SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.
Vaclav and Lena make magic together. They're five years old when they meet, Russian immigrant kids growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Vaclav is clever, quick and eager to become American. Lena is anxious and shy. Vaclav learns magic tricks and performs shows in their neighborhood. Lena stands by as his assistant. She cherishes his boldness. He treasures her sweetness. They envision a lifetime together. Then one day, Lena disappears.
The story of a sweet, sublime love interrupted and regained is at the heart of Haley Tanners debut novel, which is getting rave reviews and offers for film rights, "Vaclav and Lena."
Haley Tanner joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. HALEY TANNER (Author, "Vaclav and Lena"): Oh, I'm so excited to talk with you, Scott.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Let's talk about these characters...
Ms. TANNER: Yeah.
SIMON: ...Vaclav and Lena. How did they ever come into your mind and heart?
Ms. TANNER: Like all fun, and excellent and addictive writing, these characters just sort of popped up out of thin air and spoke to me, and told me what they wanted to do. I actually almost feel like I can't take any credit for them.
SIMON: Vaclav can't wait to be an American. Vaclav is an American in all...
Ms. TANNER: He is an American.
Ms. TANNER: He walks with a John Wayne swagger through life, doesn't he...
Ms. TANNER: Mm-hmm.
Ms. TANNER: ...from the age of five?
Ms. TANNER: He is. And I actually - I think that probably one of the reasons I'll never be able to leave Brooklyn is that being an immigrant, and being an immigrant family in this immigrant experience, is not a moment on the way to becoming a full, assimilated American. It is being American. It's part of the American story and it always has been.
So Vaclav and Lena are not un-American or on their way to being American. This is an absolutely American story.
SIMON: I think all that struck home with me when you have a wonderful scene when Vaclav and Lena, and Raisa - Vaclav's mother - go to, I guess, it's Coney Island and behold the Wonder Wheel.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TANNER: Yeah, behold the Wonder Wheel. There's a moment when it's Vaclav's and Lena's play date together and they go to Coney Island. And they look up at the Wonder Wheel and it's an amazing, ridiculous, American moment of this true Americana that's populated by people from the entire globe.
SIMON: At the heart of the story, alas, is just a very - an ugly crime, a shocker of a crime that figures into Lena's disappearance. I think I know where the betrayal of love comes in the novel, of where it comes from in your life and your imagination. How do you figure out a crime like this?
Ms. TANNER: This is not a spoiler. This is on the first page of the novel. Lena is neglected and the crime that happens to her later in the book is a more acute crime. And it's a more easily sensationalized crime. But I could see in Lena's personality, from the moment that she stepped onto the page, that she wasn't getting everything she needed at home, and that she was vulnerable because she was not cared for.
So the crime that happens to her is far too common amongst girls like her who are neglected in this way. And many people who read the book tell me that that moment is a shock. Unfortunately, statistically it's not a shocker. She's got no one speaking for her and she's got no one watching her.
SIMON: Vaclav comes to speak for her.
Ms. TANNER: Yes, he's her greatest advocate. And he ends up in a difficult position and so does his mother, because they want, of course, what's best for Lena. But that ends up being a really wrenching loss for them.
SIMON: Did you ever have a love like this when you were a kid?
Ms. TANNER: When I was a kid, I didn't have love like this. I had looked like this while I was writing the novel.
SIMON: Oh, this is your husband.
Ms. TANNER: This is my husband, yeah. My husband is on every single page of this book. Gavin died of stage four metastatic melanoma in February, which was just a couple of months before this book came out. And he had been diagnosed just a couple of months before we met, so it was a presence in our lives since day one. And in the most amazing way, we enjoyed every single moment that we had together.
So two weeks before he died, we went to Turks & Caicos and we were kayaking and talking on the beach about what he wanted for me and what he wanted for everyone we loved, and we were able to in some way say goodbye to each other. I think that what most people are surprised by is that our story together is not sad. And that this book is not sad. We traveled and we laughed and enjoyed every moment of it and watched silly TV and, you know, had baking disasters and made a mess of our apartment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TANNER: And, you know, all of the wonderful little things, you know?
Ms. TANNER: So, and thats, thats life.
SIMON: Haley Tanner. Her new novel, Vaclav and Lena.
Thanks so much for being with us, Haley.
Ms. TANNER: Oh, thank you so much, Scott. This was a pleasure.
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