Jacinda Townsend’s debut novel Saint Monkey depicts race and small-town life at the midpoint of the twentieth century through the eyes of two friends who grow into very different women. After a brutal murder shakes the town of Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Audrey Martin and Caroline “Pookie” Wallace, misfit childhood friends, start to drift apart along different life paths. Audrey finds solace in playing the piano, a vocation that takes her to New York City to pursue a career in music, while Caroline struggles to take care of her aging grandmother, struck and semi-forgotten in Mount Sterling. The novel’s crosscut structure alternates between Audrey and Caroline: each girl tells her own story as their stories intertwine, diverge, and collide.
The book challenges readers to examine their assumptions about the 1950s—from Jim Crow to sexism to rape—by telling a compelling story, sentence after dazzling sentence. Above all, the book offers a new take on the American coming-of-age novel and on how teenage girls form friendships, interact, and ultimately grow up. Throughout, the language dazzles.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Townsend had just come to teach at the university where I studied when she finished her first novel. I had no idea that even as she circled ‘to be’ verbs in my poorly written first attempts at fiction (as Jacinda taught me, ‘is’ verbs are weak and if overused they rob sentences of their vitality) publishers were rejecting her first manuscript. As a teacher, she always gave me well-considered critiques and pragmatic advice drawn from her own considerable experience. She was funny, smart, and helpful, and I learned more than I can remember from her.
That was almost ten years ago. In the intervening decade, she wrote Saint Monkey, which came out this spring from W. W. Norton & Company. I recently called up my old mentor to talk about life and writing, and in the process I learned more about her than I’d ever known, from her love of Morocco to her surprising (and forgotten) pre-novelist career.
The Rumpus: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for Saint Monkey come from?
Jacinda Townsend: The murder actually happened when I was a kid. It didn’t happen exactly the way it does in the novel, but when the dust had settled these three children were left alone. I didn’t know those children, but I had seen them from afar, and I always wondered what it was like to be the oldest of those girls and to have to raise your sisters because your grandmother’s too old to do it. I also reimagined my father’s experience in the Air Force. Those two things sparked my imagination.
Rumpus: How do you approach writing about small-town America and race? How do you defamiliarize the story—how do you make it fresh and continue the conversation?
Townsend: That’s such a good question. Part of the research I did was the regular stuff. Flipping through old newspapers. A lot of Google. Especially about the music industry back then. I read books about the Chitlin’ Circuit and about New York. But I also talked to a lot of people who had been young people during the 1950s. There was stunningly little that they had in common with one another. There wasn’t one black experience just like there wasn’t one female experience. I read a review yesterday that said the book touches on race in a subtle way. But I think that’s the truth of how people lived it. I hope that’s kind of a fresh take on it. That it doesn’t have to be a book about segregation. Or it doesn’t have to be a book about oppressed women. The truth is they were just living life.
Rumpus: Do you think there’s a danger in classifying writers or novels? Even if it’s not about race—if someone says this is an AIDs novel or this is a war novelist?
Townsend: Yes. The sad thing is, for whatever reason, that’s what the industry wants to do. Perhaps that’s what people’s psyches want to do. I compare it to—I don’t know if you know this about me or not, but I’m obsessed with Sirius XM. Obsessed with it. I listen to Heart & Soul. In all the years I’ve had Sirius XM, they’ve played four white artists. George Michael is one of them, Joss Stone—the people you’d expect. Once they played Boy George, which cracked me up. And then there’s First Wave, which has played two black artists, Living Colour and UB40. First of all, that means a listener misses out on some richness if they tune into one station but not another. Even in music we have these splits, unintentional or otherwise. When an industry perpetuates these categorizations, people are loath to make art that bridges divides.
In literature, there’s a similar thing that goes on. We categorize writers. There are women writers, say. One thing that has happened recently, we now have people known as male writers. We’re not universal any more. It’s dangerous, because it perpetuates something else: We assume everyone who reads literary fiction shares a worldview—upper class, educated, liberal. There’s an inside joke. We can write in code. It’s sad.
Rumpus: Does it inhibit creativity? The flip side is proprietary subjects—if a white person decided to write a novel from the point of view of an American Indian, or a straight person from the point of view of a gay character. In a way, it’s limiting to the writer who actually does have permission to tackle those proprietary subjects but who gets pigeonholed. To put it another way, could Toni Morrison write a sci-fi novel? Or would people say to her, you can’t do that?
Townsend: You’re absolutely right. It’s part of an insidious habit readers have. They want the writer to have some sort of personal experience with the narrative. It’s bizarre. People are expecting fiction to be real. We don’t want our writers to write about magic without having grown up in a family full of magicians. The same thing happens when you put people in these boxes. I can’t think of a novel published recently that is a person of one race writing about another race that’s met with much critical success. Why? Why can’t we? That’s our job as writers: To step out of our skins and into other people’s. To the extent that we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.
Rumpus: To that point, you write about male characters like Ralph, Sonnyboy, and Grandpap, although never in their point of view. Do you find that it requires any extra concentration or preparation to get inside their skins?
Townsend: Yes, and of all the reviews I’ve gotten, my favorites have been from older men who said, “Yes, this is what I lived when I was in the army.” Because I feel like I know so little about it. I watched a lot of Mad Men. I thought a lot about this idea of Dick Whitman wanting to reinvent himself into something that was essentially more of what a man was supposed to be in the ’50s. A man was not supposed to be like Dick Whitman, a man was supposed to be like Don Draper. My ex-husband is a man’s man. Knowing him has made it easier for me to access that view of the world. It’s different. Even the language is different. The language that men use to observe the world is so different from the language that women use to observe the world. I didn’t write in their voices, but as I wrote them, I tried to make them as full as possible.
Rumpus: This gets back to what we were talking about. Do people come up to you and say, ‘Is this a thinly veiled true story?’ Fiction is fiction, but people want it to be real, even if they simultaneously hope it’s not real.
Townsend: I don’t think anybody wants to be in this novel. They’re assuming that they’re not. Scary things are happening to people in this book! No one’s asked me that yet. Thank God. I do a lot of compositing. If I find that a character resembles someone too much, I start changing them. It’s a bad idea to draw too much from life, just from a technical standpoint. When a character starts to mirror someone in real life, they’re not as dynamic as they might have been if you’d fully imagined them.
Rumpus: Let’s switch gears and talk about teaching. I know you’re in Bloomington at Indiana University. What do you teach? What’s the relationship for you between teaching and writing?
Townsend: I get so jealous of my students! You give them an in-class writing exercise, and you watch them discover themselves for the first time in a way you can’t anymore. Once writing becomes your job, you don’t get that sense of renewal, or at least you don’t always get it. But when you teach, you do, because you’re watching something new happening to your students. They’re finding their voices, their strengths. My graduate students in the MFA program, they teach me, sometimes. It’s an easy symbiosis.
Rumpus: What’s the program like? How many classes do you teach? Is it workshop based? Do you have literature classes?
Townsend: It’s what’s called Studio Academic. It’s not workshop based. There’s a big literature component to our program. I’m most comfortable teaching workshop, because that’s how I learned. But I have to teach classes that are both. We let in five students a year. I teach classes that are half workshop, half critical theory. It’s a very diverse program in all kinds of ways. Race, sexual orientation—it’s known for diversity, has been for a very long time. It’s a nice gig over here.
Rumpus: You mentioned that you were taught in the workshop model, and you did your MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did that education contribute to your writing? How do you look back on it?
Townsend: I was a baby writer when I got there. I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know. And every professor we had was so different. Marilynne Robinson was all about the big picture whereas Frank Conroy was all about the line-by-line language. Iowa City is one of those places where everybody is into words and that’s all they do. Prairie Lights, the famous independent bookstore, is there, and they have accomplished writers coming through all the time.
Rumpus: What were the intervening years like after Iowa? Saint Monkey is your debut novel, but it took you a while to finish and publish after Iowa. One of the things we don’t talk about a lot is how even after an MFA program, it can take years to sell a book.
Townsend: My in-between time was pretty long. I came out of Iowa with a novella. It never went anywhere. I actually had this great agent who had expressed interest but later dropped me. It was like breaking up with a guy while you’re also losing your job. I wondered what was going to happen. That’s when I got the Fulbright. That was great, because I didn’t have to go back to practicing law, which I was so afraid might happen.
Rumpus: Wait—what? You’re a lawyer? You’re licensed to practice law?
Townsend: I am, I was. Before I went to Iowa. For a very short time. I don’t even remember it. I went to Duke.
Rumpus: You got a law degree and now—you’ve forgotten it?
Townsend: Yeah, I have! I was not a happy law student or lawyer, either one. It just wasn’t me.
Rumpus: What about the Fulbright? Have you always loved to travel?
Townsend: Not at all! The Fulbright turned me into this world traveler that I never expected to be. One place I love is Morocco. At the end of my Fulbright year, the cheapest way to New York was to fly through Casablanca. I extended the layover, and it was the best four days of my life. It was a spiritual experience. So when my older kid was two, we went back, and had a wholly different mind-blowing experience. Last summer I took a side trip to Mauritania, and I met a family of escaped slaves. I held a baby that was born during a woman’s escape from slavery. It was incredible. I just feel so alive when I’m there. My second novel, which I finished in December, is set half there and half in Indiana.
Rumpus: What happened after you came back to the states?
Townsend: I finished the novel I’d been working on and sent it to the woman who is still my agent—this was almost ten years ago—and she sent it out. Every house said it was too grim, that it wouldn’t work. This wasn’t Saint Monkey. It was another novel, a grim, airless thing. Just thinking about it makes me sad. It was that sad of a story.
Around that time, I also had a kid, which shaped what the next ten years would look like. I was dropping my kid at daycare to go to a coffee shop and conduct this enterprise that might be completely fruitless. I had a lot of terrible moments. I had to consciously tell myself, “This is your job.” You’re going to sit here four hours a day. You’re going to go to work. It became a choice of how I was going to spend my time. Am I going to keep writing even though I just was told this novel gave everyone who read it a headache? That made these ten years incredibly difficult for me. I started writing Saint Monkey with this idea that it could go nowhere and I would be really, really sorry on my deathbed, because I could have spent that time with my kids. I finished Saint Monkey the week before I had my second kid.
Rumpus: What did you learn from writing that first novel, the grim one, the one that didn’t sell? What did the struggle teach you and how does it inform your work now?
Townsend: All the great feedback I got from editors told me that I needed to just plain lighten up. It was a story about a young woman with HIV who loses the love of her life to another man and ends up, at novel’s end, committing suicide. The market doesn’t support something that grim. But it taught me something tremendously important about storytelling. The writer can’t make a tale too heavy without putting in some air. When I explain this to my students who also tend toward the macabre, I liken the narrative to one of those six-foot wedding cakes. The ones without enough air in them fall over. Novels—and even short stories—are similar. The reader doesn’t want to see a protagonist lose so much as the reader wants to see that protagonist struggle. The reader wants to know the characters are still fighting for their lives.
Rumpus: What’s it like to know you’re embarking on this artistic endeavor, this complicated thing with so many moving parts, and knowing that you might not be able to make it work?
Townsend: That doesn’t slow me down anymore. I finally made writing into a habit. It’s scary to write. It’s scary to make art. It’s scary to face a blank page. But if I can tell myself, “This is your job for four hours a day, shut up and do it,” then I just get it done. It became such a habit that it began not to matter. I had good days and bad days, but what mattered was the four hours to write. If I didn’t get to spend the time, I’d be upset. When I finally sold Saint Monkey, I had my four-month-old asleep next to me. She had a dirty diaper. I was praying she wouldn’t wake up. I got off the phone and changed the diaper. There was no touchdown dance. It was helpful. For me it’s better to be an adult and very established before you have too much success. It was just, “This is my job, and today it went well.”
Featured image by Hebbah Vidali.