Tupelo Hassman, author of the hit novel Girlchild—about coming-of-age in a Reno trailer park—shares why she writes first drafts on junk mail envelopes and picks her favorite Girl Scout cookie.
Zola: Writing Girlchild took you years—some chapters even dating back to your time in college. What kept you motivated and focused?
Tupelo Hassman: Dear goodness. That’s a good question.
There were a couple times I decided this was never happening, I could never achieve this, and why didI go to art school? I saw myself going down that road of deciding I couldn’t do it. At one point—this sounds so petty—I actually got a tattoo about the book. This was maybe year seven and it had been sold but editing wasn’t going well. I felt completely useless.
Then one of my brothers suffered a brain injury, so everything went to hell. I became a caregiver. After he’d been sick for a year and a half, I kinda grew up. And I sat down and just did it and then the book was done. I really had to hit this horrible bottom and being a caregiver sped me there. It was a great learning experience.
Zola: A Girlchild tattoo?!
TH: It’s the first line of the Girl Scout Promise. It’s on my collar. On my honor, I will try. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I think it’s really cultural. Even friends and family who I adore struggle with it. But my dad was in the navy so it’s where you come from. It’s in the U.K. galleys. They used a picture of the tattoo—I sent it to them as a joke!
Zola: Did you notice your writing style changing as time went on?
TH: I don’t know if my style changed. My discipline changed. You have to write so much crap to get the good stuff. They tell you that. I used to believe that intellectually, now I believe it internally. It’s a part of the process. It can be terrible, though. And sometimes you just go for it and it’s amazing and works.
Zola: And yet sometimes what is amazing doesn’t even stay. I read that a line you loved—“I am a heaven and hell flower. I am a heaven and hell flower.”—was cut from the book.
TH: Yeah. That was not meant to be there and it was really holding the book back, but I cried when it came out. For a lot of reasons.
Zola: Did you work on any other projects at the same time?
TH: I only worked on short pieces here and there. As I was waiting for copyedits I was working on a novel about a bootlegging family, but that’s not my next project. It may be a memoir. Well, I’m pregnant so my real next project is my baby. I’m afraid I think I’m going to do something and in two months when I have my baby I’ll realize I can’t. If I accomplish anything at this point I’m happy.
Zola: Talk a bit about your writing process. Do you outline? Write everyday? Use a computer or longhand?
TH: If I write new, it’s longhand. It’s really crappy. I save a lot of scrap paper. I write on a lot of scrap paper, so in case it’s crappy you’re not wasting anything. Until I get it going I write on the back of junk mail. When I feel like I’m really getting something I switch.
Zola: What was it like seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time?
TH: It’s so crazy. I don’t know how people get used to it. I think, “No way—how did everybody make this happen and live through it?”I like going to bookstores and even looking at my own bookshelf. There’s a couple of authors where there’s several books and I look at them and think, “Oh my goodness, she’s heroic! How does she do that seven times?” Maybe some find it easy, and if they do have an easy time of it I don’t want to hear about it.
Zola: The Girl Scout Handbook was a rock for Rory in the book. Was there any book you had growing up that you feel helped define who you are today?
TH: A single book, that’s so hard. The Handmaid’s Tale came out when I was in fifth grade and my mom insisted that I read it. Both my parents would do that. My dad would read Vonnegut, so I read Vonnegut when I was really young. There were a lot of politics in these books that my parents handed down. But the first book I remember thinking, “I really love this book,” was James and the Giant Peach. I could tell it was different from everything else I had been reading. And I had a very mean aunt so I could connect on that level.
Zola: Were you a Girl Scout yourself? What’s your favorite cookie?
TH: No. And much like Rory, that didn’t enter my world when I was young. It just wasn’t where I grew up. I knew one kid with braces where I grew up. That sort of stuff just wasn’t around.
I don’t buy Girl Scout cookies. I try not to eat refined sugars. But I was on a TV show here [San Francisco] and they had them in the green room. And I’m pregnant so I ate half of one and then 12 are gone. I put them in the freezer—the Thin Mints. It was amazing.
Zola: What’s your next project? Will it continue some of the themes of Girlchild like class divides, poverty, and family struggles?
TH: My next book, I think, will be a memoir but I don’t know. I do want to write about being a caregiver, and many of us will face that because of how long everybody lives now. I want to write about that and my family overcoming it or coming together beside it.
I do have this theory that writers always write about their first heartbreak so the chances of me writing about my parents again and again and again is very likely. I don’t know how you escape such a touchstone of pain. I don’t know how it doesn’t come into play somehow.
Zola: How has it felt giving interviews and all of a sudden having people so interested in you and your life?
TH: Oh, I don’t know. I did a TV interview here the other day and they asked me to give them questions, and I don’t know what to ask myself. I talk about myself so much now and I don’t think, “I wish someone would ask me…”
It’s all been so shocking really. I thought the book would come out and some people would read it and I’ll be overjoyed. Even in my first interview, I thought, “This is amazing!” I still think that every time. I feel like I’m seeing my child off to college. Is there a comforter? Does she have toilet paper? Just helping her, now that she’s in paperback, live in the real world.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.