March 2006

Stephanie Merchant


An Interview with Julianna Baggott and Steve Almond

Writing a novel is hard work. Everyone has heard of JD Salinger’s ten-by-ten-foot windowless cinder block writing studio. The kind of focus needed to see through a manuscript is like a magnifying glass bringing sunlight to a fine point that can ignite a flame. So why on earth would anyone want to jump into the fire with someone else? Two experienced authors did just that when they took on a novel in two voices. The gimmick would either flame out or burn red hot.

Who wouldn’t want to read a stranger’s sexual confessions? Haven’t we all stolen a peek at letters to Penthouse (at least once)? Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confessions by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott indulges this wicked gratification but doesn’t stop there. Unlike skin magazines, the authors take the confessions to deeply personal places until we come to understand how these lovers love, long and leave.

Romance solo flyers Jane and John meet at one of those dreary weddings that forces one to draw on long-neglected origami skills while transforming all reception table napkins within reach into a flock of cranes. Instead of origami avoidance, they find solace in each other’s nakedness in the coatroom. Once they decide to rewind and start from the beginning, it occurs to John that a civil courtship should include personal letters written on actual paper by truth-telling hand. Their alternating chapters of confessional correspondence reveal a litany of past sexual pleasures and pains. But where does this ultimately leave them and their feelings for each other when they put down their papers and meet face to face once again?

The authors were both kind enough to speak to Bookslut.

To start off I'd like to hear from both of you about the collaborative process. Writing is usually so solitary. What surprises did this kind of writing bring? It must have stretched you in ways you never expected.

Julianna Baggott: When the first notion of Which Brings Me to You hit, I didn't have another novel in me, frankly, and I was looking for loopholes -- a way out of the solitude and a practical division of labor. My previous novel about my grandmother who was raised in a house of prostitution during the Great Depression had worn me out. But I was under pressure to write another. (I'd become the sole breadwinner of a family of five.) "A novel in confessions" came first, and since that conversation usually takes two, I landed on "collaboration." It struck me that a collaboration would mean half the work. This seemed particularly brilliant at the time. Did it dawn on me that there aren't many collaborative novels and that there might be a reason why? No, it did not.

The upside of the collaboration: this is a competitive book. The early back-and-forth of chapters was marked by the good energy of one-up-manship. The downside is that when things fell apart, as things do at some point (or many) while writing a novel, we didn't get to bully through these bouts alone. Almost strangers, we got to know each other's brooding artistic temperaments quickly. Some writers can really pull off a good bout of brood, but we didn't wear these temperaments with grace or charm -- you know, like matching black ascots or something. No.

Steve Almond: Actually, I had a fucking ball. The main thing about writing, for me, is that it's lonely as hell. And you never know if anyone's ever going to read your stuff. So you're sitting around with all this self-loathing and doubt. Knowing that Julianna was waiting to read my chapters made me work a lot faster, and more happily. The process was made easier, also, because we each wrote our own sections, from the point of view of our characters.

Where things got more difficult was in revision, figuring out how to critique each other's sections. We had some real humdinger arguments as Julianna can tell you. That's really how we had to stretch: we couldn't just be the God of our own little universe, or take our marbles and go home. We had to work with each other.

For us, the big struggle was to make sure the book transcended the gimmick, that it wasn't just clever, Sex in the City crapola. We were trying to get at the darkest moments in these folks' lives -- and the essential truth that you can't love someone truthfully unless you understand your own bullshit.

Julianna Baggott, you have been married to the poet D.W. Scott for 13 years. You have three children. How difficult was it to put yourself into the mind of a protagonist who is single and carefree without the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood?
JB: Slipping into the skin of another character is always difficult (and presumptuous). But the writing wasn't as difficult as the going public -- which is especially hard this go because of the sexual nature of the book, the collaborative wooing, and the assumptions that come with that territory. Maybe the speculation about the authors' relationship is part of the lure of the book, something that maybe even the publisher wants to play up. This is tricky. For example, Dave handed me a promo piece written by Steve and me with an intro added by the PR folks who called the book "the love child of Julianna Baggott and Steve Almond." Dave said, "No one would read this and not assume that you and Steve had an affair." That sucks (no offense to Steve). Now, Dave and I have a great relationship. We spend all of our time together. He supports and challenges my writing, and allows me the highs and lows of being an artist while trusting me to pursue this art through the jungle that it can be. And he takes all of this going-public in stride and stands by my work. I, on the other hand, feel torn up about the idea that my work might -- in any way -- make him suffer. I worry about the stray backhanded comments that will come his way. I worry about his subconscious. I try to interpret his dreams. I've become a watchdog.  

As for my kids, well, when I started writing this novel, my oldest -- my daughter -- was eight years old. She's now eleven. She can read my books herself, and because I also write novels for kids (under the name N.E. Bode), she certainly has. Do I want her reading this book? No. Will I ban this book under my own roof? This is a whole new world for me -- one I'm not at all prepared for.

Steve Almond,  you are an experienced short story writer.  How did the marathon of the novel versus the sprint of the short story present itself in terms of challenges?

SA: The novel is composed of alternating chapters, each of which is about a past relationship. So in that sense, I was writing "short story" size chunks of prose, with a familiar arc (boy meets girl, boy messes it up). That made things much easier. Focusing on just one aspect of the guy's life -- his romantic history -- helped me map out his other issues much more clearly. I'm sure if the book's structure had been more complicated, or I'd try to cast a wider net, I would have managed to fuck it up.

How did the two of you negotiate what path the plot would take?  Was this a friendly negotiation?
JB: The unfriendly part of the negotiation wasn't surrounding plot as much as it was character. Our characters came to blows first, and then, in defense of those characters, we followed suit. I recall a certain phone conversation in which I told him to take his stories and go home. He was already home. He was calling from home -- like five states away -- but still. I look back on the battles fondly -- I tend to have this kind of memory. Besides, the fights, we've decided, made the book better, more realistic, a little angrier and tougher.

SA: Pretty friendly, actually. We played off each other quite well. And, as I've said, each of our characters had their own arc. It's only at the end that they meet again, and there's any real question as to how things will go. But Julianna was pretty happy -- at least she tells me she was pretty happy -- with how the last chapter turned out.

I took it as a good sign that most of our drafts came quickly. We were being pulled along by the characters, rather than shoving them around. That's always what you want.

This is a novel of confessions, was this a comfortable means of communication to fall into?
JB: I was raised Catholic so yes, absolutely, for me. My epigraph is from The Confessions of Saint Augustine. I see this book as my raunchiest, yes, but also my most spiritual. Jane is looking for forgiveness. She realizes it has to be granted elsewhere, and I feel that at the end of my last section, I've gotten her to the place I needed her to be. Is it a conversion story? No. It's a novel about honesty, a love story. By Jane's final confession, she's prime for spirituality to take hold, but that's where it ends. I don't actually think that anyone will read this novel as spiritual -- ever -- but there you have it.

SA: Totally comfortable for me. A lot of my stories are told in a retrospective voice, with an obvious confessional (some would say maudlin) bent. So I was like: let's go. Let's get to the bad shit. The path to the truth leads through shame. Always has, always will.

In the course of research did you reference other romances where a couple fell in love through letters?  I'm thinking of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar Nelson or Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

JB: I based some of the structure on An Affair to Remember . In fact, you'll find a few references to Cary Grant and the film, here and there. I also caught a performance of Love Letters by A.R. Gurney which was very influential.

SA: Geez, I was thinking more along the lines of Heloise and Abelard. Actually, the main thing I thought about as we were writing was the letters between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice.  That book was very much a model for me, in the sense that both those characters are desirable but well-defended, and the novel's tension resides in the extent to which each of them can come clean with themselves, and with each other.

Are any of the sexual confessions based on your personal experience or were these ripped from the headlines? (i.e. would you like to take this moment to thank either Colin Farrell or  Paris Hilton?)

JB: Well, the Frenchman confession was first published as an essay in the anthology Sex and Sensibility. From confession #1: Sure, an early beau with a mohawk and a black eye; and another guy who didn't tell me his father was dying. From confession #2: I dated a bipolar guy who broke down after college; and a very rich guy who took me out for yards of beer, french toast and oysters. From confession #3: The Frenchman, yes, was shipped out for mandatory military service to the south pole, but I swear I dumped him, not the other way around. From confession #4: Part of this was an essay in Glamour about a guy adored by women, yes, I dated one of those; but I diverge from there -- no threesome, so sorry; but yes to monkey heads. From #5: I dated a guy who was full of family secrets, but was -- by all accounts -- normal. The relationship failed because of my lack of normal.  In other words, there are bits of the truth, and then I invent wildly.

SA: I always want to thank Paris Hilton, just for being so thoughtful and having such terrific values. As for the personal experiences question, I get it a lot and my catch-all response is: if it reflects well on me as a potential sexual partner, yes, of course it's based on personal experience. If it reflects poorly, it's something I based on the pathetic escapades of my various literary rivals. Updike is still furious with me about going public with some of this stuff, but our lawyers are talking and he seems to be easing off on some of the more hysterical-sounding threats.

What is your plan for a tandem book reading?  I know there has been talk about having you both read anonymous confessions from the audience.  Do you like that idea or would you prefer to dance together to some knee slappin' polka tunes?

JB: I assume that Steve and I will, at some point in the tour, bludgeon each other to death with water bottles -- it's the most likely scenario. Whether we do this at a reading or not and whether anyone will be in the audience or not is completely up for grabs.

SA: I'm toying with the idea of letting folks send some "worst relationship" stories to my website, so there's a forum for all that bitter luv. And I'd love to read a few, if all that works out. But we haven't really decided what we'll do yet. The main thing is that both of us sign off on the plan. We both love to read and ham it up, and there's plenty of fun stuff to read in the book, so I'm expecting they'll probably need one of those big canes to drag us off-stage.

Finally, is there anything you care to confess to the Booksluts?

JB: I'm actually allergic to books -- old books mostly. But new books freak me out as well -- a psychological reaction that can completely rattle me. Bookstores -- all of those rows and rows of homeless books -- it's like trolling the humane society. If you show up at one of the bookstore readings this spring, just don't mention the books. I'm doing my best to completely block them out.

SA: I guess I'd like to confess that our title -- which I think just rocks on so many levels -- was suggested by Julianna's husband, the writer Dave Scott. He also slept with me throughout the duration of the collaboration.