Julianna Baggott: Pure Writer

Julianna Baggott develops cross-genre stories of hope, faith and love.
By Elfrieda Abbe | Published: January 6, 2017


Julianna Baggott

Credit: Laura Ciociola

 

Julianna Baggott’s young adult novel, Pure, begins with a power paragraph.

“Pressia is lying in the cabinet. This is where she’ll sleep once she turns sixteen in two weeks – the tight press of blackened plywood pinching her shoulders, the muffled air, the stalled motes of ash. She’ll have to be good to survive this – good and quiet, and, at night when OSR patrols the street, hidden.”

In a good novel, the first five words make you forget you’re reading, wrote John Gardner. In six words, Baggott compelled me to read on. By the end of the paragraph, the printed page dropped away, and I was immersed in Pressia’s damaged world.

The paragraph fulfills another requirement of good writing: It leaves us with questions. Why is she hiding in this burned-out place? What does turning 16 have to do with it? Who or what are OSR patrols?  The promise is that the author will deliver the answers.

The scope of Baggott’s imagination is breathtaking, and it’s impossible to pin her work to one genre. In Pure, she creates a “narrative that owes as much to fairy tale and myth as it does to science fiction,” wrote reviewer Clare Clark in the New York Times.

The writing pulls us into a strange mutilated world where nuclear blasts called “Detonations” divide humankind into the Pures, untouched survivors who live protected under the Dome, and the damaged “wretches” who live outside the Dome. These survivors are disfigured in bizarre ways, fused to other objects, people or animals by the force and heat of the explosions. A doll’s head is fused to Pressia’s hand. Birds are fused to the back of another character, and another carries his younger brother attached to his back. At the same time, under the sterile Dome, the young Pures are “coded” to create super physical powers and obedient behavior and are being trained as soldiers.

The humanity of the characters overcomes any initial resistance a reader might have to such grotesqueries. “When people say that Pure is too bleak for them, I refuse to apologize. What we’ve done to our fellow man is far more horrific than anything I wrote. Pure isn’t about the apocalypse. It’s about what endures – hope, faith, love,” Baggott told Roxanne Gay in an interview for therumpus.net.

Baggott is a prolific writer. She has authored 22 books, including novels for adults and young adults, children’s books and books of poetry. Her short stories and essays are widely published in literary and general interest publications. Two early novels for adults, Girl Talk and The Miss America Family, were best-sellers. Pure was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book.

The output is so great she uses two pseudonyms: N. E. Bode for children and Bridget Asher, for what she calls commercial work. A review in Kirkus of her 2015 Asher novel All of Us and Everything praises her “unique voice.”

Baggott not only writes across genres but also across generations. After I read Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, a New York Times Editor’s Choice for adult readers, I found myself recommending it to my teenage granddaughter. Likewise, I recommended Pure to some adult friends who enjoy futuristic themes.

“Julianna has stunningly protean gifts as a writer,” said Robert Olen Butler, creative writing professor at Florida State University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 12 novels and one nonfiction book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (a bible among MFA students). Butler calls Harriet Wolf a “metafictional, family fictional, love-story fictional and literary fictional.”

“Not that all these elements stand out individually,” he said. “Her genius is to do all that and make it seamlessly whole. Unified, I’d say, by her unique vision of things. Through her entire oeuvre, under her various shape-shifting writing names, she is smart and complex and full of human yearning and at times funny as hell.”

In Harriet Wolf, Baggott explores the “real” world of lost love, broken marriages, neglected children and mother-daughter conflicts. Disturbing in parts? Yes. But dreary it’s not. Absurd, funny and life-affirming? Absolutely. There’s a wild mind at work in this sprawling family story that spans the 20th century and three generations.

The novel begins: “This is how the story goes: I was born dead – or so my mother was told.” It misses Gardner’s five-word rule, but who can stop reading there?

The reclusive author Harriet Wolf, who has written a beloved six-book series, retreats into a fictional world to avoid the pain of her childhood spent in the “stink and misery” of the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children. She was placed there by mistake until a doctor discovered she was actually a genius. She has secrets – plenty of them, which she reveals in a letter to her daughter and two granddaughters to be read after her death. It’s a love story and mystery intertwined. The question plaguing family and fans is whether a manuscript for the seventh and final book exists, and if so, where is it?

Part of Baggott’s particular skill lies in making the right choices for voice and perspective. In Pure, she alternates the point of view between several characters but stays in close-third person. For Harriet Wolf, she uses four first-person storytellers: Harriet; her daughter Eleanor, who sees danger everywhere; Eleanor’s angry, rebellious daughter Ruth, who returns home after her mother falls ill to rescue her younger sister Tilton; and the childlike Tilton, who, confined to the house by her overprotective mother, explains the world around her in lyrical language befitting a poet.

In Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa wrote: “All fictions are structures of fantasy and craft erected around certain acts, people, or circumstances that stand out in the writer’s memory and stimulate his imagination.”

Baggott told me that she could put her finger down in one of her own books and, in the spirit of Vargas Llosa, know what experience in her life that line came from. “Certainly I rummage through my daily life in my work,” she said. “I have a lot of little obsessions, a lot of things I want to stitch together.”  That’s not to say her work is autobiographical, only that memories fuel her imagination.

For example, Baggott remembers stories her grandmother told of being in and out of children’s homes when she was a child, which led the author to investigate a defunct school for the so-called “feeble minded” children. Access to the buildings, grounds and archives yielded details she needed to create the fictional institution.

Memories of the fear of nuclear attack during the Cold War and Civil Defense school drills led her to research Hiroshima and Nagasaki while drafting Pure. (Pressia is half Japanese.)

Baggott also collects scrapes of information: observations, conversations, newspaper stories and odd events. “It’s not unusual for me to have notes all over my hands while I’m teaching,” said Baggott, who is on the faculty of College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and creative business partner, David Scott, and their children. She also travels throughout the year to teach at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts.

If you walked into her home office, you might find stacks of paper notes in bins labeled “contemporary,” “comedic,” “otherworldly.”  “If there’s a novel I can’t get to, I throw ideas for it into a bin so I can work on it later,” she said. “For Pure, I used a number of failed short stories to help create the world and its characters. Failed works become part of a junkyard of sorts that can be very fertile terrain.”

A freewheeling imagination is her gift; a highly disciplined approach to writing is her craft. She hones her worlds with precise, cinematic language. Reading Pure, I felt at times like I was watching a movie. Each detail helps build a flesh-and-blood character and a world the reader will believe in and enter. She attributes her intentionality to reading and writing poetry.

“Fiction writers should read poetry for two reasons,” she said. “First, poets often write epiphanies, and beautifully so. Second, poets choose one image and really rely on it to stain the reader’s mind. Before I studied poetry, I had less confidence in the power of the image and would clutter the page, piling them on. Poetry teaches the power of restraint,” she said.

As an MFA student, Baggott was “an absolute original writer who celebrated and investigated the role imagination played in saving and destroying people,” said Lee Zacharias, author of the memoir The Only Sounds We Make. She directed Baggott’s MFA thesis at North Carolina University at Greensboro, where she is now professor emerita. “She was a pioneer in constructing a world in which the real and the imaginative co-exist. Her stories were magical – not in the sense of science fiction or magical realism – but in their assumptions: They might begin at a time when man was so new most had just outgrown their gills or one’s parents might become woolly and hooved over and evolve into sheep or a sandman might live in dusty drawers left over from childhood.”

Throughout several phone and email conversations, Baggott was open and generous, ready to address any question. She talked about her creative process and sources of inspiration, writing for teens and adults, and people who have helped her. We didn’t meet face-to-face, but I was struck by a kind of bright energy that came through in her voice. Near the end of our talks, I asked: “Why do you write?”

“I could write a book in response – everything from watching one of my grandmothers lose her memory and becoming a hoarder of stories to the chip on my shoulder to my field hockey days to my Southern roots – but on the simplest level, it’s how I breathe,” she said.

 


 

 

How is writing young adult novels different from writing for adults?

No difference. Each novel teaches me how to write it, and before I can truly understand what I’m writing, I need to imagine the one person to whom I’m whispering the story urgently. Sometimes that person is an adult, sometimes my oldest daughter, as it was with Pure, and sometimes a childhood version of myself. The ear receiving the story changes, but once it’s chosen, the story becomes far easier to write. That said, I could write two hundred pages and not quite yet know. Those are dangerous, messy pages that will change drastically.

 

The beginning of Pure makes a strong visual impact. What inspired these vivid details?

The ash and coal dust that’s found throughout Pure comes from my father’s childhood. He was raised in West Virginia and talked of snow turning gray before hitting the ground. The grandfather who’s missing a leg is based on my own grandfather, who was a double-amputee from World War II. His stump wasn’t clotted in wires, but it was calloused. It made a huge impact on me as a child. The small fan whirring in [her grandfather’s] throat comes from my grandmother who needed a fan on her while she lay naked in a hospital bed in a hospice home. I write a lot from what’s been stored in my memory.

 

What gave you the idea for Pressia’s disfigured hand?

My house is filled with toys. I used to be an athlete. From across the room, I shoot toys – including baby dolls –  into the toy box. One day, I palmed a baby-doll head. The idea of a doll’s head fused to a fist struck. I was reading George Saunders and Aimee Bender at the time and wrote a failed short story about a 23-year-old woman with this affliction. But at the same time, I was feeling visually restless, cinematically ambitious and once I started to world-build, Pressia found the story in which she truly belonged.

 

How do you decide on the first words of a novel?

If I feel there’s not something going on that I’m in love with, I can’t go forward. I have to have a feeling that there’s a good foundation where the language is interesting to me and there’s some texture on the page. Once I have that feeling, I can start writing forward.

A bit of writing advice from John Irving: The intrigue for the reader turns from what will happen to how it will happen, which I find richer.

 

What advice do you give your students about beginnings?

I quote novelist Valerie Martin, who wrote, “The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality.” Of course, I also suggest sometimes that they tell the plot – spill it. If there’s going to be a dead body, mention the dead body, and then the reader will be patient because you’ve made a promise.

 

Once you’re happy with the beginning, do you go forward, revise?

Eventually, I stop looking back and being prissy about the beginning, but I’m pretty prissy about it for a long while. At a certain point, I only go forward. I allow myself to write a chunk where I can say, “You know, I don’t know what I’m really doing here. It’s a bit messy.” I cut myself some slack. I can also write with blind spots where I say, “I know I’m going to have to figure this out later. I don’t know what the answer is right now, but that’s OK,” and I can keep writing.

 

In Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure, you create a vivid sense of place that is a physical and a powerful psychological presence in the reader’s mind. How do you achieve that?

Funny. I’m struggling right now with a world I’m trying to build, and it’s stalled me. I have to nail it down and dig in deeply before I can write another word. Writers are such heady creatures that we often forget our characters have bodies and senses. To fully imagine a life, one has to supply undeniable details about the exterior world so that when the novelist has to make the truly improbable leap to the interior world of another human being, the reader is primed to believe us.

 

What’s an example of an “undeniable truth?”

The barbershop in Pure offered a lot of details of the old world: blue Barbasol, shaving cream canisters, white smocks that snap at the neck. In choosing a specific location, not just a lean-to, I was allowed to draw on those details and allow them to build the world around the characters.

 

You lecture on “efficient creativity.” What do you mean by that phrase?

Putting those two words together makes people nervous because people feel you can’t force ideas. However, you can acknowledge the environment that [sparked your imagination]. Were you listening to music? Who did you just talk to? Were you being physically active? The main thing for writers and for those who are innovative in different ways is to acknowledge you have a creative process. Take a moment to lift your head and look at that environment. The more you can work with it rather than against it, the better. Creative people don’t want to think about their creative process. They like to think about it as the muse and not mess with it, which I think is counterproductive.

 

How does that work for you?

I’ve asked myself these questions, and I know that when my brain cells are freshest. I protect that time. I know when I’m in a good mood, I’m more generative. When in a foul mood, I should be editing. I know that I can plot to music, but not write to it. I know when to take a walk with my husband and talk through the story. I know when to hand something off and when to hold it close. Perhaps most importantly, I know when to eat dark chocolate.

My process has gotten better over the years because I’ve become aware of it, and bow to it. As I said earlier, each novel teaches me how to write it, but what I learn about my process follows me from project to project – even as my process evolves – and being aware of it is a great advantage.

 

What is your writing process?

If we believe the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of dedication to get to the height of your craft, I wasn’t going to get [those] hours while sitting at a computer. I have four kids [8 to 20 years old] and my life is very demanding, loud, messy and chaotic. I had to get into these spaces mentally where I was creating and visualizing scenes while cutting vegetables, driving in a car pool or waiting for somebody’s soccer practice to be finished. If I found myself thinking about things that were not really important, I would stop myself and envision a scene. I would envision it again, something else [in the scene] would happen. By the time I got to the computer, I would be four drafts into the process. Making that a practice has made my work more visual. I’m a much more visual writer than if I were sitting at a desk, which tends to make me more of a language writer.

 

Who or what has influenced your writing?

My mother told family stories that were, by and large, of the Southern Gothic tradition. Combine that with our Catholicism – a highly vivid religion where the Passion of Christ is portrayed in great detail – and there is no denying a Flannery O’Connor influence. I adore her brutality. Hemingway may have been running with the bulls, but he strikes me as a soft romantic compared to O’Connor. I was influenced by playwrights – Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Neil Simon. I really developed my ear while going to theater as a kid, and of course, Mamet taught me how to curse. Later, I was influenced by poets like Marie Howe, whose work in particular taught me a lot about how a narrative takes form, moment to moment, spanning a book-length work. Poets are great teachers of the power of a singular image and how to write epiphany. I’ve also loved many magical realists.

 

Have you had writing mentors and, if so, how have they helped you?

Fred Chappell and Lee Zacharias profoundly affected me as a writer in graduate school. Lee was very hands-on about character and structure. Fred’s magical realism and his ability to write both brutality and humor were important to me. He modeled cross-genre writing and, in retrospect, that became vital. He read our work in class, which resonated with me deeply because I write so much from what is in the air, aloud. Reading aloud makes it painfully clear what parts are alive and which dead on the page. Mainly, however, he was generous with his spirit. It’s hard to explain that quality in a teacher, but the ones who see you as a fellow sufferer make a difference.

 

What do you do when you’re not writing?

My husband is always terrified when I finish a project, and my kids don’t care for it either. I become overly interested in my children’s lives and the messy house. Writing allows me to control one world. When I’m not doing that, I go off and try to control parts of my own world or other people’s lives. The Catch-22 is that I do get tired of writing and have to find ways and be intentional about walking away. Having four kids is great for me because they don’t allow me to write all the time, and they keep me in balance.

 

Elfrieda Abbe is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer, editor and book critic. She was formerly the editor and publisher of this magazine.

 

 

An excerpt from Pure by Julianna Baggott

Pressia: CabinetsPure by Julianna Baggott

PRESSIA IS LYING IN THE CABINET. This is where she’ll sleep once she turns sixteen in two weeks – the tight press of blackened plywood pinching her shoulders, the muffled air, the stalled motes of ash. She’ll have to be good to survive this – good and quiet and, at night when OSR patrols the streets, hidden.

She nudges the door open with her elbow, and there sits her grandfather, settled into his chair next to the alley door. The fan lodged in his throat whirs quietly; the small plastic blades spin one way when he draws in a breath and the opposite way when he breathes out. She’s so used to the fan that she’ll go months without really noticing it, but then there will be a moment, like this one, when she feels disengaged from her life and everything surprises.

“So, do you think you can sleep in there?” he asks. “Do you like it?”

She hates the cabinet, but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. “I feel like a comb in a box,” she says. They live in the back storage room of a burned-out barbershop. It’s a small room with a table, two chairs, two old pallets on the floor, one where her grandfather now sleeps and her old one, and a handmade birdcage hung from a hook in the ceiling. They come and go through the storage room’s back door, which leads to an alley. During the Before, this cabinet held barbershop supplies – boxes of black combs, bottles of blue Barbasol, shaving-cream canisters, neatly folded hand towels, white smocks that snapped around the neck. She’s pretty sure that she’ll have dreams of being blue Barbasol trapped in a bottle.

Her grandfather starts coughing; the fan spins wildly. His face flushes to a rubied purple. Pressia climbs out of the cabinet, walks quickly to him, and claps him on the back, pounds his ribs. Because of the cough, people have stopped coming around for his services – he was a mortician during the Before and then became known as the flesh-tailor, applying his skills with the dead to the living. She used to help him keep the wounds clean with alcohol, line up the instruments, sometimes helping hold down a kid who was flailing. Now people think he’s infected.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Julianna
Baggott © 2012, Grand Central Publishing.

 

 

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  • Jane Peranteau

    Loved reading this. It helped clarify in so many ways. Thanks.