Julia Halprin Jackson on Secrets, Expressed or Implied

Julia Halprin Jackson on Secrets, Expressed or Implied

An interview with Julia Halprin Jackson, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, California Northern, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. She is the publicity director for Play On Words, a literary series in San Jose. She has an MA in creative writing from UC Davis.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I write. I write fiction, nonfiction, poetry. I write marketing emails. I write non-marketing emails. I write project plans. I write about writers I love. I run Play On Words, which allows me to work with writers and performers I really admire. I read. I edit. I ride my bike. I draw pictures of border collies on my coworkers’ white boards when no one is looking. I listen to podcasts. I do really easy crosswords late at night. I run. I cook. I use too many emoji. But mostly I write.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

I am a professional applicant. This is both a good and bad thing. It’s taken me a long time to learn that it’s better to sit on a story until it’s fully cooked before submitting it. Patience is tricky.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

The best thing about being a writer is that you can do what you do anywhere, anytime. My mom, who is also a writer, used to tell me that you could do anything in the world and then write about it. Farmers are writers. Inmates are writers. Presidents are writers. Children are writers.

If you like to write, you’ve got to like to read. Ask questions while you read. Think about why you write and if what appeared on the page before you matches up to what you’ve got going on inside. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something you’re not expecting. And that’s often worth exploring.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

RuPaul is one of my heroes. I’d like to believe that the day I finish my book, he’ll appear at my doorstep in a knockout ball gown and say, “Shantay You Stay.”

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

One of my favorite people is my late grandmother, Saralee Halprin. She was a professional concert pianist for more than 60 years. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in Cleveland during the Depression — the second youngest of 10 kids. When she was in her early 20s she earned a spot as the pianist in the Cleveland Orchestra, which attracted some impressive conductors. She then won a scholarship to Juilliard, where she studied for one year before moving to Los Angeles. She looked like a Jewish Judy Garland and she played piano every day until she was in her early 90s. She married a farmer and spent most of her married life driving up and down the state between their farm in Yuba City and their house in Santa Monica, where she gave music lessons.

When I finished grad school, she asked to read my master’s thesis. I mailed it to her and a few weeks later she called me at my desk job and said that she’d finished it and had things to say about it. I took notes.

She used to say that the only thing worse than death was shit. She’d say that, and then when you beat her at hearts, she’d call you a shit.

I recorded a few of our conversations on my phone last fall. I’m so glad I have the syncopation of her voice on tape. She never did pronounce the “l” in my name, and I’m so grateful for it.

She told me one of her favorite pieces of music was Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. After she died, I found it hard to listen to. The air was charged and uncomfortable. My hands were itchy because I needed something to do. Grief can make you do things. I spent a day making a website in her memory, uploading pictures and videos of her performing. It helps to know that a person who loved stories is now a story herself.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

When I was 10, my fifth grade teacher assigned us a year-long research report. I chose Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had devoured her entire catalog and was on to reading her cookbooks and letters to her fans. I admired her scrappiness. I loved the idea of living in a bungalow carved out of a hill beside a river. I was a shy kid and was content spending the entire day outside with my best friends and a good book. I wanted to be her. I wanted to wear bonnets and steer oxen, make popcorn balls with molasses and play the violin. That same year I tried to convince my parents to drive me out to her house in the Ozarks for spring break, claiming that “it’s for research!” My parents politely explained that there was really no way they were spending the only week we had off as a family driving to Missouri.

I recently discovered the report I turned in for that fifth grade project. It was ten pages long, single spaced, folded into a clear binder. I had photocopied a picture of her face and taped it over a red doily on the cover. For my final presentation I made popcorn balls and wore a custom gingham dress to class. I didn’t realize how boiling hot the molasses was and came to class with a weird burn blister on my index finger. I got an A+++ on my report. The only one I ever got.

Yeah, I was that kid.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

The essentials: comfortable shoes, turkey sandwiches, portable French presses, a sketchbook, a book I’ve been meaning to read, a really good sleeping bag. My husband Ryan. An open clearing, enough trees to make a fort, maybe some high desert, followed by a huge, clear lake. Animal friends. Quiet, followed by sparklers.

What’s wrong with society today?

Can I say what’s right instead? On June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court announced that outlawing gay marriage was unconstitutional, and then a few hours later when President Obama sang Amazing Grace in Charleston — that was one of the proudest days I’ve felt as an American. Hell, as a human. I love it when new stories come to light; when people who have been fighting to represent themselves finally get to take the stage.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

I fall in love every day when I bike home from work and Ryan is cooking dinner. There are few things sexier than an equal partnership. And someone who loves words as much as you do.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is an expression of the human experience, in whatever form that takes. It’s oxygen. Art doesn’t have to be presented formally or academically to have an impact. There are so many secret painters in the world. Secret novelists, secret singers. Without those secrets, expressed or implied, it’d be a lot harder to get up in the morning.

What are you working on right now?

I’m at work on a novel-in-stories narrated by characters of different ages and nationalities whose lives intersect in Fuengirola, a small town on the southern coast of Spain. I also write very short fiction in the form of 100-word stories, some of which I have illustrated as postcards. I devote about 20 hours a week to running Play On Words (alongside my uber-amazing compatriot Melinda Marks). I’m a strong believer in group creativity and fostering a real sense of artistic community. It’s hydrating for your brain.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I love work that surprises and sizzles. I’ll read anything about people living in a new place. Displacement fascinates me because it gets to where we are most uncomfortable, most vulnerable, most exposed. I like stories that futz with form. I’m obsessed with the way characters translate what they see into what they are. We all do it; we just express the experience differently.

I love Frank O’Hara, Charles Baxter, Jennifer Egan, Nabokov, Maggie Nelson, Lydia Davis. Some of the best books I’ve read recently include This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila, Quiet As They Come by Angie Chau, and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Brilliant books written by brilliant humans.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I wish this were a more democratic place to live. The cost of housing is prohibitive. Families are displaced and opportunities diminish when it’s hard to earn a living wage in an expensive place. I left San Francisco for economic reasons. I live in San Jose now, a city that I’ve very much fallen in love with, though we are fast encountering many of the same economic problems as the rest of the Bay. I wish there were a way to preserve the progressive idealism of the Bay Area while also creating sustainable, equal-opportunity communities. It could happen.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Violets. Sunscreen. Garlic roasting with butter on the stove. Summer evenings when the night has finally cooled off.

If you got an all-expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I’d love to spend a year in a different country about every five years — be there long enough to meet interesting people, learn their stories, practice a new language, push my comfort zone. But my real dream? Get a new pancreas. Mine’s overworked.

Here to read all The Write Stuff profiles; here to watch all the videos.