First take a look at these knockout blurbs!
Simply beautiful … precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid. —Joyce Carol Oates
I love this book and am grateful it is in the world.—Dorothy Allison
Jeannine Ouellette is the author of the memoir The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021), the children’s book Mama Moon, and several educational titles. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, and her work has been supported with fellowships from Millay Colony for the Arts and Brush Creek Foundation. She is the recipient of a Margarita Donnelly Prize, Curt Johnson Fiction Award, Proximity Essay Award, Masters Review Emerging Writer's Award, two recent Pushcart nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Medill School of Journalism. She's working on her first novel--and we cannot wait! Thank you for being here Jeannine!
I always want to know what was haunting a writer into writing a particular book right now.
I was haunted—and I
love that idea of being haunted by a book, because haunting is powerful
concept, one I believe in on multiple levels—but, yes, I was haunted into
writing this book. I was haunted by memories of sagebrush and tumbleweeds,
hours alone in the shadow of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Haunted, too, by
the hours I spent by myself in the almost two dozen houses and apartments I grew
up in, including foster homes. I was haunted by my past selves, the little girl
with the greasy hair hiding under the lilac bush and waiting for its branches
to open up into some new version of Narnia, just for me. Haunted by the
basements I slept in, and the friends I lied to. Haunted by choices I made
because I didn’t know there were other choices. Haunted, maybe most of all, by
the person I was when I first became a mother at age 22, which indeed was like
stumbling into some new Narnia, one just as magical but also as dangerous as
the one C.S. Lewis imagined so vividly all those years ago.
This book has haunted me since I was a teenager—and I am 53 now. By age twenty, I was writing about this book in my journal, saying, “I don't feel like I am saying what I am trying to say. How can that be? I don't know. I do think I am about ready to write my book, but I can't find the right place to begin.” That makes sense now, of course, that I couldn’t find the right place to begin—how could I have? It’s too awful, really, to think about a grown man, one placed in a position of trust—I’m referring to my stepfather, Mafia—molesting me as a four-year-old child, then continuing that molestation for years. When I was a new adult, finally free—or, so I thought—what I wanted was to convey the enormity of this terrible injustice, this primal wound. But I had neither the life experience nor the skills to convey it effectively.
In my twenties and thirties, I was still very much in the middle of it, even though my stepfather had disappeared from the picture years ago by then, having left when I was ten. But the things he did to me (and his abuse of my mother, too, and her subsequent breakdowns) cast a long shadow. I couldn’t write this book until I had made sense of my own story, and that didn’t happen until enough of it was behind me. I had to have some perspective in order to synthesize real meaning from the things I experienced, and the person I became as a result of those experiences. That process of synthesis, that window into meaning, started opening for me in my early forties, after I’d been safely in my second marriage for a decade. From there, it took yet another decade to see the book into print. And what a relief that has been. It’s not that my stepfather’s abuse was a secret—I have not hidden his pedophilia for a very long time.
That’s a shame I have long refused to carry for him. But, confiding in people close to me is not the same as sending a whole book out into the wide world for anyone to see. A book represents real exposure, extreme vulnerability. I was caught off guard by tsunami of fear that hit me during the weeks right before and after my pub date. I was a wreck. But, I was also ready on some level to simply sit with that fear, let the waves pass over me at their own speed, while going about my business and doing what needed to be done, not only in service of the book, but also in service of my life. I expected to come up for air eventually, and I have.
I absolutely love the structure of this book, where brilliant fragments make up a whole. How and why did you decide on this structure and what were the surprises of writing like this?
I tried so many different structures! And I was told by a few agents that I needed a more traditional narrative arc. Which I eventually tried and failed to execute—it just didn’t work for this book. But I’m fascinated by structure, and ultimately have some qualms with the idea that the traditional narrative arc is the only effective structure for storytelling. The traditional arc is very Western, and very masculine. I love the book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Allison. She does a fantastic job of unpacking and challenging some mythology around narrative form. After explaining how the “…arc really is the perfect expression of tragedy as Aristotle saw it,” she reminds us that not all fiction (or, I would add here, creative nonfiction) is tragedy, and she asks why we should therefore insist on the same arc for all stories. Finally, and hilariously, she acknowledges the “irksome sexual aspect” by quoting critic Robert Scholes, who said, “The archetype for all fiction is the sexual act….For what connects all fiction—and music—is the fundamental orgiastic rhythm and tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.” Allison writes, then: “Well. Is this how I experience sex? It is not.” Which made me laugh out loud.
The point being, though, not all stories are best served by the traditional narrative arc. I tried stuffing mine into one—or, more accurately, stretching it out it into one, because the traditionally linear version was fictionalized and almost twice as long—but, as I said, it really didn’t work. The arc diluted its power in a number of important ways. Whereas working with fragments seemed to have an amplifying effect. The fragments reflect and refract off one another. Fragments allowed me to tell and retell the central conflict in ways that mirrored the narrator’s shifting understanding of her own experience in different eras of her life. She is in fact constantly revising her relationship to her past as she becomes both clearer about what was done to her, and more embodied. Embodiment, for her, is a double-edged sword. She wants the right to live in her body, a right that was violated by her stepfather. But in order to live in her body, she has to feel a lot of painful old wounds that have long hummed quietly under a very numbed exterior. It’s a conundrum, and the fragmented form allows that conundrum to unfold organically and elliptically, as it did in real life.
Our society puts so much that is really fable onto motherhood and family. You imagined being a mother might heal the trauma of your past, but instead, it created something very different. Can you talk about this please?
What a fantastic question. I address this tangentially in
the second chapter, “Tumbleweeds,” under the last heading, “Mother (Mater)”
because this dichotomy of maternal expectation versus reality, which eventually
evolved for me into a paradox, was so stark. It was simply crucial for me to
reckon with that paradox in order to become a whole human being. And it was
paradoxical, because, first and foremost, I loved being a mom of little kids, I
loved being home with them, it suited my needs and desires and temperament. I
did find it genuinely healing in fundamental ways. This remains true with my
grandchildren—being with them, they are three, two, one, and 9 months now—and caring
for them and showering them with love has been a balm like none other during
this pandemic in terms of heart-healing powers. But being a very young mother to three
children ages five and under was also quite hard, as anyone can imagine it
would be. Not only because the processes of pregnancy, natural childbirth, and
breastfeeding catapulted me back into my body in ways I could never have
foreseen, bringing up all kinds of very painful cellular memories I’d
repressed. It was like, once I was in my body again, I couldn’t turn off
sensation at will as I’d always been able to do. Suddenly, I had no defense
mechanisms for all the sensations I didn’t want—especially sex that didn’t feel
Prior to motherhood, I had accepted whatever kind of sex my partner wanted and that was fine, whether I liked it or not. After motherhood, no more. I couldn’t, once I was embodied again, say yes to sex when my body was saying no, no, I don’t like the feeling of this. Suddenly, my own sexual needs, preferences, and desires had to matter, and that was a foreign and frightening new terrain. Also, like all moms, I’d find myself sleep deprived and impatient. I’d find myself crying. In the worst cases, I’d find myself throwing a book or toy, which was how I dealt with overwhelm instead of turning that anger on three little kids. I can count those times on one hand, but, still, they count. To discover that I was not and could never be perfect as a mother was grotesquely painful. Being imperfect as a child or a human was one thing, but being imperfect as a mother felt akin to being a monster. I think that’s reinforced, too, in our patriarchal, misogynist culture, where everything is the mother’s fault. Even some readers of my memoir get angry that the narrator forgives her own mother. I understand that reaction—my mother did some extreme things. Making me sleep in the basement, kicking me out of the family repeatedly. She had a terrible temper and often directed it toward me. But she was a product, too, of systemic inequalities and injustices as well as personal traumas that absolutely contributed to her challenges. I don’t think there’s really been a time when I’ve not wanted to be in a state of forgiveness for my mom—who, by the way, has been quite supportive of this book. But, for my younger self, mourning the futile notion of perfect motherhood was utterly grueling. I bought wholesale into the patriarchal myth of motherhood. One hundred percent.
I had a fairy tale notion about motherhood and family and wanted to believe I could protect my children from all threats—environmental threats, social threats, and, of course, my own imperfections. None of this proved possible. I soon learned that there are microparticles of plastic in our waters, endocrine disrupting chemicals that enter your body through your skin. Even a whole-house water purifier can’t adequately protect us from those chemicals, but that never mattered anyway because we could not have afforded one of those! Besides, there would still be air and food—neither of which are pure. And of course, there was still myself, my grossly imperfect self to contend with. It took a long time to believe that I was good enough. It took even longer to believe—not just know, but truly believe—that being imperfect is not the same as being abusive. Once I started believing and accepting that, I was able to start healing my own trauma, starting with the childhood trauma of sexual abuse. That’s where the paradox comes in. That is, I found it was only though the challenge of accepting and appreciating myself as a mother despite my imperfection that I could begin to also accept and appreciate the other imperfect parts of myself that were broken in childhood. The paradox of motherhood, in that way, really was my doorway to healing—just not the way I had wanted and expected it to be. I thought being a perfect mom would be the healing, when in fact it was the opposite: accepting my inevitable imperfection was the elixir I needed all along, and motherhood catalyzed and supercharged that process—demanded it, in fact.
Oh, and about the cover and the title, both of which I love, love, love. Did you have input in the cover? It's spectacular.
I did! The art came from Kelly Popoff, a painter I was in residence with at Millay Colony during the summer of 2018. Her work is phenomenal. As we became friends during our time together at Millay, we got to know each other’s back stories and the questions and passions we were each exploring—her on the canvas, and me on the page. We found so much resonance in our work in terms of motherhood, family, early wounds, and the long path of becoming. She was the first person I thought of when it came time to talk about covers, and Split/Lip was totally on board with me bringing Kelly in as the artist. She came up with so many sketches and prototypes for cover art! It was an incredible process because for one thing, Kelly is an artist, not an illustrator, so it was very organic and not under my direction, or Split/Lip’s direction. I gave Kelly the manuscript and told her about themes, including the house explosion my mom lived through, among other things, but the images she came up with were so diverse and incredible. I loved so many of them that the process of choosing just one was outrageously difficult. But this really was the one. It captures something in its simplicity. It’s childlike, but also complex. The tape was my idea. I saw a book cover I loved, it was an art book, that used tape in a way somewhat similar to this, but not as messy. The messy version is right for my book, though, in the way it captures, as does the askew house, something essential in this fragmented story. David Wojciechowski, he’s the cover designer, did an incredible job.
And I know titles tend to be marketing decisions, but I saw yours and thought: damn, I wish I had thought of that title!
Thank you! I’m so glad you like it. And the thing is, Split/Lip is quite small, and things work a little differently there as compared to big publishers. In my case, I submitted the manuscript as The Part That Burns after giving an obsessive amount of thought to the title, and they never asked me to consider changing it. Of course, being obsessive, I did consider changing it, anyway. Of course I did. But in the end, I felt it was the right title, because of the way it hits the heart-center of the book, which is to say, the things that hurt us most are also, sometimes, the things that make us the best parts of who we are. I know that in my case I have an extraordinary amount of empathy and compassion grounded in trauma. I don’t think people should have to experience trauma to become exceptionally empathic and compassionate, but trauma can have that effect. For me, it did. I feel, too, that my love of language, my imagination, and my little bit of clairvoyance (which is sometimes quite a lot of clairvoyance) is grounded in those early life experiences that drove me out of my body. I am glad, oh so very glad, to be back in my body now, but had I never left it, I may not have developed these other capacities. I can’t know all of those things, or any of them, with certainty. But I know that when I was working on this project and writing the birth scene about my middle child, my son, and those lines spilled out—I am the part that burns and the part that burns is the part that glows—something just clicked. This is the scene where the narrator is whirling through the painful but hypnotic trance of labor, that tunnel of darkness, realizing that her body is slipping back into her body just as a brand-new human’s body is slipping out of her, and there’s an integration that happens in that moment. That integration is, for me, deeply connected to the heart and soul of this book. Thus, the title!
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am obsessing hard on my next book, which is fiction, and
so fun to be engaged with! It’s completely, wildly, crazily different from my
memoir. It takes place in a kind of near future, pre-apocalyptic world in which
the population has decreased dramatically and the boundaries between cities and
natural areas have degraded significantly, leading humans and animals to have
closer and more frequent encounters with one another. In this context, I want
to explore questions about love, fear, and even tribalism. I want to explore
the thin line between humans and animals in terms of our behavior around both
devotion and survival. What I want, in a sense, is to explore the whole idea of
our animal natures—humans are animals, of course—and the fragility of our human
control, while also looking at the complex interior lives of animals. In other
words, where, really, do the boundaries begin and end? I have a loose plot
going, but can’t really say more about it, except that there are coyotes, and
coyotes and their pack structures are amazing. The smallest amount of research
is already blowing my mind.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh boy, you asked such great questions! So, I would mainly say thank you, thank you, thank you for giving time, space, and attention to my book. It’s a tough, tough road to launch a book during a pandemic. You’ve done so much to help so many writers. The statistics around pandemic books are abysmal, according to a recent write-up in The New York Times. In 2020, a full 98% of books published sold fewer than 5000 copies. And that doesn’t even account for the impact on tiny presses like Split/Lip, where 5000 would be actually be a damn good run. So, you work your whole life on a book, and then have to cast it out to sea in this kind of storm, where it’s just going to get tossed around on the waves for about three and a half minutes before sinking forever. That’s the sad story for small and tiny presses along with independent bookstores, all of which suffered especially hard last year, to the point where most indie bookstores simply lost money. A lot of people are worried about the future of independent publishing and what will happen to the diversity of voices and stories that indie presses and bookstores support. In the end, it’s huge—it’s immeasurably valuable—that literary champions like you make space for smaller books from smaller presses in this dismal publishing landscape. I personally have a lot of catching up to do in terms of how to be an incredible literary citizen who boosts other writers and their books, and people like you light the way. You have no idea how much it means.