Julianna Baggott on Punching Neil Gaiman

Julianna Baggott is the author of 17 books under her own name and two pen names–N.E. Bode and Bridget Asher. Her most recent, Pure, imagines the world after a nuclear holocaust. Some were lucky enough to have connections that got them into the Dome–a protected space where “Pure” humans have been able to survive unscathed. But most were left to fend for themselves. And those who survived–the “Wretches”–are struggling in a harsh landscape under the dubious watch of a vigilante government. But a Pure and a Wretch are about to collide . . . and things will never be the same. 

You can read the beginning of Pure on Figment for a limited time here. Below, we ask Julianna some questions about Pure, writing under a pen name, and why her son wants to punch Neil Gaiman in the face.

Describe Pure in 5 words.

Haves and have-nots collide.

In the world of Pure, there are the “Pures,” those safe in protected Dome, and the “Wretches,” those struggling to survive outside of Dome’s walls. Which group did you create first, Wretches or Pures?

I wrote Pressia’s world first. I started with her in that ash-choked cabinet with a doll-head fused to her fist. It was a very short piece of writing, an urgent litany:

They both know the whispers of what happens to you if you don’t turn yourself into O.S.R. headquarters on your sixteenth birthday. They will take you while you’re asleep in bed. They will take you if you walk alone in the rubble fields. They will take you no matter who you pay off or how much – not that her grandfather could afford to pay anyone anything. If you don’t turn yourself in, they will take you. That isn’t just a whisper. That’s the truth.

I read this section to my daughter, who’s now 16, and she said it was the best thing I’d ever written and that I had to write the book.  I wrote Partridge’s scene next, but a much later scene–one where he is amid massive fan blades. Again, an urgent scene was what came to me–his escape. I don’t always write my novels in the order they finally appear.

The movie rights for Pure have already been sold. Have you done any fantasy casting?

I’m no good at this. Truly. I’m the kind of annoying person who says, “I like that actress who was in the movie about that thing with that other guy who was in the movie set on a boat. You know who I’m talking about, right?” Do not pick me for your Trivial Pursuit All-Star Team.

Which came first with Pure: characters, setting, or story arc?

They all emerged at the same time. The world defines these characters and how they react to the world they find themselves in creates the story. So it’s all intertwined–one forces the other. I wanted to write an ambitious novel, one with a lot of world building, one that was visually cinematic in scope. At the same time, I was writing literary fabulist short stories–that weren’t really working–but some of the characters had fusings. One of the characters had a doll-head fist and she wouldn’t go away. Finally I realized that the two different impulses actually belonged together and that’s when the novel began to truly take shape.

You write under the pseudonyms Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. What do you like about writing under pseudonyms?

It’s weirdly liberating. I love writing as Bode, who is so pie-eyed and dimpled with innocence and lots of snark. And with Asher novels, I get to go deep into the internal worlds of my characters. I’m still there, of course, but they do take over in many ways and have become their own entities.

You’ve written for all ages and in all styles and genres. Do you have a favorite?

I like the cross-training aspect of writing across genre. Each genre has its own demands and things to teach you–transferable lessons you can take with you. In poetry, I learn about the importance of a single image, a single detail and how it can resonate to mean so much. In screenwriting, I learn how the pressure of plot and the importance of lean dialogue. In essays, I learn to follow a thought–to unlikely conclusions. And when writing fiction, I learn things that I can apply to the other genres. The words are often more interesting to me than the container they find themselves in.

Has teaching creative writing at Florida State University taught you anything about your own writing?

Yes. It’s incredible how often I find myself saying something elemental about writing that I’m not doing myself in my own writing. There are these essential lessons I have to learn again and again. Sometimes, for example, I don’t realize I’m writing a summary of the book or writing scene after scene with no connective tissue or a character I’m using as a camera instead of getting in touch with her emotional state. Sometimes I write especially poetically when I’ve no idea what I’m really writing–I trick myself. I’ve gotten to know my weaknesses and I try to go after them in rewrites.

How young were you when you started writing?

I wanted to be a playwright when I was 10. I was writing a good bit and continued–without discussing it with my friends much. I disguised myself as an athlete, but secretly I knew I wanted to write and I did write–stories, poems, in journals. I found a college that offered a creative writing major, which was really liberating, and then went on to get my MFA, which was a total immersion into the craft–a real drowning experience, during which I learned to swim.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Well, there’s this very popular phrase that starts off a lot of sentences directed at young writers. It goes like this, “Do you know how hard it is . . . ” The ways in which this sentence can end are endless. How hard it is to get a story published? To write a novel? To get into grad school? To get an agent? To get a book published? To get a film deal? They’re right, of course, in that it is hard. The competition is brutal. But if you recognize this opener and you decide to use it as rocket fuel to power you through instead of a discouraging warning (which is usually how it’s meant), you’ll get a lot out of it.

You wrote a blog post about the time your husband told Neil Gaiman that your son wanted to punch him in the face. If you could follow up with Neil Gaiman now, what would you say?

I bet he gets so many strange interactions with fans–his base is enormous–that I wonder if he’d even remember it. I’d follow up to say that my son’s now 15 and still not the type to throw a punch–but he’s also still scared of that book [The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch]. It surfaced recently and it still works.

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