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The Rumpus Interview With Julianna Baggott

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Julianna Baggott’s Pure is about a post-apocalyptic world where the responsibility for changing and saving civilization lies with children.

In Pure, the world has suffered a nuclear holocaust. A chosen few, Pures, live beneath a dome protecting them from the fallout, while the rest of humanity ekes out a stark existence on a scarred landscape, their bodies ravaged by the nuclear detonation, fused with objects or animals or other people, breathing the poisoned air, living with the threat of being taken by the OSR, a military force, when they turn sixteen. The scope and dark intensity of the world Baggott has created is impressive. She has rendered the setting meticulously. The thickness of the air outside the dome, the constant sense of fear and loss, the impossible ways bodies have been mutated—every detail is visceral and compelling.

The story follows Pressia, who has lived her entire life outside of the dome, a bright, brave sixteen-year-old girl whose hand is fused with a doll head, and whose only family is a dying grandfather. Partridge, a young man, a Pure, who has lived most of his life inside the dome escapes and meets Pressia. The pair soon learns they are connected in ways they could have never imagined and together, with some help, they try to find their way to a better place. They are helped by Bradwell, the boy with birds in his back, angry, determined to fight the people in the Dome, a young man who knows a great deal about how the world was destroyed and works to spread the truth.

What would happen if global nuclear ambitions went unchecked? Who would survive and why? These are big questions Baggott answers, unflinchingly. There is a dark, relentless, almost macabre quality to the prose. As the novel progresses, and we learn the extent to which the world has been damaged, how humanity has been forever altered because of the terrible decisions of a few.

As I read Pure, I was really interested in the imagination of the writer who could envision such a future for the world. The author and I had a really interesting e-mail conversation over the course of a couple weeks, one that offers some insight not only into Pure, but also managing a diverse writing career, the matter of gender and publishing, writing darker stories, and much more.

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The Rumpus: What’s the first thing you ever wrote?

Julianna Baggott: I wrote before I could write. I got my hands on a journal, maybe a hand-me-down; I had three older siblings. My first entries are in the handwriting of the sister closets in age (5 years my senior). She must have gotten tired of my dictations because she gave up and then my blocky scrawl shows up. I wrote plays as a kid mostly. My oldest sister was an actress living in NYC by the time I was ten, and desperately wanted to be the one in charge of the words.

Rumpus: As a Libra, I’m pretty obsessed with the idea of balance and find myself, as a writer, drawn to all kinds of things which is why I’ve always followed your career with great interest–you give me hope that I don’t have to write only one kind of story. You write across so many genres and with different names. You seem, at least from the outside to be absolutely unconcerned by the constraints of genre or the pigeonholing the publishing industry is so fond of. How have you been able to shape such a career for yourself? Have you always been omnivorous as a writer?

Baggott: I’m a Libra, too. Genres are just bottles for the various boats. The boats matter to me. New ways of storytelling are coming at us. I was born in the era of the novel. I’ve written many, as well as collections of poetry, and essays for mouthing off. I’ve written to inches, word-counts, page-counts, even the sonnet and the screenplay (which I call a plot poem). I write narrative. That’s it. I just want to tell it.

Also, writing across genres has made me more prolific. When one is fighting me or simply not cutting it, I turn to another.

And each genre has something to teach me about the others. Not all the lessons are transferable, but many of the most important ones are.

Rumpus: In all the genres you write within, do you have a favorite? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned writing across genres?

Baggott: I don’t have a favorite. I need different genres at different times. Being cross-genre, you can encounter an image and decide not only how to best express it but what form would express it best. You learn to exploit genre for the more important things — to my mind — like story, character, image, language. The best example I can give is how the rigors of poetry apply to the screenplay. Both can have truly formal aspects, but even when form is stripped away, the poem and the screenplay both have to be essential enough to deserve —no, to bear up under the white around them — like small houses burdened by the weight of snow. The poem has to bear the weight with image, language… the screenplay with dialogue, plot… The lessons learned in journalism also apply. Writing for NPR has taught me to cut a piece in half and then in half again—without losing the essence. Apply that to the swollen prose of a bulky novel and you might reveal a beautiful work.

Rumpus: I really admire women who are willing to stand up and voice strong opinions. I still remember your op-ed in the Washington Post from a couple years ago and when I first read it, I thought, “Thank goodness someone is talking about this.” Over the past couple years, thanks to VIDA and Jennifer Weiner, and others, the conversation about sexism and publishing has remained at the forefront though little seems to be changing. Do you think you would write a similar editorial today? What might it take for us to advance this conversation in some meaningful way, and perhaps, bring about results?

Baggott: I think the calling out just has to keep going. No letting up. No whining just stating the facts, again and again. The generation of women who came before us did much of our shouting. They laid the groundwork and now we can be calm and constant and steady. There are a number of nuances to the discussion that I’d like to talk about. But, honestly, the last few months have been really hard—on a national level — for women’s rights. The Republicans have made it feel like the Dark Ages. I really have taken my eye off of the inequities for women in our field to look at the larger issues for women, some very basic rights. But literature has done great work for feminism — writing and reading are a practice of empathy — and great literature will continue to do so. I want to keep looking at ways to stride forward with positivity.  I loved the new VIDA list of under-acknowledged women writers. This is exactly the kind of work I like to see—where we celebrate those who deserve that level of recognition that’s simply not been there.  But mostly, I want women writers to write boldly, wildly, deeply. I want them to feel really liberated to tell the brutal truth, however they see that truth and are moved to tell it.

I have a risky premise. After VIDA’s first count, 2009, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post—and now since Wolitzer’s piece (similar issues)—I’m thinking what would happen if we decided: Okay, you’re right. You keep telling us again and again that male writers are simply better than women. So, let’s meet them there.

Why?

Let’s pretend it’s not just because we live in a completely male-dominated society where men get paid more for equal work. (Though it would stand to reason that if men get paid more for equal work they might also get praised more for equal work, no?)

I would go into what makes someone the head of their field. Research shows that it’s hours of practice. Here I’d quote Anders Ericcson (widely quoted by Malcolm Gladwell) and I’d explain how each of these small (and large) accolades actually turn into time—the gift of time—which for the writer is what money is all about.

So, each time a man’s book is on Publishers Weekly’s best books list, he has an argument that his work is valuable and therefore deserves more time to invest in it. Sometimes this is quite literal—sabbaticals, reduced teaching loads, etc. It comes to kitchen debates (not a Nixon reference), when a couple is trying to figure out who should be given more undiluted time to work on something that may or may not make money/lead to a career. Men win that argument, kitchen after kitchen and, according to Best Books Lists, they should. But, it’s a cycle, an endless cycle.

Women who are great successes—especially in the past few years with Rowling, Meyers and Collins kicking ASS in sales—women gain momentum in that argument. But for literary writers who hope not for huge advances but literary accolades to secure their next book deal, well, it’s a tougher sell.

So, it’s a cycle, see? When a colleague of mine had a notable New York Times book, I said, turn one of the chapters in the collection into a pitch for a novel and sell it to your publisher, now. He did. Those things matter and have very tangible results.

And in this we’re not alone. If men are paid/praised more than women for the same work than it always pays to allow the man to have more freedom to pour himself into his work—think of athletes, actors over the age of 28, lawyers, accountants, college deans…

Rumpus: The Republicans have made it feel like the Dark Ages. I have been simply stunned by the regression of women’s rights across the board. As a writer, I always wonder what I can do to bring attention to these larger issues women are inexplicably still facing. I don’t really have a question here, but the state of womanhood has been weighing heavily for the past while.

Baggott: Some of the best work done to combat the Republicans has been wit and humor. Stewart and Colbert—honestly I don’t know how I’d survive without them. Facebook and Twitter, as you know, give a whole new edge. I also believe that one of the most damning things about our culture is the adage to never talk religion and politics. Because we don’t model this discourse at the dinner table and at Thanksgiving, we don’t know how to do it well and we’re not teaching our children about the world and about how to discuss it. We have to be armed with facts when talking to family and friends — be prepared to be calm and organized. And we also need to use humor and wit to take down what is so seriously backward and insane. Women are constantly underestimated in our power, our reach, our collective pull. (The fact is there are many women who nod politely, even agree openly within their male-dominated often highly educated cultures, but vote their own minds.) We have to speak for ourselves and for those of us who have no voice.

Rumpus: Pure, your latest novel, feels very timely and is nothing if not a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear weapons. How did the idea for this trilogy come about?

Baggott: My childhood was marked by the great fear of nuclear holocaust. We practiced our Civil Defense Drills, lining up in hallways, curled to the floor, but we knew we’d die or, worse, survive only to suffer radiation and slow death. Pure comes from that deep well of fear—a renewed fear these days. Later in the drafting, I started doing research on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 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. That said, Pure isn’t about the apocalypse. It is about what endures—hope, faith, love.

Rumpus: I read that you wrote Pure for your daughter. Do you always write books toward someone in your life? How does that shape your writing?

Baggott: You want the greatest trick for writing a novel? Here it is: imagine urgently whispering your story into one person’s ear—and only one. This one visualization will clarify every word choice you make.

Rumpus: What does it take to write a dark story? Do you ever fear darkness in your work?

Baggott: I don’t know when I’m writing dark. I don’t know when I’m writing funny or even heartbreaking. I’m always just trying to write it true. After, though, sometimes when reading aloud to my husband, I’ll start crying. It completely stuns me. As if the words in my body and on the page—in relation to each other — are cocooned against my own feelings about what I’m writing until they’re loosed in the air and become their own. Then I realize what I may or may not have done.

Rumpus: I have encountered that same stunned feeling with my writing, too, where I make myself cry when I read my work back to myself, or someone else. In that moment, I realize, yes, now we are getting somewhere.

The role of women is significant in Pure. I was particularly moved by the mothers carrying their fused children, and how with The Good Mother, they referred to men as Deaths, which, even within our culture, is not necessarily inaccurate. Would you consider Pure a feminist text and if so was that a deliberate choice?

Baggott: Funny, The New York Times Book Review’s take on Pure was so positive (and I was so deeply relieved) that I really didn’t think about this one line until someone pointed it out to me weeks later. “…‘Pure’ does not concern itself with a political context for its apocalypse.” The conditions pre-apocalypse are hugely political. In a museum erected when the country’s been overtaken by the sinister forces that would eventually detonate the world, they have displays of the old days—when feminism didn’t encourage femininity, when the media was hostile to government instead of working toward a greater good, before the impressive prison system was built, before people with dangerous ideas were properly identified, back when government had to ask permission to protect its good citizens from the evils of the world and from the evils among us, before the gates had gone up around neighborhoods—with a buzzer system and a friendly man at the gatehouse who knew everyone by name. Once these things—like real feminism, freedom of the press, and civil rights—were wiped away, the world was poised for destruction. That said, the novel isn’t born from political ideas. I never was trying to force an agenda. I had to explain who was in power, what ripe conditions allowed for this massive destruction, and I answered those questions from my own perspective. So, yes, Pure is a feminist text—as all of my books are, I assume—not because I’m trying to further a cause, but because there’s no way around those themes for me. They rise up organically because of the way I see the world. My work is to know the characters intimately and to tell their story.

Rumpus: One of the things that makes Pressia so compelling is that she’s not perfect. She doesn’t automatically know what to do at every turn. She’s a girl who has been thrust into an extraordinary set of circumstances–circumstances that demand she rise to the occasion, that she move beyond herself. Most of the characters in Pure have to move beyond themselves in some way and I thought that demonstrated a lot of faith in humanity on your part, faith in the notion that people can do extraordinary things when such is demanded of them. Are you a person of faith?

Baggott: I have faith in human beings. I struggle with that faith. I believe we’re brutes, but then, miraculously, there are those among us who stand up against that brutishness and remind us of the goodness we’re capable of.

Also, more specifically, I’m a writer of faith. I was raised Catholic, and I have a deeply Catholic imagination. I’ve left the Church—for many reasons that I’ve written about publicly—but it’s still a large part of my identity, and I still have my faith, if not my Church.

Rumpus: There are a few twists in Pure that really thrilled me and made me start reading super fast because I wanted to see where you were going. What struck me most in reading this book was not that Pure was bleak, but that it was very well plotted. At the same time, we hear, now and again, that contemporary fiction has lost sight of plot. Has plot ever been something you’ve struggled with? How do you ensure that your stories have a strong plot? How do you think about plot when you know you’re crafting a trilogy?

Baggott: I try not to divide plot and character. I get to know a character by what they want and fear and how those internal forces play out in their lives. That said, the plotting in Pure is on a level I’d never thought I’d ever attempt. It felt hugely ambitious and entailed using some narrative parts of my brain that I’d never used before. The intricacy of plotting a thriller is akin to writing formal poetry. I’m not sure how else to explain it.

Rumpus: What do you love most about your writing?

[ed. note: I always leave that question open to author interpretation.]

Baggott: Hmm. I think you mean process here. (Because if you mean what do I love about my own writing, I’d have to say that one of the reasons I write in different genres is that I get to have the feeling—even fleetingly—that I’m not just writing like Baggott again. I can escape myself. I get so very tired of writing like Baggott. Different genres allow me to not feel so hemmed in by my own voice, tics, style.) So, process. Right now, I’m about to start something new. I’m waiting to be whelmed. The whelming as you start something new is quite something.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →