Field Guide

On hatred of the artist as a young person

November 30, 2017
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I was listening to Neil Gaiman discuss why he waited to write the Graveyard Book until he was a good enough writer to do the story justice. He told about two aborted attempts to get into the characters. The years of thinking it had taken to try a third time, and how he’d been disappointed with that effort, too, until he’d shown it to his daughter and she’d asked for more. It’s curious to hear this story just days after my friend tells me that she hates when people love her early work because she hates her early work. She can’t even look at it without feeling ill.

“They don’t want anything to do with work I’ve done in the last ten years. They want me to be the same artist.”

I don’t think this is true. They aren’t thinking about the artist. They are thinking about the art. They are thinking of the way the pieces spoke to them. They are thinking about how the pieces felt. They are thinking of themselves at the time when they first discovered the art, and the way the art can take them right back to that self like a teleporter.

And for us, the artists, those people are gone. I can look at paragraphs I wrote and not recognize a single word. Was that really me, writing those sprawling sentences? At the time, it had been so urgent to get it all down, and now I can’t even be bothered to remember what it felt like to need to express it in the first place.

I wrote Red Audrey and the Roping as a short story when I was twenty-one. Half my life ago. The girl who felt that aching despair doesn’t exist now. But that book is like music, I can remember the exact road I was on when I felt so love sick that I might have been poisoned. I can remember days up on the hill with the dogs when I was trying to obliterate my narrator. Days when I scarred her body. Days when I played the same song on repeat because it was the only path through this chapter.

It would be a tragedy if we were the same artists now as we had been. And it would be odd to find that we could carry everyone along with us each step. No one can grow at the exact same rate as the artist grows. Even the artist, when discussing the third book with a reader, will find herself thinking instead of the fifth book. We are outpacing ourselves and each other all the time. We are wanting, always, to understand a little better. To make something more perfectly beautiful. To make something we haven’t got quite right yet.

The nomadic girl who made everything a myth as she tried to explain suffering to herself is nowhere to be found now. We aren’t a single volume, or even a shelf of books, but entire cities. I remember a time when I thought recurring chin acne was the worst thing that could happen.

Sometimes art feels like a spear. That it tears through people and just leaves this gaping wound. An injury. And we work not just to find a salve, but to find more art that will injure us as gloriously.

I used to believe that martyrdom was the highest form of love. I did. That is a thing I believed. And then I wrote a small, intimate tragedy about it and realized that I’d had it all wrong. I love that story. I love how wrong I was. I love the books I read to find more rigorous truths about love and tragedy. About myself. About you. About this whole weary place where we keep getting it wrong and have to gather up our tools and start to find a way to get it a little more right.

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What is your tone?

November 22, 2013
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I didn’t really get tone until college. What is the author’s attitude, they’d ask us on tests. How the fuck should I know? Why can’t we just read it and have our own attitudes?

But I get it now. It’s not much of a conversation if our reading experience is limited to our own response without any consideration of the writer’s perspective. In a similar way, as an adolescent I had a limited understanding of theme. What they — the nefarious posers of literary questions — really meant for us to discover was: What is the story about — what are its themes? But I found this a ridiculous proposition. It took an entire book to tell the story and now you want me to reduce it to battle cries in four sentences? Harry Potter is about the humanist assertion that brutality and fear tactics have a shelf life and ultimately the hope of civilization is the united belief in kindness, bravery and curiosity. There should always be the opportunity for redemption. We are bound, one to another, in unexpected ways. Also, wizards.

My problem, obviously, as an earnest student, was a belief that there could be one correct answer. When in fact what I was being asked was how does the story work? How does it work? In these 700 pages, what did you absorb, what does it mean, and is it what the author intended you to experience? Jack Gilbert calls this the engine. What is the engine? How does the story run?

We like to say that what the writer intended has little to do with it. All that matters is the way the reader experiences the work. I suppose that’s true if the work fails. But tone is pivotal if the work succeeds. If we are moved, how are we moved and why? Did the writer get us where she meant to get us or was it something else entirely? If it works, does it work the way it was meant to work or does it work because we, the readers, stepped in and wrote back story and intentions that aren’t on the page? Did we help it work? Was it all there on the page but we resisted because we found the characters unappealing, the story stunted?

We matter, yes. The story doesn’t exist without the reader. But the story doesn’t exist without the writer either. It’s communal. It’s a conversation in one of those houses filled with Pinter-styled pregnant pauses. There’s a lag in your ability to speak back to the writer, the way there’s a lag in the writer’s ability to bring the story into the world. First, all things exist in our heads. Then they are made real. Paper and type. A story from a rib.

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Please praise what you love

April 10, 2013
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I used to dread the question: What’s your book about?

Um. It’s a kind of love story. (Red Audrey.) It’s a tragedy. About martyrdom. And family.(Field Guide.) Yes. Yes, way to pitch, Jill Malone. But now, I look forward to you asking because fuck, I’m excited. I’m so excited. Giraffe People is the book I hoped to write. The story I meant to tell you.

The one about being young and striving, about being human and messy, about the way childhood as military dependents felt like we were veterans, too. About the way love burns in that scathing, lovely way so that you’re aware, maybe for the first time, of your arm bones and your ribs, of the way your breath rushes in and out. You’re aware of the center of you. The relentless light.

Praise what you love. Praise it! We don’t have time to quibble and mumble to our shoes. I want you to read this book. I want to read this book to you. Remember what it felt like to be young. To want in that way before we knew better. To be free from knowing better. Remember how tentative love felt. How fragile. How we thought it was inexperience that made it feel so new, but really that was just love breaking us open the way love will.

Giraffe People will be in stores in three weeks. My wife says, “The novel has an adolescent protagonist, and is an internal coming-out story focusing on what it means to be queer in an evangelical family and also within the military culture during DADT.” And all of that’s true, but it’s also about the zing — the sonic, flaying zing — of being lit up the first time by that person. You know. That one.

giraffe people 6a

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Just a note

March 13, 2013
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Many thanks to Women and Words for posting my guest blog about Giraffe People today. This has been quite a week. My second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, won the Great Northwest Book Festival, which is particularly exciting because I can’t think about Spokane without thinking about that novel. Young family. Young adulthood. The horrible cost of getting away with things.

I’ve been ill with the joint-aching sinus-infection thing that’s going around, and yesterday I helped the second graders paint their dinosaur models in the hallway, sort of on butcher paper. Some had paint in their hair, on their ears, down their shins, and they were so gleeful about the opportunity to paint their animals — made from recycled cardboard — that they each kept up a running monologue of all progress. “Look! I’m painting the tail! And next I’m probably going to paint that leg. And then that one!”

“Mine has three eyes,” Gavin said. “Its name is Oddosaurus.”

Yes. Yes, quite. Joy in every direction. I’m grateful for the stories that exist, and the stories forming. Tomorrow we have a date for the Dinosaur Museum where Gavin will take us on a tour of painted dinosaurs, drawn dinosaurs, dinosaur research papers and 3-D dinosaur exhibits. I will think of the little boy who whispered, “My dad is going to kill me.”

“How come?”

“This shirt is new.”

“I promise all that paint will wash out.”

“Will you tell him? Maybe you could write him a note?”

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The Next Big Thing

January 30, 2013
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Brett Norris, dynamic writer, tagged me to contribute to The Next Big Thing. A chance for writers to dish some dirt on their forthcoming work. Let’s get filthy.

What is the working title of your book?

The working title was Tales of a Vocabulary Black Belt, but happily that got dropped in favor of Giraffe People as I kept working. I don’t think I’ve ever had a title that suited the work as well as this one does. And it was Cole’s idea. She refers to her family as Giraffe People — lumbering, nomadic, it seemed so exactly right.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I wanted to write about music, and what it had been like to be a kid growing up on military bases. I took my experience on the base at Fort Monmouth, and the base at Aliamanu and I combined them. I was trying to understand what was going on in Iraq as well, and this story gave me the opportunity to go back through the Persian Gulf War and look at the repercussions of our choices there. And, in other ways, I wanted another chance at a first time. I wanted to write about virginity.

What genre does your book fall under?

Oh. Questions like this bug me. What difference does it make? Will you not read it if I name a genre you find boring? It’s a story about being human. So, if you like those, give it a read.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Most of the characters are in high school. I think Emma Watson should play the Army cadet trying to get into West Point, and the narrator, Cole, should be played by someone athletic. Imagine an actor like that, athletic and musical and giraffe-ish. Her. She should play Cole.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A military brat whose father is a chaplain decides to join a punk band during her last year in Jersey and collides with an Army cadet in ways that might kick you in the heart.

What is the longer synopsis of your book?

If you were going to write love letters back and forth — maybe before you even realized they were love letters, how would you go about it? Cole does it with vocabulary lists. High school is a community you cannot get away from. They are imposed upon you, and this is the story of a girl who has to figure out what her community will look like. What does she want it to look like? And, then, later, how will she leave it behind to go to the next base?

This isn’t a coming-of-age book, it’s a coming-of-self book.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Like my previous novels, Red Audrey and the Roping, and A Field Guide to Deception, Giraffe People will be published by Bywater Books. Appearing in stores near you, and the virtual ones in May, 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I think I wrote the first draft in five months. And then, some 18 months later, my wife and I sat on the couch and she read it and we talked about it, and I wrote a revised draft in two days. That second draft is almost exactly the book that will be published in May, 2013.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Have you read Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories? Go listen to the New Yorker podcast of Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn’s short story, Dog Heaven. You deserve to hear this story. It’s amazing, and listening to it, walking around my neighborhood in 2009, I realized that the life of kids in the military is secret and unexplored and rich with possibility.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is the funniest book I have ever written. And I think the first with characters who are truly likable. I dare you to read it. Come on. I double dog dare ya.

giraffe people 6a

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Proximate violence

July 27, 2012
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After I read Alice Munro’s stunning collection, The Love of a Good Woman, I read an article that dissected the way violence turns her stories though the stories themselves rarely incorporate violence. In other words, violence is peripheral as an occurrence, and central as an action.

When I began thinking about A Field Guide to Deception, I had a girl who has stolen something, and believes she has gotten away with her theft, only to find the body of her closest friend in the trunk of her car. And then I started to think about how much more interesting it would be to steal a lot of money and get away with it. Not be hunted. Not be caught.

What is your life like when it’s based on a lie?

I don’t care about the action of stealing. That is less interesting to me than the emotional life afterward. My stories turn on violence too. And it’s there all along. In Field Guide in particular, the violence is inevitable from the first pages.

Atonement turns on a word in a letter. Cunt. The whole book. All the tragedy and horror stems from that word in a letter, handed to a girl by mistake.

The Modernists were trying to get at something. At the complexity of the way we think. The rambling, miraculous life of the mind. But they missed something else entirely. That we have deep emotional lives and those lives are often at odds with our values, with our impulses, with our actions, with our thoughts. They were moving away from plot and into consciousness. I think stories live in the middle.

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My interview with my wife. Not on video.

July 16, 2012
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“Wanna interview me?”
“Sure. Oh, you mean, now?”
“I don’t get time to think about my questions?”
“No, you do.”
“HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE A BOOK? ………….. Jill, that’s the first question.”
“Oh, we’re not interviewing on video?”
“No. You can write it. Answer the question.”

I wrote Red Audrey as a short story when I was in graduate school. The story had almost the entire arc: Emily, Audrey, Nick, UPS, Hawaii, the clubs, accident. Jane wasn’t named in the story, and everyone called her honey. So, I was 23. And then I wrote it in scenes when I was 27. I had folders labeled “Emily” “Nick” and “Audrey” and I would write scenes at work and then put them in the appropriate folder. I’d wander around and think, Now I need a scene that gets me to blah. Or, I should write about that weird catacomb jazz club. In the end, I printed all the scenes out and spread them on my bed. I assembled the novel like that.

And then edited it for like 3 years.

I wrote Field Guide in a summer. And had to re-write it twice. My editor hated it. She said it was joyless. She didn’t really say that, but that’s what it felt like she said. And she was entirely right. The drafts were joyless.

Giraffe People was written over about 7 months. I wrote when I felt like it. And the story was just there. Like picking fruit. It was miraculous.


That’s an interesting thing. I suppose because my work is familiar. I mean, I write about things you think about, don’t I? That’s what I try to do anyway. To write about the experience of being human. And so it seems familiar to you. And you suspect that we had a conversation like that at some point. And you know you do that certain thing that appears on page 142, so I must mean you, right? I hope people do it because the work dings inside them. Lights them up.


This is your question? OK. I love candy. Especially Japanese candy. I don’t really see any reason to eat anything else. When I was a kid in Germany, you could get these giant gummi bears in the vending machines. Everywhere! They were everywhere and they were the size of rats. It was the happiest thing ever.


Trains. The trees here. The parks. I love the river and the brick houses. I love the derelict buildings and the hiking trails. I love how many farmers’ markets we have. There are like seven and a half thousand farmers’ markets here now. Or anyway like three. It’s amazing.

We have deer in our neighborhood. Porcupine, skunks, hawks, coyotes. I love the way Spokane resists change and then suddenly paints bike lanes all over the place. The yoga studios and the coffee houses are exactly proportionate.


Well, probably just the sitting down and writing part. I have this story in my head — have had for a year — but still haven’t sat down to write it. I used to have awful dates. I mean mythological, they were so awful. I would go home sometimes and check myself for battle scars, shrapnel. The comedy is just endless. Lesbian dates are a particular kind of surreal.

I’m not really answering the question, am I?


I refuse to answer this question. This question is traitorous. I like all of them. Not like children, or whatever, but I like all of them. That dude who was always hitting on Claire was an asshole though. So I pick him.


Sheesh. I don’t know. Jane, I suppose. She has terrible boundaries. So there’d always be calamity and shit.


I wish I hadn’t put everything I put into Red Audrey. I mean, I put everything I could think of into that novel. The god stuff had no place there. That wasn’t Jane’s issue, it was mine. I wish I hadn’t quite pushed the language as hard as I did. I made it work too hard.

I love Field Guide. I wouldn’t change anything about it, except the title. We lie too much sometimes in fiction. Love stories fucking suck. Some of them really fucking suck. And we have to write those too. The nearly stories. The we-tried-so-hard-and-still-everything-burned stories.


What now? How am I mean?


First-pancake syndrome? I don’t know. It’s your fault actually. You told me parts were overwritten and I asked for an example and you read me one and I can’t think about that book the same way now. And I was young. I wrote that book a decade ago. It’s a first novel. It has first novel problems.


That’s a good question. You have to understand artists operate in a constant state of redress. We’re always looking to improve, to tell something better, to express an experience differently. If I couldn’t see the weaknesses in my novels, then I couldn’t strengthen them. You should have less faith in me as an artist if I tell you my work is flawless. It isn’t. It’s like me. Still working to figure shit out.

I’m glad you love Red Audrey. It’s gratifying that you love Red Audrey. I feel about the novel the way I feel about my teenaged self. Wistful and proud and embarrassed. We don’t have to agree about my work. If I were satisfied with it, I’d stop working.


Yard work. Yard work feels like meditation. I sometimes wander around looking for weeds. Why do I do that? I don’t know. It’s just so satisfying to pull them out.

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Serious people don't write about sex. And other lies.

July 13, 2012
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Long before I realized it, I was writing about power. My novels are concerned with sex. With the complex, troubling, joyous experience of sex. With the mess. With the fuck ups of fucking. With the vulnerability.

Too often sex is portrayed in books as this unlikely experience — a kind of pyrotechnics to make flat characters seem more lifelike. Or it’s truncated as though we must not speak of it. Like some teaser from a black-and-white movie where the door closes as the couple looks at the bed.

You can tell a lot about a character by the kind of sex she has. And it would be odd if she didn’t have sex. It would tell the reader things about her — hopefully things you’ve considered as the writer. One of the most curious things about Tipping the Velvet, for instance, is that Nan doesn’t know what “tipping the velvet” means when she overhears prostitutes using the expression. We’ve spent hundreds of pages watching her have explicit sex, but Flo has to explain what it means. And that’s a huge character moment for both of them. Flo is not some sexless unimaginative socialist, she’s aware and she’s not haughty about sharing her awareness. And Nan, for all her experience, is initiated into the frank sexuality of the lower class.

In my second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, I write about sex in a more forthright way than I was able to in Red Audrey and the Roping. I suspect that part of that is because I was moving away from lyricism and also because so much happens between these characters with little overt action. My second novel is subtle. And, I think, better, than my first.

In exactly one month, I’m going to premiere my video series set in Spokane. Half of the videos will introduce you to curiosities about this town, and the other half with highlight spots from my second novel — places that I lifted and fictionalized. Sometimes just lifted. If you haven’t bought a copy of my book, please do. That way you’ll be able to request spots you’d like to see. Or argue with me about my assertion that I write about sex. Or some other third thing.

Field Guide to Deception cover

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Blog Tour, Part 1

April 18, 2011
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Today, I visited Bett Norris’ blog for an interview. Check it out here: Bett Norris’ Interview.

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May 28, 2010
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I write on the tiniest sliver of a desk.  In the space of wall between the sliding wooden doors of my bedroom and the built-in shelves of movies.  For Field Guide, I wrote here for hours nearly every day for 2.5 months.  Staring at this monitor, this weird photo of my kid in a black cowboy hat, the serpentine wires of the computer hardware.  I played Nada Surf’s See These Bones (Live) on repeat.  For days.   Listened to The National’s Boxer.  It’s dark in this living room/dining room/office.  The box ceilings, the walnut woodwork, the looming maple trees blot out the sky.  I remember it as struggle.  Coming like a supplicant to this desk every day to write a martyr’s tale.  A quiet tragedy.

I remember the misery of my relationship.  The loneliness.  I remember pouring my claustrophobia and isolation into the book.  I remember the joy of writing a child.  His perception.  His goodness.  I remember the days when the dogs cocked their heads at me as I paced around acting out scenes.  Hollering dialogue.  Cackling like a fucking lunatic.  I remember the madness.  The seizure.  The way the characters take the story from you, and run ahead.

Alone in my head.  My planet-sized ego tender as a dumpling.  Always the difference between the clarity of my intention, and the letters on the page.

I remember the hardness.  The food.  I remember the delicacy of memory and heartache.  I remember Kelly telling me to write the joy.  I remember the snow falling.  The truck on the road.

Last night, Field Guide won the Lambda Literary Award, while G and I sat on the couch watching Spirited Away.  The disconnect of the writer’s life.  From mind cave to public act.  When they phoned to tell us, Gavin and I jumped around with our arms raised, hollering.  The dogs cocked their heads at us.  The scene painfully familiar to them.

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