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Powell’s Q&A: Julianna Baggott

Describe your latest book.
Fuse is the second installment in the Pure Trilogy, which follows a group of characters in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. In the first novel, Pressia, a 16-year-old girl with a doll head fused to her fist, is surviving in this detonated, ash-choked world, and Partridge has survived inside of a protective dome; their lives are set on a collision course when he escapes the dome to try to find his mother. In the second novel, I got to return to the psychological viciousness of the dome and also to take on new landscapes and terrains, new beasts and creatures. I remain haunted by the questions posed in the first novel – what endures the apocalypse. The novels are brutal, but that allows me to push the characters to ultimate resilience as well as human failures.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Oh, poor biographer, weedy and pale. I wish you'd latched onto someone greater, who heaved around more literary weight, drank too much, caused scenes in restaurants, and slept with movie stars. Alas, sweetheart, lowest-ranking PhD candidate in your tidal pool, you've chosen me. Or maybe some sympathetic professor said, "Go with Baggott. No one's talked about her work at all, that I know of." And so you rummage my books for meaning. You access my old emails — oh, the coughing kids, the parent-teacher conference sign-ups, the dog groomer appointments — my God, that collie had a sensitive digestive system — and, sure, a few quips — some even with the writers you wish you'd chosen. But you're in too deep now. You've finally read all the books (why did I have to be so prolific?), and you've jotted notes about my codependent relationship with my husband: "They seem to love each other…" You stare out a window. Here, let me help. Baggott: A Study in Daily Dithering Mess. Buckshot: A Career That Makes No Sense. Julianna Baggott: A Cautionary Tale of a Wannabe Hermit. Don't work too hard on this. In fact, abandon the cause. Take a walk and keep walking. Join a commune. Take up acupuncture. Go get some sun. I'm okay with becoming dust.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
I've always loved T. S. Garp. I loved him from the start — from when he was in high school, that is, in his singlet in the dank, fungal stink of the gym's wrestling pads. I loved his mother — her asexual candor, her lack of all pretense. I'd have married him, you know, even though we were both writers. And I'd have never slept with the "gradual" student. I don't like earnest young men. I find any admiration they might have for me a sign of naïveté. Wait, it was the sitter. He sleeps with the sitter, right? Or am I confusing him with Cheever's Weed in "The Country Husband"? I wouldn't have liked the adultery. Mrs. Ralph. I'm recalling a Mrs. Ralph, somewhat naked. No, I wouldn't have liked that at all. In our version, the children would have thrived — that's the only way to have hope in my future with Garp. The only way at all.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
False. Yes, a novel is a long, extended lie, and within it the novelist has to keep up with a million tiny lies that create the world. But once the world exists and once the characters have breath, the novelist's job is exposing a deep, underlying truth. We use fiction to get to truth — not facts, no. Truth. Personally, I'm incredibly honest. Honesty is what my work demands. I have to be brutally honest with myself so that I can be brutally honest about my characters.Honesty is what my work demands. I have to be brutally honest with myself so that I can be brutally honest about my characters.

How do you relax?
I worry until I'm so exhausted from worrying, a strange hazy calm descends. And then I usually worry about that calm — I mean, is the calm just the start of some sickness? The hypochondria kicks in and I have to just ride that out... In short, what? I don't understand the question.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I grew up in Newark, Delaware. There was a big, old hotel, now a bar, out by the train tracks on Main Street called The Deer Park. (This might be a reference to a certain French king's harem or because there was once a park there filled with deer.) It's rumored that Poe spent the night at this hotel once. They've got a stuffed raven behind glass for effect. If literary pilgrimage is a euphemism for going there for their nachos grande, then so be it.

Why do you write?
Like Richard Gere doing push-ups in the rain in An Officer and a Gentleman, I've got nowhere else to go. It's how my brain is wired. It's how I make sense of the world. It's a lung thing — a breathing in of images and a necessary exhale. Writing is home, the Robert Frost kind. "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
I can spot an author on tour in an airport. They're shaggy. They've got their laptop. They've been up late and they've woken early. They talk on the phone. They carry the books they bought but shouldn't have because they're on tour and in bookstores all the time but the books just weigh them down, city after city. They sometimes stare at the other passengers as if they don't get out much, but that's mainly because they soak it all up too much — overload. They'll fake drop something just to see the cover of the book someone else is reading. I love a writer on tour, but they aren't rock stars. They're looking for the cheap meal. They're hoping people show up. They're, more often than not, alone. Very alone. Alone more than most of the other passengers who are alone are alone, if you follow. I've never been on tour with a rock band, but I assume — I hope — it's less grim than a writer on tour.

Five Books for Bookish Book Clubs
I'm often asked for book club recommendations. This list includes my standard: Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, as well as an overlooked classic, Stoner, which has nothing to do with smoking pot (apologies to the pot smokers), and a bestselling memoir by transgender writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, a great read that might entail some new terrain for certain readers, as well as a comedic and moving Gish Jen novel about the immigrant experience. And every book club should add an occasional collection of poems. Here I pop in Rachel Zucker.

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
Typical American by Gish Jen
She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Stoner by John Williams
Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker

÷ ÷ ÷

Julianna Baggott is the author of 16 books — published and forthcoming — including the national bestseller Girl Talk and Which Brings Me to You (cowritten with Steve Almond), three books of poems, and seven novels for young readers, most notably the Anybodies trilogy, under the pen name N. E. Bode. Fuse is Baggott's second book in the Pure trilogy.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Girl Talk New Trade Paper $18.95
  2. Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in... Used Hardcover $9.50
  3. Fuse (Pure Trilogy #2) Used Hardcover $17.95
  4. Museum of Accidents Used Trade Paper $11.00
  5. Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  6. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  7. Fair and Tender Ladies Used Trade Paper $5.50
  8. The Stories of John Cheever
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  9. The World According to Garp
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

Julianna Baggott is the author of Fuse (Pure Trilogy #2)

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