A Brief Interview with Tupelo Hassman

Weston Cutter
March 20, 2012
Comments 2

Tupelo Hassman‘s girlchild was released just less than a month back and got a fantastic review right out the gates in the NYTimes by the great Megan Mayhew Bergman. What I can tell you about girlchild is this: I spent last year reading way, way too much nonfiction and started this year resolved to get back into fiction. The hard part about fiction, though, is everything: in nonfiction, one can at least learn new stuff, regardless of how uninterested one is in, say, the history of Malbec, and, controversies aside, nonfiction rarely stirs much passion in terms of voice or anything. Not so fiction: there are simply too many moving pieces, and too many things can fail. If you’ve gone through a spell of reading a handful of novels, none of them amazing, you begin to feel shocked that novels can ever be amazing—there are simply so many ways they can, small planes all, crash and mercilessly burn.

Hassman’s girlchild is off-the-wall successful. It’s simultaneously flinty and vulnerable, questioning and doubtful of the utility of answers, is risky and traditional, is big fun even through its large sorrow. I’ve yet to know of a better way to consider fiction’s utility than measuring how it helps us alleviate the feeling of aloneness we all truck around stuck with, and girlchild was, for a few days one week earlier this year, the thing that made me feel not just unalone but wildly alive and connected to things. The book’s a glorious singing. Get it as soon as you can.

And here, as further inducement, is a brief interview with Tupelo Hassman herself.

WC First, in the biggest context possible, in whatever directions you’d like to go: what might be ‘influential’ things to your creative work? Other writers, other music, geography, sports, movies…whatever. The more expansive or whatever, the better–anywhere you’d like to go.

TH Influences! This is the hardest question I’ve encountered since the girlchild came out. Almost harder than: “How do we solve the divide between rich and poor?” I don’t want to sound like a scientist, but everything is influential, right? Or, I don’t know how to pick and choose what is more or less so. But I will try.

After some harrowing days filming girlchild’s book trailer in Reno last fall, my fiancé and I were headed out of town, just about to turn onto an onramp and feeling it, you know, “it,” a mixture of exhaustion and despair and hunger for the freeway, when a transit bus pulled up alongside of us. Tucked between the steering wheel and the front window of the bus was a Barbara Kingsolver book. That crazy moment of hope (for all mankind? for literature? for the universe?), that influences me. The bus drove on then and we turned onto the onramp and there was a man crossing a parking lot, he was wearing work pants and there was a darkening line running down from the crotch to the ankle, it wasn’t piss. He was shitting himself as he walked. That influences me too. I’m influenced by all kinds of shit. But what these two things have in common is the surprise factor. The element that makes us listen and look in a new way, when the bus driver’s intellectual life turns complex, when we can see her pulling over between stops to reach for moments of beauty and depth in a book, when the old man in the parking lot is so inured to stink and against propriety that he doesn’t break his stride during what most would consider a serious emergency.

WC Off to the side of the above question: do you feel like you’re writing in any particular aesthetic niche or tradition? I haven’t seen the hardcover of the book, but I assume the quote from Sal Plascencia that’s on Amazon is from a blurb, and his People of Paper certainly has sort of topical similarities with yours. I’m not asking you to force yourself into some aesthetic alignment or anything, I’m just curious.

TH I don’t necessarily believe in any of these things, genres, traditions, unicorns, but they must exist because people keep talking about them and making wall hangings of them. It is true, though, that I went to school with Plascencia for a bit and that when I first read Ben Marcus’ Age of Wire and String, I felt like everything was going to be okay, a weight lifted. Was that the weight of feeling that I had to fit my writing into the confines of traditional, linear structure? Meh.

This does go back to the first question in that, for me, structure is about what makes us listen, what makes our heads tilt and really listen. I’m interested in that. The head-tilt earner can be a story told in a traditional way (like John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, which I have listened and relistened to throughout my life) or it can be a story told in the form of Ikea directions for how to hang one of those paper globe lamp things, complete with drawings, that is actually about a divorce.

WC I’m real curious about how you ended up with the structure for Girlchild that you did. How forseen was that? Did you plan it taking the shape it does, and featuring some of the aspects it does (the wildly different styles in chapters, the blacking-out of stuff, etc), or was it organic and just something that developed with you/Rory/etc?

TH I’m not much of a planner. I have dreams of being a planner. Every day. In retrospect, though,girlchild does what stories about trauma do (written or not): it fractures. The truth, if that exists (I’ve seen it on wall hangings too), gets fractured as well, and goes squirreling off into corners, so we are left with all of these different pieces and all are important because the truth is hiding here and there, kind of like a burst crack pipe but with truth being the hot commodity we don’t want to waste even if we do get some glass in our nose and lungs. In Rory Dawn’s case, she’s holding pieces of opinions from different folks (her grandma, the state, her mom, her teachers, her brothers, the Supreme Court, the Girl Scouts) and before she can throw any out, she has to figure out what’s valuable.

WC And just because it’s such a vividly excellent aspect: how clearly did you have Rory’s voice when you began? Actually, any voice in the book (Rory and her mom being the two big obvious ones) you’d like to talk about would be great.

TH Rory’s voice became distinct as the layers were added and this is partly, I think, because I read aloud when I write (I’m reading this aloud, and this) and so, I kept hearing her and the more I did that, the more I could, um, hear her. I’m about to record the audiobook version ofgirlchild and I’m going to do it myself because (they will let me and) I do feel like I have developed a thorough understanding of her voice even in the usual sense. She makes hard “r” sounds. She’s tough.

I focused on making Jo (Rory’s mom) truly distinct. She’s got a rich history, she’s earned a rich vernacular. I couldn’t hear her, though, until I wrote much of her dialogue and this was a lesson for me, to write characters speaking. Whether that dialogue ends up in the final product or not doesn’t matter. Throw the pages away, keep the lesson.

WC Can you talk about the movie you’re making for the booktour? I guess, specifically, I’m interested in how invested or involved you are in notions of community about this book, which is how the film plays—it seems like girlchild, as a book and as an experience, is up, down, left right and center focused on community—that there’s an intent to find and establish more of the sorts of Girl Scouts like Rory. I don’t know if that’s making any sense. I guess just this: for lots of writers, the release of a book does not automatically lead to the thought I should raise money and film my book tour and make a movie. Any way you want to touch this is fine.

TH Hardbound: A Novel’s Life on the Road, the short documentary I hope to cobble to together from the footage I’m gathering from girlchild’s book tour, was born more from my experience of a book as a reader than a writer. The idea, initially, is that it would be less girlchild-based and more literature-based. Absolutely, you put it well, I want to capture the community that comes out to meet a book. Using crowdsourced funding I was able to buy a camera and things and I’ve been lugging it all around with me, but what I am still seeking is the gumption to say to an audience, “This camera is going to be pointed at you, because this film is about you. You are the heroes of this book’s life!” Unless I have help at a venue, I’ve largely been setting the camera up and pointing it at the podium because I don’t want folks feeling silenced or whatever pressures cameras create. So, since I’m largely alone on the road, I’ve gathered much good audio from Q and A’s and things, but not much good video yet. I stand pretty still when I read. Dull times. I need to man up, like a video game meme, and point the camera at the audience.

With regard to finding more Scouts like Rory Dawn: when I read in Reno, at the beautiful Sundance Bookstore there, Rory’s Troop of One did gather and it was a beautiful surprise. I grew up, partly, just outside of Reno, much like Rory Dawn, and the day before the reading I was on Reno’s NPR station talking a bit about that. Quite a few “Scouts” came from that part of the area and celebrated the book. We talked about having a secret handshake. It was amazing to see how many people were ready to embrace a representation of a youth that resembles their own.

WC What’s the view out your window?

My apartment is in an old building in Oakland that reminds me of the romance of New Orleans, there are many windows, French doors, and a messy garden that could be a cemetery. Until just a minute ago, seriously, there was one of those zombie statues from the Sky Mall catalog right outside the window, a head and two arms clawing their way from the ground. The statue is semi-terrifying but he’s been here since I moved in four years ago and I love him. I dress him up. Once, when celebrating, I had him wear a bow tie. At Christmas, he wears a Santa hat. He’s a very handsome and festive if ineffectual zombie. But here I am, back from the first leg of girlchild’s tour and he’s been moved, to a place guests won’t see him, behind the letterpress shed. The yard has been sterilized, it seems. That’s what I see out my window. I see what we’re not talking about, this desire to pretend like there’s nothing buried that will come back and haunt us. The zombie statue imitates art imitating life! A strange parallel, considering part of girlchild‘s focus is on the desire to bury the uglier parts of our history, particularly eugenics. I don’t think the landlords knew that though. I think they just don’t have proper affection for the zombie and he has no renter’s rights.

Or maybe he left to get away from me. Maybe all this time he just wanted some p and q and not to have to wear stupid hats. In that case, when I look out the window I see a failed relationship, my future extending before me with too many plants, not enough zombies, and one too many Santa hats. But either way, I’m interested, right? Head tilting… because the only thing more surprising than a zombie statue is when the zombie statue takes a walk.

2 thoughts on “A Brief Interview with Tupelo Hassman

  1. Hi, enjoyed this book so much and could identify with much of her “growing pains” which were similar in emotion as mine were when growing up on a Southern, rural farm with all the animals, orchards, fields, labor of ten children and the pressures for me to “make something of myself” as I was the only one who could, etc. At age 75 today, I am still trying to make something of myself, smile. I too have had the benefit of Professor Krusoe’s teaching at SMC to encourage me to write. Here’s aspiring to be half as good as “girlchild”…do I dare dream??? I like your work Hassman, keep on writing…

  2. Just finished Girlchild. Loved it. Loved RD! Wow what a story. Didn’t want it to end. Writing style was so much a part of the story.

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