Author BA Goodjohn Skillfully Enchants And Haunts Us In "Sticklebacks And Snow Globes"


Welcome again to my salon! Lately I've read some marvelous books where the authors let the story be told in a refreshingly different way. One that I'm about to share had me hooked before I realized the clever technique used. It is an honor to introduce you to BA Goodjohn.

Madame Perry: I am so delighted to have you here at last. Come in, take a comfortable seat, and let us talk about your work.
 
BA Goodjohn: Thanks, Jennifer. Don’ t mind if I do.

MP: Sticklebacks And Snow Globes, set in the 70s, is about a group of working class girls growing up in the UK. The story is rendered mainly through the point of view of children. They may not understand adult talk and problems, yet they know it has power over their lives which they can not control. Their knowledge of adult affairs is gained empirically and from rumors, and some deal in adult situations. How did you decide to write from the children’s perception instead of the adults?
 BA Goodjohn

BAG: I wrote the first chapter as a short story, and the predominant perspective was Donald’s, a thirty-something male. I found it interesting to inhabit this man’s body—I can’t write a character unless I somehow become the character: I have to want what he wants, be scared of his monsters, lust after his loves. If he’s addicted to something, I have to somehow feel that same need at the same intensity. If I can’t become the character, I can’t write the character. So Donald—a little overweight, scared, and living a “ghost note” of a life—was tough: I’m a skinny woman who at times is far too stoic for her own good. But when I got to Tot, his daughter, the writing wasn’t tough. I could sense her almost comfortable isolation and the ease with which she deals with her own adversities. She felt like a loose jacket draped around my shoulders.

When I finished the story, I discovered Tot wasn’t finished with me. She kept reappearing—in the cereal aisle of Kroger, on the sofa as I watched tv. She had more to say and I found it easy to assume her voice. I was intrigued by how Tot might react to the events of my own life—both past and present. So a revision of that piece of fiction became the first chapter—not of Donald’s story, but of his daughter Tot’s.

MP: Were any of the characters or situations based on people that you knew?

BAG: Yes, everything is based on people and places I have experienced (which scares the s*#t out of my mother—she’s convinced someone will sue!). But I don’t know how I could write in any other way. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not memoir—it’s absolutely fiction. However, the landscape in which my characters move is very real: Stanley Close is the road I grew up on; the dump is the dump at the bottom of my parents’ garden; the hedge around Tot’s garden is the hedge around the garden of my best friend’s house; But the characters are all composites—fashioned from the ragbag of my past—and their situations are the stuff of imagination. And yet the “situations” are real in so far as they are real to my characters: Tot and Stacey are best friends. Tot’s mother is ashamed of living on a council estate. Mr. Damson has lost his job. Once the characters—ragbaggers or not—are on the page, they live real lives.

MP: I especially like the way the story feels it is being revealed rather than narrated. What writers do you believe had the strongest influence on your own style.

BAG: Carolyn Chute is by far by biggest influence. I first met her work in an undergraduate fiction class. We were looking at her short story “Lizzie, Annie and Rosie’s Rescue ofMe with Blue Cake” and I was excited by how Chute used child voice. I realized that if you could get that child voice dead right, you could take a reader back …maybe not to her own childhood, but definitely to a real place in her memory: she’s back in the sandpit, on the sofa watching cartoons, at the dining room table forcing down cold cabbage and fatty bacon. It’s like time travel. Or it’s like one of those girls’ nights out when you all have a few drinks and start doing the “do you remember when” thing. They’re always fun. I think we can’t help ourselves but look back. Even if looking back is difficult.

MP: You have an impressive list of awards for your poetry and fiction. Do you enjoy writing in one style more than another?

BAG: I’m blessed to be able to do both, and I prefer whichever one is working best! For me, poetry is the miniature…like an exquisite meal served in one of those Japanese Bento boxes: the words are carefully arranged inside the poem’s container. It’s tiny and meticulous...but it has to be satisfying. The Bento box demands the care and attention of both the preparer and the consumer. I think the same can be said of a poem. So if the poem is the Bento Box, fiction is like one of those huge pot luck suppers! Everyone turns up with the best thing he or she can create in the kitchen--macaroni cheese, tuna casserole, strawberry cake, summer vegetables in aspic, pound cake—and somehow by the end of the evening, the partygoers are full and have had a great time. If you’re the organizer, you’re bricking it because you’re worried everyone is going to bring chicken and raw vegetables and there’ll be no mayonnaise. That’s how I feel when I’m writing novels. My characters are all turning up, and I’m hoping we’ll end up with the magic mix of dishes that create good story. I’m hoping one of them will bring the mayonnaise !

So I teach, and therefore the academic calendar tends to govern my writing. During the semester, poetry—given its “Bento-ness” works well: I can write in short bursts. I can snatch an hour or two here and there, and return to early drafts. The precision of formal poetry (I love the sestina and the sonnet) allows me to move in tight and to focus for a hour or two on language and on the strange and wonderful energy words create when they bump against each other in the tightness of the line. Once the summer break arrives, I feel able to stretch out and consider the marathon of fiction: the summer affords me the time to let my characters form on the page and to ask questions of them. I can play the “what if” game with each of them and that takes time. I might end up writing for a few days straight but keep only one or two paragraphs. I may keep nothing. I may keep it all. That kind of creative uncertainty demands time.

MP: I see on your blog that you have a novel, The Beginning Things, and a book of poetry, Love, Love – all that wretched cant, ready for publication. What bit of sneak preview can you share with us and when will we see them?

BAG:The Beginning Things will be coming out in May 2015. Underground Voices, a great independent publisher in Los Angeles, read the manuscript, loved it, and wanted to publish. I’m all for first-rate small publishers, so, of course, I said yes. Do you remember when I said that Sticklebacks and Snow Globes came about because that short story’s child refused to shut up? Well, The Beginning Things came about because even after I gave Tot an entire book to run around in, she still wasn’t finished. But I need to be clear on this: The Beginning Things is not a sequel: I hate sequels! However, it does deal with Tot and her family. Four years have passed and twelve-year old Tot, in the absence of role models, is struggling to make sense of love—both romantic and sexual. Her grandfather, Dan, has recently moved in and is struggling with his own bad decisions. Both have much to learn…and—unbeknown to them—much to teach the other.

MP: Thank you for sharing generous samples of two forthcoming works. Because I read them several times, and was quite speechless after, I'd like to go ahead and say how glad I am that you could visit.  Please visit again, soon.

In the Amazon carousel widget (top left) I have included Sticklebacks and Snow Globes. Dear readers, I believe you'll also love her website where our author has been keep many of us in tears from laughing over a 'catfish' experiment. It is pure gold!


 

Previews (just for us!)

Two weeks ago, in the hangover of bad news, Dan had stood in the doorway of his granddaughter’s bedroom clutching a portable record player, a man bearing gifts. Today, he stood by her window holding a vodka bottle by the neck as if it were a wild animal: unpredictable, irresistible, dangerous.
“You could tip it away, Dangrad,” Tot said again.

She stood on her bed, gathering up the snow globes from the shelf, and dropping them one by one, allowing each time and space to settle on the pink chenille bedspread. He watched her sit cross-legged on her pillows to arrange the globes in two neat rows. They were snapshots, strange events caught inside glass, each dome home to a frozen object: castles, animals, cartoon characters, pop stars. One was home to the moon and the Gemini spacecraft. Another contained a blue unicorn pawing at a rock. Each scene waited for snow, however unlikely, however impractical. She picked up the globes in quick succession and shook them hard until the entire bed was a flurry of obscuring snow.

“Dad drank,” she said. “Not much, but he drank.” She picked up the unicorn globe and spun it in her hands until the snow was an eternal blizzard around the blue, horned creature inside. “Mum used to tell him he had a P.R.O.B.L.E.M., but dad said the only problem was her.”

Dan fiddled with the curtain. “It’s not a problem, Tot. Just a drink now and then. It helps me sleep.”

“It’s blue,” she continued, “because it’s a unicorn and that’s okay. If it was just a horse, I wouldn’t like it being blue. But unicorns are magic. They can be any colour they want. This one has green hooves. Look.” She held it up for him to see.

“I’ll keep the bottle on top of the wardrobe. Inside the piano was stupid. I didn’t think.”

She handed him the unicorn globe and he took it, putting the bottle down on the rug. “You can wish on it,” she said. “You just close your eyes, wish, and shake it hard. If the snow falls on the bits you thought it would, your wish comes true. It’s my magic.”

He looked at the globe. The unicorn had one green hoof up on a rock, the other lifted in air. The rock was wide and low. That’s where the snow would fall. On the rock. He put the globe down carefully on the bedspread.

She picked it up before standing and—catching her balance for a moment—returned the unicorn carefully to the shelf. He helped, handing her the others one-by-one. As she reached up towards the ledge, her sleeve fell back, revealing a line of tiny, round purple bruises, each one fading into brown around the edge like an old flower. He took her by the wrist, pulling her arm out straight and pushing up the sleeve of her cardigan.

“How did you do this?” he said. He gently pressed one of the bruise-flowers with his finger. “Does it hurt?”

She looked at him for a long moment, saying nothing.

“How did you do this?” he repeated.

“I didn’t. You did.”

“Me? When?”

“When I asked you about the boy in the woods. When you were in bed.”

“Why would I do that? What boy?” Dan couldn’t understand what she was telling him. “That Keesal from number seven? Did he do this?”

She shook her head. “You did it,” she said again.

“I don’t understand,” he said, tentatively matching his fingertips to the bruises on her arm. “Why would I do this?”

She retrieved the unicorn globe from the shelf and held it out to him “Shake.”

He took the glass ball, closed his eyes, and shook it. When he opened his eyes, the rock was bare, the unicorn’s back legs lost inexplicably in a drift of silver snow.

** 

The poetry manuscript is currently doing the contest rounds. No takers yet, but my hope is it finds a home soon. One of my favourite poems in the collection is called “Association Time at the Blue Ridge Women’s Correctional Facility” and is published with SouthernWomen’s Review (Volume 7, Issue 7)
I wrote it for a good friend who died from complications following an operation for appendicitis. We shared much: she was an alcoholic, an addict and an inmate. I was not an inmate—purely through good fortune.

Association Time at the Blue Ridge Women’s Correctional Facility


For Vicky 1962—2010

Deaf Brenda’s telling us about the time

her husband smacked her with the cockatiel’s

cage stand, how sound closed down that night,

and yet her memory holds the parrot’s scream.

She recalls slow feathers—tiny gray curls—

landing on her yellow fun-fur slippers.

We lean in: she’s telling our story and we love

how they all start happy with sass and drinks.

She threw his sorry arse outside, piled furniture

against the door, then took her whiskey

and the kids to bed, slept sound despite

the ricochet of words against the trailer’s siding.

There is no recollection of clubbing him

with the iron, but there it was –bloody

and shining—on the deck. “What can I say?”

she said, her yard full of police and plastic toys,

her hands already clasped behind her back.

“Drink brings a crazy bitch to fuck up my life.”

My turn for tales, but I’m just here for plain old

DUI. So I tell the girls of Rita, Patron Saint

Of Suffering, whose mouth was home to bees

that buzzed behind her teeth, but left her tongue

unstung, a saint I’d forgotten till Deaf Brenda

described her tinnitus as bee song.

The rec room hums and we’re all lost

to joining drunken dots of our own

blacked-out biographies. We’re haunted

by mouths that have always swarmed with bees,

homesick for a time when we were too blessed

—or young—to know the treachery of swallowing.







 

Comments

Bunny said…
Jennifer, you were such a gracious host :) and some good news--the poetry manuscript just won the Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry. It will be published by Briery Creek in late spring 2015.

And of course, I'd be happy to answer any questions your visitors would like to ask--publishing, line ends, character development, the best way to make tea, why British policemen wear those funny pointy hats...
Andrea Robinson said…
Bunny, I am so impressed with your work! I had never heard of Carolyn Chute, but I'm so glad that she influenced you in such a positive direction. Great for us!

I am wondering if channeling characters was something that began early in life for you, and if that's one reason why you do so well inhabiting that child space. I have had a few experiences with writing that felt that way -- like the characters were making up the story line. Was that something that was encouraged by your family? Were they literary people?

By the way, I so loved reading the catfish/Hello Kitty thread. Hysterically funny!

Thank you so much for opening your heart and sharing with us. Can't wait to see more.
Bunny said…
Hi, Andrea - thanks for dropping in with such a good question. You have to read Chute! _The Beans of Egypt, Maine_ will hook you, I'm sure. I was the youngest daughter of three and was a loner from the start. I had imaginary friends and an imaginary horse that lived under the stairs in the coat closet. So, yes, I think I began to work that imagination muscle as a kid. I was alone with my thoughts for so much of the time. My writing wasn't really nurtured by my family. I'll be blogging at www.bagoodhohn.com in August about that. We just weren't a "reading" family. I think I saw that retreat into imagination just as I would any other game. Remember when we played as kids and one of us might shoot the other and the other would say "well, I've got a bullet proof vest on and it didn't hurt me" and the shooter says "yeah, but my bullet was made from titanium and that pierces everything!" Well, that kind of exchange is kids naturally progressing character and plot. We lose the ability to do that, I think, as we get older. I like to keep silly, to keep green and kid-like. If you get a chance, stream "Derek" on Netflicks and watch how Ricky Gervaise creates the main character. That's an adult with a child outlook...and see how versatile such a character can be. That's the beauty of child voice and an imagination that just runs. Okay, waffling now! Again, thanks for dropping by!!
Andrea Robinson said…
Oh, thank you for being so candid and leaving such a thoughtful response. I had forgotten all about the plot-building play that seemed so natural in a former life (childhood!). I've been reading about "Yes, and..." communication instead of "Yes, but..." communication. It seems that as we evolve to more maturity as a species, we look to our roots in childhood for the best ways to move our bodies, communicate, and who knows what else?

I'm looking forward to checking out the Beans of Egypt, Maine, and watching Ricky Gervaise. Thanks so much for the tips!

Congratulations on your award!

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