Rory Hendrix will soon be a character readers around the country will know. She’s the young heroine of Tupelo Hassman’s debut Girlchild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novel that drops us into her home in a Reno trailer park and invites us to be the only other member of her Girl Scout troop. With humor, warmth, and unflinching prose, Girlchild is a youth survival story of the very first rate.
Out of all the books your hero Rory could have as her own personal Bible, why The Girl Scout Handbook?
I helped clean out my father’s house after he died. For the past many, many years, since he’d retired, he’d been a collector of you-name-its. For example, I helped his widow box up probably 1,000 pig figurines, and we spent another of those grieving days taking down the sombreros that he’d used to carpet the ceiling. He was a glorious man. Of course, I came away with boxes of reminders of him. One of the few books I took home was this 1947 edition of The Girl Scout Handbook. Almost all of the pages were marked and many of the activities circled. Some earnest little girl loved that book, some little girl found that book to be very good company indeed. I suppose I fell in love with her and she became a part of Rory Dawn.
Could you talk a little about the book's structure? The book has lyrical prose as well as reports from the files of social workers. What was the reason for this decision?
Trauma fractures things, this is the short answer of why Rory Dawn’s story is splintered into so many varying perspectives and voices. The longer answer is that Rory is sorting out the stories that tangle together to make her life. She’s chasing down the notion of pre-determination, on the part of the State, her family, and her teachers. There are many opinions available: her family’s welfare file, she has the Girl Scouts, there’s her grandmother’s bald faith, her mother’s shady past, and the school administrator’s SAT scores. Rory inhabits them all, looking for one that is, as the Three Bears B&E perp says, “just right.”
When you were nine years old, you read over 70 books in one month and raised over $5,000 toward Multiple Scleroris research. Can you tell us about that story, and also about your recent efforts with the National Novel Writing Month’s (NaNoWriMo) Young Writer's Program?
I’m afraid my thoughts on this aren’t much more articulate now than when the Reno Gazette interviewed me when I was nine. I think there’s a quote of me saying, “I don’t know, it was fun.” The truth, I suppose, reveals a bit of where Rory Dawn’s story and mine collide in that reading was my safety net. For an entire month I could read as much as I wanted, a free pass to antisocial behavior. It was heaven. I got lucky in that my dad knew a lot of gamblers willing to outdo each other on the amount of money they would pledge per book, and we did good work for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. When gamblers and readers get together, anything can happen.
Before I decided to go to college, I worked at a Los Angeles based non-profit, A Window Between Worlds. AWBW uses art as a healing tool for survivors of domestic violence and working there convinced me of what I’d already suspected, that whether or not a person is going to be an artist, a hang-up-a-shingle capital-A Artist, practicing at an art makes all manner of life’s issues easier to overcome, especially when the act of art in question seemed impossible. Art is life’s cross-training, or it can be.
When I moved to Oakland a few years ago, I was struck by the resonance between AWBW’s mission and NaNoWriMo’s, especially with regard to the Young Writer’s Program. It doesn’t matter whether any of the participants walk away with a career in art, what matters is that they have done the “impossible.” I wanted to be a part of this and joined the effort to raise funds for NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program. Harboring a copywriter in the core of my dead, black heart (probably from watching too many episodes of Bosom Buddiesas a kid), I wrote some copy for a fundraising page, shared it with some of those gamblers, and let the fun begin.
You come from an MFA background and are just now ready to see your first book published. What has been the most surprising thing to you about your writing journey so far?
I have heard grad school, especially art school, described as “buying an invisible house.” I own such a house. I graduated in 2006 and Girlchild was my thesis project. Despite receiving a fellowship from Columbia, I still make a monthly mortgage payment on my invisible house. In our culture, unfortunately, sometimes the mortgage on an invisible house is part of what’s needed to become visible. This is a problem, but my invisible house is as real to me as any place I’ve lived, I hope to raise a family in it.
What book have read recently that you love?
Having a first novel come out was giving me a fright, so, as I’ve done all my life, I turned to the bookshelf for comfort. I decided to read some of my favorite authors’ bibliographies in order of publication. I started with Anne Lamott (Hard Laughter, Rosie, and Joe Jones) and am about to begin her fourth book All New People. Next up is Atwood. I cannot wait to return to The Edible Woman.
I recently received Gregory Curtis’ The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists as a gift from a dear friend. I’d shared my fears of being a good partner (I’m getting married this year) and she said that when she has such worries she thinks of the cave paintings at Lascaux. The book is brilliant, and my friend is a genius of love. I also had the opportunity to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, coming out in March, about her solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I can’t stop raving about it.
I’m excited to buy at least one book from every store on Girlchild’s tour and I’m taking L.J. Moore’s F-Stein with me as the tour begins. F-Stein is a serial poem that takes on family and history and everything in-between and will be a great traveling companion for Girlchild. Moore’s dedication reads, “for my family: both found and inherited.” It’s perfect.