Oct/Nov 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jayne Pupek

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Mama's chest moved up and down, but the rest of her body stayed perfectly still. She didn't seem to hear. Her eyelids didn't flicker the way they did when she dreamed. Except for the rise and fall of her chest, Mamma looked dead.

Daddy stood and placed his hands on my shoulder. His touch startled me. My body jerked. Had he stabbed me with the needle?

As if reading my thoughts, Daddy pulled the medicine and syringe from his pocket and set them on the bedside table." I'd never do anything to hurt you, Ellie, Never." When Daddy motioned for me again, I climbed onto his lap, sinking into his arms.

In Tomato Girl, author Jayne Pupek tells the story of eleven-year-old Ellie Sanders, her mentally ill mother, her conflicted father who betrays the family with a sexually abused teenager, and the people in the town who witnessed what happened. Ellie is the narrator of the story. She struggles with her feelings in a situation no young girl should have to handle. Pupek's life experience as a social worker aided her in the depiction of her characters. Pupek served as the director of a domestic violence program where she worked with battered woman and their children. She also worked with men who battered. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she subsequently went to work for the Virginia Department of Corrections and was in her words "either naive or bold enough" to volunteer when a female therapist was needed to treat adult male sexual offenders. Later she transferred to a juvenile correctional setting where she treated sex offenders between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one and when appropriate, their families. She also worked with the homeless mentally ill.

As a writer Pupek has previously focused on poetry. Forms of Intercession was published by Mayapple Press in 2008. Lisa Russ Spear, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, said about Pupek's poetry, "With the forthright, Gothic lyricism of a Sally Mann, ever her own confessor and intercessor, this brave conjure woman/poet 'with a knack for surviving godless nights' honors life's complexly-dealt hand with relentless looking."

As it says on the jacket of her debut novel, Tomato Girl, Pupek truly has written "a powerful and deeply emotional debut novel in the classic Southern tradition of Carson McCullers and Kaye Gibbons."

Jayne resides near Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, children, and a menagerie of animal companions.


EG     The characters in Tomato Girl were pretty troubled people. What type of clinical problem did the mother have?

JP     Today Julia would probably be diagnosed as bipolar. Her symptoms primarily involved mood swings rather than thought disturbances, although she certainly showed delusional ideation when it came to her miscarried child.

EG     You aren't kidding about delusional ideation. The miscarried baby ended up in a jar of formaldehyde. The mother pressed the jar against her breast believing she was nursing her baby. It is hard to imagine someone so ill who was not receiving medical treatment. I was not sure what time period the story took place in. When was it and how were mental health services delivered if at all at that time in a rural town?

JP     The story takes place in the late sixties, when mental illness carried far more stigma than it does today—and even today it certainly carries a stigma. The move away from institutionalization made strides during this era with the The Community Mental Health Centers Act signed into law in 1963, but progress was delayed due to the Vietnam War. Community based services for the mentally ill weren't readily available in rural areas.

EG     Ellie was a likeable child. She had a strong voice. She was levelheaded. I was also impressed at her love and loyalty toward her parents. What was heartbreaking was how mental illness took her mother away from her. Have you ever worked with a person like Ellie?

JP     I've worked with many children like Ellie. It's not uncommon for children to assume adult roles in homes where one or both parents fail to function as adults. Ellie is forced to become the caretaker in her home, especially after her father becomes infatuated with Tess. This role is overwhelming, and ultimately impossible, given the gravity of her mother's mental illness. These dynamics can occur in families for various reasons: divorce, the incarceration or death of a parent, extreme poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and so forth. Ellie reminds me of several children I've worked with, but especially one young girl who was molested by her brother. Since he was being returned home after treatment, I made arrangements to also work with her prior to his release. She possessed many traits that Ellie shows, including a fierce loyalty. She was also the most grown-up little girl I had ever met, and was much like Ellie in her capacity to love and forgive. I often thought of her as I wrote this novel.

EG     Tess was a character who had lost her inner center. She never was allowed to be a "normal" teenager. She had epilepsy and was sexually abused by her father after seizures. The contrasts between Ellie and Tess's youth and their problems were overwhelming for this reader. I felt at moments I could not take any more of the drama. There was betrayal, insanity, chronic illness. Did you consider the intensity and ongoing misery of these characters and how this would affect the reader or did you just write and let things happen without this concern?

JP     I feel an obligation not to leave a reader in "a bad place." That said, there is great beauty in dark and terrible places, and a lot to be learned there. Considering the type of work I've done, I'm not sure I would be a very authentic person if I didn't write about dark subjects. I treated damaged and deeply disturbed people. To work with them, I had to be willing to go to the dark places with them. I had to prove that no matter how awful the thing was—-whether it was something done to them or something they had done to others— I wouldn't look away or let go when it became violent, ugly, or unbearable. No one, not even the most heinous criminal, wants to be abandoned in the dark; my promise to them was never to leave them there. So yes, I think I'm compelled to write about dark things. I'm equally compelled to keep my reader safe, to bring him or her back to a place where it is possible to see the light and to breathe again.

EG     I found the saving grace for me with this novel, beside the amazing way you created dramatic movement, was my desire for this all to work out for Ellie. I wasn't too concerned about Tess until the last part of the story. Ellie was a sympathetic character. In reflection another saving element was the sensitive way Ellie was portrayed and that there were people who came into her life to help her.

JP     When a child lives with parents who no longer function as parents, the community is sometimes her only chance. Ellie survived because of the kindness of strangers like Clara, her teacher, Sheriff Rhodes, and a foster mother. We are all strangers capable of being kind to each other. No one has to look far to find a child like Ellie. She's everywhere, even if she's in disguise. Sometimes the disguises are ugly, and it's hard to see through them.

EG     The story was fast paced. You had a rhythm going to build up tension. Beside your ability to grab this reader's attention by your prose and storytelling ability, I was also impressed at how you arranged the story. It was being told after it happened by a more mature Ellie, and it seemed like a form of therapy for her. It was her "release." Clara her friend told her she had to let things go. Do you see your writing as a release?

JP     No, I don't see my writing as a release. I see it as a creative process, not a cathartic one. I approach my writing as the work I do, as the art I attempt to make. I don't think of writing poems or a novel as the kind of writing one does in a diary or journal, where venting and problem solving are often a focus.

EG     What do you think the purpose of a novel is?

JP     The purpose of a novel is to tell a story that enhances or deepens the reader's experience of being human. Different novels provide different experiences. Some novels are gentle and moving, while others bring a reader face to face with terror. Maybe at a basic level, the novel satisfies human curiosity in the way that any story does. Why do people stop to watch accidents or gossip or go see movies or watch 24 hour news programs? We are innately curious about the way others live. Novels give us glimpses into other lives.

EG     On your book jacket, Tomato Girl is said to be the debut "of a gifted and promising new author who has written the kind of timeless Southern novel on which Algonquin's reputation was founded." That is quite a complimentary statement.

Is that how you would describe this novel? Timeless? Southern?

JP     "Southern" is likely to fit much of what I write. I was born in Virginia and have lived here my entire life, so it is inevitable that the essence of this region would figure prominently in my work. I don't think I could write about a place unless I had lived there.

"Timeless" is another matter altogether. I'm flattered that anyone would think of my work in those terms, but I don't give much thought to that myself. I'll leave the judgments about my work to the reviewers and readers.

EG     Can you comment on why the word Gothic is used when your novels or poetry are reviewed?

JP     Well, there is a genre of literature referred to as Southern Gothic, which my novel easily fits into, but the easiest explanation is that I tend to focus on darker themes and characters that are disturbed. The purpose isn't simply to frighten or build suspense. Southern Gothic novels make a social statement or shed light on some aspect of our culture. The word most often paired with Gothic is grotesque, and my work very often looks at the grotesque.

EG     Was the story based on any real events?

JP     No. It's all lies. Complete and utter fabrication. I have no morals when it comes to the story. I'll borrow, steal, and lie. That's what writers do. Sometimes the lies writers tell lead to a truth. I think my mother wants a disclaimer on the front of each book stating that she is not like "that crazy mother."

EG     Writers' mothers should form a group called I Am Not That Character. Or My Daughter Has a Great Imagination. I commend you on your lying ability.

You are a poet as well as a fiction writer. I have read Forms of Intercession. You are skilled at both. Can you comment on what you see as the differences and motivation for each form?

JP     Thank you. Other than "Tomato Girl," I've written very little fiction, so I'm not sure that I can make too many sweeping generalities. Obviously, novels deal with story, so there is a greater focus on who did what and why. Leaving very few unanswered questions is important to novels in a way that isn't true of poetry. A poem more often is about the nature of something, an attempt to reach its essence. I approach a novel in much the same way that I approach a poem, in that I listen for a voice and once I've found it, I let it lead the way.

EG     Do you have a preference for either?

JP     Oh, poetry, without a doubt. I absolutely love it. I'm aware that people don't read much poetry. I mean, the poetry aisle is the loneliest place in the bookstore, isn't it? I hear people say that they don't like poetry. I take their word for it, but I don't understand how that can be true. There are also people who don't like dogs. I can't imagine that, either.

EG     Why did you name your poetry book Forms of Intercession?

JP     I used one of the poems as the title poem. I think of poems themselves as a form of intercession, a sort of prayer offered on behalf of others. Many of my poems aren't about my own experiences, but the experiences of others. Self-reliance is also a trait I admire, and I think this poem touches on that.

EG     Who are your favorite poets and fiction writers?

JP     Fiction writers: Kaye Gibbons, Alice Sebold, Lydia Millet, J.M. Coetzee, Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Hoffman, Thomas Cook, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Stephen King.

Poets: Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Galway Kinnell, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, John Ashbery, Louise Gluck, W.S. Merwin, C.D. Wright, Lisa Spaar, Bob Hicok, Dean Young, Anne Carson, Gregory Orr, Claudia Emerson, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Tess Gallagher, Jorie Graham

EG     Do you think you could have written the essence of Tomato Girl in a poem?

JP     Actually, Tomato Girl existed as a poem before it became a novel. I signed up for an online workshop/critique group for poetry and checked the box for the novels list, too, on a whim really. I didn't have a novel in progress, but I'd read plenty of novels and thought it would be fun. When it was time to submit something, I took a poem that was narrative in nature and began the novel, Tomato Girl.

EG     Do you still have that poem? Can we read a few lines?

JP     The poem may still exist, but if it does, it is inside one of many boxes of old writing. Maybe because I already had a career and a family, I didn't feel much need to identify myself as a poet or writer. At the time I wrote the poem, I rarely sent out any work. I wrote because I loved to write, and mostly, I left what I wrote in notebooks or boxes or tossed it into the trash.

EG     Here is your poem "wake" from Forms of Intercession:

It's not only spiders and sickness that keep me awake.
Sometimes it's the notion of a stove left burning,
A bill unpaid. It's the morning exchange of harsh words
Or a residual buildup of sentiments unspoken.
I notice things you do not see: a teller's smirk,
Skipped stitches, and ceiling cracks reaching past roof-line.
Tonight, it's the telephone, mute and indifferent
On its black cradle, the absence of your voice
Sinking into the whorl of my ear. My breath is a chant
Commanding bells to ring.

Lisa Russ Spaar, quoted in this interview's introduction, also said this about your poetry:

As Andre Breton famously said of the painter Frida Kahlo, whose kindred post-Lapsarian vision of ardor and pain haunts Jayne Pupek's Forms of Intercession her art is "a ribbon around a bomb." In Pupek's work, the bomb is the body-bone house, blood-jet, impediment, given to extremes of despair and ecstasy.

From what I have read of your work, I would say this is true. Are you optimistic about people's ability to come to terms with the "bombs" in their lives?

JP     Absolutely. I have great faith in the human spirit. People are resilient and capable of so much passion. The will to survive is a force that should never be underestimated.

EG     Will there be another novel?

JP     I'm working on another novel now that will be completed soon. Superstition keeps me from saying much about a work in progress.


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