A startling debut that is unsettling, curious and heart-winning. In Girlchild: a novel, Tupelo Hassman’s account of Rory Dawn Hendrix’s youth is complete with trauma, redacted diary pages and endearing prose.
MaryAnne Kolton: The main character, in your stunning book Girlchild: a novel is a child named Rory Dawn. She has quite a memorable childhood. Tell us something about yours, please, and what about it encouraged you to be a writer?
Tupelo Hassman: Now that’s something Rory Dawn and I have in common! Nothing about my childhood inspired me to be a writer, I don’t remember ever having the thought. I went through the usuals: veterinarian, more briefly, a nurse. I wanted to be Mrs. Hart from Hart to Hart, she was so glamorous! Then, thanks to Bosom Buddies, I wanted to be a copywriter, a game where the goal is to be as clever as possible. I loved it. There is still a copywriter lurking in the darkest, coal black recesses of my heart. I trot him out for fundraising occasions, put him to work for my favorite non-profits, and then I lock him back up. No offense to copywriters, of course—we must be forced into buying things we don’t need. It’s the modern condition. I’m right now swallowing down eyelash-growth pills with a Perrier dosed with one of those drink-flavoring packets.
I did read a lot as a child, aggressively. When I finally came to realize myself as a writer, I had years of absorption under my belt. I suppose I might have known I was leaning toward a literary life when at an early age and quite out of nowhere, I became an unadulterated snob about books, prodding my dad about the pulp he would read (westerns and mysteries, grocery store novels, I called them). When I first read James and the Giant Peach, at eight or something, I remember having the following thought: this is real writing. I had good instincts. When it comes to literature, I think of “snob” as akin to “feminist”—it is not a dirty word.
I’m fascinated by the recurring question about whether or not Girlchild is fiction or not. I’d heard to expect it but I am still surprised! As a reader, this is a question that never occurs to me. I never wonder about an author’s life, even though I’m a dangerously curious person about most things. I take my sovereignty over what I read very seriously. (I’ll imagine how this happened and who took part, thank you very much!) So let me defer. My dear darling precious love bug of an agent calls Girlchild “autobiographical fiction,” and I trust him with most things. I’ve called it “quasi-autobiographical fiction.”
All of this opens cans of worms about what is truth, a question I have no easy answer to, and the other can: genre. I’m not sure I believe in either truth or genre. When it comes to writing, I believe, like I did when I found James and the Giant Peach, that anything that isn’t good is a lie. I don’t care if it happened this morning. There may be other cans of worms associated with this question that only the askers understand. Shelves of them, like at Costco. Kirkland Signature-sized cans of worms seeking definitive truths stacked on pallets in the aisle of art. At Costco they have a habit of moving the items around. This way you have to walk by everything to get to what you thought you wanted. Maybe truth is like that. Or maybe that’s my copywriter talking.
MAK: Well, the reason you didn’t see that particular question here is simply because I gave a lot of thought to my reasons for asking it and also how important it might be to the readers to know whether these things happened to you or not. We all bare our souls to some degree when we write. My conclusion was I didn’t need to ask it, and the readers will wonder—but in the end, it makes no difference. Girlchild is a remarkable piece of work from a gifted new writer. Period.
You chose the Girl Scout Handbook as Rory’s life guide and talisman. Why?
TH: I don’t know if baring my soul in writing is different than sharing that writing. I guess to me they are all of a piece. I do have private writing. But my work (emphasis there) is written for ears, and in some ways, you might say, that’s the end of the arrangement. Curiosity about my life is part of another circle in this diagram we’re drawing, a different arrangement. The two circles overlap not at all for some readers, quite a lot for others. Questions about the writing process are an entirely different circle altogether (which might overlap with the other two or not, plus there are other circles—remember the Venn diagram?), which brings us to the Handbook. I inherited the Handbook from my father’s collection of curiosities and never touched it until, when I was an undergrad, Aimee Bender assigned a writing prompt. Something: go home, go to the third shelf, first green book, write for 20 minutes about the 47th page. The Handbook’s misogyny infuriated and amused me and the fact that some lonely girl had marked it all through, circling activities and underlining countless phrases broke my heart. Of all the books in the world, what if that was all you had? What did that little girl become? A “conventionalized flower”? It was just a hop and a skip for the Handbook to insinuate itself into Rory’s life from there. I don’t think of it as her talisman, though, that would be the stones her Grandma gifts her.
MAK: How did you manage to write Rory Dawn with such a sense of “more than” rather than “less than” those around her?
“I know what they hide when they hide those teeth. By the time Mamma was fifteen she had three left that weren’t already black, or getting there, and jagged…Still no matter how fine she looked, especially after she got herself a set of fine white dentures for her twenty-fifth birthday, Mama never forgot how ugly she felt with those snaggly teeth. In her head, she never stopped being a rotten-mouthed girl.”
TH: I may be a little bit unclear about what is meant by these terms, but that might also be where the answer is…Rory Dawn is only “more than” because of the expectations placed (or not placed, I should say) on her population, or, if we must agree that she is, say, exceptional, it’s only because of the narrow scope of what is considered exceptional. Everyone around Rory has gifts, from her mother’s odd courage to Dennis’ delicate origami, but Rory is termed “gifted” because her strengths fall into a certain arena. I don’t know a solution for how we might note that certain children have a greater facility at certain activities than do others but there must be a way to avoid creating such an apparent and potentially painful hierarchy for children on both sides of this unfortunate and limiting dichotomy than “gifted.” We’re all gifted, somehow.
And with that, I’ll pack up my wee soapbox and try a more direct response using the common vernacular. I’m not such a planner that I had a conscious reason for just about anything at all in Girlchild (or life!), but after the fact, it seems clear to me that Rory’s gifts certainly help to debunk the science and stereotypes that say she cannot be “more than,” just as Vivian Buck’s apparent gifts might have done if anyone was paying attention (thereby, we might hope, saving tens of thousands of people from being butchered in the name of the scientifically approved principle of “good breeding”). Rory Dawn is proof of possibility.
MAK: Girlchild was unbearably sad, but you managed to weave a certain twang of sweetness into the whole. That is my favorite kind of writing…like the man who makes toilet paper flowers…loved him.
“At the end of the bar, Dennis finishes flower number eleven and messes my hair, and I wish my thank-you smile was loud enough to cover the Hardware Man’s voice saying ‘another jailhouse bouquet, Dennis.’ And to me, ‘One day a real man’ll bring you a real bouquet, hon.’”
Can you talk about this ability to find tenderness and humor in amongst the squalor?
TH: It’s the blind spot of my process again…I didn’t look for humor, really, and I didn’t think I was writing about squalor. Though, now that you mention it, does anything funny happen in a well-kept home? I mean, is there any time? Yesterday, my dear cat Pekoe, named for the tea (she’s orange and caffeinated) sprawled out in the tea drawer I’d left open. I spent 20 minutes getting pictures of this and her batting around one of the tea balls she’d found in there (I was looking for that!). If I always remembered to close drawers, I would have missed this, or if I had scolded her for being in a kitchen drawer instead of delighting in it, or if I knew where things were (the missing tea ball), or if I stuck to a schedule (there went 20 minutes)…I’m not sure squalor is needed though, that said (I’ll probably never find out), but paying attention is. Life is hysterical all the time, on the gallows or off. Of course, spending enough time on the gallows, can help one become just a bit better at laughing at all these fleeting indecencies. “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” My dad was fond of this saying, I think I learned about humor from him—when I got over being embarrassed. This leads us to the other point of this bifurcated tale—reverence. I’m not the first to say it, but sanctity is not only the enemy of humor but of the critical mind. If we can’t make a joke about something, or worse (much worse), if we won’t allow humor around a subject, we are in serious trouble of embracing dogma, and that’s where people divide, that’s where wars happen. There’s a time and place for both humor and dogma but I’m pretty sure we should make more room for the first than the second.
MAK: Perhaps darkness would have been a better word than squalor in that last question. And yes, some pretty awful stuff happens in homes where you could eat off the floors and there is a place for everything etc. Regardless, I thought you answered the question quite well.
You appear to have a lot on your plate at the moment. Writing, family responsibilities, touring for Girlchild, and I understand you are making an indie movie about the book tour. And here we are at four in the morning doing this interview. When do you sleep? Write? Eat? You know, all those mundane things?
TH: Speak of the devil, I left you hanging just because of this busy-ness. Sleep has been in short supply this year but I intend on repaying that debt. It’s all been just like spinning plates (and like the Radiohead song “Like Spinning Plates” because after ten or so weeks on the road I am in shreds). I was unprepared for having the Girlchild be well-received. It would have been weird to be prepared for that, I suppose. If I had said to my fiancé, “I should hire a T.A. this semester for when the book does well and I’m overwhelmed.” If I had, we would have laughed hysterically and gone about our business. So, I didn’t hire a T.A. or make way in my life for what is (duh) a new being, and this turned an already full life up to 11. I learned how close to my limits I was already living. So basically, I’ve run around trying not to drop plates and being subsumed by gratitude and surprise. I’m now forcing rest, exercise, and non-road food on myself so that I can begin again (and quickly, chop chop!). I’m making a mosaic with the shards of plates I allowed to break, a tribute to self-care and accepting one’s limitations. A friend and I have a saying about how it feels to hit a wall, perhaps never having known said wall existed before. There’s a tendency to abuse ourselves when this happens, to use the wall as an element of torture. We say no. “Embrace your wall,” we say. “Love your wall, not only is it there with a lesson, loving it is how you get through it.” There’s a poem by Louis Jenkins (spoken so well by the glorious Mark Rylance when he accepted a Tony last year) called, “Walking Through a Wall.” I carry it with me.
MAK: I was intending to ask you what’s next for you, but you have pretty much detailed it for me! Do you have another book in your head?
TH: I’m dearly looking forward to being a writer again and in my fantasies of what I will write, I’ve been dividing my time between a memoir and a novel. I even have pages of each and now that I’m home and ready to see what I’ve got, I wish I could continue with both. I doubt I’ll be able to pull off writing both at once, but there is something intriguing about that idea. It’s the notion of not having to commit, I think. Writing is a kind of serial monogamy and I’m not ready to dive right back into a committed relationship just yet. As with love, I’ll have to trust that I’ll know when to commit.
Tupelo Hassman graduated from Columbia’s MFA program. Her writing has been published in Paper Street Press, The Portland Review Literary Journal, Tantalum, We Still Like, ZYZZYVA, and by 100WordStory.org and FiveChapters.com. Tupelo is a contributing author to Heliography, Invisible City Audio Tours’ first tour and is curating its fourth tour, The Landmark Revelation Society. Tupelo will be keeping a video journal of Girlchild‘s book tour for the short documentary Hardbound: A Novel’s Life on the Road.
Author photograph: Bradford Earle