Friday, 3 February 2012

An interview with Ivy Pochoda

Former US pro Ivy Pochoda's debut novel, The Art of Disappearing, was published in 2009.

Sustaining a career as a sportsperson and writing a book demand dedication and perseverance. But what other, less easily defined, psychological aspects might the two disciplines share?

Ivy offered me her own take. I also asked about the choice of themes and settings in The Art of Disappearing, and the challenges of transitioning from athlete to writer ...

Squashblogger: When did you decide that magic/illusion would be the central theme of The Art of Disappearing?

Ivy: When I was in high school, back in the dark ages, I wrote a short piece about a magician who performed the lady-in-half illusion. I was interested in the psychology of the trick. It seemed to say that a magician wanted to create a perfect woman out of imperfect halves. I'm not sure why it stuck with me.

Sb: As part of her job as a textile consultant, the female protagonist Mel spends a lot of time in hotels and airport lobbies. How did your experience as a travelling squash professional influence the story?

Ivy: Naturally, quite a bit. I think I really drew on the sensation of never being settled or feeling at home. There's this strange hollowness that takes over when you realise that you have no internal locus, nothing to ground you. I guess this is more relevant pre-cellphone, but I have always been stuck by how easy it is to disappear. When I was playing squash, I went to so many random places that I often felt lost.

Sb: The novel's set in Las Vegas and Amsterdam. The magic/Las Vegas connection is obvious, but was there anything other than your residence in Amsterdam during your squash career which made you choose that city? Did you consider other settings?

Ivy: I wanted to keep the novel in Vegas, but frankly I didn't know enough about it. So I switched the setting to Amsterdam which was immediately accessible to me. However, Amsterdam has a tradition of magic, so that worked to my benefit.

Sb: I read that you did editorial work in Europe while developing your squash career. Was it an early decision to move into writing/journalism after squash? How did the editorial jobs lead to you writing fiction?

Ivy: I'd always wanted to work in magazines. I never imagined anything different. I edited a cultural magazine at Harvard and did a small amount of freelancing after college. However, I also wanted to write novel. I initially thought I'd write a novel to do something intellectually worthwhile while playing squash (this makes me sound like a snob!) But soon I realised that I could write and play squash.

However, editing in an office was harder to do. I began to realise that it would be hard to hold down a full-time editorial job and write at the same time. I watched the slow collapse of the magazine world while I was working on my novel. So, in some sense, I was lucky to have another creative outlet.

Sb: How difficult was it to make the break from professional sport?

Ivy: Not hard at all. It was time for me to stop playing full-time. I had an easy transition because I was able to play on the US National Team for many years after I stopped the tour. My two best friends, Louisa Hall and Carlin Wing, were on the team with me. We had a lot of fun. But soon all of us gave up the game for creative pursuits. I still play recreationally.

Sb: What did playing colleagues say when you told them you were writing a novel?

Ivy: Except for Carlin, who I lived with at the time, I think people either thought I was either insane or delusional. I don't think anyone actually thought anything would come from it.

Sb: Are there any skills or techniques you learned as a player that have helped in the writing process?

Ivy: Patience and the ability to live without much money!

Holland seems to be a real squash hub at the moment. What is it about Amsterdam that breeds successful squash players?

Ivy: When I was there the league system was great. Clubs would pay for top-flight international pros to play for their teams. This attracted a lot of WISPA and PSA players to the city. In additional, there are many clubs which have over 10-12 courts, making it an ideal training ground. Finally, Amsterdam is a great base camp for players from Asia and Australia who want to play/train in Europe. It's easy to get around and their a lots of league opportunities in neighbouring countries.

I didn't see you play. What were (are!) your strengths on court?

Ivy: I'm fast and have good shots, but I'm a total head case.

Who/what was your most memorable opponent/game?

Ivy: This is hard to say. I think I've gotten better since I left the tour. I always second-guessed myself when I played. I also would be so nervous that I'd nearly collapse before I'd play. I love playing for the US Team. I won gold twice with my team at the Pan Am Federation Cup. I'm not sure these constitute my most impressive victories, but they were the most rewarding.

Were there any specific ambitions you left unfulfilled after retiring from the WISPA tour?

Ivy: Sure. I'd liked to have won more matches and been more consistent. But you learn as you grow. I really was doing two things at once - writing and playing - so there are some sacrifices of time and dedication that I made. Sometimes I think that I should have given it one more year of pure training and pushed my ranking up higher. But would that matter now? I don't think so. I got to 38 in the world. Would 30 or 27 have made a huge difference? No - I had a good run.

The only squash scene that comes to my mind is in Ian McEwan's Saturday. Have you read it?

Ivy: Of course. I've written an essay on it.

Ivy's essay discusses the figurative uses of sport in literature, specifically in the work of Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace and McEwen, before exploring the psychological themes in relation to her own playing experience.

In the final part of your essay you talk about the concept of the divided self: a 'wilful division of self, to the creation of two incomplete wholes', suggesting that sporting success at the highest level necessitates the separation of the conscious and unconscious.

Attaining a similar mindset (if it is, indeed, something that can be acquired), is often identified as the means by which successful fiction writers access their own creative plain. Are you conscious (for want of a better word!) of needing to find this mental 'zone' when writing your own stories?

Ivy: Sometimes I find that I'm writing fluidly, that things are rolling off my fingers barely having passed through my mind. Most often this is not the case. I set small goals for myself: three pages, a scene, get a character to a specific place. I can meet these. I've never "struggled" to write. I don't bleed at the keyboard, but I'm painfully conscious of what I'm doing, more so as I get older and write more.

I used to do gymnastics. My best event was the vault. Someone once asked how it was possible for me to run full-tilt at an inanimate object knowing that I'd stop and hit the springboard at the precise moment. This had never occurred to me. Once I became conscious of how insane it is to haul-ass towards the vault, I began to second guess it. To paraphrase myself, my 'selves', previously wilfully divided, were now united. I saw the insanity of what I was doing.

So too with writing. I'm aware of the insanity of the enterprise, of how ridiculous it is to try and build three-dimensional characters out of two-dimensional words, of writing a four-hundred page book in two-page increments. While I don't write fluidly, I have had to train myself not to question the unhinged endeavour in which I'm engaged!

Ivy is working on her second book, set in Brooklyn.


  1. That was a fun interview to read. I remember Ivy from junior squash tournaments.

  2. Great article - I didn't realise she had written a book


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