Ivy Pochoda’s new novel is an ode to the misunderstood parts (and people) of California


Ivy Pochoda’s first time in Wonder Valley was an accident.

On her way to California’s Joshua Tree National Park, the now 40-year-old author inadvertently ended up in the unincorporated community (under the jurisdiction of San Bernardino County), 155 miles east of Los Angeles and 15 miles northeast of her intended destination, sealing the fate, and the plot, of her third novel, Wonder Valley.

“I just thought it was incredibly strange and magical and weird and scary and barren,” Pochoda says of her first encounter with the desert space. She subsequently rented a hotel for six weeks to write chapters two through five. “I’m from the East Coast, and I’ve never been in an environment like that—it feels you could get lost at every turn and it’s mind-blowing how people walked across this land and somehow cultivated it.”

It became clear then, that settings are fundamental to Pochoda’s books and, it seems, to the inspiration behind them.

Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, Pochoda moved to Amsterdam after attending Harvard University. There she wrote her first novel, The Art of Disappearing, while writing for Amsterdam’s equivalent of The Village Voice, before moving back to Brooklyn and writing her second novel Visitation Street, set in Red Hook, where she was living.

In the next phase of her life, Pochoda moved to Los Angeles with her husband, before starting her third novel, which is set in L.A., oftentimes on Skid Row, where, in real life, Pochoda happens to teach creative writing at the Lamp Arts Program, but also in the Valley with which she’d fallen in love.

Her characters, divided over multiple, eventually converging narratives seem to be running toward the same things. They’re outsiders, struggling to come back inside, unsure if society still wants them—unsure if they still want society. Sam and Blake, two former inmates escaping a murder warrant, Blake determined to keep Sam (and himself) away from more trouble, Sam determined to keep Blake under his thumb. There’s a redemption Blake, especially, seems to crave. Britt, a college student escaping her parents, lost for the first time in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, takes shelter in a creepy Twentynine Palms commune, her story growing darker as the novel progresses.

“Not that everything has to have the same motivating drive, but to find the commonality between everybody, to figure out how these stories tie together is always super challenging,” Pochoda says. She felt Wonder Valley takes more risks than her previous two novels, but worried about the popular response to her work. Her first book “didn’t set the world on fire,” but her second was well received, creating an expectation she wasn’t prepared for. “When people like a book you wonder if you have to write the exact same type of book to make them like it again.”

Ultimately, Pochoda chose to do things her way with Wonder Valley, but even if the world doesn’t burn, she is happy in her latest setting, amongst a group of confident women writers, with strong voices and an inspiring ethos. She didn’t get there by accident.