cultural history. These readers come from both the younger and older age groups. The book also appeals to straight readers. I’ve had many online discussions with straights who have watched relatives struggle with gay issues.
The characters in the book are not all gay. I do not live in an all gay world. Since all books reflect the author’s experience in Juliana the reader will meet gay men, lesbians and straight people.
What is the message you are trying to get across in your book?
I really never try to give a message in my writing. Every reader brings their own life experience and perceptions to a book. I would never impose my meaning on a reader. Once I’m finished writing the experience belongs to each individual reader alone in his/her own mind.
What is your writing process like?
My writing process isn’t terribly mysterious. I write most days. My preference would be to write every day, but other obligations get in the way (Usually the things that generate money). In the summer when the weather is nice I prefer to take my writing outside so I find a well-lit café and stay there for hours typing at my laptop. I lose all sense of time and I become one with my characters and their experiences.
How do you go about editing your story?
Editing is a long process for me. After I have written the book as well as I think I can it will invariably need cutting. I read the whole thing through in a few days. The purpose of this is: 1. To cut words and 2. To make sure the chapters flow.
Generally I will need to do some rewriting after this, which may mean adding more words. I will go through another cutting process.
When the number of words in the book are within a realistic range (I often write many more words than our modern culture allows. Remember one of my influences was Tolstoy.) Then I read the book again making myself into a harsh objective critic. I even sit further away from the manuscript in this phase than I do when I’m first creating. Once that read through is completed I send the book to an editor or editors whom I have hired. For Volume 2 of Juliana I plan to also send the manuscript to three or four beta readers.
Where did you find your cover artist and what was the process like?
For many months before JULIANA was published I produced a monthly performance of the novel at the Duplex Nightclub for an eager, recurring audience. The actress playing Juliana, Annie-Sage Whitehurst, really looked like my vision of Juliana. The director, Ray Fritz and I decided we needed a poster for the show. The photographer, Chelsea Culverwell, Annie-Sage, Ray and I met in the kitchen of Ray’s lower eastside apartment. I purchased the forties hat that Annie-Sage wears in the photo on Ebay and she wore something from her own closet as a blouse. Ray used a book of old forties movie stars to guide Annie-Sage in the poses she was to make. Lori Wark at Biograph II turned the picture into a poster with a cityscape background. We loved the results. When it came time to design a cover I thought this poster would make a perfect cover. It was approved by the powers that be and that’s how I got a cover for Juliana.
Check out Vanda’s blog, Vanda writes
Check out Vanda’s Kirkus review too!