Talking with Joy Lanzendorfer

The author’s debut novel, Right Back Where We Started From, is full of unapologetically ambitious women.

joy lanzendorfer
Joy Lanzendorfer

Everybody wants to come to California,” declares Mabel Jones at the start of Right Back Where We Started From. Mabel is one of three women—from three generations—who are hell-bent on success in this first novel by Alta Journal contributor Joy Lanzendorfer. Mabel is speaking to her daughter, Emma, about their family’s history, insisting to the seven-year-old that she comes from a line of great people of great wealth and that if not for misfortune and perhaps some chicanery, they would be enjoying their rightful place in high society. Instead, “now the neighbors own that land and we live in a hovel,” Mabel says. Emma reflects that “it seemed unfair that the neighbors prospered while she and Mabel lived in a house with crooked floors and bug problems.”

Joy Lanzendorfer joins Alta Journal managing editor Blaise Zerega for Alta Live.


It’s this ingrained sense of being cheated by life, and a corresponding need to pummel, wreck, and obliterate anything and anyone standing in the way of success, that Mabel passes on to Emma, much as Mabel’s mother, Vira Sanborn, has handed them down to her. At the tail end of the gold rush, Vira comes west from Maine newly wed to a husband who fails miserably as a miner. Lording it over him, Vira stops at nothing to propel him to a top position at the stock exchange in San Francisco, sacrificing intimacy, honesty, and ultimately Mabel in order to sate her hunger for material riches. Mabel’s relationships with men, including, eventually, her own husband, are similarly distorted. Yet Emma goes one step further. She changes her name to Sandra Sanborn in a doomed attempt to become a Hollywood star, later fancies herself an artist, and will destroy anyone—including a good husband—to satisfy her self-delusions of grandeur.

Sandra remains unrepentant straight through to the novel’s ending, where she tells herself that all she needs is “a new start” after what will soon “be just another episode in her life,” and that eventually, “finally, things would be the way they should have been if [she] didn’t keep getting dragged down by circumstances beyond her control.” But as Lanzendorfer shows us, nearly everything that Sandra—and her grandmother and her mother before her—sees as fate was in her control all along.

Read an excerpt from Right Back Where We Started From.

Lanzendorfer’s writing was included in The Best Small Fictions 2019 and was noted in The Best American Essays 2019 and The Best American Essays 2020. Her contributions to Alta Journal include “The First and Last Lives of Jack London,” “Searching for Mary Austin,” and, most recently, “Flight of the Condors.”

Alta Journal caught up with Lanzendorfer via email to discuss Right Back Where We Started From.

What central question does Right Back Where We Started From ask?
What happens, historically speaking, when women have the same attitude toward goals and ambition as the men who went to the California gold rush?

Your characters wrestle with the truths and the fallacies of representations of all kinds: Chimney Rock in Nebraska fails to live up to its hype for Vira; Mabel pretends that her husband ran a prune empire; Sandra is fooled by movie sets, has an old snapshot of herself show up as a billboard, and marries a painter turned photographer turned rancher, while aspiring to be a painter herself. How important are appearances to the California dream?
Yes, there’s definitely a “not all that glitters is gold” theme winding through this book. Appearances are very important to the California dream—and to the American dream. This is a novel about the dark side of ambition, which, while a useful tool, can be problematic if pursued only for the sake of itself. Chasing wealth, fame, or a vague idea of “success,” like Sandra does in the novel, can become a treadmill that never ends. Often goals that seem desirable on the outside are disappointing or even empty when experienced from the inside. And sometimes people pursue things based on how they think others will perceive them. They want to be admired or envied, or they go after something based on their own admiration or envy. It’s very human to compare yourself to others and to think that someone else’s life might be better than your own. That’s the whole idea behind Instagram influencers—they present this pretty lifestyle that’s designed to make you covet what you see, when in fact it’s mostly artifice and presentation. So I was playing with all that while writing this book, as well as interrogating my own ambition. I think it’s smart to examine what you’re investing your time and intention into and to question why you want what you want. When it comes to pursuing goals, you don’t want to be chasing fool’s gold.

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Listening to music. Seeing art in museums and galleries. Science, especially biology, tends to jog my creative mind, as well as learning about history. And I get inspired by doing other creative things, like baking, gardening, or drawing.

But the single most reliable way to jump-start inspiration within myself is to travel. Going out in the world, even if it’s just a day trip, brings new experiences and prompts me to think about things that wouldn’t occur to me if I was left to my own devices. This in turn stimulates my brain to make new connections, which leads to inspiration. It’s also important to recharge yourself as a creative person, and travel is a way for me to do that while still feeding my brain and senses. I usually come back from trips brimming with ideas.

Your acknowledgments page includes family members and the stories they shared with you. What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into your book?
Sandra and [her husband] Frederick are loosely based on my grandparents. My grandmother, who was born in Healdsburg, grew up working in prune orchards and went to Santa Rosa Junior College in the 1920s, when many institutions wouldn’t allow women to study. She was a musician and had this epic, turbulent romance with my grandfather, which is at the heart of this novel.

When I was a kid, my dad told me stories he heard from my grandfather, who died when I was two. My grandfather was a colorful figure, a German photographer who enjoyed bourbon and married three times. He told exciting stories about family silver mines, forbidden love with a Romani woman, cowboys saving him from starvation on the Texas plains, and “drawing Mickey Mouses” in 1930s Hollywood. After he died, we learned that many of the stories weren’t true, which left behind a legacy of confusion. It got me thinking about how family myths feed into personal identity and how that in turn shapes our worldviews. Sandra believes it’s her job to return her family name to greatness. Like many Americans, she believes she’s special, but the basis of this belief is very much in question.

Do you listen to anything while you write?
Yes, I listen to music up until the last edit, when I need silence to hear the sound of the language. Like a lot of writers, I choose music based on the mood I want to evoke in the story. Upbeat music for fast-paced scenes, slower music for sadder scenes, and so forth. Sometimes I just want background music to cover distractions—for example, right now the neighbor is using a chain saw, so I’m drowning him out by listening to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The one thing I can’t do is put on music that’s really engrossing, with complicated lyrics, or I’ll get sucked in and end up listening instead of writing.

I don’t remember what I played when writing Right Back Where We Started From, but I remember getting so bored while editing that I sang the words [from my manuscript] to myself.

What’s on your to-read-next list?
This morning I finished Second Place, by Rachel Cusk, and started rereading The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which is like hanging out with an old friend. I’m starting Ethel Rohan’s short story collection In the Event of Contact because I’m going to be joining her for her book launch at Booksmith on May 20. And I just ordered the poetry collection Hoarders, by Kate Durbin, which looks fun.

Please give us the elevator pitch for your novel.
Sandra Sanborn will do anything to get the life she feels she deserves…except face the truth about who she is.

Blackstone Publishing


Blackstone Publishing

Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal's editorial director.
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