Suspend Your Disbelief

Architectures like Underground Cities: Part IV of an Interview with Julianna Baggott

"I don’t think of myself often as singular but tend to define myself by all of the ways I’m tethered to other people–in what I give and am given."

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Architectures like Underground Cities: Part IV of an Interview with Julianna Baggott

In Part IV of Sebastian Matthews's five-part interview with Julianna Baggott (who also writes as Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode), the two discuss being prolific, writing practice, and working on more than one project at a time.

I came across Roxane Gay’s 2012 interview with Julianna Baggott in The Rumpus in the fall of 2013. In it, Baggott described her use of not one but two pseudonyms as an author (Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode), and I was curious by the apparent ease with which she shifted genres and readerships. I had just finished her apocalyptic bestseller Pure (Grand Central Publishing, 2012), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and an ALA Alex Award-winner, and was excited to move onto the next two books in the trilogy: Fuse (2013) and Burn (2014).

In the fall of 2012, I had interviewed Russell Banks on Jeff Davis’s radio show, Word Play, while Banks was in Asheville as a Visiting Writer for Warren Wilson College’s Harwood-Cole Lecture Series. That long-form conversation was later published here on Fiction Writers Review as a two-part interview. I’d always enjoyed reading the long interview, and after doing one with Banks, I was curious what it would be like working with an author whose work was relatively new to me.

As with the Banks interview, I wanted to approach Baggott’s work and her ideas through the lens of working on my own novel: I wanted to ask her questions I was asking myself or wanted the answers to. And I needed a reading project to kick-start the next stage of revision on my book. However, unlike Banks, who I knew personally and had been reading since I was a teen, and whose few books I hadn’t read I could cover fairly quickly, I’d not read any of Baggott’s novels (let alone Asher’s or Bode’s!) with the exception of Pure and Which Brings Me to You (Algonquin Books, 2006), a novel she’d co-authored with Steve Almond. Needless to say, with more than twenty books to Baggott’s credit under one name or another, I had my work cut out for me.

I first wrote Julianna in early December of 2014. I asked her if she would be interested in talking about the span of her writing career (so far) as well as the ways in which she writes across different genres. Julianna wrote back that day with an enthusiastic “Let’s do it!” We jumped into the interview almost immediately. She sent me a box of her books, and I ordered a bunch more. Except for one phone call relatively early in the process, our conversation played out entirely through email. When the interview wound down in late April of this year, I was shocked to see we’d produced over 20,000 words (about seventy pages). It then took about a week for us to boil that down to 15,000 words, which represents a total of about fifty pages. And FWR has generously agreed to host this conversation, which itself will be published in five parts during this week.

In terms of her biography, Julianna Baggott began publishing short stories when she was twenty-two and sold her first novel while still in her twenties. After receiving her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she published her first novel, Girl Talk (Pocket Books, 2001), which was a national bestseller and was quickly followed by The Boston Globe bestseller The Miss America Family (Atria, 2002), and then The Boston Herald Book Club selection, The Madam (Atria, 2003), an historical novel based on the life of her grandmother. Her most recent Julianna Baggott novel is Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which came out in August from Little, Brown and Company.

The Bridget Asher novels, published by Bantam, include My Husband’s Sweethearts (2008), The Pretend Wife (2009), and The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted (2011), as well as All of Us and Everything, which will be released in November.

In addition to the titles mentioned here and those such as the Pure trilogy noted earlier, she has written numerous books for young adult readers under N.E. Bode. Please visit her website for a complete list of titles and more information:

Finally, Baggott also has an acclaimed career as a poet, having published three collections of poetry: This Country of Mothers (2001) and Lizzie Borden in Love (2008), both of which were published by Southern Illinois University Press, as well as Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees (2007), released by LSU Press.

Editor’s Note: To begin with Part I of this five-part conversation with Julianna Baggott, click here.


Sebastian Matthews: Now it’s time to bring up the Joyce Carol Oates factor. You are quite prolific. Almost twenty novels. Three books of poems. A blog. Essays. You teach. All this on top of being a mom, and a partner with your husband. Part of me wants to ask: How do you do it? But that’s not a good question. And not what I really want to ask. Maybe a better way to put it: Is there a price you pay for being so prolific? But that sounds so Entertainment Tonight. I don’t know how to ask this right. If you were interviewing yourself, how would you ask this?

CompulsionsJulianna Baggott: The answer to the question “How do you do it?” is one I’ve desired to answer—really answer—for people, so much so I’ve given a version as a keynote, a graduation speech, a convocation speech, a craft talk, a speech I give to each class I teach; and it became more research-based and broader as a speech when I gave it to a hedge fund in NYC last year; it’s shaped a day-long workshop for writers; and it’s currently the backbone for a six-week faculty seminar at Holy Cross. I’ve also answered the question in poetic form, I should add. And I have an upcoming essay that will be published in The Bitch is Back, a follow-up to the New York Times bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House (edited by Cathi Hanauer) about my relationship with my husband Dave that explains how we’ve partnered in this creative life. I’m certainly not in it alone. I created a survey that was taken by over hundred writers—both high and low producers alike. I haven’t published the results. I don’t quite know the form it should take (and there’s one result I can’t figure out). I’ve drawn on research from economists, psychologists, the habits of scientists and artists throughout history.

In other words, creativity has become a topic that interests me so much that I’m not really just hoping to answer a question for others, but in hopes of understanding myself. My answer started simply with an explanation of how my loud, chaotic life didn’t allow for time at the desk and so I had to create a different approach to shape my daily practice in order to survive, and instead of holding me back, I actually thrived. And the answer just kept growing and growing.

Is there a price to pay? This is a question I’ve never gotten. So let me take a crack at it.

When I was teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State, we had to tally the number of pages we’d published over the course of over one year or three. I think it was three. In any case, I hated this practice. It made me sick to see how many pages I’d written—too many–and, worse, I knew that each published page represented many more failed pages. I think that there was some acknowledgment—deep down—that this wasn’t good for me. The disease is the cure, the cure the disease.

I’m not just prolific in my work. I also have four kids, which in this era is pretty prolific. I also tend to be a highly responsive teachers; ask me to update a letter of recommendation and sometimes it’s done in a matter of minutes. (I’ve since figured out why I do this and why it works–check out Willpower by Baumeister and Teirney, chapter three.) Dave and I also used to run a nonprofit really actively together—getting free books to underprivileged kids. (The program is still going but we’re not on the ground in Florida enough right now to be as active as we once were so we’re trying to figure out a next step.) I used to apologize for my energy in various ways, and I don’t anymore.

That said, I think my kids would say that they get enough of me; in fact, the older ones might say I could parent a little less intensely; I’m the stricter parent. And because Dave is the stay-at-home parent, we work together all day long so we get more time together than most couples. Personally, I don’t think there’s a high price to pay. I’m well aware that, even as prolific as I am, there are so many professions that take a much harder toll on family life.

Certainly there’s a price to pay professionally. As a culture, we assume that the more prolific someone is, the lesser the quality of the work. We often blame a prolific novelist’s over-production when he or she publishes a book that’s not as good as his or her last, but the truth is that writers who only publish every seven years or so also publish books that aren’t as good as their last; we simply don’t have anything to blame in a knee-jerk way so we don’t. People say things like, “Wow, you really know how to churn ’em out,” and I let them. I mean, if that’s what they need to do to put me in a box that their more comfortable with, that’s fine with me. In fact, I use the negativity as rocket fuel (as I mentioned before).

Prolific or not, however, this is hard on the writer, and I think there are things we get wrong as teachers of creative writing, things we get wrong culturally about analytical and creative minds alike, and I know for a fact that we lose many of our best writers—they simply stop writing—because we aren’t talking about the creative process in clear-eyed ways, we’re not talking openly about the effects of failure (both perceived and real), and we’re not creating ongoing communities of support for our fellow creatives. These gaps in communication hurt us as a culture. And I’m actively looking for ways to keep writers (and artists and scholars and analytical types) actively engaged and creating and for effective methods to reengage those who’ve walked away.

So maybe I should add that when you’re prolific, you don’t get as much time to repair yourself after a book comes out—the feeling of being judged, whether positively or negatively—and so I’ve had to find ways to more actively prepare myself for this so that the recovery isn’t as hard and slow. One thing is that, as I briefly mentioned before, I try to emotionally divorce myself from my books as soon as I can, and hopefully long before they come out. It’s a strange process—like burning down a house you just built by hand, even if just in an emotional way—but I really try to sever my relationship as much as I can so the book exists far beyond me, a loose affiliation. Honestly, it’s what actually happens. The book does have its own life—lives. Of course, I fail at this divorce, always, and what happens is that I think I’m emotional cut off from the book and then I’m suddenly surprised when a comment about it catches me off-guard. The comment itself doesn’t have to be negative, but it can act like a bright floodlight flashing across a tangle of electrical wires—the comment is about, say, a character, but it registers—in this strange subconscious instant—as if it’s about one of my own children and everything, for a second, flares up.

Okay, I am going to be a little pushy here. You say, “It started with an explanation of how my loud, chaotic life didn’t allow for time at the desk and so I had to create different approach to shape my daily practice in order to survive, and instead of holding me back, I actually thrived.” Can you say a little more about this? How did you thrive? What was the daily practice’s new shape? I know I’m asking for lecture notes, but I can’t help it.

I’m actually writing a mini craft book now—written in the voice of Harriet Wolf in letters allegedly written to a young Flannery O’Connor. We’re having fun with marketing materials for the new novel. And I just wrote all of this up there. But I’ll do a quick version.  I was frustrated after my first child that I’d lost my muse time to looping thoughts about my new job—motherhood. I decided to reclaim that time by being aware of it–in particular when I was driving, showering, prepping meals, those times when I used to have my best ideas about my work. I’d cut the loop, set my mind to a task—what do my characters want and fear in this scene. I’d let the scene reel out in my mind, sometimes landing on something I really liked. The effects were positive.

1. I wasn’t going to get my 10,000 hours of practice on my craft at the computer. My life didn’t allow for it. So, early on, I created a portable process that allowed me to “write while not writing.”

2. I would start a scene four drafts in—having rejected three or so versions in my head—which was an incredible gift. The practice of visualization also meant that I wasn’t writing through the first three drafts either.

3. My work became more visual, which was something I preferred.

4. Practicing a guided meditative state that allows the associative unfettered mind to wander without the rational mind’s voice-over narration of possible failure. The stakes were naturally lower. I was playing.

5.  The process allowed me to rise up from confining details and see a whole.

6. I always knew what I was going to write when I sat down. I never had to face the daunting blank page.

Where did you come up with the guided meditation? Was it an instinctual move, something you made up on your own? Or did you draw from a specific tradition? Also: in your research on the creative process, have you found other writers or artists taking a similar approach?

It was instinctual. I was only twenty-five. I knew nothing about meditation—and I don’t meditate in the traditional sense. I know some of the language now, of course, and I have to confess that I love monkey-mind—not the nagging mind or looping of obsessive and useless worry, but this wild, feral, tree-swinging, howling creature in the jungle of the mind, yes. And I love the extension of the present moment to include not only my own past but all my ancestors and stretching into a sense of the future. I don’t think of myself often as singular but tend to define myself by all of the ways I’m tethered to other people–in what I give and am given. This is why I’m so drawn to Mednick’s definition of creativity as tied to associative memory. The present is, for me, made ultimately richer by this blur of past and present—a shifting aperture that floods and fades. And I direct the monkey in monkey mind, yes, in hopes that the monkey’s agility and imaginative leaps get me somewhere else altogether.

I don’t look to other writers as much as I’ve looked to the economists, psychologists, scientists, and, sometimes other artists about how the mind works.

Does grading papers and teaching courses sap your creative energy or get in way of your own writing? How do you separate the different tasks?

I find that teaching doesn’t sap as much as it fulfills the same need as my creative impulse. So it’s not that they take from me; they fill me up so that writing isn’t as necessary. It’s equally dangerous for my writing life, of course, regardless of which way I see it. But seeing it as fulfilling, not sapping, is incredibly important to the way I see my role as a teacher—so that I’m not resentful. I live my life on the alert for bitterness and resentment; those feel like the true killers.

So, that said, I tell my students—when lecturing on the creative process—that I will never, ever use my freshest brain cells on their work. I’m modeling good process. I tell them to guard their freshest brain cells, aggressively, and reserve them for the work that’s most important in their lives.

So, knowing my own best times of day, creatively, I often read my students work at night.

Teaching is necessary for me. When I’m writing—just writing—I know, philosophically, that I’m of use, but I don’t get the automatic feedback that students provide. To see someone really get something, to help someone progress, to widen a point of view, these things make me feel of use in the world and that’s crucial for me.

WIllpowerI have taken breaks from teaching, however—when on tight deadlines for Pure, for example. I’ve gone to halftime, here and there. But I always come back to the classroom.The consistent money is grounding and takes some pressure off of my need to make an income as a writer. This balance has been helpful to me creatively.

Also, when I talk about the basics, I remember the basics, and it can be astonishing to me how often the basics flit out of my head. Sometimes the answer to a problem I’m having in a work is answered in my own lectures.

I also just have a lot of experience with narrative—in various forms—and it feels useless when I’m not handing it off to others.

I also love hearing from my students as they make their ways in the world. I started out as a fairly harsh teacher, I think, looking back. The older I’ve gotten—my oldest child is now in college—the more nurturing I’ve become in the classroom, but, in being more nurturing, I’ve found I can say much tougher things than before. I’d also say that I bring a good measure of joy to the classroom, and I like a loud classroom. My classes can get very loud.

We’ve talked a little—maybe on the side of this interview—about working on more than one project at a time. Or turning to a second book if the first stalls out. And, as a poet, you must work on poems while drafting a novel. Are there times when this juggling becomes too much? Or do you even see it as juggling?

I actually lectured on this yesterday to a faculty group—for the first time in a more in-depth way. A few years ago, I heard Richard Ford say that writing had become for him “heavy lifting.” This wasn’t just an idle phrasing for me. As I touched on before, one of the hardest things has become the lifting of the novel. Imagine an entire city built on quicksand. If you visit that city-of-your-own-making daily, it stays. But if you walk away, the city—the intricate and vast architecture of the novel—begins to sink. When you return to it, you might find the tip of a spire peeking up from the ground and from there you have to dig and wrest it from the ground.

This is the reason why daily writing is an important practice. It’s not just that slow and steady creates an accumulation of pages; it’s that you waste vast amounts of time pulling the city of the novel back up from the ground, reacquainting yourself with all the alleyways and buttresses.

Now, holding two or more full-scale projects at once is another feat. I’ll note here, however, that the practice of working on two very different novels for two very different audiences at the same time is something I’ve done. When I’m burnt on one novel for the day—sometimes after just two hours of work—I find that I can have renewed energy if there’s a completely different novel to work on in the afternoon. In this way, I don’t really ever think of myself as writing for a full day but instead connecting a few hours of writing time together to add up to a full day. (The distinction might only mean something to me.) Holding a trilogy in your head, again, a different issue altogether.

The closest I’ve ever come to hearing someone talk about this process was when I grilled a London cabbie about how he prepared for the rigorous test that London cabbies must pass in order to work. I can’t get into the details of that here, but it has to do with this way of seeing and knowing a city—pulling up sections and lowering them in your mind.

One difficulty for the novelist is that we have an architectural shape in our minds—but it generally remains in the mind. (I also know that not all novelists see the novel as a shape—so this doesn’t work for everyone.) It helps me if I make as much of the novel manifest as possible, which I touched on earlier. Yesterday, for example, I brought in a tri-fold poster board for the final book in The Pure Trilogy. It was covered in post-it notes. [Here you can look into Alexandra Sokoloff’s suggestions to screenwriters—though highly prescriptive, novelists might enjoy the manifest aspect of it—a way to sketch to scale without oil painting each paragraph in one corner of the canvas.] One professor asked if the board was a memory device. I told him that it had been a living, breathing organism crucial to the making of the book but was also mnemonic—a great way to physically open up the flaps of the board and see, in a full way, a bird’s eye view of the novel and to have a shorthand to memory.

But the shutting of the flaps is equally important. To make space for a novel, other large architectural shapes have to be manually lowered sometimes—below the earth—because they’re taking up too much working mental space.

What I focused on yesterday, in particular, wasn’t the large-scale projects being raised and lowered. It was the millions of tiny tasks that fill the brain and how to close the loops on these open-ended noisemakers. (Here again, you can check out chapter three, in particular, of Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.) While I really love to have my creative work (that city that I try to keep aloft daily) running like a ticker at the bottom of the ESPN screen so that an idea can pop to the fore at any moment, the opposite has to happen when I’m working creatively—trying to insulate and go off. The ticker of my daily life has to be shut down. And I talked about the many ways in which various people have gone about that in very practical ways, including my own methods.

Editor’s Note: Return tomorrow, when we’ll publish Part V of Sebastian Matthews’s five-part interview with Julianna Baggott. Part V will focus on lyricism, reviews, and “Baggot being Baggott”.

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