March 2013

James Tate Hill

features

An Interview with Holly Goddard Jones

Part of the mystery's enduring appeal, for writers as well as readers, lies in its comfortable, familiar structure. "[Mysteries] answer questions, make order out of chaos, and create clarity out of confusion," says Bruce Harris, a former VP of sales at Random House, in a 2010 Forbes article about the reliability of the genre. Harris means the plot, of course, but the answers, order, and clarity of The Next Time You See Me, the debut novel from Holly Goddard Jones, come as much from the book's emotional depth as its narrative. Even more impressive is how Jones's mystery generates its traditionally compelling plot with a decidedly non-traditional structure, maintaining a patience that shapes tragedy into something comprehensible, beautiful even, as the action moves inexorably forward.

The central characters in The Next Time You See Me are connected in different ways to Veronica "Ronnie" Eastman, the hard-drinking non-conformist who has gone missing. The ensuing search causes Susanna, Ronnie's sister, to question more than her sister's whereabouts. The detective heading the investigation, a high school classmate of Susanna, awakens memories as well as possibility. Emily, a shy, socially outcast thirteen-year-old, is tied to Ronnie's disappearance in ways more dangerous than she realizes. The older, equally awkward Wyatt moves the narrative into darker, queasy, yet equally heartbreaking territory. If this description seems coy about what actually happens in the novel, rest assured that the central mystery unfolds with tension and drama, even as the author paints a lugubrious portrait of ambition and regret. Take it from no less a master of the literary mystery than Gillian Flynn, who calls The Next Time You See Me "astoundingly good" and "simply mesmerizing."

In 2009, Holly Goddard Jones published Girl Trouble, a collection of short stories praised by Claire Messud as "fierce and exhilarating" and by Edward P. Jones as "assured, sensitive, and wonderfully skillful." Most striking about Jones's fiction is how effortlessly she crafts original, nuanced plots while making your heart ache for every character, lead and supporting. Her fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, and many other magazines. In 2013, she was named a recipient of the Fellowship of Southern Writers' Hillsdale Prize for Excellence in Fiction, and in 2007 she received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Currently she teaches in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Between semesters, about a month prior to her new novel's release, Jones was kind enough to answer some questions about genre, gender, and our cultural obsession with missing girls.

I'm looking at the list of books I read in 2012 and noticing how many, from Gone Girl to People Who Eat Darkness , center around our cultural obsession with missing girls. Aside from Ronnie Eastman, the primary missing girl of your novel, another female character goes missing later in the book. What is our fascination with missing girls?

I was just asked to blurb two novels about missing girls, and it wasn't until I read both of those books within a month of one another that I started to sweat a little, and think, "Is this a problem?" None of this was on my mind as I wrote. Well, it was, but I guess I thought I was doing something different, playing with the trope by making my missing woman a bit older and rougher around the edges than the Natalee Holloways or the Laci Petersons who dominate the news. But she's still a white woman. Her disappearance still matters to the public in a way it might not have if the victim were, say, black.

The cultural obsession is probably with the unfair theft of promise, beauty, youth. All of the things we're taught to value. Sully the victim a little, and the narrative changes. There are insinuations about the woman's share of the blame. With Ronnie, I was imagining what would happen if a discarded woman was so on the fringe of the community that she wasn't even registered at first as lost. Only her sister really cares, and even that sister has resentments and grievances that complicate her search.

By sullying the victim, making Ronnie a little less innocent, less Natalee or Laci, do you think people will see her as less of a victim?

I think that's certainly true for some of the characters in the book. For readers, that's harder to say. I hope not -- that would be a reinforcement of some of my fears about the world. But I wouldn't mind if aspects of her character complicate her and perhaps force a reader to confront certain attitudes and assumptions about what victims ought to look like. Is a victim just an innocent young woman, wearing the right kind of modest clothing, who is attacked by a stranger breaking into her home? Of course not. But you see in situations like Steubenville how easily a person -- usually a woman -- is dehumanized by her attackers and the public for not behaving in exactly the way a nice girl is expected to.

Ronnie's disappearance never garners the attention of a Nancy Grace or Jane Velez-Mitchell, in part, because the novel takes place in 1993, a few years before the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the Internet as we know it. Was your choice of time period at all an effort to avoid the media and all its narrative baggage?

It was. Gone Girl made effective use of this world, especially the comedic grotesque of a Nancy Grace-type character. My book was already in the can when Gone Girl pubbed, and I was relieved, reading it, that I'd chosen to go another way, do a different exploration, perhaps in part because you'd have to acknowledge the black humor and that wasn't really my interest here. Also, skirting the new technology let me tell a more claustrophobic small-town story than I could realistically do otherwise. In terms of plotting, it afforded more opportunities to write an old-fashioned procedural, with people missing each other, information getting warped in translation, and so on.

It's inarguable that the media sensationalizes, even fetishizes, missing and dead girls. The line gets a little fuzzier with art that depicts those same victims. As a writer interested in violent crime, where do you see the line between responsible and potentially exploitative depictions of victims and violence?

I don't know if I have anything wise to say about this. I wish I did. My attitude with writing, and I'm sure it's one that many would disagree with, has always been to just write as well as I can, thinking that if I do that -- make good sentences, skirt stereotype, complicate motive -- I'll necessarily avoid being silly or exploitative.

But that makes it sound as if I think I have nothing but pure intentions. I'm sure I'm drawn to material like this out of the same impulses that drive people to watch hours of CNN coverage or to scour the Internet for new facts about a lurid crime. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, if it means that I spend some time trying to see to the root of the impulse and end up putting a human face on it.

One way you skirt the familiar narrative of the missing girl is by giving voice, quite literally, to the victim. Without giving anything away, could you talk about the choice to include Ronnie as a point-of-view character?

The move was loosely inspired by Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. When I read that book for the first time as an undergraduate, I was fascinated by his audacity -- letting the dead woman unexpectedly speak in the center of the book. Up to that point, Addie Bundren had been just a dead body, an object, an obstacle, and though the purpose of the characters' journey in the novel is supposed to be to lay her to rest, each of the surviving family members has another selfish agenda. Similarly, in The Next Time You See Me, there's a corpse, not just the quickly dispensed-with idea of one, and a cast of survivors with their own complicated and sometimes selfish motivations for doing what they do. Also, Ronnie's perspective breaks through at a point in the plot when the survivor's stories are spinning out in other directions that seem at first to have nothing to do with her. It defines the shape of her absence.

The Next Time You See Me begins with the discovery of the body. After that conventional opening scene, the novel is anything but a conventional mystery. The detective, for example, doesn't become a point-of-view character until the book's second half. Were you trying to subvert the structure of a mystery, or did the book's structure arise organically?

The first draft was definitely organic. I was just trying to figure out how to write a novel, and I wasn't wise enough about what I was doing to knowingly subvert anything. Initially, the book was going to be told in only Susanna's, Emily's, and Wyatt's perspectives, in a definite, repeating pattern. The chapters were long, each with frames and tidy individual arcs. More like stories than chapters, really. I felt the strain of that approach by the time I'd drafted the first eighty or so pages. I didn't even know Tony, the detective, would be an important character for a long time.

When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I printed what I had, sat at the dining room table with tape and scissors and a bunch of paperclips, a pen and a highlighter, and I decided that I had to have an intervention with the draft. I was going to put the story into chronological order, highlight all of the expository passages, and see what kind of structure revealed itself. So that's what I did: I started physically manipulating the pages, cutting backstory, moving flashbacks to the foreground, trying to strike all of those narrative frames I'd unconsciously created. And that's when I became more purposeful about what I was doing and saw how the book might operate a bit like a mystery novel. But traditional mystery stories are more about the what than the why -- they don't probe too deeply into the motives of those intimately connected to the crime -- and I've seen this all along as a mystery of why. Which is hard to do, if you want to keep the reader in the dark about the particulars of the crime. So perhaps that's subverting the form. If you read it strictly as a whodunit, you'll probably be disappointed.

Speaking of whodunits, were you surprised when George Pelecanos selected your short story "Proof of God" for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories? It's a long way from Mickey Spillane.

I was surprised, but mostly just because it was my story appearing between those iconic Best American covers, and I hadn't really believed that could happen. As for the genre question, each year with that anthology it seems like the guest editor remarks in the introduction that the collected stories aren't really mysteries so much as crime or suspense stories. I can't say why it evolved that way, or if the earliest incarnations of BAMS were more faithful to the idea of Mickey Spillane-type mystery stories, but it's a good place to find dark literary fiction.

That story imagines a murder -- or accidental death, depending on one's legal perspective -- from the point of view of the criminal, but its emotional center is more Jhumpa Lahiri or Alice Munro than Jim Thompson. How would you feel if a bookseller shelved The Next Time You See Me in the crime section?

A friend of mine, who's an independent bookseller in Lexington, Kentucky, asked me, "To what extent is your press marketing this as a crime novel?" And to be honest, the question excited me a little. Maybe if it's in the crime section someone will actually read it. I like a lot of genre fiction, and my favorite literary writers -- Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, to name a few -- borrow from the conventions of mystery or science fiction or the crime novel. My only concern would be letting down an avid reader of that genre. I don't want to promise someone a different sort of book than the one I've actually written.

In terms of books people actually read -- or the people who read them -- conventional wisdom in publishing is that far more women read than men. It's notable that in both your books you inhabit the points of view of almost exactly as many male characters as female. How much do you think about gender and audience while you're writing?

Well, to be honest, I think about it. Now more than I used to. Before Girl Trouble came out, I was really na´ve about how my gender would affect my book's reception. It didn't occur to me to be worried about the title, because I figured that readers of literary fiction, particularly short stories, would grasp that it's ironic -- that the book wasn't going to be a lighthearted romp about girls and guys and dating woes -- and that the book's package would reflect that. But I kept hearing from readers, especially men, that the title had been problematic for them, that they almost didn't read the book because of the title, and because there was a picture of a girl on the cover.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think sometimes that women writers are assumed to be writing fiction only other women would enjoy, and to reach a wider audience you have to fight against that default assumption, in a way that can make it seem as if you're rejecting an association with women's lit or "chick lit" or even just domestic fiction. And I hate that, because I'm a feminist, and I don't want to reject anything because of its association with my gender. A man once said to me, "You don't write like most women," and he meant it as a compliment. I can't help having that voice in my head, to always wonder whether or not I'm writing for it, or to spite it, or what.

Much has been written about those 2010 VIDA statistics, which showed the disproportionate ratio of men being published by literary magazines over women. As a woman who has had success publishing from a young age, what is your take on this?

Well, I hadn't thought about it exactly this way before. When the pie charts were first published, I saw them and felt sad and sorry but not surprised. And yet, I guess I've had some luck getting published, though not for the most part in the top-tier places addressed in The Count. The Paris Review, which is in The Count, has rejected every story I've ever sent them. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Granta -- ditto. But these are just really hard magazines to get into, so on a personal level, the rejection doesn't seem surprising or gendered. It just seems like, "Well, who was I to submit to The New Yorker?" This isn't me saying that gender doesn't perhaps dictate those choices on some level, and probably in ways so institutionalized that they're hard to perceive; and it's not me saying that I didn't get into those places because I'm a woman writer. I'm saying that you don't think in terms of pie charts when the rejections come in. You just think, "I failed." And that's one of the reasons that what VIDA is doing is so important.

As a teacher of writers who might someday be submitting to those magazines, do you see differences in the reading or writing tendencies of your male and female students?

That's an interesting and loaded question. Of course I don't see essential gender-based differences in the way my students read or write, in their dedication or levels of talent. I suppose that should go without saying. If I worry about my women students, it's because I think there is still a lot of sexism in academia and publishing circles, some so subtle that it's difficult to pinpoint and address, and a young woman writer can get the sense that it's the male writers she should emulate and aspire to be like, that men are the gatekeepers and the ultimate deciders of talent. If men like it, everyone will like it. Everyone will take it seriously. So write for the men.

In an interview from a few years ago, you said you were willing to go darker in a short story than a novel, that you weren't "willing to spend years working on a book that doesn't have hope at its center." One could read The Next Time You See Me as hopeful or dark, depending on the character whose eyes one is looking through. Do you still agree with those previous comments?

I've thought about that quotation from time to time over the last few years, as I worked on the novel. Mostly, I marvel at how certain I sounded then about something that was purely hypothetical at the time.

When it came down to actually working on a novel, I just did what felt right at the time. I imagined happier versions of the current ending, and I also considered much darker versions. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that the way it ends now -- the epilogue-type thing titled "Thanksgiving" -- was meant to bring some light in, and when I wrote that part -- I skipped ahead to do it as soon as I knew that's where I was heading -- I felt like I'd come closest to saying what it is I want the book to say.

I was thinking of what you said in that interview about when the detective investigating Ronnie's disappearance, a former minor league baseball player whose back forced him into early retirement, is asked by a bartender if he's hopeful. The detective says, "I think I have to be. Until I can't be any longer." He's talking about the case, but this fatalistic optimism, or perhaps self-deception, seems to run through all the main characters. The one thing they all have in common, along with the characters from Girl Trouble, is the place where they live, the fictional small town of Roma, Kentucky. Do you see a connection between this region and the struggle of these characters to change who or what they are?

It's funny, I hadn't thought of my characters as optimistic. If anything, I'd thought of a large lot of them as resigned to unhappiness. My father always said something to the effect of, "Expect the worst, and hope for the best." I use this in one of the stories in Girl Trouble. Roma is based on my hometown, and when I think of my hometown, I think of my own family. And the lessons I learned from my parents were sometimes hard ones. My father tried to go to college when he graduated from high school -- he's one of the most intelligent people I know, by the way -- but couldn't do it and work ful-time, as he had to do to help support his parents. So he quit, and this September he completed his fiftieth year at an electric motor factory. He hasn't put in for his retirement yet. My mother's parents, told her, the youngest girl of eight children, that was she wasn't pretty or smart enough to do much with her life. And she just trusted that they were right. They're tentative about happiness. My father, especially. They see it as a fragile thing that can be easily lost. So a lot of my characters are like that: disbelieving, even distrusting, of good fortune.

Your portrayal of people in small-town Kentucky is generous but honest. What kinds of reactions to your fiction have there been among family, friends, or readers who live in the area you write about?

Maybe I'm about to jinx myself by saying this, but the reaction has been mostly positive and supportive. I can't recall a time when someone from back home has faulted me for a negative or stereotypical depiction of the region. When I've been on the receiving end of negativity, it's been more about my subject matter, the fact that I depict sexuality and substance abuse, that the characters curse. It's deeply embarrassing for me to imagine my close relatives reading some of the stuff I write. I don't want them to know that I know some of the things I know. And I don't want them to confuse the stuff I know with the stuff I made up. I don't want them thinking I'm a bad person for writing about bad things. But I've been lucky. I have a lot of support and love.