Tupelo Hassman wants to change the way we have been taught to think about writers and artists and creatives alike. In a world that is so heavily reliant on entertainment, it seems ludicrous that the arts are still not glorified the way other occupations are. Is this preventing people from living out their dreams? Or could it be that we have lost the willingness to take a chance, that confidence in our decisions that we had as teenagers?
In Hassman’s latest novel, gods with a little g, the adolescence experience is very much at the forefront of the narrative. From tarot cards to pornographic novels, from teenage lust to deep-seated grief, from a band of misfits in a tire salvage yard to the complexity of family, this is a story of the life-saving power of friendship in the small, secluded oil refinery town of Rosary, CA. Under the watchful eye of Rosary’s Evangelical run community, we follow Helen Dedleder as she navigates through the confusing, melancholy, triumphant, beautiful and uncomfortable times of adolescence while coping with the death of her mother and her grief-ridden father. (Check out our full review here)
The seed of this novel was planted while Hassman was contemplating the resilience of teenagers, how they sustain one another, just as the friends of her youth helped her survive. I was extremely excited to speak with Tupelo over the phone where we had an inspiring conversation, discussing our culture’s perception of creatives, navigating through imposter syndrome, the importance of teenagers and why we need to stop saying creatives are broke, crazy or just lucky.
Kailey Brennan: I grew up in a religious home. I mean it wasn't as crazy as Rosary in your novel but I did grow up Catholic. I connected with a lot of the emotional conflicts that Helen goes through with God and such. Did you grow up with a religious background? What sparked the idea for this story?
Tupelo Hassman: No, I didn't but I'm very attracted to all these kinds of those religions. The initial attraction came from a person that I love who is transgender in a rural part of a Bible belt state who grew up extremely religious. I was thinking about teenagers and all the stuff they survive.
I kind of envy that you got to learn about Catholicism from the inside, although I'm sure extricating yourself or whatever you had to do was not easy.
KB: Yeah. It's interesting to try to explain what you grew up with to someone who has not. I’ll just kind of say things off the cuff to my boyfriend, something I remember learning as a kid or a religious or biblical reference and he will have no idea what I’m talking about. And I’ll be like what? How do you not know what that is? But it’s so ingrained in me from my youth you know? It’s interesting to try to explain religion to someone who hasn’t grown up with it.
TH: But it’s so much a part of our culture! I mean, even my husband went to a Catholic school because it was, I guess, the best education according to his mother. He knows so much about that. Did you go to Catholic school?
KB: Oh yeah. (Laughs) So you were very inspired by religion and how teenagers function within it?
TH: I was so struck by the courage that it took [my friend] to be herself in that area, with transgender people being one of our most endangered populations. Until I went to visit, I was so nervous for her. Then I saw the friendship around her and I realized that I didn't know what the heck I was talking about.
When I was a teenager, I too was at risk in certain ways. I was on my own and pretty feral. But I had friendships that were a life raft. That's where all of this came together. I was thinking of how fucked up teenagers can be yet how they are what sustains each other. The friends I made as a teenager —I wouldn't be alive without them. We were disastrous (Laughs). But because we had each other, here we are. None of us are on the street anymore. It was because we had each other and we had that acceptance. Although, just like in the book, we are also the ones that got each other into trouble.
I know we don't give teenagers enough credit and I catch myself doing it. I catch myself doing it because teenagers look like teenagers and not adults. Then I have to give myself a mental slap because when I was 15, I made bad decisions, but I also worked at a job and take care of myself and kept it together. I want to remain suspicious of how we forget that they are adults or how we insist that they are not adults. Especially when we need them. We need them now.
KB: I thought you tapped into the adolescent mind so realistically. I just love Helen. She is self-aware and knows she makes bad choices. Her inner monologues are so great especially around her relationship with Bird. She isn’t afraid to say how sexually attracted she is to him. That she just wants to have sex. She just felt so real.
TH: I love that about her. I think she's so smart — well maybe she isn’t about love— but when it comes to sex, she really can’t fool herself so its a tricky spot.
KB: I’ve talked a lot on Write or Die Tribe how I gravitate towards coming of age stories and works about adolescence. I think as I’ve gotten older I miss that part of myself, that recklessness. Do you think that you think that you're attracted to writing younger characters for a similar reason?
TH: I don't call it recklessness, but I guess it is. There is that belief in your choices and I wish so much for all of us that we could keep that, even if it is reckless, you know what I mean?
I’ve seen people who have traded on that and I don’t know what we’re trading on it for. Also, security is a weird idea to me. I haven’t chosen a life that creates a retirement fund. I see people who aren’t living their dreams and it breaks my heart. I feel like if we could retain some of that willingness to take a chance, which is so tied to our belief in ourselves, that we could at least be happier. I'm always asking people what they want to be doing and so often is not what they're doing. It doesn't seem right.
KB: It’s funny that you are saying this because this been part of my own personal dilemma lately. Security versus what I want. I feel like so often with creatives and writers it feels like a risk to follow what you want. But I already know I’m unhappy with the traditional kind of security — full-time job or lack of freedom— at least how I see it anyway.
TH: I think it's totally relevant and probably relevant to the community that you're serving with Write or Die Tribe. The way that creatives get treated in our culture —we're taught to worry about this.
I'm also a professor. I'm an adjunct, so I'm not secure. But I talk to a lot of students and at the beginning of every semester, I ask people what their major is. I've been doing this for years and I want to say 80% of the time, when I ask what they like to do and what their major is, it is dismal how often those things don't align. Sometimes they even explain, well it's very important to my parents. I teach a lot of international students and sometimes it's cultural. I don’t know anything about manifesting your future or whatever it is, but I feel that if you pursue and really work at the thing that makes you happy, you will be able to have enough security, you know?
I'm sorry you're struggling with that. I don't want to sit here and say, well, I'd never struggled with that. I'm so purely just living my art. (Laughs) I am just resolved to do the thing that makes me feel as whole as possible. I want that for everyone. Can we change the system? Can we make it so that the art that we all spend so much time ingesting and binge-watching shows and listening to music and reading books, that the people who make it could have that same respect as an accountant? That would be nice. And nothing against accountants —that’s hard work.
KB: I agree. Sometimes when I get frustrated I think, fuck it I’m going to go just live in a van and drive around, you know? (Laughs)
TH: That might be the right life. Yeah, go live in the van. It will be alright.
But you know, I come from a weird family. My childhood was all fucked up but my dad was an interesting dude. I was an actor for several years in my early twenties. When I decided to quit acting because I was so unhappy, he was like, why? Why would you quit? Whereas most parents would celebrate. (Laughs)
KB: When did you start writing or when did you know you wanted to pursue it?
TH: I started writing when I was fifteen. I kept journals, but I didn't consider myself a writer at all. I considered nothing, actually, because I was just a wild animal. But then I was an actor and quit and went to community college. I also started working for a nonprofit because I felt very decimated about participating in the consumerism that most actors have to do to make money.
But finally after two years, I took a creative writing class and after the first day, I was like, this is it. I just knew. I then re-read all my journals and in every one of them at one point, just a little line, I’d be like, maybe I should be a writer. And I never remember thinking that, ever! Some secret little part of myself, every year, would say what about this?
My teacher was Jim Krusoe who teaches at Santa Monica College, which is one of my schools that I teach at now. He's a genius and I often call him a wizard. When I finally had my first story, he said, well that's a story. I still remember that moment of someone knowing something about me and then I could know it too.
KB: So did you start with short fiction first and then write your first novel girlchild?
TH: I wrote a handful of short stories before I graduated from grad school and girlchild was my thesis. I've said this in interviews before, but I feel like it's worth repeating that I don't think you have to go to grad school to be a writer. But I, a person who had nothing to lose and willing to have giant loans, I loved to buy the time. Going back to how creatives are treated in our culture, you can buy time for your art if you like, if you have the resources. And that was the right choice for me.
So yeah, girlchild, then I wrote some essays and things and had children and then I worked on gods with the little g for four years or so and here we are.
KB: I love how gods with a little g is broken up into short chapters with very oftentimes comically, clever titles. I enjoyed that. Was that an initial choice or did it evolve as wrote the novel?
TH: I wish someone would give me the answer to this question. Kailey. I should have a really good answer for this, but the truth is it mostly comes naturally to me. girlchild is so much about trauma and abuse, so fragmentation makes sense.
And now I see that this is just what I do. The titles are fun. They tie it up for me and also sometimes I make Easter eggs that no one except maybe my husband ever figures out. There are song titles and stuff that I put in both books. The writing itself is also fun, but this is something else. Maybe it's a compulsion. I also think that there are fine points of a scene and I want to focus on that second so maybe there's something about that fragmentation that makes them more possible.
KB: It’s just your thing.
TH: It’s my thing! It’s just what I do. I don’t know. I don’t sit down and go, I shall use these methods to speak to the underlying whatever. But that’s the beauty of it, right? If I think I'm going to make something like that, then it's going to be shitty. If I try to do that on purpose, it's gonna be bad. But maybe we just all think everybody's doing it on purpose.
KB: I find that comforting because as a writer if I think I have to plan everything out or know exactly what I'm doing, I probably won’t write. It's gonna be too intimidating.
TH: Yes. And what’s fun about trying to be something? I just want to tell this truth. I just want to show a moment where truth happened. And sometimes, occasionally this beautiful moment arises when you're writing that wasn't what you thought you were headed towards and that’s a gift. Mostly I just try to capture this thing — which is I think what we're all doing.
KB: Do you write consistently? Do you have some kind of routine?
TH: No, I don't have that. And for a lot of years, I thought I had to have that. One of my first teachers was Amy Bender and she has that and she's brilliant; one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever had. And so I thought, I have to be like her, which is still not an untrue thing.
I don't know if you've heard Roxanne Gay talk about her work schedule —obviously we should all be like her too. She says she thinks about a project for a long time and then the deadline passes and then she sits down and does the thing.
When I heard that, I felt relieved of the burden I had been caring for a decade because that’s my process too. So if I can say my practice is like Roxane Gay’s then I must be alright. (Laughs) But if I have a deadline, I do schedule and then I make tedious, tedious, wild lists that helped me immensely. But until I have a deadline, I'm making a big mess and then I kind of squish the mess into a ball throw it at my agents and then that's it.
KB: Do you ever deal with imposter syndrome or self-doubt?
TH: I’m experiencing that right now. Every fucking day! Argh! It’s horrible. I have a couple of good friends that I excavate that shit with. I wish that for everyone because when they tell me honestly about their imposter syndrome, I can look at them and go, oh, well you're so full of shit because you're actually fantastic. You're actually one of the most efficient, effective people I know. But then when I have that stuff in my head, I can't see myself at all. Not that I'm absolutely fantastic or whatever, but I'm not the piece of shit that I so often would like to leave myself to believe.
Even after all these years of teaching, students will tell me at the end of a semester that I'm sure has been my worst semester I've ever taught, how great it was. I will be surprised and think, you are still surprised! Like what will it take? There is just work to be done in your head. It doesn’t matter what the world says. And these moments are my teacher. But of course, it would be helpful if our culture didn’t tell us that creatives are addicts or crazy or broke or just got lucky.
KB: Like we were saying before, I hope the attitude changes soon. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
TH: Of course, thank you. And happy van shopping.
Tupelo Hassman's debut novel, girlchild, is the recipient of the American Library Association's ALEX Award. Her short fiction, Breast Milk, won Quiet Lightning's inaugural chapbook competition. She is the recipient of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, and is the first American to win London's Literary Death Match. Tupelo’s work has been anthologized in 100WordStory's Nothing Short Of 100 (Outpost19) and in Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing By Your Favorite Authors (TarcherPerigree). Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, Harper's Bazaar, The Independent, The Portland Review, Imaginary Oklahoma, and ZYZZYVA, among others.