Jacinda Townsend’s academic history alone is staggeringly intimidating: She studied at Harvard for her undergraduate degree, picked up a JD at Duke Law School, and then finally attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As a result, she really knows her stuff. In honor of the paperback release of Townsend’s gripping coming-of-age novel Saint Monkey, the author chatted with Bookish about her next project, her characters’ voices, and why she wholly believes in “sisters before misters.”
Bookish: You’ve said before that you feel character development is a necessary foundation for any good narrative. How do you plan out your characters when writing a novel?
Jacinda Townsend: I actually write totally from character. I don’t write from plot. I always put the characters on the page, and let them do what they want to do. The way I plan, if you could call it that, is I’ll see real people doing things that make me ask questions about them, and then those questions become things that I’ll write for them. One time I was at a Yankees game, and there was this man in the stands with a little boy. And the man kept feeding the little boy–you could call him pudgy–peanuts and popcorn and cotton candy. So I made up a story about a little boy whose mother had just died, and the only way the father could make him feel better was to feed him.
Bookish: Your characters each have very distinct voices: how did you develop this?
JT: Audrey’s voice is pretty much my natural writing voice. Caroline’s voice was extremely hard, because she speaks in a diction that I had heard growing up, but just from older people. Sometimes people sort of look down on diction as though it’s a departure from the norm, but I think all diction is equal. It always has all of these rules, and I ended up making a chart. For example, I sometimes had to choose between using “weren’t” and “warnt.” There are actual occasions for each. I really had to think about the diction and get it down and write it out.
Bookish: You’ve said that your writing is strongly informed by both the African American and feminist traditions. Which writers would you consider your peers in this? (For example, you’ve been likened to Toni Morrison.)
JT: Toni Morrison is so important for me. She is huge. She and John Updike are two of my biggest influences. The woman writer I consider really important is Edna O’Brien. She’s an Irish writer and was a big influence of mine when I was younger.
Bookish: You went to law school. In what ways has your legal education informed your writing?
JT: For one thing, when you’re in your first year, every first year law student takes a class called Torts, and it is perfectly horrifying. You have to think about every possible thing that could go wrong. It helps you in some ways–it’s good for the imagination. Also, I think you learn a lot about human nature in law school and that helps tremendously. It helps you to think about the complexity of issues.
Bookish: You grew up in Kentucky, where a large part of Saint Monkey takes place. To what degree did your own childhood memories inform your descriptions of the setting in this novel?
JT: I actually wrote using a map of Mount Sterling as it existed in the 1950s. But I lived in Bowling Green in the 1980s for a couple of years, and for the landscape of Saint Monkey, Bowling Green was the picture I had in my head as I wrote. There were these old, old, houses, and the scene in the book where the girls fall off of the swing–that actually happened to me. I wanted the people who existed on that street in Mount Sterling to be wholly different from the people I had known, and they were. But sometimes real people would pop into my head.
For a couple of years, my childhood was very much like the town in the book. I had a neighborhood with actual children. This is something that’s more and more rare, and it’s very sad. You used to have lots of kids on a block, and we would all play and there was all of this drama. It’s something my kids don’t have.
Bookish: Early in the book, there is some debate over whether Caroline is a saint or a monkey. What, for you, is the difference between being a “saint” and a “monkey”? How is this dichotomy important to the novel?
JT: Caroline has a side of her that is very supportive to Audrey when they are young, so she starts out being the kind of friend you want in your corner. That’s the “saint” side of her. And I think the “monkey” side of her is that bitter side. Life throws out a lot at her, and she doesn’t always handle it very well. The reason I made Saint Monkey the title is, at the end of the book Audrey accepts the man she loves with all of his flaws. She accepts the saint and the monkey side of him. She’s always been attracted to him, but she also has to accept the side of him that killed someone. So that’s why it was important to the book. That’s what the book is about–looking past people’s flaws, which I think is something we all have to work on.
Bookish: Saint Monkey seems to place more value on friendships than romantic relationships—in the novel, friendships endure, but marriages often don’t. Was this intentional?
JT: Probably subconsciously. As I was writing this, I was getting divorced and it was taking forever. My position on relationships changed quite a bit, actually. I also had my second kid during that time. I think the narrative about marriage, for me, became a lot more complex. I did a 180 on the permanence of romantic relationships. I will never get married again. I sound really sad and bitter, but it’s not that at all–I think I’m in the minority on this one, but I think it’s actually really rare to find someone who you marry and then grow with in the same way. It’s hard to find. And society puts a lot of pressure on you to stay married when I actually think it’s almost impossible to stay married unless you’re not growing or changing. I don’t know–I think it’s easier to see the saint and the monkey in your friends, and to keep that. You’re not living with them, you’re not sharing bodily fluids with them, you’re not raising kids with them. I think the way I portray relationships in the book was subconscious, but now I can see what I was trying to express.
Bookish: You spent the summer of 2012 in Morocco doing research for your next novel, Souria. What can you tell us about that?
JT: I’ve been every summer since then, too! It’s become my spot. I never really have the money to go, but I always scrape it up and go anyway. There are two stories going on in this novel. One story is about a slave who is in Morocco who escapes and has a little girl. The other story is about this American woman struggling with infertility who kidnaps the first woman’s daughter.
I just go and interview people, and I try to find people from all different social classes and all walks of life. They are formal interviews in the sense that I’m there with a notepad, but I don’t pre-plan them because I really want to go and meet that migrant from Senegal who is selling a giraffe on the street, for example.
Bookish: Your work has appeared in two Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Do you consciously write with the intention of inspiring the reader? Parts of Saint Monkey are fairly dark, and feel like a departure from this: Could you talk about how you understand and develop the way a reader will respond to your writing?
JT: I think in my nonfiction, I do seek to inspire the reader. All of my essays kind of end on a hopeful note. With my fiction, I don’t know if I’m seeking to inspire as much as I’m seeking to answer questions about the human psyche. I think the answers sometimes are not happy answers.
Jacinda Townsend grew up in Southcentral Kentucky. She left at the age of sixteen, when she went to Harvard, where she took her first creative writing class. While at Duke Law School she cross-registered in the English department, where she took her next few formative writing workshops, and in 1999, after four years of being first a broadcast journalist and then a lawyer in New York City, went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since receiving her M.F.A. she has been a Fulbright fellow to Côte d’Ivoire and has taught at universities throughout the Midwest. She has published short fiction in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, and her nonfiction has been anthologized and published in two different series of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She is mom to two beautiful children.