Q&A With New Book Project Mentor Vauhini Vara

First, we’re saddened to share that the lovely and talented Eleanor Brown will be stepping away from her Book Project duties at the end of this academic year (next June) in order to attend to her own writing and life projects. While we’re happy for the extra time this will open up for her, we'll miss terribly her laser-beam insights, her hearty laugh, and her unadulterated love of cupcakes. She’s done such a beautiful job with all of her mentees and will remain one of the most beloved members of the Lighthouse faculty. 

And now for sunnier news: Lighthouse is pleased to welcome fiction and nonfiction writer Vauhini Vara to our mentor faculty. Vauhini grew up in Canada, Oklahoma, and the Seattle area, spent some time in California and New York, and has lived in Colorado for the past few years. She’s now up in Fort Collins with her son and husband, a novelist who directs the MFA program at CSU. She launched her writing career as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and now she’s editing and writing for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Foreign PolicyThe New Yorker, and elsewhere. Excitingly (and kind of mind-bogglingly), she’s also an O. Henry-prize-winning fiction writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s, Zzyzzva, and elsewhere. We asked recent Writer’s Studio guest Adam Johnson to chime in about Vauhini and he responded quickly with, “She’s really wonderful.” He felt we were doing something right, adding her to the faculty. We’re excited that she’ll be able to bring all of her particular talents to bear in guiding writers through the drafting and revising of their books, regardless of genre.

To introduce her to the Lighthouse community, we asked recent Book Project Grad Kate Christensen to ask Vauhini a few questions. Read the thoughtful exchange below. And remember, the next Book Project Info Session is Friday, January 10, at 4:00 PM, followed by the Book Project Presents: Publishing Essentials–Humor and Stamina with Courtney Maum

Kate Christensen: The Book Project is a unique program. What drew you to it?

Vauhini Vara: I love the promise it makes to writers, and the promise it demands of them: Join this program, and you will write a draft of a book, so help us God. A lot of writing programs are largely about trying lots of different things, and abandoning most of them—and, in the process, discovering who you are as a writer. I think that’s really important (and, by the way, adored most everything about getting an MFA in creative writing), but there are moments in a writer’s life that require a more focused approach. Until I heard of the Book Project, I didn’t know something existed that catered to that need—pairing writers not only with mentors who can support them through the maddening, exciting process of writing a book, but, maybe more importantly, with peers who are going through the same thing themselves.

One of the things that I noticed reading your work, specifically the essay about tiny houses (Small World published in Believer), is that you get to the essence of stories of death and loss with just a couple factual details that brought forth a lot of emotion for me (the urn with a view, for example, or the tiny home pioneer who became homeless). The essay read like journalism and like a short story where the people you interviewed were characters and you ended up being a character as well. I’m wondering if you would expand on your process at bit. (I tried to turn observations about your work into a question and failed, but maybe it sparked something you’d like to elaborate on.)

My first writing job was as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, where the veteran reporters always said you can’t fake a good story with nice sentences; you have to have the reporting. I’m not sure that that’s objectively true—an editor at the New Yorker, where I later worked, told me he believes the opposite is true (i.e., you can’t fake a good story with nice reporting; you have to be able to write the sentences). But it did instill in me the notion that writing is all about capturing authentic details, whether in nonfiction or in fiction. I guess the conventional way of putting this is to say, show, don’t tell. I don’t know if there’s a particular process by which I get good details into stories; I think it’s more about being alert to those details, so that when they present themselves, you don’t miss them. I think anyone can develop that alertness. I mean, hearing a widow tell you that he put the urn with his late wife’s ashes in the window with the view she always used to love—man, that’s just objectively so much sadder, and lovelier, than hearing him say he misses her. 

There are so many barriers to keeping writing going once we’ve started. Internal barriers (getting stuck, getting distracted, self doubt), external (jobs, kids, illness, scheduling - all of it). What tools to you use to bust through and/or get going again after a hiatus?

As often as you can, just open up the document—whatever you’re working on—and look at it. Scroll through it. Tinker with a sentence or two. Just stay really, really familiar with it, even if you’re not in a phase where you’re consistently writing 500 words a day, or whatever your target is in the best of times. A friend of mine once told me he works on his novel on his phone while on the subway—he lived in New York at the time—and I thought that sounded nuts. Then, years later, I put Google Docs on my phone, and now I work on my novel on my phone all the time. I’ll be reading in bed and have an idea, and I’ll just pick up my phone and work on it. I recently couldn’t find the right word for something I was trying to describe—I had written it as “success”—and then realized, while reading in bed at night, that what I was looking for was “accomplishment.” So I just picked up my phone and fixed it. And that was my writing for the night—my little five-second accomplishment.

What other pieces of advice do you have for people working on huge projects? (I realize that people devote entire books to this subject, but if you have a couple thoughts/suggestions that have been really useful to you.)

Oh God. Just keep working at it. I don’t think there’s any whiz-bang trick that’s more effective than just being in front of the book, plugging away, until it’s done.

Which authors (contemporary, long dead, anywhere in-between) do you want the world to be reading? 

Oh, jeez, there are so many. I wish more people would give Moby Dick a chance; it’s my favorite novel. Right now I’m reading Song of Solomon for the first time, and anytime I read a Toni Morrison novel, I’m newly reminded of how much of a genius she was. As far as more contemporary writers go, I’ve been telling everyone to read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, a nonfiction book about defining fulfillment in non-capitalistic terms; Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, a novel about the Vietnam War and its aftermath that manages to be both devastating and hilarious; Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, a Syrian author writing about contemporary life in his country, which is deliciously and upsettingly dark; and Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou (an old Wall Street Journal colleague), which is about the fall of Theranos and is just really good reported nonfiction. I recently read Women Talking by Miriam Toews, and then went out and started reading the rest of her work, and, oh, man, it is so good. Also, obviously, everyone should read everything by Elena Ferrante, duh.


Kate Christensen is a recent graduate of The Book Project. She lives in small town Colorado with her husband, kiddos and their modest menagerie. Between working as a speech-language pathologist, sporadic activism and outdoorsy activities she is still chugging along on her manuscript and has aspirations of publishing something sometime in the 2020s.