A Conversation with Jayne Pupek
Kimberly Becker: Do you think of yourself as a poet or as a novelist? Your prose is often poetic in its cadences and descriptions, for instance, this simile: I “tucked away my sadness, like a handkerchief in my pocket.” Do you have to work hard at a line like this or is it a gift?
Jayne Pupek: Thank you. I don’t usually have to work too hard at lines like the one you highlighted. Poetry comes more easily to me than fiction. I find plenty of things difficult about writing fiction, but cadence, description, and simile aren’t among them.
While I use both “poet” and “novelist” to describe myself, I primarily think of myself as a poet. I’ve spent more of my life writing poems. I’m more comfortable with poetry. Writing fiction is newer to me, and like anything new, it generally requires more concentration and effort. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write both.
KB: You are a parent to three adopted children of different races. How does being a mother affect the logistics of your writing life and inform your work?
JP: Anyone who works from home faces the challenge of maintaining boundaries between family and work. It involves give and take, the art of compromise. There are difficult moments. With two teenage boys, there is a lot of noise and activity, which isn’t conducive to writing. When my children were younger, I wrote mostly at night after they went to sleep. Now they stay up nearly as late as I do, so I write in the mornings. I’ve also learned to write amid the distractions.
One of the wonderful things about being a writer with children is that I’m not far removed from the ways children think and behave. My own children remind me of what it is to be a child and how children see the world in specific ways. I love watching them evolve and explore. I also think that my children keep me grounded. I can’t imagine not having children, which was a possibility I faced.
That they are of different races — Asian and African American — simply adds another dimension to our family. Our daughter, born in India, is autistic, developmentally delayed, and blind. Challenges are always good learning experiences.
KB: Your novel deals quite poignantly with the difficult issue of racism. In writing Tomato Girl, was it hard to stay in character and faithful to a certain time’s sensibilities? When Clara wraps Ellie in a blue quilt covered with stars I could just see and hear her. Is Clara based on anyone whom you knew as a child?
JP: Clara isn’t based on any one person, but is probably a composite of several women I knew as a child. I also kept a voodoo doll on my desk as I wrote about Clara. The doll was a gift that a friend sent to me when she traveled to New Orleans. I like to think that the magic helped.
I didn’t find it especially hard to stay in character or to remain faithful to the sensibilities of that time period. Ellie’s voice came fairly easily to me, and having grown up in the rural South during the time period covered in the novel, the material and mind-set were familiar to me.
KB: Clara introduces Ellie to magic, but tells Ellie that “‘to learn real magic, you have to face the things that scare you. You have to face the hurt inside here,’ she says pointing to [Ellie’s] heart, ‘if you are ever to be rid of it.'” This is a powerful message, especially for younger girls or women who might read the novel. Did you have an audience in mind as you were writing Tomato Girl? If so, did you feel an obligation not to gloss over topics like menstruation or even difficult subjects like abuse?
JP: I intended the novel for adults. Despite Ellie’s young age, the darker themes make the novel unsuitable for readers her age. I didn’t feel an obligation not to gloss over difficult subjects as much as I’m simply comfortable with those subjects. I grew up in a rural area and saw nature and violence — animals mating, chickens beheaded, hogs slaughtered. I’ve been disabled my entire life with a form of Muscular Dystrophy, which has meant that other people have tended to my body. I’m a wife and the mother of three children. And I’ve worked many years in mental health, focusing my work on incarcerated sexual offenders, battered women, and the homeless mentally ill. Those combined experiences have given me a comfort level with difficult subjects.
KB: As a Southerner, you come from a rich literary heritage and Tomato Girl is hailed by your publisher as a “timeless Southern novel.” Do you consider yourself to be a regional writer?
JP: Tomato Girl is clearly a Southern novel. I’ve lived in rural Virginia my entire life, so how could I not write as a Southerner? In a novel, place often takes on as much significance as a character. I have no choice but to write about the region that I know. I mean, what do I know of Boston except that those little black and white terriers originated there and that chowder is popular? I would truly be lost if I placed a story outside of the South. I don’t think the same is true of poetry. I think my Southern roots are less obvious in my poems. In a poem, the place or setting might be a room, at a table, on a street corner. The poem may never take the reader beyond that focused point, so the location becomes less obvious or even immaterial.
KB: Did you intend Easter (the chick) as allegory? Flannery O’Connor said the South is Christ-haunted. What keeps you going, whether faith or family?
JP: No, I didn’t really plan the chick, Easter, as allegory. Sometimes a chick is just a chick. I grew up around chicks. My grandmother bought crates full of them in the spring. Later, one of my cousins received a dyed chick for Easter. We also once brought home fertilized eggs to hatch in an incubator. I kept “Rocco,” one of the chicks, as a pet, so I gave Ellie her chicks.
Flannery O’Connor was right, the South is Christ-haunted, but I don’t require anything complex to keep me going. I’d keep going for a good dog and cup of strong coffee.
KB: Tomato Girl is a coming of age novel. One of your great strengths is your description of childhood: “To pass time, I gather the acorns that fell from the oak tree in our front yard. I count how many black ants cross the deep crack in the sidewalk. I say my ABC’s backwards or recite the names of flowers I know…Sometimes I make up stories about girls with magic powers, girls who can fly over mountain peaks…” Are there parts of your childhood you have gotten a chance to reinvent or revisit through your characters? Did you ever “draw a door, and see yourself step through it” to where “on the other side, [their] words can’t hurt you”? Is being a writer drawing that door with words?
JP: Children are wonderful people, so open and honest and full of awe. I always enjoy writing in a child’s point of view because it is chance to revisit innocence and maybe be amazed again. As an adult, it is harder to find amazement although poetry often amazes me, as does nature, and sometimes visual art.
I’ve seen clients draw many doors; it was my job as a therapist to help them open those doors. Children are especially prone to use make believe and ritual to protect themselves. Personally, I don’t see writing as protective. If anything, writing exposes something about the writer, what he or she believes, perhaps, or what matters in the writer’s life.
KB: Ellie’s mother Julia suffers from mental illness that sounds like bi-polar disorder. She goes from “dark, sad” to “light, giddy.” She even wrote poetry as part of her therapy. This quotation in particular struck me as very true: “[From living with Mama,] I’ve come to understand that the places you can’t see or reach can hurt most of all.” Did you draw on your experience as a social worker to get the details right, or is this something you have experienced in your own family to be able to describe it so vividly?
JP: Julia’s behavior is based on my observations and experiences working in mental health. I spent some time working with the homeless mentally ill. When these folks neglected or refused to take their medications, their symptoms were often quite overt. It is a delicate tightrope to handle someone who is actively in a manic phase or experiencing a delusion or hallucination. I drew on those experiences when describing Julia and the difficulties Ellie faced trying to cope with her.
KB: Did your own disability inform your portrayal of Tess, your character with epilepsy? How do you manage to care for yourself physically and also care for your children, while balancing your life as a writer?
JP: I don’t think my own disability factored much into this story. I’ve witnessed people having seizures and drew from the memories of those experiences to imagine what life was like for Tess.
In terms of my own care, I owe much of the quality of my life to the devoted care I’ve received, first from my parents and paid caregivers, and for the last twenty years, from my husband. I’m very well aware of how blessed I am and how many disabled people are not cared for with so much love and devotion.
Balancing things for me is like it is for everyone, I guess. I get done in a day what I can, doing the most important things first. I go to bed with things undone. I get to them the next day. Life might just be a great big “to do” list.
KB: Ellie says, “Sometimes an ordinary life is what I want most in the world.” How much of your own life would you describe as ordinary?
JP: My life is entirely normal and ordinary to me. On some level, I understand that being in a wheelchair is not ordinary, but I’ve used a wheelchair since age two, which makes it ordinary to me. Some people imagine a writer’s life to be some exotic or unusual thing. It isn’t. My dogs pee on the floor, the milk in the fridge sometimes turns sour, and I yell at my husband when he eats crackers in bed. The only things in my life that hint at the fact that I’m a writer: 1) I’m more reclusive than most people, and 2) I read a lot of books.
KB: From the novel: “There was so much to tell, too many places to begin the story and all of them made me sad.” How did you come to write Tomato Girl?
JP: I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel and ended up online, participating in a critique group for novelists. Since I didn’t have a novel in progress, I used a narrative poem I’d written, titled “Tomato Girl,” as a place to begin.
KB: Is it harder to begin or end a novel well?
JP: The beginnings and endings are easy. It’s all that stuff in the middle that is such hard work. Poems don’t depend on plots or linear thinking the way novels do, so for me that is trickier.
KB: Do you plan a sequel? If not, what do you see as your next project — poetry or more fiction?
JP: I definitely don’t plan a sequel. In general, I think sequels don’t work that well. I’m finishing a second novel now and also have two poetry manuscripts in progress.
KB: What words of wisdom would you offer, especially to mothers who are writers and may be discouraged by rejection letters (as was the character, Julia)?
JP: Because of her mental illness, I’m not sure one could reason very far with Julia. However, in terms of rejection letters, all writers receive them. A writer who is compelled to write will write. If rejection letters stop someone from writing, maybe writing is not for them. Publishing is a business. Writing is art, or maybe a calling. They shouldn’t be seen as the same thing.
KB: Do you garden? There is a lot of planting imagery in your book.
JP: I love flowers, but I don’t have a green thumb. My grandmothers both did, so I grew up around beautiful roses, lilacs, snapdragons, lilies, daffodils and so on. My maternal grandmother also had a large garden, a small orchard, and a strawberry patch. With a husband, three kids, and thirty pets, there is no time for plants. I live in the woods, though, so there is greenery around me.
KB: Thank you for your time, Jayne. In closing, what do you think Ellie has stashed in her backpack for the second semester of the school year?
JP: You’re quite welcome, Kim. I think Ellie has stashed several things in her backpack for school: yellow pencils, notebooks, crayons, one of Easter’s feathers for luck, and pieces of salt water taffy she is saving for her father.