Interview with Jennifer Gooch Hummer
The Fiction Studio (2012)
Reviewed by for Reader Views (7/12)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Jennifer Gooch Hummer, who is here to talk about her new book “Girl Unmoored.”
Jennifer Gooch Hummer is the award-winning author of her debut novel, “Girl Unmoored.” Jennifer has worked as a script analyst for various talent agencies and major film studios. Her short stories have been published in “Miranda Magazine,” “Our Stories,” and “Glimmer Train.” She has continued graduate studies in the Writer’s Program at UCLA, where she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in fiction. Currently, Jennifer lives in Southern California and Maine with her husband and their three daughters.
Tyler: Welcome, Jennifer. I’m excited to talk to you about your new book, “Girl Unmoored.” Will you tell us first a little about your main character, Apron Bramhall, and just how she becomes “unmoored”?
Jennifer: When I was ten years old, Apron knocked on my head. I don’t know where her name came from; as far as I know there has never been a girl named Apron in the history of the world. But I started my book, “A Girl Named Apron” in a red spiral notebook that I still have today. Not much happened in this first story, all Apron did was pack up to go live with her grandmother in Maine. I put the notebook aside, but Apron stayed with me all these years. It wasn’t until I met my friend Mike fifteen years later that her story came to me. Apron, like Mike and his boyfriend, Chad, are trying to stay afloat in a sea of hate crimes, vengeful stepmothers and guinea pig killers. The unlikely friendship these three form together moors them all.
Tyler: I understand Jesus makes an appearance in the novel—will you tell us a bit about that odd situation?
Jennifer: The night Apron goes to see “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” her world changes forever. Leary of the titular actor who looks way too much like the real thing, Apron suddenly can’t get away from him. Until one day she’s stuck in church with him and a sudden friendship is born. In the end, the look-alike Mike does end up saving Apron.
Tyler: Initially, I would have expected Mike to be the romantic lead in the novel for Apron, but he turns out to have a boyfriend rather than be looking for a girlfriend. What made you decide to include two gay main characters?
Jennifer: Apron is thirteen and Mike is in his twenties. But Mike is handsome and charming and sweet, so it’s only natural that Apron would have a crush on him. As in most coming-of-age stories, the teen protagonist is just about to step into Adult while still wearing a backpack full of Child. Apron is no different. Growing up is hard and spicy and foggy. One minute you think you know where you’re headed and the next minute someone switches the map on you. Mike and Chad show Apron what love means, gay or otherwise.
Tyler: Earlier you referred to meeting “my friend Mike”? Did you base your fictional Mike then on your friend? How did the real Mike feel about that, and how did you make the fictional Mike fictional?
Jennifer: I wish my friend Mike was still here to read my book. He’d like it. He’d like my children too. They were never able to meet him, but they know all about it. As anyone who reads this book will, too. My friend Mike taught me that courage is a choice. Just the other day, the International AIDS conference discussed the real possibility of eradicating AIDS in foreseeable future. I can hear Mike cheering up there.
Tyler: Why do you think Apron develops a bond with Chad and Mike, despite her initial resistance?
Jennifer: You don’t have to do anything for some people to hate you. This is what Apron learns from Mike and Chad. And this, it turns out, is what binds them. Mike and Chad’s struggles aren’t all that much different from Apron’s; they’re gay, she has freckles. (It makes sense in the book.) Society might be telling Apron to stay away from Mike and Chad, but Apron chooses the road less travelled in the early ’80s. And this has made all the difference.
Tyler: How about that evil stepmother—are you playing on fairy tale heroines with her, or did you have other reasons for adding her to the story?
Jennifer: A little of both. M needs to marry Apron’s father to stay in the country, and Apron is the only thing standing in her way. Therefore, Apron becomes M’s obstacle to overcome. Most antagonists don’t see themselves as evil. They simply want to reach their goal—regardless of whom they hurt in the process. This is how M thinks of herself, too. I love it when my readers go ballistic over M’s character. It means I’ve done my job correctly.
Tyler: The novel is set in 1985. Why did you choose that year rather than the 2010s, and did you have any difficulties remembering or researching that time period?
Jennifer: Well first of all, what’s better than big hair, a fine set of shoulder pads, and a good felt poster? Not much. In 1985, Cyndi Lauper and inside-out lace lingerie ruled supreme. I’m pretty sure I wore overalls from 1981 to 1987, but cool ones, with one strap left hanging down to show my smokin’ hot tube top. The ’80s were all techno cool and MTV until AIDS showed up. Then, suddenly America was put on house arrest. I was still in my teens in the ’80s, blissfully unaware of the deadly virus, but the gay community was about to get hit hard. It’s easy for some to look back and say that gay men started the epidemic, but the truth is that community was just unlucky. Mike and Chad are proof.
Tyler: I take it then that AIDS rears its ugly head in the novel. Without giving away too much, would you tell us what role it plays in the novel? Not so much who has it, but what its thematic purpose might be in the book?
Jennifer: In the early ’80s, no one knew exactly how contagious AIDS was. All the average person knew was that it was prevalent in the gay community. This translated into more intolerance at a time when gay men were just starting to be accepted into the fabric of America. Naturally then, it would have been scary for a child to be around a gay man with AIDS. But Apron sees the world differently. She knows exactly how it feels to be hated. And the closer she gets to Mike and Chad, the more she understands that the only power hate can have over you is how personally you take it. Because once you see that you don’t have to do anything for some people to hate you, it can no longer destroy you. It may hurt, but that’s where friends come in. Even one good friend can save you.
Tyler: Jennifer, I know you’ve worked as a script-reader. How is that different from reading novels, and how do you think it helped you in writing a novel?
Jennifer: Reading screenplays for a job was my equivalent of getting an MFA in Writing. Scripts are deceiving. They look easy because there are less words on paper, but they’re actually very hard to get right. There is zero room for flowery writing and zero time for inner dialogue. Every sentence must move that story forward; otherwise the reader’s vision dies. Scripts are not meant to be read, they are meant to be seen. But first they have to make it past a whole lot of eyes. So like it or not, they must be very well written. The most valuable thing that screenplays taught me was the importance of dialogue. Sometimes what that character says isn’t what that character means. For instance, a man might say, “Hand me that blue hat.” But what he’s really saying is, “I’m your better or at least your equal, so do as I ask and hand me that hat.” The absence of “please” here speaks volumes. In a novel, the author might be able to throw in a “please” and let the character’s inner dialogue convey the tone. But the screenwriter doesn’t have that luxury. Dialogue, therefore, rules supreme. I try very hard to make that happen in my books too.
Tyler: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Jennifer: Promise your characters you will tell their story, no matter what. Because the truth is, no one really cares if you finish that novel. Unless you’re a big author keeping a major house afloat, that is. But for the rest of us, juggling kids and jobs and mortgages, finishing that novel comes in around second or third or seventeenth on the list. By promising your character to tell his or her story, your self-destructive thoughts have no choice but to take the next train. After all, your character showed up at the page. You should too.
Tyler: Does that promise include letting the character have his or her say? Do you find that your characters do what they want, despite what you want?
Jennifer: The promise doesn’t mean the characters get to do what they want, whenever they want. The promise is to your muse. It’s been said that if you don’t grab that inspiration as it flies overhead, it will go land on someone else. So if you do decide to grab it, you better be willing to go all the way. Otherwise, you’re disrespecting the creative process.
Tyler: Jennifer, since I know you’ve been in the graduate writing program at UCLA, what advantages do you feel a writer gains from a writing program, and also are there any downsides to a program?
Jennifer: The best thing that came out of the UCLA writing program for me was Caroline Leavitt. First my teacher, then my mentor and now my friend, Caroline helped me get through eight years of rejection without hurling my computer or a small dog through the window. The connections and lifelines that are made in writing programs and writing groups can save you. On the other hand, the unkind and overly critical remarks from fellow writers can destroy you. Allowing other writers to critique your work is sort of like swimming after hours: Enter At Your Own Peril.
Tyler: What is next for you, Jennifer? Do you have plans for more books?
Jennifer: I wrote two more books in the time I was submitting and rewriting “Girl Unmoored.” I’m nearly finished with a rewrite for one of them, and hope to submit it this fall. And now I have another story brewing in between my ears that I’m trying to keep at bay. My publisher has warned me to keep writing in the same genre, but it’s not looking good. Middle grade fantasy is up next.
Tyler: Thank you again, Jennifer, for the chance to interview you. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about “Girl Unmoored”?
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me, Tyler. You can find me at www.jennifergoochhummer.com, and at my website you’ll also find a link to my blog. I’m also on Twitter and Facebook.
Tyler: Thank you again, Jennifer, and best of luck with “Girl Unmoored” and all your future books.
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