WD editor-in-chief Ericka McIntyre asked Tupelo Hassman about the importance of knowing your writing process, doing the work, and her forthcoming novel, gods with a little g.
Author photo: Melissa Toms
Tupelo Hassman has a fairly great life story. She was a high school dropout who ended up getting an MFA from Columbia. She tells fairly great stories, too. She’s written three books so far: Girlchild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); Breastmilk (Quiet Lightning, 2014); and the forthcoming gods with a little g (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August, 2019).
She has a knack for writing characters who feel so real and letting us so far into their minds, their hearts, their worlds that when we close the book, these people still feel real to us. We miss them, like we’d miss a flesh-and-blood friend. I remember the first time I read her debut, Girlchild; I actually shook the book a little bit, hoping somehow more pages would appear, more story would fall out of it.
That was seven years ago.
So when I heard that gods with a little g was forthcoming, I could not wait to get my hands on it. I used my power as editor-in-chief of WD (I am a merciful and just tyrant, I assure you) to score an advance copy. When I found out I could actually interview Hassman, let’s just say the book nerd in me let out a squeal.
gods with a little g was worth the wait. It follows scrappy teenager Helen and her two best friends, Winthrop and Rainbolene, as they navigate life in isolated Rosary, California. It’s hilarious, downright sad, and poignant. It tells so many stories, but all of them are really just one story: how love can carry us through anything; how love doesn’t always take the form we think it will.
How long did it take you to write gods with a little g and how did these characters and story come to you?
I started gods with a little g in 2013. I was working on something else. And then I thought this was going to be one of those flings—where you start something else because you didn't want to work on the thing you're actually doing. I was so infatuated that I told my agent, “Oh, forget this other thing … there's these teenagers,” and it was really Win and Rain that came to my head first, and my heart. And my agent said, “Oh, I think that's it. You’ve got to go with that.” [At the time] I had a one-year-old baby and then I had another baby right after that. I just had little drips until I could find enough days to put together to focus.
Helen, or “Hell,” is the second of your girl children in a manner of speaking. Rory, of course was the first in your debut Girlchild. You’ve said that that book took you forever to write. So how long is forever?
I started it in 2003 and … it came out in 2012.
How did you find your agent? How did you get your first book deal?
I got lucky finding my agent. I was in grad school at Columbia (I don't think you have to go to grad school to be a writer but I wanted to) and I made like, two friends? I was a disaster! But I made two friends and one of them knew my agent Bill Clegg. They had a business relationship, and Bill had reached out to this friend and said, “Who do you like in your program?” And we were the two people writing somewhat nontraditionally. We stood out in that way. So I sent my pages to Bill. He said, “Send me what you have.” That's another thing about the story that is unusual. We were told at Columbia, “Don't send half of your first novel to an agent, they don't have time for that.” And it's not going to put you in your best light. But he said, “Send me the pages.” I think the other rule that supersedes that one is that you do what the agent says! So I sent it, and he took me.
At the same time, another agent had reached out to the same friend, because he already had a book out. He also sent me to her and I sent her and Bill the same pages. And she said how much she liked it and asked if I could make it much more linear. I was so full of myself, (and I hadn't heard from Bill) but I just said, “No, I can't.” I still think about that. I was really young, and I don't think I was wrong, but it was sure bold! I thought I'd never hear from Bill, but then he said OK.
The instructive part is that after I had an agent and after I had a book-shaped object (it was probably only half as big when I first signed with him) ... there was a year before it was sold; and many revisions. Once I had an editor, it wasn't ready, and she was so kind and worked me as hard as I would work, but it wasn't until I got really humble and just did the work that the book was finished. So all of the other luck and nothing mattered until I sat down and wrote, just like they tell you.
How do you structure your writing work to get it all done?
It’s so important for people to know what their process is. I'm a scheduler but I'm not really an outliner. I let it take its own shape, and then I might make a to-do list after that. And like all those people with their systems, I feel a little suspicious about mine, I don't know why. I think, because it never turns out that way, but I guess it's like any other thing, you have to have some kind of map. My map is, how many workdays are there, and what do I need to accomplish in those days, and what is the most important? It's tedious … just like anything else. And then I just hope, I think it was Flannery O’Connor or somebody who said, you have to hope that the magic shows up when you are also there.
Becoming a parent (I can't imagine any parent not saying this), made such a difference for me, too, in just valuing a minute. Maybe that's the kind of person I am; I needed that kick in the ass that motherhood gave me to value minutes like I should. Finishing Girlchild, it was that same humility, I would say, to be really frank, (I don't know if this matters) but I got sober the year that I finished Girlchild. For me, I needed to reposition myself in the chain of command, and children do that for me, too. I suppose there are parents that don't, but I really valued getting the reminder of what's really important. Perfectionism is the enemy. Parents get to kill perfectionism in a lot of ways.
You have written a lot of short fiction in addition to your novels. How does your process for short fiction differ from the process for novels? How do you know whether an idea is a short story or novel and do you prefer one form over the other?
I never know. I think everything's a novel. I'm one of those people. I know that's common. Then I'll get to writing it and I'm like, “Oh, it's done. Oh, that was eight pages.”
Lately I have written a lot of essays, and that has helped me because I can definitely see the start and end, because it's my own head or life. That has helped me see the shape better. So now, just recently this year when I'm thinking about short stories, I'm more apt to know that something is a short story. I can see the shape better. I'm kind of a slow learner, but that can be part of someone's process, right?
Speaking of process, with Girlchild, my editor was the best. I really wasn't ready, and my editor would send me these pages … 10-page letters with her notes. I would get them and read them, and then I would be so upset, not because she was wrong, but because I couldn't see how to handle it. Then I got sober, and then I just did the work. But at one of these points, there was a handful of these times I called a dear friend of mine and I said, “I got this letter, oh, I don't know how I'm going to do it!” I mean really that dramatic. And she said this brilliant thing, that I use every day, she said, “Oh well no, this is great because this is what you do every time.” And she was really loving. She was like, “This what you do every time, you get her feedback, and then you get upset and then you do the work. This is your process.” And I was like, “Huh, how dare you!” But that was amazing! Then the next time, and now every time … nobody likes criticism, but now it's shrunk. I have a second of kickback and then I go, “OK, now I'm going to do the work.” It's because I could name that and not resist it. Whatever someone's process is; if you sit down at your desk, and then you need to clean it for 20 minutes, fine. If you need to alphabetize the socks or whatever it is we do, know that that's your process, instead of being mean to yourself. It's a gift to just know.
I teach rhetoric and comp and I try to talk to my students about that, too. If your process is to procrastinate then just work with that, do your best to make it so you have everything you need at the eleventh hour or whatever it is you have to do.
How has your teaching shaped your writing and your writing shaped your teaching?
Teaching helps free me up for writing mainly because, in teaching comp I generally choose what we're going to talk about. I push us toward different political conversations and I think that helps me to relax a little bit creatively. I'm so bothered and so want to fix the system and the endemic badness in our culture. Getting to have a place to talk about that, and feeling like maybe I'm doing something good is helpful. Not to say that art is not another way to do good, I don't mean that at all. But that helps me feel freer and more relaxed, because if I’m mad, what I'm going to write is probably going to be crappy.
Earlier you mentioned walking away from a project in favor of gods with a little g. How do you deal with that as a writer? How do you learn to walk away from something?
It’s humility. Being able to take orders wherever they come from for you, you have to be able to do it. And if the order you're hearing is that this project that doesn't seem to be getting off the ground needs to be finished, then that’s the order. But finding a way to listen to what really needs to happen is the key, to do the next right thing. That's what has to happen. And so when I knew this thing about Winthrop and Rainbolene, and said it aloud to Bill, and he agreed with me, then I wanted to unknow it. We just have to do the simple thing of finding that that quiet place within ourselves where we listen to our inner wisdom. And sometimes we get it wrong.
I save everything. There is a part of gods with a little g … that was one of the first short stories that I ever wrote. There’s a scene on the beach with crabs. But the rest of that story was so bad. But there was just a little bit in there that was useful.
Another professor I had was Alan Ziegler. He published a book a couple of years ago and his message was, “Never throw anything away.” And we should never think of our time as wasted.
What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever gotten?
A great one is, and this is also a hated one, but you know how that works, so often good advice is also what makes you say, “Goddarn it!” … I think it was Aimee Bender who said, “If you feel like it needs to come out for even a second, a tiny second … then you have to take it out. That is the rule.” And it's so horrible. And every single time I'm writing, when I have a feeling, and I try to pretend I didn't … but then I find that if I take it out, it's always better. And it's horrible and true. If it bothers you, there's a reason.
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