Novelist Tupelo Hassman Gives Birth to a Baby Girlchild

Author Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, Girlchild, was released last week. As a friend and admirer of her many talents, I couldn’t wait to follow the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix, the precocious heroine of Girlchild, but also the story of Ms. Hassman, as her book is received by the world.

In the book, we’re introduced to Rory Dawn Hendrix’s lonesome trailer park existence where overachievement is frowned upon, and abuse and neglect are the norm. At times lyrical, Tupelo breathes life into the poverty-stricken outskirts of Reno, Nevada through sparse, cutting imagery of life in a welfare state of mind. Dryly-written transcripts of the social workers that visit Rory’s home, and excerpts from the Girl Scout’s Handbook—Rory’s own personal bible—make up a childhood scrapbook filled with both helplessness and hope. In what could have been a painfully tragic book, Tupelo manages to craft an engaging, relatable story through the perceptive lens of her young heroine, a character you both want to mother and learn from at the same time. (Video trailer for the book here.)

In the short time since its release, Girlchild has been garnering praise and careful attention from reviewers across the country, at a time when childhood poverty is hitting record levels in the US, and the Girl Scouts of America mark their 100-year anniversary.

Getting a hold of this busy lady was no small feat, but Tupelo’s quirky email missives make the whole ordeal enjoyable anyways. She writes: “finding out time now. soon. now. soon. now. my sister. my daughter. my sister. my daughter.” When I don’t respond right away, she uses the attention-getting title: “Amity, this is not Spamity.” Apparently she also enjoyed typing “Damity.” The woman is playful with words.

When we finally meet, it is at a BART station where Tupelo swoops me up in a utility vehicle and takes me to an industrial coffee shop in Oakland. She has a tiny, gentle voice that is calming and almost squeaky when she perks up. From her hillside Oakland abode, Tupelo teaches creative writing remotely to students in Los Angeles. She also curates Invisible City Audio Tours, and is currently on the road keeping a video journal of her book tour with fiancé Bradford Earle.

Amity: What drove you to keep on with this story, beside, you know, a book deal?

Tupelo: Well I had started it in art school, and that’s what art school is good for I guess—churning out art and working at it. But I was really inspired when I heard about that Buck v. Bell case [a Supreme Court case, influenced by eugenics, that upheld in 1927 that people in the US could be forcibly sterilized if found “unfit” – this included the mentally retarded and sexually promiscuous women], the idea came to me.

The idea was about three generations of women—the grandma who was forced to be sterilized and then about her daughter that survived anyways, and then her daughter…the third generation girl that makes honor roll before she dies, thereby proving the theory wrong, and nobody knows or cares.

Girlchild (the endearing term Rory’s mother used each night when she tucked her into bed) is a devastating commentary on the American class system: the urban poor, at the bottom of our society, who even if they have the intelligence and the ambition find it almost impossible to escape their predetermined fate. They may not have been literally sterilized but socially the result is often the same. Tupelo Hassman’s novel doesn’t seem like fiction at all, but the raw inhumanity of our system. –Charles R. Larson, Emeritus Professor of Literature, American University
You know, they didn’t stop sterilizing people until the ‘70s. I belong to a few generations of alcoholics so the case really hit home for me. And I don’t like how secret it is. And how science is tricky like that. I love science — my brother needs a liver transplant and so science is good in that it helps people like that. But then I hate it because people are so ready to believe what it thinks it knows best…so that was a large part of the motivation for the story.

But also the class struggle, I mean, that’s my baggage.

Were there other stories that were part of your inspiration? Your story really reminds me of Bastard Out of Carolina — perhaps not the narrative tone; it didn’t seem as emotional. Your character’s voice just seems so detached…

Really? That’s interesting. I’ve heard a lot of different interpretations of it. Lately I’ve heard how much she adores her mother, but I didn’t think that at all.

Maybe that’s because it’s very impressionistic, so I guess it is a bit more open-ended in that respect. It’s like you’re going on this child’s journey, but she’s obviously much more adult in so many ways.

I try to remember that a lot. I think back on my childhood and I was so adult in so many ways. It seems like the older you get, the harder it gets to remember that.

I didn’t really read the Bastard book until someone at grad school mentioned it; I don’t think it was an inspiration. But my mom gave me The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 11 and that was something I read a lot. I think a lot of what I write is moralizing, and I don’t know how to not to do that.

I’m curating this reading list for a girl’s survivor story that is due tomorrow, and I was looking at Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, which I’ve always loved; I haven’t looked at it in years, and last night I looked at this girl’s story in it, and she’s totally awesome. I did not realize that the story is made up of transcripts, and when I saw that last night, I thought: “Is this where I got the idea to insert these voices, to do this pedagogical tense?” I don’t know.

Rory is like a miniature Margaret Mead, observing and chronicling the life of the trailer park with an insider’s knowledge and an anthropologist’s detachment. –Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

This is your first novel. Does it feel like you thought it would feel? Does it feel very satisfying, or is it kinda scary…

It’s terrifying. I am so nervous and I have to write all these essays and I’m so scared to do it. I mean, there’s not a lot of time to feel excited, but my capacity for joy is kinda weird. I don’t have a good receptor for joy — it’s wonky.

What were some moments that almost made you joyful?

I can’t think of her name, but one reviewer, Bonnie Joe Campbell, she wrote this blurb that said, “This story is your worst white nightmare.”

Life is a crazy risk, a foolish venture, a journey hardly worth attempting by poor daughters raised by poor daughters who have no maps or guidebooks (and no teeth, either), who receive no justice that doesn’t hurt about the same as the injustice it means to remedy…This story is your worst white nightmare. –Bonnie Joe Campbell, author of American Salvage

They didn’t want to use that on the jacket, but I wanted them to. It is nice to hear someone say, "I totally get what you’re saying."

What’s it like to publish a novel, and to have your story out in the world?

I feel hopeful. I am really at ease with whatever is going to happen. If I were a person easier with joy than I am, I…I can’t pretend that it’s not complicated though. I mean it’s so awesome, and I’m so lucky, because how many writers do we know that write beautifully and have 10 different pieces of good luck happen to them? It’s not like I haven’t worked hard, but I also had all of these little pieces of good luck happen.

The way artists have to fight for recognition and sustenance in our culture is really in my face right now. I don’t know…I have survivor’s guilt. Not that I’m not happy, or that I’m not lucky, but I’ll be more happy just knowing that these stories about eugenics live on. And Rory was great to create, not that I thought that I created this person while I was doing it, but I do now.

A lot of my friends talk about publishing it like giving birth and I wonder when I will feel like my baby is safe in the world. I mean, how many beautiful books are out of print? One of the books that I’ve been curating has been out of print for 12 years. I want to be able to go back and buy books and put them back in the shop. Does that make sense?

Of course it does, you want the books to live on.