June 15, 2011
In October 2009, TNB contributor Matt Baldwin emailed me to say that a good friend of his from college, another writer, was moving to Portland and she and I may hit it off. Thus was my first introduction to Jen Violi, who not only became my fast friend, but also became a great source of inspiration for my own writing. Jen is one of the most hilarious and loving people I’ve ever met in my life, and she approaches writing from this angle as well, which I discovered when I had the pleasure of attending one of her workshops. (Jen also offers writing coaching and sundry other services related to writing. She’s one of those mythical beasts who actually butters her bread through writing.)
On May 24 of this year, Jen’s first novel, Putting Makeup on Dead People, was released. Putting Makeup on Dead People follows Donna Parisi, a young woman on the brink of her high school graduation. Donna is a girl many young woman can relate to, even those who haven’t lost a parent or who haven’t decided to rebel by attending mortuary college. She struggles with questions many of us faced or will face about the future – especially about what kind of person we ultimately want to become while trying to balance what our loved ones hope for us. Written with heart and great humor (there are many riotous moments in this book), Putting Makeup on Dead People takes the reader on a slow walk through the twilight days of high school, and into the dawn of adulthood.
Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Jen top discuss writing, YA fiction, and her new novel.
Gloria Harrison: What was the inspiration for your book?
Jen Violi: Well, the biggest inspiration was my dad. The book is dedicated to him. Like Donna, the protagonist, I lost my dad right as I started high school. Experiencing such a profound loss as a fourteen year old put grief and death front and central for me at a pivotal time. Since then, I’ve spent lots of time reflecting upon that loss, learning about my own grief, and finding ways to come to some sense of peace with it and some sense of ease in moving through the inevitable cycles of life and death and life again. So of course, all of this showed up in my writing, my primary form of artistic expression. I loved short story cycles and felt sure that’s the kind of book I would write about it–a cycle of stories, fiction, exploring loss of a father and transformation of grief.
Did you, too, explore a career in the mortuary arts?
No, I didn’t! But as I started writing, my character told me she wanted to become a mortician. And who am I to say no? I’m just the writer.
What did you do to research the book, as much of it talks in depth about burial rights and practices and humane treatment of death, much of it in the context of the funeral business. I’d like to hear about how you researched the other stuff, too, like the witchy aunt. (I’ll pretend like I don’t know you and know that you’re pretty good-witchy yourself.)
Almost as soon as Donna told me she wanted to be a mortician, one of the students-Suzanne- I used to work with in campus ministry told me she was starting mortuary school. So I just started asking her questions and she was happy to be a resource for me – sharing her notes from class, answering things like “what does that smell like?” and “what color is embalming fluid?” She was so gracious and generally awesome about it! Also, from my end, I spent a lot of time at funeral homes growing up. In addition to losing my dad, I had numerous other losses, more it seemed than usual for most of my friends. So funeral homes were also very present in my consciousness. Oh, and as for Witchy aunt, well, I’ve done some Witchy studies myself and find great wisdom in earth religions. Donna had such big questions about life and belief and meaning that I think she beckoned an Aunt Selena out of the ether.
Is it like in a dream – where you’re everyone in your dream? You’re Donna, and your mom, and aunt Selena? They’re all aspects of yourself? I’m talking process here because it fascinates me.
Oh, that’s a really good way to put it. I would say that yes, all of the characters are aspects of myself. Dear old friends from Dayton said that they’re referring to the characters as “All the Jens.” Which sounds creepy. And funny. And true.
How much of your own personal experience with loss went into sculpting the character of Donna?
All of my emotional experience of loss went in to crafting Donna. While there are certainly echoes of my personal experience, the book is a novel; it is fiction. So the story is Donna’s. And it is true for me. As I hope it rings true for many people. Tim O’Brien talks about story truth versus actual truth in his brilliant book, The Things They Carried. He writes about how it doesn’t matter what exactly happened, but rather if it is true. Of course he writes it a lot better than I just said it.
I love that story.
I know. Brilliant, right? He also has a character, Tim, in “The Lives of the Dead,” who flashes back to his younger self at one point. This story comes on the heels of Tim narrating all kinds of other losses and death he’s experienced since childhood, in Vietnam and elsewhere. This one paragraph always sticks with me: ” . . . sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Although of course with an entirely different context, this excerpt expresses how I feel about Putting Makeup on Dead People, as though the writing of it was Jen trying to saving Jenny’s life with a story.
I’d now like to ask you a bit about how your book came to be a young adult (YA) novel. There’s a whole story there; didn’t it start out as adult fiction? Are satisfied with it being YA in the end?
I think mostly what I had to get over is that I had written something I thought was done, something I was proud of, something I’d had a particular vision for. Hearing that it might work best as something else was pretty alarming. But as in good fiction, the unexpected in real life can lead to good stories. Like taking a wise suggestion and insight and doing a major rewrite and submitting a manuscript and having two offers from publishers all in the course of four months. Unexpected turns can lead to exciting places. As for the “is YA credible literature?” thing, I mostly roll my eyes at that. Good stories are good stories. Well told stories are well told stories.
Ha! Four months?! Wow. You must have just buried yourself in that thing. What major changes had to happen with the original manuscript in order to bring more into the YA parameters?
Well, I needed a whole new outline, basically.
Oh. Just that.
Well, part of what made that revision work is that I had already spent several years with the characters, so I knew them well and could salvage some beloved scenes, but definitely had to give up others.
Kill your darlings…
Yes, with the cold, cold delete button.
Stupid delete button. Wish it worked with romance. And finances.
Ha! Yes, for real.
I don’t want to leave the subject of YA yet. I would like to take this in one final direction. Recently, on Twitter, author Lish McBride linked to an article that’s basically a blogger blasting The Wall Street Journal for printing a report on YA and how it’s dangerous for kids. What do you need to know to write a book for young people who aren’t quite kids and aren’t quite adults? What did you read as a young person?
I think it means just the simple thing that my agent explained to me when he first brought up YA – that it basically just needs a main character who is a young adult. Otherwise, I think writing a YA book is like writing any other book – you write the best book you can. You write it honestly, you edit it fiercely, you pour your heart into it. When I was officially a young adult, I read everything I could get my hands on, from fairy tales to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle to the Bronte sisters. And I loved stories that made me laugh and made me cry and surprised me and felt honest and not preachy.
The WSJ article lambasted YA novels – specifically dark ones that are trending: vampires, zombies, etc. I think a lot of YA is getting darker, or more serious, or, maybe, more honest. There’s a scene in your book where your main character, Donna, gets a hand job in the back of a car. Which I’m for – both for you writing it and for it happening. I’m pro hand jobs! But I’m not sure that Blume would’ve written that. I’m also not sure what was actually available for youth in an earlier era. I’d like your thoughts on this – on how YA is changing and evolving.
First, we must work on getting you a shirt that says, “I’m pro hand jobs.” Some thoughts, perhaps not particularly coherent, but we’ll see how they come out: I think that writing gratuitous anything, just for the sake of gratuitousness is kind of juvenile and not very interesting to me – stories with gratuitous violence or sexualization or yelling or swimming or blueberry picking are not really good stories. I guess I should be clear that by gratuitous, I don’t mean a lot, I mean an amount that takes away from a good story being told. Good stories could have a lot of those things if they are in line with, organic to, honest for, the story.
There are never too many blueberries, Jen.
Well, you have a point. As to that scene with Donna, to me, it felt like a real moment and one narrated in Donna’s real voice. She’s a character who’s hyper aware of herself and who’s fascinated with bodies. Something big happened with hers right then, and she wanted to describe it. I suppose my biggest belief/opinion around all of this is that a good story is a good story. And I think exploring “darkness” is vital, especially for teenagers. My friend & fellow YA writer Lena Roy wrote about this, and I could just as easily say, “What she said.”
So good = honest.
I’m pretty sure that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, addresses the idea that if you want to write and never think about an audience then you don’t really want to be a published writer (he also might yell at me for that adverb). I do think some thinking about an audience is helpful and mostly in terms of what makes a good engaging story. If something – violence, sex, or excessive blueberry picking – is getting in the way of a fluid plot or isn’t honest for the character, etc. then it’s getting in the way of a good story than can reach a reader. I might be convoluting things.
Great advice. You’ve said it beautifully.
And we all can reach readers in different ways. I think maybe what’s most important for me is story as medicine – writing the kinds of stories that can create movement and healing, wherein redemption is possible. Good lord – you ask really great questions. You’ve got my brain and heart and spirit all ridiculously engaged and wrestling with all of this stuff.
And you give great answers! Thank you for this. And thank you for taking the time tonight to answer my questions.
I love to talk about all of this. I’m grateful for you spending your time with me!