The Rumpus Book Club chats with Beth Alvarado about her new linked story collection, Jillian in the Borderlands (Black Lawrence Press, October 2020), how teaching influences her creative work, the resonance of including multiple perspectives in a book about the borderlands, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Beth Alvarado about her new story collection, Jillian in the Borderlands!
Beth Alvarado: Hello!
Marisa: Beth, I’m so excited to speak with you about this book!
Beth Alvarado: I am thrilled to be here, really.
Marisa: To get us started, can you talk a little about how the collection came together? Did you set out to write a linked story collection, or did the form come later on in the process?
Beth Alvarado: The first story was an experiment I set up for myself, to see if I could imitate four other authors’ work in one story—so that’s why it’s segmented and in several voices—but after I wrote “The Dead Child Bride,” the voices just kept coming back. So, after about four stories, I thought I’d have a cycle.
After every odd-numbered story, I’d think I was finished with the book.
Marisa: So, “The Dead Child Bride” was always first—did the other stories follow, written in order, or was there arranging/rearranging to be done after the fact?
Beth Alvarado: The stories appear in the order they were written. It took me about nine years to write the whole collection because I was also working on a few nonfiction projects and teaching—so I’d write about one story a year. “The Dead Child Bride” took several drafts, but the others hardly needed any revision at all. There are some sections in a few stories I added later to provide more coherence to the whole, but very few.
Marisa: I’m also curious which authors’ work you set out to imitate!
Beth Alvarado: Oh! The authors! I was teaching Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, and George Saunders. So you can probably see the influence of O’Connor in the gothic elements and Saunders in the magical. Paley in the humor. Carver? In the darkness, maybe.
In the first few stories, the first-person outsider voices were influenced by Carver. He’s probably the only reason there are any first-person segments, at least in the beginning.
Marisa: Those are four authors certainly worth the time and attention, and yes, I can see their influences within the collection. Does teaching often influence your creative practice and writing?
Beth Alvarado: Yes, teaching is a big influence on my writing, I think. I read more carefully when I’m going to teach a book—and I usually teach stories and essays and so I write stories and essays. Also, the fact that teaching takes a lot of time really has been an influence on my life, the fact that I write in shorter forms. But many of my students have gone on to be writers and to publish, and their work influences mine.
Marisa: You just mentioned Carver’s influence on the first-person outsider voices included within the book. Can you speak more about the shifting perspectives within the stories? You move between first-person and third-person limited and third-person omniscient, and it felt, to me, somehow both jarring and also seamless—as if the jarring were intentional. I found it made the book quite a page-turner for me, and also that I sometimes doubled back to retrace my (and the characters’) steps.
Beth Alvarado: I didn’t find it jarring. I know it seems odd to say that—the experience for me was more seamless.
Writing the book was like being at that cross-border dinner party where various people are telling parts of a story, and so there’s more than one language and sometimes people backtrack or take off on a tangent, and so you’re left to put the “story” together yourself. I was trying to replicate the movie in my head and I hope it gives the reader the feeling of being omniscient.
But, you know, I set up those constraints, the point of view shifts, in “The Dead Child Bride” and so that was liberating, really, in that I just followed the voices as they came to me after that. I would get to the end of one section when that character had finished saying what she wanted to say, and I would think, okay who’s next? Or, well, now I need an outsider. So I was kind of in suspense, too, as I was writing. I didn’t have any plot points, for instance. I never knew where a story was going to go when I started it except that I knew it would have something magical happen.
Now, that the book is finished, it makes sense to me that you would have different voices in a book about the borderlands, you know, that the space of the book would have all these different perspectives both breaking up a narrative and creating it.
Marisa: The characters here are so memorable, too, each in their own way. Is there a particular character in the book who you felt closest to? A character who came to you most easily? And, the opposite: one who was hardest to get on the page?
Beth Alvarado: Oh, I’m glad they’re memorable. I probably feel closest to Angie—although at first, I felt a kind of distance from her, She seemed kind of cold or something. Jillian is based probably, at least to some extent, on my daughter, so it’s interesting that I made her mute! Juana of God, when I invented her, I was trying consciously to kind of critique faith healers who take advantage of people—I’d seen a show on Oprah and my sister-in-law had just died of cancer and my husband had a terminal diagnosis—but Juana just kept coming back and became one of the strongest characters, so she surprised me.
So, when my husband died, right after I wrote “Dear Juana of God,” I wrote “Jillian Speaks,” wherein her father Bobby appears. Of course, I was in love with Bobby and so that’s when I started to feel like Angie. And then I did have to go back through the book and write little segments and references to Bobby.
“Jillian Speaks” is the first thing I wrote after Fernando died. Somehow, writing that story helped me remember and feel things I’d been not allowing myself to feel. I think I understand my son and daughter’s grief better, too, after writing about Bobby from Jillian’s point of view.
Who was hardest? I honestly can’t remember anyone being difficult. Maybe Mac, in the beginning.
Marisa: That’s so interesting for me, because I had a similar feeling about Angie—at first, she felt a little cold or distant. But as the book went on, I felt closest to her. I did very much love Juana of God, too. I thought perhaps she was going to be a critique or an archetype, but she ended up being such an individual, such a specific character. And so loving, in her own way.
Beth Alvarado: Oh, good! I know. I remember hoping Angie wouldn’t seem inconsistent. And Juana! What a trip! But I think in some ways, at least philosophically, Juana was very close to Fernando. I mean, I think I gave her a lot of his philosophy and understanding, so she became very important to me.
The thing is, I know the stories change as they go on. They become longer, partly because there are so many more voices that need to weigh in, and the subject matter becomes more complicated. Also, Jillian gets older and more complicated, so the stories need more space.
Marisa: Yes, they do become longer and more complicated as Jillian ages—I think for me that was how I interpreted this as a cycle of stories, because it followed the cycle of Jillian’s life.
Beth Alvarado: Oh, I like that interpretation! A cycle of stories about the cycle of Jillian’s life so far.
Marisa: You’ve described the stories in Jillian in the Borderlands as “fictional essays.” Can you share what this means for you?
Beth Alvarado: Well, I was writing a collection of essays, Anxious Attachments, at the same time I was writing these stories, and you know some people describe the essay form as “the mind on the page” and the word “essay” comes from the French, “essai,” which means a trial or an experiment. So, as I was writing these I felt as if the “mind on the page” was simply the character’s mind—which, has to be, an aspect of my mind, right? And I was experimenting, listening. In many ways, these stories are the most spontaneous things I’ve ever written, the most tapped into my own interior voices.
The whole process was very much an inquiry in the same way that an essay is an inquiry. So I had no sense of rising action, etc., so much as a deepening of thought.
Marisa: Ah, that makes perfect sense, yes! (The bit about “fictional essays” was from Irene Cooper’s interview with you last January, focused on Anxious Attachments.)
Beth Alvarado: Oh, that was a good interview—Irene is so interesting. Her debut novel, Committal, was just published by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in September.
Marisa: Now that the book is finished, do you feel done with Jillian, Angie, and the rest of the characters? Is it easy for you to move on once a book is completed?
Beth Alvarado: I am having a very hard time moving on. I would love for those voices to come back to me, and I’m not sure why they haven’t. I think it may have to do with things having become so extreme at the border. I’m not sure, emotionally, that I can take on children who’ve been separated from their parents or the fact that the pandemic must have made dire conditions even more dire. In a way, reality has become too dark. I remember thinking that writing the tales was a kind of antidote for reality, but now that seems too selfish and so privileged. It’s like Angie says, near the end, about “tending one’s garden” as not being enough.
I think, when you’re writing fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, the liberating thing is that in fiction you can have characters say what they need and want to say, like Gloria does in the courtroom at the end of the book. You can have fantastic things happen, like ghosts or spirits save children from a school shooting. And so this may be why writing the tales felt so liberating, I wasn’t tied to reality but could still emotionally and philosophically dive into it.
Marisa: Yes, that’s a very important point, about how things have become so extreme. You began writing this book in a different kind of America than we are in right now; certainly, the country was troubled nine years ago, but now we are well down the road to fascism and what’s happening at the border is that much more unconscionable. What’s it like to have these stories come out now, on the eve of Election Day, amid a once-in-a-century pandemic?
Beth Alvarado: In that way, the book was witnessing events from the outside, but now it feels like witnessing is not enough, like I’d have to actually go into one of those centers and be able to testify.
On one hand, it feels like maybe the book is too late. When I was first sending around some of the stories, the feedback was that they were too dark. Now they don’t seem quite dark enough! On one hand, it feels like maybe the book is dated—but, on the other, because it’s really about people who can make one another’s lives better or who try to do so, then it’s not dated, or too topical.
I think, really, this feeling, like what can a book do, causes writer’s block. But, really, that’s a kind of spiritual paralysis that we’re all facing in one way or another.
Marisa: Yes, I know many writers having this conversation right now, and many writers who can’t write, or feel stuck, or feel too overwhelmed by what needs to be done in reality to focus on creative writing. Have you been writing over these last several months?
Beth Alvarado: I have been trying to write a series of essays about places I’ve been and the art and literature that has come out of those places. The latest one was about Barcelona and became an essay on the Spanish Civil War and fascism. So, every place I revisited in memory and everything I read became a mirror of what has been going on now. The last month or so I’ve been focused on promoting Jillian in the Borderlands and gearing up for teaching—rereading Toni Morrison, for instance—and so I’ve had less time to write. I’ve also been very involved in taking care of my daughter’s three-year-old twins—she’s a public health nurse who does COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing—and so taking care of the twins has seemed much more important than anything else. And, in fact, it is the only thing that keeps me centered in the here and now.
Marisa: I find that taking care of my own six-year-old is both the hardest and healthiest thing I can focus on right now, because of what you say—it keeps me centered in the here and now. But the here and now is also quite hard to explain to a very curious six-year-old…
Beth Alvarado: Yes. One of the twins asks, When will the germs go away? And the other shakes his head and says, Never. They don’t understand anything about the election, of course. We try not to watch the news in front of them.
Marisa: It’s very hard. My son is a precocious reader and keeping information from him is a challenge.
Who are your literary influences, artistic influences, musical influences? Are there any writers, books, artists, and so forth (aside from the four writers mentioned at the start of this conversation) that you felt particularly in conversation with when writing Jillian in the Borderlands?
Beth Alvarado: One of my closest friends, Karen Brennan (author of, most recently, Monsters), has most influenced my writing—of all the writers I’ve ever read. Her short stories are brilliant. Because I wrote Jillian in the Borderlands over such a long period of time, there were a lot of influences. Joy Williams. George Saunders. Grace Paley, always. Yuri Herrera’s short novel Signs Preceding the End of the World was really important and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. And lyrical nonfiction—Maggie Nelson’s books, essays by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Film? Roma and Pan’s Labyrinth come to mind. And I love black-and-white photography, and can spend hours on line looking at photographs.
Marisa: That is a wonderful list! Beth, thank you very much for your time this afternoon—and for this beautiful, haunting book. I’m so glad we could spend some time discussing it, and I hope it finds its way into many readers’ hands!
Beth Alvarado: Thank you, Marisa. It was my pleasure.
Photograph of Beth Alvarado by Hannah O’Leary.