To Be Pure. What Would It Look and Feel Like?: An Interview with Julianna Baggott
Julianna Baggott is the bestselling and acclaimed author of 18 books. A novelist in several genres, a poet and essayist, Baggott powerfully addresses questions in her work about gender, love, politics, and truth. Her most recent novel, Pure, the first in the Pure trilogy, published by Grand Central Publishing and recently named one of the NYT’s Best Books of 2012, depicts a haunting, terrifying, and thrilling dystopia in which catastrophic Detonations have destroyed the world, and only a select few, the Pures, have been protected in a Dome. The survivors outside have been damaged and altered, fused by the bombs into objects, other humans, or the earth itself. Pressia Belze is about to turn 16, the age when she will either be forced to become a soldier for the repressive government or become their prey. When she goes into hiding, she meets Bradwell, a rebellious conspiracy theorist, and Partridge, a Pure who has escaped the Dome in search of his mother. Together they try to reveal the lies about the Detonations and the truth about their identities. Fox 2000 has acquired the film rights to the novel. I wrote to Julianna to talk about PURE, feminism, the VIDA count, her life as a writer, and other things.
Guthrie: Feminist dystopias have a rich history and are receiving a lot of cultural attention. You work in many genres of literature: several kinds of adult fiction, poetry, children’s narratives. What did you want to add to this genre when you set out to write Pure and the rest of the trilogy?
Baggott: Ah, writing among literary giants. We all have to head out into the dark (At)woods, but, once there, it’s hard to write. I have to close my eyes and pretend I’m alone and that the terrain is my own terrain.
Guthrie: When she is a child, Pressia has her hand fused to her doll’s head in the Detonations. It marks her with her girlhood, and it’s a remnant of her relationship with her mother, although she doesn’t know that in the beginning. Why did you choose this symbol, the doll, over other ideas?
Baggott: The doll head was in a short story about a twenty-three year old woman. The story was set in our contemporary world though just to the side of it – a version I’d invented. It didn’t work, of course. At sixteen, we fear the lingering of our childhood, are ashamed of our child-selves, and want to be wholly adults. The doll-head fist was much more psychologically powerful for a sixteen-year-old. I started writing Pure because Pressia had an immediate voice, a girl hiding in an ash-choked closet. Her doll-head fist didn’t surprise me. I’d seen it before and now I’d simply found the person it truly belonged to.
Guthrie: In a great review by Clare Clark in The New York Times, she calls Pressia a “manga heroine straight out of a comic book.” She is beautiful, half-Japanese, fearless, virtuous. What I admire about her characterization is that she is not sexualized, as female characters in manga and anime usually are—they look hot as they kill. Pressia commits violence only when she has to, even though she’s attracted to the new powers she has in the OSR. Is her character an argument against this kind of heroine?
Baggott: She’s the character who crept up from my psyche. Manga doesn’t exist in my psyche really – nor do hot killing poses. She felt authentic from the beginning. Her story was urgent. I followed her.
Guthrie: Clare Clark also writes that Pure “does not concern itself with a political context for its apocalypse.” But I found that the story was full of commentary on contemporary politics. For example, one of the antagonists, Ingership, has a suffering wife whose entire body is covered with a stocking—she’s a nightmare version of the perfect, domesticated fifties housewife. Ingership’s narrative also introduces “The Return to Civility” and the “Feminine Feminists”—both oppressive cultural movements to control behavior in the post-apocalyptic world outside the Dome.
Baggott: I was so relieved by the positive review that I didn’t take notice of the political comment until others who’d read the book began to tell me that they thought Clark’s review missed politics. I don’t know how to write a dystopian novel without the politics of coming to terms with our self-destruction and/or creating a broken society. I had to create a society that was ripe to use bombs to destroy itself. For me, those features were plain and some of them had to do with the treatment of women – as well as many other things. Ingership’s wife and the Mothers were some of the most complex and interesting minor characters that I had the privilege to write. They aren’t simply pro-feminist either. The Mothers, in particular, are brutal as well as fiercely loving.
Guthrie: Yes, I love those characters: the mothers of the gated communities who are fused with their children and with domestic, suburban tools. There’s a hilarious moment when Partridge asked, “Are we about to be beaten to death by a car pool?” At the same time, it’s horrifying! One has a child fused to her hip and a stroller with knives. Were these characters inspired by your research into the effects of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
Baggott: The brutality of the book is too much for some readers, but I refuse to apologize for it. Even a small bit of research on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will quickly reveal that the truth of what we’ve already done to each other is much more brutal and violent and cruel and hideous than anything I’ve written. I draw on the real images that people reported from the bombings as well as photographs of the aftermath. The word “fused” actually appears in some of the literature. I did the bulk of the research after the first draft of Pure was finished and then I went in and made it more realistic – I should put that word in quotes.
Guthrie: The Good Mother, the leader of these suburban women, gives a damning speech about the abuses of men in their lives: “We alone know how much they hated themselves, how shamed they were, their weakness, selfishness, their loathing, and how they turned that on us at first—and their own children—and then the world at once.” She says, “Our burden is our love.” A speech that seems to be a clear feminist indictment of the wars men make historically and currently. Yet men share that burden of love, too, as seen in El Capitan’s relationship with his brother, who is fused to his back. Partridge has it with his mother, and Bradwell with Pressia.
Baggott: Well, The New York Times Book Review says that the book isn’t political and yet other reviews have written it’s too political. I can’t worry about either side. This simply felt like the truth of what their leader would feel and how she might state it.
Guthrie: Pure is an examination of the false, damaging cultural notions of purity: racial, ethnic, sexual, and so on. Pressia wonders, “To be Pure—what would it look and feel like?” Bradwell claims that the fused humans are more beautiful—their fusions and scars are signs of survival. My suspicions are that you agree with Bradwell: that we are all impure and that is a strength.
Baggott: Yes, that’s a theme, purity, and it’s especially important to Bradwell – the purity on the inside, the purity of truth. His parents died trying to get the truth out before the detonations. He’s dedicated his life to this pure truth too.
Guthrie: Partridge is a Pure. He was protected by his father—the engineer of the Dome—during the Detonations, has grown up in there, and has been modified to be superhuman in some ways. Yet he has so much clarity about the lies of his father. When he encounters the “wretches” outside the dome, the whole idea of who or what is pure is deconstructed. Are you arguing that purity dwells in the mind, not the body?
Baggott: I’ve never thought about this in terms of this book, but, yes, I believe – deeply – that identity dwells within. The thing that pops to mind here is the complexity of gender identity, for example, but it could take me years to try to apply it… I will say that I believe our true identity, our unconditionally loved inner selves to be pure. It’s something I’ve never thought of before in these terms. Maybe I’m talking about the soul itself, but I’m also certainly also including the brain, an organ of imagination – without it, how do we imagine the soul? Identity is something that fascinates me. Purity is a term that feels socially manipulative, and it has so many connotations it’s hard to categorize. I realize now I’m rambling. Usually a sign that I’m not really deconstructing or constructing anything, just moving some blocks around.
Guthrie: One of the most upsetting and moving details of the novel, for me, was Bradwell’s birds, which are embedded into his back during the Detonations. The birds are disturbing, reveal his gentleness, and make him even more desirable. He’s another Icarus with his political outrage, the boy who flies ambitiously, recklessly. (The birds also connect him to Pressia’s bird made of wire.) How did this idea of “the boy with the birds in his back” emerge?
Baggott: This was Marquezian, if anything. My roots aren’t in science fiction, a fact that can truly derail some sci-fi readers. I come from magical realism and so I had to make the wings as undeniably real as possible while, at the same time, I was inviting a suspension of disbelief. Look, if readers have trouble with a girl with a doll-head fist, they’re going to fight so many elements of Pure that the book will be a disaster for them. Someone recently called it a “post-apocalyptic fairytale,” and that felt pretty true to me.
Guthrie: I’m struck by the fact that the male protagonists—Bradwell, Partridge, and El Capitan (a solider for the government)—are all brave fighters, fierce in their own ways, but are vulnerable, and they must work together. Were you trying to create a complex, and more realistic, I think, characterization of gender?
Baggott: El Capitan, in particular, surprised me. I thought I was writing a villain, truly, but I should know, by now, that by giving him a voice, I allowed him to be vulnerable. He continues to be one of the toughest and most tender characters I’ve ever written. When writing in his voice, I’m absolutely at his mercy. I never know what he’s going to do next. I hope that Partridge and Bradwell are complex and realistic. I hope this is also a byproduct of years and years of work as a writer. It’s part of the job description to write complex and therefore realistic characters – to practice empathy.
Guthrie: In Hawthorne’s short story “The Artist of the Beautiful,” the artist makes a mechanical butterfly that can not only fly, but also has actual life. Pressia’s inventions of small metal creatures—chicks, caterpillars, turtles—made me think of that story. In one of the loveliest parts of the novel, you describe her favorites:
She picks up one of the butterflies, winds it. Its wings shudder, kicking up a few bits of ash that swirl. Swirling ash—it’s not all bad. In fact, it can be beautiful, the lit swirl. She doesn’t want to see beauty in it, but she does. She finds little moments of beauty everywhere—even in ugliness. The heaviness of the clouds draping across the sky, sometimes edged dark blue. There’s still dew that rises from the ground and beads up on pieces of blackened glass.
Are you defining Pressia as an artist here, and suggesting that the urge to find beauty, after nuclear devastation, is a means of survival?
Baggott: I thought that the most difficult aspect of writing the novel would be spelling out our doom, but the real challenge was assessing what survives the apocalypse. Hope, faith, love, art? Can these things persist in the wake of total destruction? What makes us human? Art survives. The search for beauty endures.
Guthrie: The rhymes the children sing—“Burn a Pure and breathe the ash. / Take his guts and make a sash. / Twist his hair and make a rope. / And use his bones to make Pure soap”—reminded me of that line from the poet Susan Howe: “There are traces of blood in a fairy tale.”
Baggott: Oh, more than traces, I’d say. There’s murder, poison apples, cages, ovens, hearts in boxes … Pure owes much to fairytale, but it also owes a lot to history, which has more than traces of blood as well.
Guthrie: Partridge’s mother tells him the story of the swan wife, which, in addition to her birthday message, leads him to find her. There are other language games and codes in the book as well—the song “Twinkle, Twinkle”; the game “I Remember”; the birthday card; even the shock of the word “chandelier” when Pressia visits Ingership’s house. These games are at odds with the sinister genetic coding of young people in the Dome, led by Partidge’s father, Ellery Willux. When you planned Pure, did you set these codes in place, or did you discover them as you wrote?
Baggott: Lyda is the one who finds the message in “Twinkle, Twinkle.” In the first draft, she didn’t have a voice. But once I slipped her in late in the book, her voice became so insistent that I had to go back and layer her into the entire novel. So, no, these elements were woven in as they came.
Guthrie: Pressia Belze is such an evocative name: impressed, pressing, pressure, impressment, impression, essence, essential. All words which reveal her character. Do these associations feel true? How do you name your characters?
Baggott: Sometimes names come to me. This novel, because it’s set in the future, entailed using names that were riffs of current names, for the most part. When a name does come, it’s hard to change it – and sometimes that’s necessary, editorially or for simple clarity. I’d add prescience to the list of associations here.
Guthrie: The Dusts are humans who fused with the earth or with damaged buildings in the city. They made me think of biblical dust, of course, as well as the Dust in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. One of Pressia’s most terrifying fights takes place with a Dust. Were you drawing on biblical connotations with these creatures, the idea that we are made up of and will return to dust?
Baggott: I don’t think I was. The names of the creatures came all at once as I was riffing on all the things that people could fuse to. The Dusts, however, have given me a lot to work with – in the second and third books – in creating variations on them.
Guthrie: There is a lot of clarity about good and evil in the book, yet I found that the Beasts (humans fused with animals), Groupies (humanly fused together), and Dusts (humans fused with the earth), while terrifying and vicious, are also just trying to survive. There’s a compassion here even for the villains.
Baggott: I do this. It’s a byproduct of the daily practice of empathy – which is one of my working definitions of the life of a writer.
Guthrie: Your protagonists seem to me to be in a kind of Blakean state: experienced, yet still innocent, and hell-bent on fighting further corruption. Pressia has to do something truly horrible, which will haunt her, but she is clear-minded and sure when she does it. Why is innocence so crucial in the trilogy?
Baggott: It’s the territory of writing from the teen years — which, one could argue, are post-apocalyptic in nature. The rupture from childhood acts as a detonation, and you’re thrust into the adult world — but that’s often a corrupt world, one that you want to fight against, not join. (Steven Millhauser writes about this brilliantly; I’m paraphrasing things he’s said much better.) And so I think that innocence is crucial to that transition.
Guthrie: Ellery Willux wants to create a new Eden in the Dome. I am teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost right now, and I came upon this moment in Eve’s lament after she learns she has to leave Paradise: “How shall I part and whither wander down / Into a lower world, to this obscure / And wild? How shall we breath in other air / Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits?” Genesis must be the first dystopia! The world of Pure is indeed fallen, and yet your protagonists have a kind of innocence that helps them survive the world of their parents’ sins.
Baggott: This is such an incredible quote and a brilliant notion – one that just makes me kind of sit back for a moment. Of course. Yes. You’re right. That innocence, that purity – they’ll be tested in the next two books, but yes, they’re crucial.
Guthrie: There was a lot of talk about how Jennifer Lawrence was too “womanly” for the hungry Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movie: another complicated, national conversation about women’s bodies. When your novel is translated into film, what are your hopes for your characters, whose bodies are either “pure” or have been fused and altered?
Baggott: Well, one issue will be the lead. She’s half-Japanese. I hope that casting supports a minority in that role. Otherwise, I’m fairly open. As a novelist, I’m sole creator. Film is deeply collaborative. I have to trust those with a vision. The tension of the novel relies in part on ideas of the grotesque and the beautiful. I’d love to see a good visual translation of that tension.
Guthrie: Some critics think that the violence in the film of The Hunger Games was made into an exciting spectacle rather than a critique of the games, as Suzanne Collins powerfully argues in the novel. One of the things I admired most about Pure was that the violent scenes were all necessary—to show the dangerous chaos of life outside the Dome, and to show the lengths the protagonists will go to survive in it and change their world. Are you concerned about how the fight scenes will be depicted, or do you have to let go of the book in this process?
Baggott: I should mention that I haven’t seen The Hunger Games. It hit theaters while I’m under really tight deadlines and, although most of my kids have seen it, I simply haven’t gotten there. (I don’t get out much during these times.) I have to let go of all of it. I console myself with the fact that I’ll be lucky if the film gets made, and if it does, the books still stand. They don’t implode when the film releases — little fireballs on shelves around the world. No, the books endure — at least, for a while.
Guthrie: Why did you decide to write under the pen names N.E. Bode and Bridget Asher?
Baggott: Bode was born because I’d published three literary novels in three years — too quickly for that genre. So I paced myself with whimsy for younger readers — which I loved. It was returning to my roots as a magical realist. It’s hard to imagine a time when adult publishing didn’t allow much by way of mainstream fantasy, but post-Potter and the realization that the industry had starved adult readers of the fantastical — for which they had a real appetite — those novels started popping onto shelves. Back then, I was just so relieved to write magical realism again. And I love kid audiences — they don’t need as much handholding. They leap with the writer much more readily.
Asher was born, in part, after touring with Steve Almond for Which Brings Me to You, our collaborative novel. I realized that Steve had a real voice, a brand. (I think he might not like the use of this term applied to him as a writer, but, in any case, this was my realization, not one that necessarily reflects his perspective.) I have things I want to say to women, my peers, and a way that I want to say it. Asher was that voice. The most recent Asher novel is The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, published last spring.
I could add here that all of the above is true, however, just last week, I found a note I’d written to myself in 2003 where I’m desperately trying to figure out my life as a writer and how to mitigate what can be an incredibly painful process – publishing books, going public. In the note, I tell myself to hide under pen names. It shocked me that the instinct to hide – one I’ve never shaken and one that would probably surprise those who think of me as a good marketer – is stronger than ever.
Guthrie: In a recent interview with Roxane Gay in The Rumpus you discuss the VIDA count and say that the debates couples have in the kitchen about who gets protected time to write are crucial to the consequences of who gets reviewed and who doesn’t. Men often win because their work has been better received, valued, and thus rewarded. How do you negotiate these kitchen debates? And how do you think women writers can secure more attention for their work, once they win the time to do it?
Baggott: I had to fight for time when Dave and I were first married. We were both writers. We were both jockeying for housewife and stay-at-home parent, mistakenly thinking that working inside the home would provide more opportunities to write. We’ve been lucky in that both of us have been sole breadwinner and both have been the sole stay-at-home parent at different times in our marriage. So now, he understands the financial pressure I’m under, and I understand when he feels completely taken for granted. An early rule in our marriage was this: Never argue about who’s working harder. We were both, always, working our asses off, and still are.
But marrying an artist should come with a warning label. You have to understand their passion and drive. You have to give them time to work. You have to allow them that intense marriage with the page. To go back to an earlier question, it’s part of their identity, formed in the brain. Without it, they’ll never quite be who they really are.
I love what VIDA does in calling out publications that blatantly give unequal praise for equal work and celebrating women poets and writers who’ve been overlooked. It requires a measured, calm, consistent, and persistent voice. VIDA is establishing itself as one of those voices. I, for one, am thankful.