Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Julianna Baggott talks about The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted

Let's start with the facts: Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books, most recently THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED under her pen name Bridget Asher, as well as THE PRETEND WIFE and MY HUSBAND’S SWEETHEARTS. She’s the bestselling author of GIRL TALK, three collections of poetry, and, as N.E. Bode, THE ANYBODIES TRILOGY for younger readers. Her essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, NPR.org, and Real Simple. You can visit her blog, too. But Julianna is also one of the warmest writers you'd ever want to meet (and that's a fact, too), and I'm thrilled to have her here.

he Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted is a novel about the curative powers of place. Do you consider yourself a writer who focuses on place? How does place figure into this novel and your work, in general?

When I read one of the first reviews of the novel -- from Kirkus -- I was struck by the phrase "unabashedly romantic." It seemed like a suitable commentary on the differences between American and French culture. Americans are, generally speaking, "bashedly" romantic; and the French are insistently romantic. The first sentence that came to me in writing this novel was "Grief is a love story told backwards." I wanted to tell an unabashedly romantic novel about that grief, about a woman finding herself again, returning to her senses.

One of the most important things about living somewhere foreign to you is that you can't take for granted what you're seeing, hearing, tasting. It's how we should always live -- no matter where we are -- fully awake to the world around us. But sometimes we shut down to that world. I wanted to describe a character opening up to it. France has always held a certain power over me. I started learning the language at ten when my father was considering a transfer to Geneva. My French is bawdy -- I learned most of it in Parisian bars when in my early twenties -- and I love the language and the food and their unabashedly romantic natures.

You write novels for adults, younger readers, collections of poetry, essays, under your own name as well as two pen names. Talk to us about genre-hopping and writing for different audiences.

Every genre has its burdens, and each demands all of my imaginative efforts. When you write a character over the course of a novel, you are engaging, deeply, in the practice of empathy. Whatever genre and for whatever audience, I have to get that right. I have to be willing to fall into the experience of someone else. At different times in my creative process, I want to submerge myself in that experience for a long time -- as in the making of a novel. Sometimes I need to shift that gaze onto my own life and figure out something about myself or my own experience in the world, as in the making of an essay. Sometimes I want the pressure of white bearing down on the words -- as in poetry and screenplays. The lessons do transfer, but not fluidly. However, being rigorous in each genre benefits the others -- like cross-training. It also allows me a little time away from one project or genre-based way of thinking, which I find liberating. The time away allows me to return with a newly revved appetite.

As for audience, I'm always trying to narrow my audience to one other person -- as if whispering my story urgently into their ear. The better I am at knowing that other person, the easier it is to find the right words. I don't think of audience in general -- readership; that's too overwhelming. Sometimes that person I choose is my sixteen year old daughter -- as in the making of my upcoming post-apocalyptic, dystopic novel PURE or myself as a child as in THE ANYBODIES or another writer like Steve Almond and his character John, as in WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU, which Steve and I co-wrote. And THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED was born as a love letter perhaps to place, to an experience, to this village and what it brought to me and my family.

Still, I have my obsessions that follow me into every book. For one, I'm compelled to write about the various hoods of women -- motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood. That sneaks into everything I do.

This looks to be a foodie novel. Did you eat your way through the research?

Yep! Best research experience of my life. Period.

It was an insane idea -- taking four young kids, plus a niece, to France for the summer. I don't know how to explain it except that I felt if we didn't do it, we never would. I was compelled. We did it all on a shoestring budget. We rented a tiny ancient house in the tiny village of Puyloubier for cheap. We ate from local roadside fruit and vegetable stands. We lived on inexpensive local cheeses and, surrounded by vineyards, excellent inexpensive wines. And my husband and I did save up for a few splurges. Our most amazing meals were from invitations to eat with the people who lived in town. I write about these meals with such passion that my editor and I decided it was too vicious not to include a few recipes in the back of the novel. (Check out that Provencal chicken in cream sauce -- so easy and divine!)

You teach creative writing. How do teaching the craft and practicing the craft interact with each other?

I try to open up my head and let my students see my creative process. I teach the importance of musing and being alone and quiet. I talk about the importance of writing while not writing -- in other words how important it is to engage with the world, moment to moment, so that when you get to the page, you've got something real to put down on it. I harp on the importance of memories -- which have already been edited by forgetfulness, leaving behind stains that are already tested for their psychological resonance. I preach a lot about dedication to craft, about the importance of pouring hours into your work, and reading like a writer. The fact that I'm saying all of his aloud reminds me to apply the lessons to myself, which can be crucial.

What are you at work on now?

Having just mentioned the importance of musing, I'm in the early stages of creating the next Bridget Asher novel. I have a feeling it's going to draw on my current life in very specific ways. Many ideas are rumbling around in my head, like distant thunder. I'm also at work on the sequel to PURE, the first in a dystopic trilogy that will be published next February, and dabbling in a few essays, a poem here and there. Juggling.


Kristi Holmes said...

What a wonderful interview -- I didn't realize that Julianna Baggott was so versatile and prolific. I especially liked her comment about empathy, as the role of empathy in writing fiction is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

g.maroney said...

a sneak peek web site is up for PURE: http://pure-book.com/

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