“Vaclav and Lena” Author Speaks to Freshmen English Students

NEWS - Haley Tanner by Caitlin Chao
Photo by Caitlin Chao

Haley Tanner, author of the novel “Vaclav and Lena,” visited Stuyvesant on Thursday, December 19, speaking to Stuyvesant’s freshman readers and writers. The program was organized by English teachers Emily Moore and Annie Thoms, who read her novel with their Freshman Composition classes. Their students had been given permission to miss their period six class and go to the library for the event.

“Vaclav and Lena” tells the tale of two Russian immigrants, a boy, Vaclav, and a girl, Lena, who move to Coney Island as infants. They meet in a second language class at the age of six and become very close friends, despite their differences: Vaclav is raised in a well-kept home with a nurturing father and mother, while Lena grows up in an untidy house with her aunt, who works at a club.

At the age of ten, Lena is abused by one of her aunt’s friends. Vaclav’s mother sees this when checking up on Lena and calls the police. Without telling anyone about her location, the police take her out of her house and move her to Park Slope to live with a new mother whom she calls “Em.” Vaclav grows up wondering where Lena is, and on her seventeenth birthday, he finds out. They meet up secretly, and what unfolds is a plan to travel to Russia to discover Lena’s mysterious past.

The author started off her visit by reading the section of her novel that takes place on Lena’s birthday, the night she calls Vaclav. She chose this section because it was the section she enjoyed writing the most. Later, she took questions from the audience and went on to shed some insight on the writing process.  

“[I just wrote] about the two kids I saw on the train,” she said. “I thought their Russian accents were really cool. I started imagining their adventures and backgrounds and got a story.” The story started off as homework for her writing class. “The class reads it and they go around the room telling you how bad it is and how it should never be an actual novel […] but I didn’t listen to them.”

Students were given the chance to ask the author about the “hidden” secrets and themes of the novel they discussed in class. One student asked how she came up with the symbolism in the novel, and how she planned it all out. “None of the symbolism was intended, it just happened,” Tanner said. “Writing is a little like driving. You know where you want to get to in the end, and you can see about ten feet, or a couple of paragraphs ahead of you, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen in between.”

Many students found the author relatable. “She’s young and interesting. I was expecting her to be older and talk about […] coming up with all the symbolism she put in the novel, but she really surprised me,” freshman Annie Chen said.

“She was just a student, just like us, doing her homework, and then she became an author,” freshman Sharon Zhu said.

After questions, Tanner finished off her visit with some final words of advice as well as her own opinions on the writing process. “Whenever you’re stuck and don’t know what to write, give yourself a goal, tell yourself that you’re going to write 100 words today and do it, even if those words come out in editing, even if they are ‘I don’t know what to write’ [over and over again],” Tanner said. “You have to keep writing.”

At the end of the period, as students filed out of the library, Tanner autographed books and essays, and took pictures with some of the students.

Next year, the Freshman Composition teachers hope to make “Vaclav and Lena” part of the universal freshman curriculum and have Tanner come back to a larger group of students.

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