In Palaia’s exceptional first novel, The Given World, a young woman comes of age in the shadow of her beloved older brother’s MIA status during the Vietnam War.
Like Charles Bukowski, Nelson Algren, and Robert Stone, you seem to write about those who’ve been marginalized by society. Why the fascination?
I’ve always been drawn to write about that segment of society, partially because I know a lot of those people. It’s been the trajectory of my life. Not that I’ve ever lived on the Bowery or been down and out. But I bartended for many years, at a neighborhood bar in San Francisco, and a lot of those characters came through there. Some are made up out of whole cloth, but most of my characters are an amalgamation of people that I’ve met.
You don’t look at the past—the 1960s and the ’70s—through rose-tinted glasses. Is your novel deliberately anti-nostalgic?
There were many great things about the ’60s. But as a complete episode, there was a lot of damage happening then, too. Just the drugs alone. People kind of went nuts during the ’60s and ’70s. They weren’t kidding when they said, “If you remembered the 70s, you probably weren’t there.” I think the fact that people survived it is pretty impressive.
Like your main character, Riley, you seem to have led a peripatetic existence. To what do you attribute your rootlessness?
Maybe I was something else in a previous life, like a bedouin. My stepdad used to write me letters when I was in the Peace Corps, and he addressed them, “Dearest wanderer.” I loved that. I am a wanderer. Coming home is nice, but any time I go to some place new, I always say, “I want to live here.”
Some writers write novels based on experiences they had holding odd jobs, such as working on tramp steamers. Others come out of M.F.A. programs. You have a foot in each camp. Is there one route that you think makes for a better writer?
No, I don’t think there is. I think about that a lot. I did my M.F.A. at 50. And I’m teaching a novel-writing class at San Francisco State, which I finally feel qualified to do. But the advice I give my students, and to any writer, is to get out of the bubble. You get your B.A., and your M.F.A., and you’re an adjunct, and you finally get a book published somehow, and you begin teaching. But where does the world come into this? I don’t want to read books that come out of that bubble.
What are you working on next?
My agent was sending out this book and the response was, it’s beautiful, but it’s too quiet. So I started working on something else that partially involves two women who blow up meth labs in Montana. I know that makes it sound like Breaking Bad, but it’s going to be way more than that.