Tupelo Hassman‘s second novel, gods with a little g, was published in August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her debut novel, girlchild (FSG) is the recipient of the American Library Association’s ALEX Award. Novella-length fiction, Breast Milk, won Quiet Lightning’s inaugural chapbook competition and her work appears in anthologies, Nothing Short Of 100 (Outpost19) and in Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing By Your Favorite Authors (TarcherPerigree), and in The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, The Independent, The Portland Review, Imaginary Oklahoma, and ZYZZYVA, among others. She teaches at Santa Monica College and California State University, East Bay.
Dan Goff: One of the most interesting things to me about gods with a little g, that I kept thinking about while I was reading, is that this book kind of toes the line between YA fiction and novels for adults. Do you see any distinction between these types of stories, or do you think that labels like that just get in the way of telling a story?
Tupelo Hassman: I don’t think about that when I’m writing. I’m not super clear on what is meant…. I did read a couple of straight-up YA novels recently, and I couldn’t understand why they were categorized that way. But as far as genre in general, I try to not… You know, people don’t talk about politics. I don’t know that people really care about that! What’s fiction and what’s nonfiction, and all that, I don’t want to care about that.
I do see that it’s about teenagers that are having what may be considered teenager problems, and… I don’t know. Are there other reasons it’s like that? Have you read a lot of those specifically YA novels?
DG: Not personally, which is why I wanted to get your take on it. This novel—and I think this is a testament to the power of the novel—is very hard to shoehorn or fit into any one category.
TH: I think I’m not familiar enough. But they didn’t exist when I was a “YA.” There wasn’t a YA thing.
DG: I think maybe it’s partially the narration. It reads like a coming-of-age story, which is a genre that transcends any certain age group.
TH: People have been talking about that a little bit. Girlchild, my first novel, won the Alex Award, which follows kind of the same idea. But if I tried to do it on purpose, I would fail. Is that useful?
DG: Yeah, I think I see what you mean. But speaking of Girlchild, I thought that even more than your debut, the plot of this novel was heavily influenced by the setting. Rosary was such a strongly written place that it felt like a character to me. I’m curious if the setting is what drove you to write the story initially, or if you started with Helen’s character, or if the two sort of came to you simultaneously.
TH: I started with Winthrop and Rainbolene, actually. But I was thinking about a city in California, near the Bay Area, that has always struck me. So I did have that place in my mind generally.
DG: Did you initially think that either Winthrop or Rainbolene would be the main protagonist?
TH: No, I didn’t. Helen was someone to see them through, I guess, and then she became a noteworthy and interesting person on her own. That’s a weird answer, right?
DG: Yeah, I did not expect that at all.
TH: I don’t think anybody’s thinking too much about this until they get asked about it, and then it’s hard not to sound like you just fumbled around until something stuck—because that’s probably what you did, right?
DG: Well, it definitely fits together well. I think it’s really well told, but I definitely did not expect that answer to your process.
TH: It’s so true. It’s so true. I was working on something else, and then I was very struck by them, the idea of them. I talked to my agent about it, and he said, “Well, this is what you’re going to work on, then. Forget the other thing.” And then, of course, I was like, “Oh no! Why did I say anything? I’m not ready.” And he was right, as usual.
DG: Changing gears a little—the concept of being lost runs through this novel a lot, and it’s paired with the various ways in which a person can be found. Considering Helen’s religious upbringing, it read to me like a secular repurposing of Christian tenets—kind of like the title of the novel does. I also grew up in a really Christian household, so when I was reading, this theme was one of the most effective parts of the novel for me. It made me wonder, would you say the book is meant to be a guide for those who may be experiencing similar disillusionment as I did, and as Helen does?
TH: Well, that’s lovely. Yes, I hope so. That would be a lovely idea. I believe in belief, you know? It can be so corroded, even when well meaning. I don’t know what we have left without it. I’m not the first one to note this, but there has to be something other than vacancy. But what Helen’s dad is into is not super palatable for a lot of people. That’s super interesting that you grew up like that. I wanna ask you a lot of questions now.
DG: You say it’s not super palatable, and that’s certainly Helen’s opinion throughout the novel. There wasn’t any one moment… I feel like I’ve read or seen similar stories, and there’s always one turning point where the protagonist is like, “Well, maybe my dad wasn’t all that wrong to begin with. Maybe I do need to return to my roots in faith.” Helen never really had that, and I appreciated that.
TH: No. No, that would be some bullshit. That would not work! She sees it not working all around her. As much as she wants comfort—and she wants comfort like anybody—she’s never going to be comfortable with something that’s untrue.
DG: Right. You almost wrote the antithesis of that kind of scene. I don’t want to misquote it, but I remember late in the book, she sends the most sarcastic prayer to God—like, “Remember me? Remember when I asked you time and again to heal my mom?” I loved that.
TH: And that’s a real relationship, you know, when you fight. That’s all the hope I’ve got there.
DG: Another thing I really loved about gods with a little g was your use of wordplay. For one, I thought it was spot on for Helen’s character, but just in general, all of the puns were so fun. One of my favorites—and I’m curious to see to what extent I was over-reading here—but I really loved Helen’s last name, Dedleder, and her dad’s profession as a postal worker.
TH: I’m so glad you didn’t find that too corny. So many things in there just ride that corny line, you know? I get fired from humor all the time at my house. My husband will say to me, “You are fired from humor for the rest of the day.”
DG: That joke was especially great for me because her dad’s character read to me a lot like a modern Bartleby, the Scrivener. I was wondering if I was totally off base in thinking that.
TH: I didn’t think of that. In the earliest drafts, he was gonna be more of a Bukowski. You know, he was a postman. But then… Whatever his brilliance, I can’t love him like I want Helen to love her father. So there’s that layer in there. But your reading is nice, because it’s more despairing.
DG: Okay, so I was wrong there.
TH: I think I’m not as smart as you. I don’t think I’m as intellectually shining as you, Dan.
DG: It just timed itself really strangely, because like a week ago, before I read your novel, I reread the short story. It has the big reveal at the end about how he worked in the dead-letter office, and when I read Helen’s dad, I was like, “Surely this is a callback to that!”
TH: I wish. If you cut this out of the interview, I can pretend, in future discussions, that I planned this. No, I won’t do that.
DG: Since I was wrong there, what texts from your own reading did influence this book? If any of them did.
TH: Well, the Bible. This is a question I should have an answer prepared for. I’m so sorry… Everything that I’ve read, probably. But I try so hard to, as everyone must, to not copy—but we’re all copying, so I don’t know. Nothing is original. But at least there’s this idea that we can preserve authenticity. There are these moments where we’re like, “Surely no one has done this before!” And then we’re always wrong. It’s a bad answer to say nothing.
DG: No, the Bible is a good one, and I had a follow-up there. Again, with the very religious upbringing, I could tell reading this that you had a good amount of personal experience with the Bible too. If it’s not getting too personal, could you speak to that? I’m trying to avoid that tacky question of autobiography—“To what extent are you writing yourself as Helen?”
TH: But that’s what people always ask, right?
DG: I’m trying to skirt around it here. I was just so personally curious here, just because I could tell that you’re familiar with the Bible. I was curious whether the familiarity only began once you started this story, or if it predated that, because I couldn’t tell.
TH: That’s nice to hear, since you’re a pro at the Bible. And also, if you write fiction, everyone thinks it must be true. And I think if you write nonfiction—which I’ve hardly done—everyone thinks it’s maybe not true. This goes back to that genre question. I really don’t mind if you ask.
My family is a mess. Everyone is an addict. People are either super religious, or completely—like my mom was—“Do not pray in my house.” Because then she’d have family members who were hyper-religious, who would come pray at her if she cursed or something. It was just hot and cold like that. But I was always interested in all kinds of religions, and then I took some courses in college, and I thought I was maybe gonna major in Religious Studies, maybe minor in it. That’s it, for what it’s worth.
DG: That makes sense. Unlike some of your previous answers, that doesn’t surprise me as much… I noticed that Girlchild and this novel have similar structures. Very fast paced, a lot of short segments, titled chapters. Not only did this style allow for a ton of plot development on every page, it also, at least from my reading, matched the psyche of an antsy, dissatisfied teenager. I was curious if that was specifically your intent—or would you just attribute that structure to your signature style? Like, regardless of what you’re writing about, this is how you’ll write it?
TH: Can you imagine if I said, “Well, Dan, that’s my signature style.” [Laughs] It’s good if you say it. People ask this a lot. I think, when I wrote Girlchild, I thought I had done it that way because I was writing about trauma and trauma is fragmenting. And then I did it again and didn’t realize I did it until the first interview about this book. I was like, “Oh no! I don’t have an answer.” I guess that is the way that I do. It’s just organic. And I don’t know if that means I should be trying something else, but it keeps me interested and it helps me move along. It’s not something I’m trying to do. It would be so much harder for me to just put a number as a chapter title.
DG: And I think that would be a disservice to your own style. It wouldn’t seem natural.
TH: Because that’s my signature style!
DG: Yeah! Say what you will about that phrase, I think that’s very true for you. Your style is almost inextricable from the story.
TH: In the way that the chapter titles are necessary to the story, I think so. If I don’t sound like a pig saying that—no offense to pigs.
DG: Do you ever see yourself, or have you ever written, in third person?
TH: You know, in short form… Every time I do, I end up working working working, and then I say, “Something’s wrong!” And I change it to first person. I just did that a couple months ago for a thing. But this is one of those things where I’m like, “Does that mean I’m not doing it right?” Because I’m like that. That’s where I am now. Does that mean I’m a narcissist?
DG: Without asking you to self-analyze too much—
TH: Dan, do you have a degree in psychotherapy?
DG: I don’t. I’m sorry if I’m making it sound like I do. I’m just curious, why do you think something instinctual might tell you to stop and to not do any third person? Why do you think it doesn’t feel right to you?
TH: I think because I can’t believe it. There’s something about adding a layer of separation that feels fake to me. Everybody’s writing toward their truths.
DG: Yeah, your fiction is intensely, intimately personal. A change of perspective could threaten, jeopardize that.
TH: That’s good! Pretend I said that.
DG: That’s pretty much all I had for you.
TH: Oh! Okay. How did we do? Can you work with that?
DG: I think we did great! How do you think we did?
TH: Oh, I don’t know. I’m such a mess right now. But if you find that you have a hole or something, just reach out to me.
DG: Did I ask what you wanted to be asked?
TH: Oh, jeez. I am just not that empowered. That’s what I should be doing—asking, “What do I want to talk about?”
DG: Yeah, absolutely! It goes both ways. I try to make a habit of asking my interviewees that, to ensure that I didn’t make an ass of myself.
TH: See, you should be a therapist! You’re really smart.