An Interview with Julianna Baggott

In the early 90s, Julianna Baggott and I were classmates in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, along with David Scott (whom Julianna would later marry) and a number of other fine poets and fiction writers. (To name a few: Rowan Jacobsen, author of that bee book I raved about; his future wife, the poet and illustrator Mary Elder; poet Elizabeth Leigh Hadaway; novelist Quinn Dalton; Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson; and acclaimed science fiction writer Kelly Link. We all got to study with the great Fred Chappell, making us some of the luckiest people on the planet.)

Almost as exciting as having my own books published is reading the work of my MFA friends—especially Julianna’s. She is a writer of tremendous talent: a poet whose keen-edged phrases can make my breath catch in my throat, a spinner of magical children’s tales, a novelist who writes with an intense and lyrical candor. She has a gift for drawing her characters with a terrible honesty suffused with tenderness and a kind of raw humor. Her people are real people, aching and vulnerable and brave.

It’s no surprise, then, that Julianna’s 2009 middle-grade novel, The Prince of Fenway Park, made this year’s CYBILs shortlist for Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction. Her latest novel, The Ever Breath, has just come out and I am champing at the bit for a copy. As N. E. Bode, she wrote the deliciously original The Anybodies, The Nobodies, and The Slippery Map. Her novels for adults include Girl Talk, The Miss America Family, The Madam, and (as Bridget Asher) The Pretend Wife and My Husband’s Sweethearts.

Because talking about writing with other writers is one of my favorite things to do, I asked Julianna if I could bombard her with questions for an interview here at Bonny Glen. And here it is.

I am always wildly curious to know how other writers work. What’s your writing life like—the rhythm of your days and weeks, with writing and mothering and working and researching and all the rest of it?

I stay up late at night. My husband wakes up early in the morning. He’s a stay at home dad—the hardworking kind who’s really taken over all of it (grocery shopping, cooking, carpooling). So he does the morning rush, getting the oldest three off to school. I sleep in with the 2 year old. We have sitters who come and stay a couple of morning hours so Dave and I can both focus. We wrestle the calendar and the business side of writing and the creative side, too. When I’m stuck, I ramble to Dave and he blathers and eventually he blathers something that helps. I sometimes have teaching days—I teach in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State—or departmental meetings with professorial types—of which I guess I am one—and I try to come up for air around 3:30 when the kids come home. Sometimes I head back to work at night. And on my bedside table there’s always a stack of reading—books to blurb or grad student novels, etc… And then the day begins again—another version of the same.

We are like Civil War reenactors—except without the woolly pants and cannons.

Tell me about your writing process: How you work, where you work. Do you work on one book at a time, or do you have several projects going simultaneously? Do you pour out a first draft and then go back over (and over?), or do you write slowly, polishing as you go? How many drafts before you show someone? Who are your first readers?

I collect notes for various projects that are coming up in metal bins on my VERY messy desk. When that project pops up, I map on big sheets of art books—big wild outlines that I accept as THE plotline although it ALWAYS changes many, many times. Sometimes I juggle more than one book. If one fights me, I jump to another. I also will work in small essays and op-eds from time to time. I’ve been in Real Simple, The New York Times, Boston Globe…I also will shove a poem in from time to time—poems come in waves—followed by dry spells—more emotional than logical for me. I adore revision—more and more the older I get. More freedom in a way. I write on scraps of paper that float around the house and get lost. I write all over certain books—a real marginalia freak. Some books are fairly smooth in writing the first drafts. Others are like wrestling gators. The problem is that you don’t know which is which until you’re in too deep. I can’t think in terms of drafts as I move throughout the novel as I write it—back and forth and all around. My first reader is Dave though there are certain novels he doesn’t read until they’re published, and I don’t read to him necessarily in order. I might start reading to him in the spot where I’m stuck—say page 64. I summarize and tell him my problem and read. It’s great because I’m all caught up in the details accumulated over the past 64 pages, but he isn’t. He can see the book as some platonic future version of itself and his suggestions can be really broad and drastic, often what I need to hear.

See, this is one of the things I love so much about you and Dave, because it’s one of the things I love so much about Scott and me: the collaborativeness of the creative process. Nothing I write feels alive to me until he reads it.

Okay, when you’re deep into work on a novel, do you read other fiction? Nonfiction? Watch tv (and what!)? Movies? Swim? Rock climb? Mario Kart marathons with Dave?

When asked if I have hobbies, I answer: I like to sing along to the radio in the car, loudly. Does that count? Hardly. But I do get up from novels a lot. I get up and pick seeds from the Cosmos. I cut apples. I get in the car and sing loudly. I have to walk away and then come back—away and back. I love stupid TV. I hate swimming. I make myself pay for peeking at my Amazon ranks/reviews by doing push ups.

Do you get stuck in your head/have trouble shaking off the world of the book? Any transition processes? Scott and I call it coming out of the cave—that place you enter when the work is working.

I try not to fully shake the other world. I like the blending—how one world helps me with the other.

Do your kids read your works in progress, or do you make them wait until story’s done? I remember you said Phoebe pointed out that your first draft of Anybodies happened almost totally “in rooms”—such a sharp insight.

I used to read aloud to my kids as I wrote, but it got too confusing. I kept changing things on them. And now, strangest of all, they don’t read my work. I’d have never seen that coming. But it’s as if too much of me as an author filters down into our daily lives. They want me as mother. And so we don’t blur mother as writer. They love the authors they love as authors. But I’m their mother and that relationship is something we all have decided to keep oddly pure. Does this make any sense? It’s not something we planned. But when we read a novel as a group, it’s never mine.

You have published under the pseudonyms N. E. Bode and Bridget Asher as well as your real name. How did that come about?

I’d written three literary novels in three years—pubbed with Simon & Schuster. It was too fast a pace. I started competing with myself for review space. So we decided on writing under a pen name. My agent wanted me to do crime novels—I get terrified playing the board game CLUE —but I was reading again to my kids the books I first loved.

So I decided on that. N.E. Bode followed.

Then my kid book editor wanted me to come out as Julianna Baggott and the timing felt right. My two recent novels The Prince of Fenway Park and The Ever Breath are Baggott novels.

As for Bridget Asher, I wanted to be able to build an audience in one kind of novel—smart, contemporary work for women—but still have the freedom to write my own odd stuff as Baggott and not lose the readership I’d built.
So Asher seemed like a good way to do that.

Let’s talk about The Prince of Fenway Park. A question I always have about every book is “what’s the story behind the story”—what sparked the idea, etc. And then I’m always curious about the research. Did you get to tour Fenway Park?

Funny story. The Prince of Fenway Park came out of complete frustration. I was having a conversation with Dave. I had finished a laborious collection of poetry in historic women’s voices (Lizzie Borden in Love). It entailed huge doses of research. I said to Dave, “Can’t I write a book that I already know something about? Or you? What do you already know?”

He said, “I know the Red Sox.”

I didn’t want to write baseball book. I write magical novels—not realism and certainly not sports realism. But then I said, “Wait, there was a curse on the Red Sox. It was reversed. This could be the story of the boy who did it!” It came to me all at once. Dave and I sat there for a while, saying, “There was a curse. It was reversed and this is the boy who did it.”

The irony? Well, the book entailed tons of research. Dave knew Fenway Park, but the exact mix of grass in the outfield? Did he know the history of Pumpsie Green? Bill Buckner’s childhood?

Dave, of course, volunteered to do a lot of the research. In fact, he was the one who toured Fenway stem to stern. He considered it a gift. He went behind the Green Monster and stood on the pitcher’s mound—took notes, snapped pictures. For a while, everything in our house revolved around the Red Sox, and the dining-room table was littered with baseballs, taken apart to see what exactly was inside.

Now for some questions about your reading life. What are you reading right now? Are you a rereader? Do you and Dave swap books or read aloud to each other? How about family readalouds?

I’m not a rereader. I’m not a rewatcher. It pains me to watch a film—even one I love—twice. I do it from time to time. But it’s hard. I’m reading Vonnegut and Leslie Epstein now—both on World War II—when I’m not socked in by student work, which I am. Atwood visits in spring so I’ll be on her latest book soon. Haven’t yet read the new Lorrie Moore. Must. We have done a lot of family read alouds, but not recently.Our age range is difficult right now for consensus— high school, middle school, elementary and toddler. I was a big Ramona and Beatrice fan, and Fudge, of course, and Dahl and I loved Sherlock Holmes and saw tons of plays as a kid—I loved Mamet way too young.

Back to your writing. Tell me about The Ever Breath.

There was once just one world—this one. And it was home to all the magical and un-magical creatures. (This was way back. This world itself was still pretty new …) But then there was an Exodus. Two worlds were formed—the Fixed World of un-magical creatures, this world we know, and the Breath World, where all of the magical creatures were sent off to. And there are these two kids—brother and sister, Truman and Camille—who find themselves on an adventure that takes them through the passage and into the Breath World where they must find the EVER BREATH—an amber orb with a breathing breath within it. They have to save not just one world but both worlds …

I’m at work on the sequel, The Ever Cure, right now.

Excellent. I can’t wait. Thanks so much, Julianna, for dropping by the Bonny Glen!

Related links:

The Ever Breath blog
Prince of Fenway Park website
Bridget Asher’s blog

Photos by David G. W. Scott