Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Oct. 20, 2020

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Vanessa Veselka survived as a teen runaway in 1980s Portland, searches for 21st-century America in challenging new novel

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Vanessa Veselka is in the prime of her life, but she remembers Old Portland.

There was a Denny’s on the east side, now long gone, that sticks in her mind. The novelist, then a teenager, had coffee there late one night with an 18-year-old hooker who insisted there was good money in the sex trade and then showed her “how to put a condom on without anyone knowing.”

For a time Veselka lived under the Burnside Bridge, where she got to know hobos who had started hopping trains during the Great Depression.

“I spent a lot of time with people who were 70, 80 years old and illiterate, and also with murderers,” she says.

This was the Rose City in the 1980s.

Veselka does not imbue her memories of that time with nostalgia. She knows she was lucky to get out of her teens alive.

“I was living in a world with a lot of danger,” she says. “You become inured to it. Everything is day to day.”

These experiences can be found in her new novel, “The Great Offshore Grounds,” but they’re somewhat buried. Veselka had no interest in writing a “voicey” semi-autobiographical novel. She wanted to produce a big book, a book about America, and she knew that to do that “you have to be really bored with your coming-of-age story.”

That boredom has paid off.

“The Great Offshore Grounds” follows siblings Livy, Cheyenne and Essex, all poor and trapped in lives where “nothing was going to happen,” who set off on a cross-country family quest. Publishers Weekly calls it “a sprawling work of astonishing depth and scope.” Kirkus Reviews describes the story as “fiery and occasionally luminous chaos that feels true to the experiences of those for whom each day is lived at the edges of mainstream society.”

The same can be said for Veselka’s half-century on the planet.

Veselka grew up in New York City, the headstrong daughter of iconic broadcast journalist Linda Ellerbee. She remembers as a young girl going to 30 Rockefeller Center after school and nodding off while watching her mother in the studio.

Then adolescence hit.

“At 13, Vanessa had an answer to any question, and if her excuses were often baffling, they were also, on occasion, stunning,” Ellberbee wrote in her 1991 memoir “Move On.”

Ellerbee, being Vanessa’s mom, challenged some of those excuses — and Vanessa didn’t back down. When Ellerbee offered up the time-honored parental diktat, “If you’re not going to live by my rules you’re not going to live in my house,” the teenager decided to leave.

But that didn’t mean moving in with her father. Instead, Veselka convinced her 21-year-old boyfriend to run off with her, insisting the horizon offered endless bounty.

“I instigated the whole thing,” she says. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a 15-year-old girl.”

Veselka and the boyfriend soon had a spat and split up, and that’s when she found herself sitting in the cab of a long-haul truck at an isolated Pennsylvania truckstop. People started shouting. Someone had found a corpse in the dumpster.

“Word filtered back that the dead girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking it could be me, since I was also a teenage hitchhiker,” she wrote years later. “Watching the driver of my truck walk back across the wet asphalt, a second thought arose: It could be him. He could be the killer. The driver reached the cab, swung up behind the wheel, and said we should get going.”

Her realization that it could be her, and it could be him, didn’t not dislodge her from the cab. The driver pulled the truck onto the road, and off they went.

“There’s a surreality to those kinds of moments, when you see something so out of your experience,” she points out.

Veselka survived that ride, and months more of hitchhiking, couch-surfing and doing whatever she had to do to survive.

Then she dived into the Pacific Northwest music scene. She launched bands — The Remnant, then Bell, finally The Pinkos. She toured the U.S. and Europe, opened for the Ramones, made records, built a fan base.

Yet while Veselka’s biography on the back flap of “The Great Offshore Grounds” points out that she has been a teen runaway, a sex worker, a waitress and a union organizer, it doesn’t mention musician.

“I was too bruised in that area,” she admits. “I had put so much of myself into it. I treated it like a religion.” When she didn’t hit the big time, she says, she had a “sense I had ruined everything for nothing, that it was a fool’s errand.”

She hadn’t ruined everything.

Veselka eventually had a baby, got married and divorced, and repaired her relationship with her mother. At 36, settled back in Portland, she ended up at Reed College, scoring a full scholarship. This was a new kind of challenge, with Veselka calling the academic competition at the liberal-arts school “carnivorous.”

“You go there at 2 a.m. and the library is filled, you can’t get a chair,” she says. “It’s a hard place for anyone with a fragile sense of self.”

She loved the experience. By the time she graduated, at 40, she had reinvented herself. She was a writer.

Her first novel, 2011’s “Zazen,” published by a small press, is narrated by a waitress in a Portland-like city that’s being terrorized by bombings. The novel won PEN America’s Robert W. Bingham Prize, with the award’s jury rhapsodizing that Veselka “has thrown herself into every single sentence of this lyrical, incisive, nervy book, turning even the most nightmarish scenes and satirical dialogue into effortless beauty.”

This was an astonishing start to her literary career, but Veselka had grander plans for her follow-up novel. Her life and her work as a labor organizer (she tried organizing at Amazon while “picking” in a warehouse) made her realize that her central theme as a writer is a question: Does the American project work?

A student of history as well as her own lived experience, she knows there’s no easy answer to the question. There never has been.

“It remains to be seen,” she says. “I have not given up hope.”

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