The first thing you need to know about Julianna Baggott's extraordinary new novel Pure is about the packaging. When the arc came to me, it had a little sticker on it which said (if I'm remembering right), "Surprise inside!" I opened the book and out flew a big vivid blue butterfly! I watched it spin around the living room and then I was so delighted, I promptly rewound it so I could get it to do it again. Pure is both startling, strange, and thought-provoking and such a wonderful read that she had a movie deal with Fox before the book was even published.
I asked Julianna if she would write about the experience, and I want to answer her question. No, Julianna, you haven't sold out. You've burst forth.
Is Baggott a Sell Out? Or How does it feel to write genre?
by Julianna Baggott
So, PURE is my eighteenth book, but, in so many ways, seems like my first. A post-apocalyptic thriller, it's such a huge departure for me, as a writer. I've written literary novels, whimsical novels for younger readers, women-centric fiction and three collections of poetry. I was in Best American Poetry last year and will be there again this upcoming year; I write contemplative personal essays that have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, NPR ...
I've dabbled and waded into genre, into entertainment, yes. But with PURE, I stormed the gates of genre, scared, but with torch in hand. And what did I find there? Well, first, wait. Let me tell you how it felt.
In a recent blog post for my New Year's Resolution (which was the resolution to have more resolve), I used this line "we're resolving to be bold, professionally (so much I want to do visually, narratively, weirdly, fiercely... gloves off, literary handcuffs gone)" and it felt like a dangerous confession. I was wondering if any of my readers -- many of whom are literary writers and poets -- would wonder what I meant by "literary handcuffs gone". There were a number of responses to the post on Facebook, but no one mentioned literary handcuffs or what I could possibly mean by the fact that I'd shed them.
This is what I meant. As a writer, we have all kinds of shackles. Some want a real readership and cow to that. Others sometimes hold those who want a real readership in disdain, but often they're shackled by the desire for respect. Because without readership, you need at least to garner some respect, right? Let's be honest; many of us want both.
And before you misunderstand and think that I believe both desires to be somewhat corrupt, let me set you straight. Desire is desire. Whatever motivates a write to get to the page is better than no desire at all. It can be rocket fuel. It can be something that burns in you. It probably goes back to our mommies and our daddies. And likely if you have it, it gets you to the page, but what keeps you there is the struggle -- the bear wrestling -- of story, image, character, creating the airtight and beautiful extended lie of fiction and the pressure of white that collects around the poem like so much snow, whispering, "Deserve me."
So, yes, I'd started to feel the chafe of literary shackles on my wrists -- the need to be beautiful line-by-line, to rely on giving the gift of language while sacrificing story, to create an internal structure of images to support the work instead of deep characterization, etc... All of these good things that had kept me at the page for so very long -- they were oppressive.
And what was building up in me was a deep restlessness. I wanted to take on something massive in scale, but to also be urgently intimate in the telling.
And so I stormed the gates of genre because I'd never really seen much of it through the bars. Once inside those gates, what I found were beautiful architectures, old and sturdy ones, ornate and striking. The buttresses and spires and gargoyles. With these structures, I could build the thing I desired.
I was terrified, I should mention that. I'd written a novel in which the main character has a doll-head fused to her fist who hides in an ashen cabinet. I'd written about a boy who escapes a Dome to find his mother. I set two lives on a collision course in a landscape populated by Beasts, Dusts, Groupies ... which I can't even truly explain for you here.
The novel is called PURE, and I've spoken here about the desire for readership, for respect -- these writerly impurities. I don't know -- and never will -- truly understand what makes me write, especially what makes me write so damn much. Sometimes it's as simple as: this is the way I have to process the world, and other times it's much more complicated.
I know that my literary friends will say that I sold out (the film rights to Pure sold before the novel did). But I don't know what that means when, day after day, I labored over this work, not knowing if 431 pages later, anything would come of it. All I know is that it felt good. It felt like a liberation. And now that I've found a way through the gates, I invite literary writers to come for visit. I've got a torch. I know a few of the cobbled streets. Come and see for yourself what's here.