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.Read More
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.Read More
Leaving Hawaii broke my heart. For years, it was all I could write about. The tropics and heartbreak. I couldn’t separate them in my head, in my relationships. I’d flinch if you touched me. Even my skin felt wrong. In the cold, saltless North.
And place can break your heart. I believe that. Hard luck, few opportunities, poverty, meanness. It feels like somewhere else will give you a proper chance. Somewhere else you can be the person you’re meant to be.
Except. Except. I went back to Hawaii in 2000, just before the elections. It wasn’t the place I’d mourned. And I wasn’t that girl in any case. The thing about heartbreak is that it’s internal. That’s what we mean when we use that metaphor. Something inside us hurts. Not our city. Our center. I hurt. I hurt when I breathe. I hurt when I walk past that restaurant where you laughed. I hurt remembering kissing you in that park. The sunset feels like it’s crushing me. This place is killing me!
But what hurts is inside you.
The sunset doesn’t recognize you. That restaurant. That park. They don’t remember. They don’t have anything to do with your suffering. The dog goes on with its doggy life. Sometimes, you’re the only witness. And that can feel so heavy. So lonely.
Leaving Hawaii was the best worst decision I ever made. It turns out, it didn’t have much to do with my heartbreak after all. I suckled my injuries for longer than I should have. Longer than I needed to. Until they seemed funny.
My silly old heart. Recovering despite my best attempts to hold it down and forcefeed it the past.
Place is just where you lived for a time. Where a part of the story was set. But you’re the story. And you can’t outrun your center. It’s there in peace and in famine. It’s there in heartbreak and joy.
Last week, I hung out with a cat dying of cancer. He had this feeding tube like an odd antenna, and medical tape wrapped around his neck. His belly was shaved and soft as tenderness. He was so happy you’d never know. You’d never know his situation.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
“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.
TALK ABOUT HOW PEOPLE ALWAYS THINK THEY’RE CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOKS.
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.
TALK ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT CANDY.
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.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT SPOKANE?
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.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL BE DIFFICULT ABOUT WRITING A COMEDY?
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?
WHICH OF YOUR CHARACTERS WOULD BE THE MOST IRRITATING TO KNOW IN REAL LIFE?
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.
BUT I DIDN’T ASK YOU WHICH ONE YOU DISLIKED, I ASKED WHICH WOULD BE THE MOST IRRITATING?
Sheesh. I don’t know. Jane, I suppose. She has terrible boundaries. So there’d always be calamity and shit.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE SOMETHING ABOUT EITHER OF YOUR FIRST TWO BOOKS, WHAT WOULD YOU GO BACK AND CHANGE?
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.
WHY ARE YOU SO MEAN TO RED AUDREY?
What now? How am I mean?
TO THE BOOK? WHY ARE YOU SO MEAN TO THE BOOK?
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.
BUT WHAT DOES YOUR RESPONSE SAY TO THOSE OF US WHO LOVE THAT BOOK?
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.
WHAT’S THE BEST NEW THING YOU’VE DISCOVERED IN THE LAST YEAR?
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.Read More
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.Read More
I told you I wrote a list, right? I wrote this list. It was three pages long and had “three wishes” phrasing. I labored over the items on this list. I wanted them to summon exactly the person I described. My list was a roadmap to the destination of somebody perfect for me. Not perfect full stop. Just perfect for me. The space between those two sentences is a big fucking space.
So? So, I’m telling you because I found myself in a weird conversation a couple of days ago. We were talking about Audrey (from my first novel Red Audrey and the Roping) and Mary said maybe Audrey comes off as ethereal because I didn’t actually know what a good girlfriend was. I kind of sketched her. She was vague because I’d never actually experienced a good girlfriend. Dude. That is a tragic speculation. And also true. I don’t think I had. I’d never had a romantic relationship with boundaries, and so my attempt to write a person with boundaries kind of feels blurry.
But, you know, I was chasing her. I was chasing a person with boundaries. And I knew, as the writer, that a person with boundaries could keep Jane safe until she had boundaries herself. Red Audrey was a roadmap home. For me. It was a story to make peace with my scary places. I tried to conjure someone to love me in spite of everything. And she reads like a dream because I didn’t quite capture her.
Because that’s not how it works. You can’t chase somebody with boundaries. You have to have boundaries yourself. You have to have them and then calmly ask for the opportunity to be with your list. You have to hope your person. You have to hope them. And while you wait, you have to work. You have to remember that you’re never finished. That you’re always crafting yourself. That you’re never finished, and that you are worth it. That you are worth better. You, with your beautiful fractures. You, love. You.
My first book struggles with grief. A woman who returns to Hawaii after nearly a decade of absence, and finds herself stuck, still processing her mother’s suicide. I don’t have any suicide in my family. But I have heard, over the years, from readers who do. And grief is so familiar. Heavy and daily in that awful boring way.
Eighteen months ago, my coworker’s son took his own life. Since then, she has started a suicide support group in Washington State. She has organized, and grown funds, and reached out to her community and talked about drugs and desperation. She has poured her grief into action, and hollered for help and extended aid and she’s just awesome. Honest about her struggle. Honest about her willingness to do whatever she can to help those struggling around her.
A week ago, Mary’s coworker’s son took his own life. The familiar grief. No, no, not you again. Veterans returning with their maladies, with their brutal experiences. Kids trying to cope with addiction, with bullying. Desperate financial times. Health crises. Denial of assistance for food, housing, mental illness. Need in every direction. Mothers trying to explain to themselves, to their families, to their faith: Why did this happen?
Last Sunday, Mary spent the afternoon and evening in the kitchen making casseroles. The house takes deeper breaths when she’s cooking. I sat nearby, reading. Thinking. Wishing for these families. A friend of mine recently lost his comrade to cancer. And he wrote this gorgeous eulogy about his love and his loss, about his brotherhood. And this is the part of grief that is most familiar. We are, none of us, spared. And for some reason, I keep thinking about that Margaret Cho title, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. I tell you these stories about love, these stories about loss because I know you have felt them. In your particular way. I know they are familiar. They are ours. They are all of ours. We can’t save anyone. It doesn’t work that way. We love them. And sometimes that is a task. Sometimes that is our liver, torn every night from our body. We love fiercely. We grieve in pieces. We hold each other together. We unravel and gleam.
“You have an impulse, occasionally, to burn shit down.”
I say this to myself sometimes. In fact, years ago I wrote that line of Audrey’s, “I think you destroy things, people, just so you can grieve them.” Or something like that. Yeah, something like that.
But when she says it, she adds, “If I had a different kind of ego, if I were prone to panic, your impulse would have gotten in the way of our relationship.”
“How’s that?” I say, laughing softly. I see how worrisome this admission is, but I’m not sold on the worry yet. I’m still considering the purchase.
“Your whole, ‘You should just go’ thing. If I’d listened to that, I would have left. You meant it when you said it, but you didn’t mean it for long.”
No. I never meant it for long. And this leads to the crux. What do I mean for more than a moment? How many people have I believed—adamantly believed—I loved? Said it. Convinced myself and others. Only to find I didn’t mean it for long. Mercurial. Is that right? My mother used to say, “I don’t think you want to be happy.” When? Or did she simply forget to add, With this? Because I didn’t. I didn’t want to be happy with the various incarnations of “this” that she was convinced should have made me happy.
It’s a good feeling, getting rid of things. And sometimes the severance is essential. Sometimes it’s rash. I have no interest in grief now. Isn’t that strange? I don’t have to dismantle anything. I don’t need to take the engine apart and figure out why the oil is leaking. Maybe it’s faith. Maybe I acquired some, at last. Is it faith? There is a difference between wanting to be happy, and being happy. That difference is where I live.