A CONVERSATION WITH TUPELO HASSMAN: girlchild and the city with the most trailers in the world
“Just north of Reno and just south of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle. When the Calle de las Flores trailer park was first under development on the rum-and-semen-stained outskirts of Reno, all of its streets were going to glow with the green of new money and freshly trimmed hedges and Spanish names that evoked the romance of the Old West.”
LJ Moore: girlchild takes place in Calle, a failed “planned” community on the outskirts of Reno, which is like a failed Las Vegas. So I wanted to know what made you want to write into this landscape.
Tupelo Hassman: This is the tricky part where I separate myself from the book.
LJM: I make it a point to not assume autobiography.
TH: I wish everyone would do that.
LJM: I’m a poet. When you’re a poet, people assume it’s always about you.
TH: So in the decade when this book is set, Vegas wasn’t what it is now. Reno is tremendously worse than it was in the 80’s. It’s bizarrely unglamorous. There is a city outside of Reno that is like Calle… actually several. And there are suburbs there now… the nice suburbs, and the dirty suburbs. I was just there to film the book trailer in October, and there were three more Calles than the last time I was there… and they have hierarchies.
LJM: A hierarchy? How?
TH: Well we were doing a lot of driving around, and I was in this bar talking to the bartender, and I said, So you live in Sun Valley? And she said, No, I live in Coyote Valley. And you could see that she was offended I didn’t know the hierarchy—like, No, Coyote Valley.
LJM: Like living in Southern California and being from Orange County, versus Beverly Hills?
TH: More like the difference between Bel Air and Beverly Hills. So this town that’s like the Calle in the book… the rumor is that it was in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the city with the most trailers in the world, and at the same time it was in the Guinness Book for having the most ex-felons in the world. And it really is a city full of trailers: no buildings, except for stores. I don’t know if that answers your question.
TH: It felt invisible. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I feel like it’s an invisible community.
LJM: Even though it’s huge.
TH: Even though it’s huge. It’s one mile from Reno: you get on the freeway and go one mile and you come over a hill and as you come down you see thousands of trailers.
“My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock. Welcome to the Calle.”
LJM: So one of the first things you establish in the book is this idea of the inheritance of the feebleminded: the voice of the story, Rory Dawn Hendrix, describes herself as the feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter. And yet… she turns out to be very intelligent: they test her in school and there is a lot of focus on her intelligence. But the feebleminded label or curse or feeling… it sticks. It even becomes a kind of refuge in a way for her, or a disguise. She’s smart enough to know, as some point, to hide her intelligence. So what does feebleminded mean to you, and what does it mean to Rory Dawn?
TH: The whole thing that Rory is fighting against on the one side is the establishment’s ideas, and on the other hand her own ideas about heredity. When you identify with a culture, you often buy the bullshit associated with that culture. Since Rory’s already on the fence about how she fits in that world, it’s easier to identify—in any way—than to be nowhere. Then I learned about the Bucks, and how recently forced sterilization was happening—around the time I was born, and I’m not that old.
LJM: You elaborate on the story of the Bucks in the book: one of the characters Rory Dawn befriends is Vivian Buck, who was a real person from the case of Buck v. Bell, the outcome of which was that in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court legislated that feeblemindedness—and they actually used that word—was something that should not infect the general population, and so could justify forced sterilization.
TH: And it just struck me how that could have happened to so many people I know, with bad luck and attention from the wrong people.
“I don’t know if the story’s true because I know from my perch on the Truck Stop’s fridge that Mama ‘tells a tale to make a sale’ and that ‘flapping lips get the tips.’ I don’t know how much of what she says actually took place in the Santa Cruz Mountains that rise over our past and how much got added in the Calle bars that make up our present. But, because this story will be mine someday, like Mama’s hope chest and all the answers that aren’t in it, I’m keeping it.”
LJM: So with that in mind, the idea of stories and truths: that a story someone inflicts on you from the outside—like a government’s story about what it wants or does not want to become—or a person’s story about whether they come from feeblemindedness or happen to be smart, and what kind of strength or liability that might represent—all of these are, in essence, stories inflicted on us from the outside. And, at the same time, we’re developing our own narratives of who we are and who other people are.
A lot of Rory’s sense of who she is comes from the story she’s told about herself, weighed against other people’s versions of that story. I’m thinking of a scene in girlchild where her brothers come to visit. These brothers have all moved away, gotten out of the Calle, and that night they all drink and tell stories about what it was like to grow up with their mother, who is passed out and can’t hear them. But Rory can, and she listens, and she hears a story she’s never heard before about her mother. A life before her time that she has no knowledge of. So the feebleminded story… that’s one version Rory is handed about herself and her mother.
“The story swirled like smoke through the house and as I fell asleep I could see the pictures it made, what my brothers might’ve become if Winston hadn’t decided to move them. If they’d stayed with Mama, settled on the Calle, they’d be just four more boys who didn’t know what to do with their hands, but they made it out, and now they’ve got families and food on the table and their teeth are still in their mouths.”
LJM: And then there’s another version of her mother she’s being given, when Rory and her mother are driving to California to see her grandmother, who is ill, and her mother tells her this intense story about once having carried drugs across the border. Rory has no way to picture any of what she’s hearing—it’s outside her experience—so what she does is populate it with things she knows: the van in the story that her mother is driving becomes a van she has seen parked in the Calle, so she’s basically putting pieces in that aren’t “true” in order to populate a story that is “true.”
The question is, when you were writing this book, did you think about the idea that people often don’t want “versions” of a story—they don’t want that ambiguity? They want a story to be “true” or not true? Fictional or non-fictional, autobiographical, or made up—but not mixtures of the two? Is the story still true, when there are elements of fiction in it?
TH: Yeah… there are no true stories, right? Or maybe that’s what Rory’s trying to figure out: do you just choose what stories to accept? That seems maybe too bold. So if she inhabits all these stories, she figures out, maybe, what to keep. She’s interrogating all of the stories, trying them on…
LJM: And finding what part of them is true.
TH: Yes, what sticks.
LJM: And by true, I don’t mean… I mean this is part of the question… what it is you’re after… that you’re uncovering… is the idea of truth not as “fact,” but truth as “resonance.”
TH: Right, yeah… I mean it’s the heredity question. These stories are what we inherit, and we drag them around with us, like anything else…. I mean… okay. I’m going to tell you about peacocks for a second.
TH: Yeah, so for a long time I worried about defense mechanisms—we’re talking about me now—that I learned in my life, that I thought I needed in order to be safe, and now I have them and I use them inappropriately, and they’re way too strong. And everyone is like, it’s cool, it’s cool, it’s safe now! And for a long time I was mad at myself that I still had these things… but then something happened. Years and years ago, I got stopped when I drove up to a bunch of peacocks crossing the highway… and I was sitting there watching them cross… and I understood the whole thing. Ha! Let me explain it:
We love peacocks for their adornments, but their adornments are also their safety mechanism. And they’re so beautiful, we never say You don’t need those anymore, let’s just snip them off. We don’t, we cherish them. And this reminds me of what Rory Dawn is doing: she’s struggling with the idea that she can’t get rid of these stories, these defense mechanisms—at least some of them—so how is she going to present them, and in what arrangement?
LJM: Like how do you own them?
TH: Yes, because cutting them off would be stupid in some cases… and also I think that Rory does realize that nothing is true, that everything is bullshit, so she’s got a freedom to do whatever she wants once she figures that out.
“My pops’s last name wasn’t Hendrix but it obviously didn’t rate much higher since Mama never took it and I never got it. What I know about him comes from listening at corners to the little talking Mama does with her various cowboys after they’ve bribed her with the promise of a night’s distraction and me with buckets from KFC or boxes of Chinese takeout.”
LJM: So, speaking of Rory figuring things out, girlchild is written entirely in her very distinctive voice. How did you find that voice, or how did Rory’s voice find you? Was it hard to find her voice, or did it come to you right away? And how long ago did you start writing girlchild?
TH: The very oldest three pages might be ten years old: but then the majority are five or six years old. And I don’t know if this matters, but when I first started writing this my idea was that Rory would never get out, and her voice, the voice of the book, emerged out of that. She was never going to get out of the Calle, and in a way she never does… you never get out… you never escape… whatever. And so the first ending was really sad, and the story is already so sad.
LJM: The ending it has now? Sad? That’s funny because I don’t think it’s sad at all.
TH: No the ending’s not sad anymore, I don’t think. But the Calle is a circular place, and the original ending was about not being able to escape. So your question about the story thing, which I’m sorry, I’m not letting go of yet… Maybe by doing all that work on her stories it didn’t make sense anymore to me that she wouldn’t get out. So then I knew I had to rewrite the end, and as I was writing, it came as a total surprise, which never happens to me. I hear some writers say things like, My characters just do things, and I just watch them and write it down. When people say that, I’m like, I hate you. Honestly, that never happens to me: but it happened here, and I was overwhelmed. For years, that wasn’t how it ended, but Rory’s voice changed on it’s own despite what I had originally intended.
LJM: Am I allowed to ask what did happen, before?
TH: The original ending is on my website, on the girlchild page: it ends with the same line being repeated many times, 30 times or something… I am a heaven and hell flower. I am a heaven and hell flower. I am a heaven and hell flower. I loved that part so much, and now it’s not in the book anywhere.
LJM: A version of the story. A version of her.
TH: Yeah. But it’s not an untrue ending.
“The metal flash of a pair of wire strippers, the unexpected shine on a Phillips head, these things cause the same fear in me, the same gut- tightening, ass- puckering panic as the midnight gleam of a switchblade. Chain locks have the same effect. And lightbulbs. You can find all of these at your local hardware store.”
LJM: So girlchild is written in this very compelling, firecracker voice, and the structure mirrors that: these are quick, punchy chapters that are a half-page or a page long, I think three at most. You also play with form, using structures Rory scavenges from what’s around her: some of them are unanswerable math problems, some are multiple-choice questions, some are tongue-in-cheek or baldly sarcastic pot-shots at advice to young women on how to conduct themselves. The result is that girlchild is a page-turner; it’s an “easy read” in that sense. But it’s far from an easy subject. Pain and fear is all over these pages… so I’m going to ask you a question that I get asked a lot as a poet, and I hate it, and I never know how to answer: why do you write about difficult subjects? Why write into painful things?
TH: That is a good question. M
y most hated question is what inspires you as a writer?
LJM: Ugh. Everything? All the time?
TH: Yeah, exactly.
TH: So about pain. I don’t know. I write a lot of sad things, but I never realized it until [my husband] Bradford—who is my constant first reader—and I began a discussion about it. The last three of five things I’ve written, after he read them he had tears in his eyes and was like, You didn’t tell me it was going to be sad, and I’m going, Oh, oh I’m sorry… it’s sad. I forgot to tell you! Because… I don’t know… I’ve been pondering that since then, and trying to figure out why. I heard someone talking about making films the other day, and they said that they give other people an experience of something they might never experience, and I thought, Is that why I write sad things, because I can really take people on a tour of sadness? I mean really? Is that why I’m here?
LJM: Like Gilligan’s Island… like here we go, a three hour tour of… sadness! For those of you who have nothing bad happen in your lives…
TH: Yeah, right… that’s totally condescending! It’s… I don’t know… I mean I don’t know if it’s something to worry about.
LJM: I’m not so much worried about it as I’m…
TH: I feel worried about it.
LJM: Fair enough.
TH: I don’t know the answer. But I know that a couple of people on Amazon who reviewed advance copies of the book wrote things like, I would give this five stars but it’s so SAD.
LJM: See! This is why I asked you this question!! I mean, what is it with people and sad?
TH: Yeah, I mean what do they want? I don’t know what they want.
LJM: What isn’t sad? What story doesn’t have… I mean any story worth telling…
TH: Yes, what story worth telling… See, I don’t know if that’s just us, or…I don’t know.
LJM: But we’re the writers.
TH: Yes, we’re the writers. We get to do whatever we want.
LJM: Not really, but still…
TH: But writing is always terrifying. And this was such a painful book to write. Really, really painful. I would cry all day while I worked. There were times that I’d start to work on it and I’d be so scared when I’d finally sit down to work—not that writing isn’t always scary—I mean it’s always scary, I find. Terrifying.
LJM: I find that writing is always painful, personally. Always painful, no matter what.
TH: Yeah, not always painful for me, but always scary. And this book was always painful. Painful to get into. Ugh… but I learned how to work while writing this book. That’s when everything really came together.
LJM: You learned how to work. What does that mean?
TH: It has to do with humility… but it also has to do with, not as much humility as accepting that the work has to get… I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve tried to explain this numerous times, but it really is like OK, the reality is you need to sit here and do this.
LJM: No matter how scary or painful or sad.
TH: Yes. And honestly? I don’t even turn it on all the way: the sad.
LJM: You mean like… oh, you thought that was sad, now watch THIS!
TH: So recently I was working on an essay for largeheartedboy.com, and large hearted boy does this thing where he asks authors to make playlists for their books, and I wrote the saddest playlist. Not the songs… but… it’s so sad! It’s so embarrassing! And I didn’t realize until later what I was doing, but Rory does all this stuff to make that playlist even more sad, and the whole time I have her carrying around Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.
LJM/TH: Oh shit! Hahahaha!!
TH: Which is really amazing to me now because I know that I was like… Oh, you think it’s sad now? Just wait.
LJM: So basically the sadness gauntlet was thrown, and you picked it up and ran with it.
TH: No but listen, I care… because I’m hearing it, about the sadness, and wondering about it. But I don’t know. Have you heard of five chapters? Where he takes a story and serializes it throughout the week? So I did one for him called here are three kinds of loneliness. It’s a short story about three really lonely people and one of them has Alzheimer’s.
TH: That was when it first… well when I first allowed myself to be as perfectly sad as I could possibly be, and I realized… you can just go ahead and make it sad, be as sad as you want. I felt so free, and I had a great time. And then Brad was like (sobbing)… that was so beautiful… and I was just excited, going… I think it really works, what do you think? I mean, what do you think?
LJM: I think I don’t register things as sad that other people to. I think maybe sadness is the primary emotion, but I like to look closely at things that scare me…. like actual or emotional roadkill. If something frightens me I want to go closer. I don’t think everybody’s like that.
TH: What else is there to write about? I mean you could write a story where the worst thing that happened to someone is that they got herpes… from a guy who was a player. A cheerleader, or whatever, and she got herpes. And you could make it really sad… somehow.
LJM: Cause then she gave it to her dog.
TH: Now that is sad.
LJM: I mean in the end, a story may make people uncomfortable because it’s sad, but the bottom line is… did you give a shit?
TH: I think the thing is, my concern is that I think I know more about pain than other people. I don’t think that, but what if that is what I think, underneath it all? Like that’s some bullshit I hope I’m not doing.
LJM: It’s like Steven Spielberg, OK? He invented a certain kind of movie, a formula. So you’re watching a Spielberg movie and you basically know what’s going to happen. The music is going to do a certain thing, the camera angle is a certain way, the lighting is just so, and you know what’s going to happen. That’s because he can’t get over his own conceit, his own invention. Yes, it was hugely successful, but then he didn’t move beyond it. He can’t escape it.
TH: Did you see that horse movie that just came out? I can’t watch the preview, because the music starts doing this thing, and I’m like… OK, now I’m going to cry.
LJM: That’s what I’m talking about. If you suddenly become unable to get out of a certain thing, as a filmmaker, a writer, whatever… that’s the red flag.
TH: Is the trap that it just feels good and it’s fun, so you don’t challenge yourself, or is it that you’re lazy?
LJM: If you’re fascinated by something, as a writer, and you’re still writing into it, and you don’t think you have a handle on it, then I don’t see how you can go wrong. But I feel like there is a moment when you realize that you’ve figured out how to do something, and it’s time to do something else. If you continue to do something because you’ve figured out how to do it, and it’s easy…
TH: Yeah, that’s bad.
LJM: But you’ll know, because you won’t be interested anymore. And I don’t think you’d want to be a writer if it were easy.
“Mama allowed me to be in danger, and the kind she most feared. As she would say, and she would say sadly, and to no one named Jack, ‘That’s the fact, Jack.’ It’s confusing and outrageous and it is a fact and it’s starting to make sense. It makes sense because Mama was in danger once too, and when she was, she lost true north. Maybe if she’d gotten help, joined a Girl Scout troop for example, memorized the “Compasses, finding directions without” section in the Handbook, it wouldn’t have taken her so long, too long, to get it back.”
LJM: So throughout girlchild, Rory’s touchstone, her anchor, her foundation, and eventually the script she eviscerates and uses to translate and interrogate the world is… the Girl Scout Handbook. Why?
TH: I had a copy, and I was doing a writing exercise… from Aimee Bender… and she said, Tonight everybody go home, go to your third shelf, pick the first green book you see, and write a page. It was like, MAGIC!! It was that book, the Girl Scout Handbook… about a 1946-ish copy. It’s totally insane.
LJM: Which instructs girls on how to behave.
TH: Well yeah… how to behave to aspire to a middle class that doesn’t give a shit about you. And it’s so gender-fucked that it’s phenomenal, really. But I don’t know… I suppose that Rory liked to read, and here was a book that reveals all the ways she realizes that, Oh this is half-bullshit and half really attractive, even the idea of being feebleminded… in the same way… I don’t really believe this, but here’s a thing to believe. And it is attractive, like Oh, if you just shine your shoes, then people are going to totally let you exist, you know? Like you can be in this other world.
LJM: And it’s a formula. It’s like the heredity issue. It’s another way to make sense of things. Even if those things don’t make sense.
TH: Especially when they don’t make sense.
Tupelo Hassman’s girlchild is out today, February 14, 2012 from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
[ Resources ]