Music Credits: “Renewal,” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Imagine a forty-something-year-old writer who’s published twelve novels under two names and a bevy of children’s books under still a third name. Did I mention the three collections of poetry? And I’m not even touching on the essays, short stories, and movie projects or her teaching. This super-writer is Julianna Baggott, who’s published two novels just this year—All of Us and Everything under the pseudonym Bridget Asher and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which Julianna calls her secretly ambitious literary novel.
Well, the secret is out—Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders is an ambitious undertaking about a writer and her family. The fictional Harriet Wolf was the author of the acclaimed Wonder series—six books that detailed the lives of two lovers from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. It inspired a cultish devotion from its fans. The seventh book was to be the conclusion to their story and answer all the questions raised in the first six. But the reclusive Harriet Wolf never published book seven. In fact, it’s unclear if it was ever written.
Here’s Julianna Baggott reading from her novel, in which Harriet Wolf is addressing her readers.
Julianna Baggott: I haven't forgotten you, my readers. You were young when you read my first book. I got in early and created a wild terrarium. Remember the family of sparrows? How Daisy and Weldon helped them burrow to the underground? Daisy's mother, a woman made of moths? How you wanted the monkey king to save you—yes, you—from your quarreling, drunken parents? You wrote me letters about those parents, the cruel teachers, your sick pills—the sickly often have the best imaginations. One of you had a brain dysfunction. In a fit, you'd bitten off most of your tongue, but you wrote me about the talking tree filled with tongues—could I get you one? The tree wasn't make-believe, I told you. But at some point you probably didn't believe me and ripped the letter up. You became splintered versions of myself, ones I wanted to mend and paste together to recreate myself as if I, the writer, were only an accumulation of pieces of you, as if you'd written me. Maybe this is impossible to understand.
Jo Reed: It’s a little meta but only a little. More significantly, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders is about motherhood, sisterhood, lost loves, and family secrets. Narrated by Harriet, her daughter Eleanor, and granddaughters Ruth and Tilton, the novel spans three generations and one hundred years. The Seventh Book of Wonders is inventive, playful, and deeply moving—all in unexpected ways. It’s a great accomplishment, but then so is Julianna Baggott’s entire writing career. I really had to know how she does it.
You have four kids, and you teach, and you have a husband?
Julianna Baggott: I do.
Jo Reed: And you are prolific. Do you have a routine? How do you make it all work?
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, I've actually started to lecture on the efficient creativity <laughter>, which is a term that people don't like.
Jo Reed: I actually do.
Julianna Baggott: Well I hope so. But you know, I really do this practice of writing while not writing. Basically my early years, there was—I mean, we lived below the poverty level when we were having our first two children. We ran a boarding house for foreigners; it was a mess. Everything was a mess. So my 10,000 hours, that concept didn't exist yet.
Jo Reed: And just to clarify the 10,000 hours—that’s Malcolm Gladwell's theory to become expert at anything. You need to put in 10,000 hours.
Julianna Baggott: Right, it's actually Anders Ericsson who originally did the research. He's the researcher. Malcolm Gladwell made it famous. But my 10,000 hours were not gonna be achieved, you know, at a little desk in an office with quiet and peace and all that stuff. So my creative process really grew up very gnarly, you know, like roots and vines, and, you know, up against some really big stone walls and barricades, you know, that were kind of in my way. So I created a process. Really, I would find myself in a loop that was not really a helpful mental loop. And for me, that was kids, but for other people that might be a new job or whatever they're trying to juggle. I would stop myself and put myself back onto the work and try to work out a scene in my head. And so I really taught myself how to write in my head. And then when I did get ten minutes—and sometimes that was all it was—I would come in already on the fourth draft of something 'cause I'd written it in my head. I’d seen it in my head. I started to become a more visual writer because it was first seen; it wasn't written. It wasn't born through word to word, and it became this portable process. There were a lot of things about it that made me more efficient. So because I didn't have very much time early on dedicated, the process was stronger in some ways. In any case, I also have a husband who's fantastic. So he became the stay-at-home person after I sold my second novel. We swapped places and all that. So it’s not possible—the four kids certainly is not possible—without that kind of partnership, for me.
Jo Reed: Throughout your career, you've taken on different pseudonyms. You are Bridget Asher. You are N.E. Bode. Tell me why you decided to do that.
Julianna Baggott: Well, it began as an idea with my agent, that my agent had. I had published three literary novels in three years—my first three novels. And, you know, they're review-driven so it was hard to get, you know, the reviews. You know, the New York Times is not gonna review Baggott every single year. I mean, <laughs> they rarely do. So he said, "Why don't you keep writing at the pace you wanna keep writing at and see, you know, if you'd like to write thrillers under a penname?" I actually, at that point, was terrified even just to play the board game Clue. I mean, like I would play it and think, "Well who would murder someone? Who'd bludgeon someone to death with a candlestick holder? Like who are these people?" So I was just not interested. But I was at that time reading the books that I first fell in love with 'cause my children were that age. So I started writing as N.E. Bode, and I wrote The Anybodies and a number of different books in that series.
Jo Reed: And that's for kids?
Julianna Baggott: Right, that is for kids. And then I figured out that having a penname is, first of all, incredibly liberating. There was a great psychological feeling of being someone else and being able to really be unrestrained in a different personality so that was really fun. And I also realized that it helped to kind of grow an audience. So I decided that I would like to have one penname that was more contemporary women's fiction—what I wanted to say to women my own age—and so that's how Bridget Asher came to be. So she's a little funnier, she's a little more unrestrained, she's a little—generally things works out a little bit better in the end <laughter>. In a Bridget Asher novel, someone might actually fall in love instead of it being devastating so she's really, really fun to write and I love writing Asher novels.
Jo Reed: Well you've come out with a Bridget Asher novel. One has just been released—All of Us and Everything—and earlier in the summer, as Julianna Baggott, you came out with Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders. And they're interesting 'cause—I read them both together because I knew I was going to talk to you and—there are similarities between them. They're multigenerational stories, a big focus on mothers and daughters. There is a writer who is an important character in both who's examining often, “What does that mean to be a writer?” Yet the books, in tone, are so very different. Were you exploring those themes in your own life? Are those things you were thinking about, in general, and they ended up in these books that came out pretty close together?
Julianna Baggott: Well I mean, I'll say, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders took 18 years to write <laughs>. So the obsessions that kind of are there are endearing obsessions of mine. And then the Bridget Asher novel, I was not really writing at the same time because I was writing that probably when I was in edits in some way with the Seventh Book of Wonders but not at the same time. So and Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is really much more literary. It has a lot of historical aspects to it; it really sweeps the 20th Century. It's much more ambitious; my aesthetic ambitions on the page, there, are more demanding of myself. And then the Bridget Asher novel was kind of in the works for just a couple of years. To me, that's comedic; that's me being funny on the page. It was really in many ways a shout out to Wes Anderson who—I love his films. I love the Royal Tenenbaums. I love Moonrise Kingdom and, you know, so many of his films. And so sometimes, when in doubt, Alec Baldwin would be in my head narrating that novel for me <laughter>. So yeah, tonally, you're absolutely right. They're completely, completely different. I think if you looked at every one of my novels, I usually don't have two that are this close in terms of multigenerational and women, you know, that part truly. But I think even if you looked at a post-apocalyptic thriller of mine or a collection of poems of mine, you're gonna find the same obsession with family, with “What is our mythology?,” “Who are we?,” “How do we—“What secrets do we tell?,” “What secrets do we keep?,” and certain things that just never go away for me as obsessions.
Jo Reed: Now 18 years for Harriet Wolf—what's held you up because you're so prolific and what kept you at it?
Julianna Baggott: Right, that's great. You know, that's absolutely right. No one's ever put it that way before. I knew I would always write that novel. There are things in it that, I would say that, I knew at nine years old, you know. If you go back to nine-year-old Julianna Baggott, she was working on that novel. My father used to take me to the Howard House in Elkton, Maryland, and they had framed newspaper clippings in every booth, and one of them was, "Dead Fell from Sky." And that was about a plane crash—a historic lightning bolt hitting a plane and literally the passengers fell from the sky. And it was very close to my home.
Jo Reed: And that plane crash figures prominently in Harriet Wolf.
Julianna Baggott: Right, and so there's so many things in that book that really got in very early and became these stories that I had to tell. So 18 years. I did walk away from it an awful lot.
Jo Reed: I was gonna ask you that, yeah.
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, I walked away from it an awful lot. After my third novel came out, I was shaken, kind of, as a literary novelist. I felt like it was my best novel and yet the reviews were harsh, and it also didn't sell well. That was The Madam, and it was based on the life of my grandmother who was raised in a house of prostitution. So I really felt like I had given voice to these women who'd been dismissed in their era, only to have them, again, dismissed in ours. And that felt like a grave failure of mine and very personal. So I really stopped writing—in my mind, I stopped writing literary fiction at that point. I went onto—obviously I was still writing poems which could be as literary as they wanted to be and I still went on writing. And some of the books that I wrote during that period, where I thought I was trying to be more commercial, you know, ended up to be like a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. But I was actually trying to be commercial. And it just ends up that I can't take off—I can't—the writing is too important to me so it comes through no matter what. So it really was about a failure of nerve. I think that's what John Dunne's definition of writer's block is: a failure of nerve. And so I really did have a very, very acute but incredibly contained and specific form of writer's block. I only could not write what I perceived to be a literary novel. I wrote everything else.
Jo Reed: And you wrote everything else.
Julianna Baggott: I wrote everything else. And I created persona and I became different people. I found as many mental, little loopholes as I possibly could to kind of protect my relationship with the page and keep writing. And then eventually I felt, you know, strong enough or myself again enough to come back to that novel. And also it became clearer to me. I learned so much as a writer writing in different genres.
Jo Reed: Perhaps it was going into different genres that enabled you to really tackle Harriet Wolf in the way you wanted to.
Julianna Baggott: Right, absolutely. The children's—writing for eight-to-thirteen-year-olds allows you to do magical realism.
Jo Reed: I was gonna say, you can really let your imagination just go where it's going.
Julianna Baggott: Right. In that time period, too, adults were starting to read Harry Potter, and then a more literal version of what magic is was allowed to be read by adults. So things were also changing, you know, Time Traveler's Wife. There were a lot of more magical things kind of coming up in literary fiction. Times were changing, and my own creativity was changing along with it.
Jo Reed: You mentioned when you were a child and your father taking you to Howard House and you seeing the newspaper clippings. Because Harriet Wolf, it spans pretty much a century, what other research did you do? I'm assuming you had to do a bunch of research?
Julianna Baggott: I did. A lot of the research was done pretty early, and we were living in Delaware. I lived in Delaware for 10 years raising my kids when they were really young. And I was—I always tell my students, "Read what no one else is reading." And so I was reading the in-house publication called The Gatehouse and it's about Sheppard Pratt. It's just kind of their history. It's a very oblong book, a strange book. And in there, there was a mention of the Maryland School for Feeble-Minded Children.
Jo Reed: And that’s the school in the world of your book Harriet was sent to. So that really existed?
Julianna Baggott: That existed. And so once I knew that that existed, there was no way I wasn't gonna write about it. So at that point, too, it was very early on; this was before 2004. Those buildings were still in existence. They were gorgeous, huge, massive buildings. And they had asbestos warnings all over them so we didn't go inside. But I was allowed to go into the current facility—it had a basement where they had archives. And so I got to make a copy of the 1911 biannual report and find out what those children's lives were like on a day-to-day basis. And so that became kind of a large part of the beginning of Harriet Wolf—was these two kids who fall in love while they are both labeled medically morons, and they aren't at all. And then their love story—how they get separated and then eventually find each other again.
Jo Reed: With Harriet Wolf, you had the narrative voices change and change very, very distinctly. Can you talk about that decision to do that and that process?
Julianna Baggott: It took a long time to commit to that because I disagree fundamentally with putting too many burdens on the reader. There are only so many things you can ask of the reader. And one of them is to—every time you switch points of view, it's just this disconnect, this fricative disconnect, that you say, "Okay, now you need to leave." And I really believe that four characters speaking in first person was a mistake because when you jump into a chapter you're like, "Who is this ‘I’ speaking to me?" And then the next chapter, "Who is this ‘I’?" The ‘I’ changes and so it's hard to—if you put the book down to pick it back up. It's frustrating, you know. And once I figured out though that I could kind of start to knock some of them off <laughs>. So when I had Harriet Wolf, she is writing so I could put that in italics. I was like, "Okay, now the reader will always be positioned." And then Tilton's point of view—her world view is so very different. She's undiagnosed but on the autism spectrum in some way, probably. She's very poetically minded; I mean, that was me writing as a poet in many ways. And so she's so different; she's distinctive. So that really left only two that I had to convince the reader <laughs> that they would know where they are in those narratives. And I did that just being very hands on in the early paragraphs, you know, their speech patterns and their phrases. So then I decided, "Okay, it's not a mistake. I can do this." And the benefits of it are huge. Once you're in first person, every word that they choose and everything, the way they express, gives all this characterization. So I knew if I could unlock it, it would be worth it so that's what I finally figured out.
Jo Reed: Eleanor, Harriet's daughter and Tilton and Ruthie's mother, tells this nightly story of that plane crash that you talked about, and it always ends with, and I'm truly paraphrasing, "And then the family fell apart. The end." There was something about that that struck me as so true; it was so dark. I'm not suggesting you grab that from your life, but do you know how there are things that are so out there, you know they had to have happened? Am I wrong with this?
Julianna Baggott: No, I think you're right. You know, I was raised in a very Southern Gothic tradition. I mean my mother was from the South. My grandfather and grandmother lived three blocks away. Everything was a story, and the stories were grim sometimes, and they didn't pull back. You know, my mother especially didn't hold back. She really…
Jo Reed: Kids were less precious.
Julianna Baggott: Right, and also I was the youngest, so I'm a lot like Tilton. I was the over-protected child in some ways, but also I was the last one at home and so she would really confess and tell me all these stories. And I always doubted them. I mean, one of them was an aunt who hung herself on a bedpost while her invalid mother was dying in the other room and listened to her choke to death but couldn't get out of the bed to save her. And I said eventually when I was like thirty—and this is a story that my mother would tell me when I'm nine, ten years old like. And so that idea of like, "This is our mythology. This is who we are. It is cautionary." That's what you're reading, I think, in that story. I would say there's an element of deep truth there <laughter>. When I was like, you know, in my mid-30s, I called my mother on it. I said, "This couldn't possibly have happened. It just makes no sense. How would one rig, you know, to hang oneself on a bedpost?" She found the clipping. She found the obituary which, written in true Southern Gothic style of the era, wrote absolutely everything that happened and explained the mother in the other bed. Everything. Yeah. So, you know, I don't doubt her anymore, you know. So I definitely come from that oral, Southern storytelling tradition.
Jo Reed: I know you didn't write All of Us and Everything at the same time but when you were writing it, were you editing Harriet Wolf?
Julianna Baggott: You know I'm not good at remembering those kinds of things, you know. Honestly I was working a lot on Harriet Wolf at the time I was writing Pure, which is a post-apocalyptic thriller. If I'm writing two things at the same time, it's best if they're for very different audiences. Like Which Brings Me to You was a very kind of racy novel that I wrote—very contemporary—and I could write it at the same time I was writing The Anybodies for children. You know what I mean? I had to kinda—I kind of have to work at different genres. So I can do editorial things but writing them at the same time, they'd have to be more different.
Jo Reed: You mentioned Pure—Pure, Fuse and Burn, your post-apocalyptic novels. What drew you to dystopian fiction?
Julianna Baggott: There were so many impulses that went into that book. But I really was feeling like I didn't wanna do interiors anymore; I didn't wanna do domestic. I wanted to do big, cinematic world-building. And I'd never really done it. I have a manager in LA and he was saying, "Where's your big book? When are you gonna do the big thing?" And so I'd written some short stories, 'cause I'm also a fan of George Saunders and Amy Bender, so I was trying to write some strange stories in that vein. And one was about a woman who has a doll head instead of a fist, and this guy who's trying to break up with her. You know, he just wants to break up. It's called Trying to Break Up with Flossie. He can't. Her mother's coming to town. There's no way he can like break up with her. And it's this comedic story about a woman who's in her 20s with this doll head instead of a fist. And you know, it failed. People would write me and, you know, editors would say, "Who are you, David Lynch, now? What are you talk—what is this?" So I decided that if I really committed to that vision and went as dark with it as possible, she could exist in this bigger world-building world. And so that's what I ended up doing.
Jo Reed: Did you know going in it was going to be a trilogy?
Julianna Baggott: I didn't really know. By the time I was finishing the first book, I did. You know, by the time I was ending it I knew where it was going, and I pretty much had the second and the third books in my mind. I knew definitely where I would end. And then when we sent it out, I sent out a pretty detailed synopsis of the second book and a light kind of paragraph on the third novel. And then after I was finished I went back to that cover letter to see, you know, "Did I really know what I was talking…?"
Jo Reed: Did I say it? <laughter>
Julianna Baggott: Right. And more or less, I was pretty close. The big things were there.
Jo Reed: Because you write in so many different genres: poem, short story, essay, novel. When you have an idea for something, do you have to work through that idea to figure out where you're gonna go with it?
Julianna Baggott: I like to have a really rich, fertile junkyard is what I call it. And the junkyard is made up of things that failed and were never published or I never even sent them out because I didn't quite think that they were finished. I also will use whole poems. I'll take a poem and lift it up and kind of put it in a character over here. I think that I do a lot of my emotional work in poetry, and I kind of figure out the emotional beats of a thought. “Here's the thought and here's the image and here are the emotional beats that go with that.” And so once I've worked that out, it's very easy to see how, "Oh, this is this part of me here, is this part of this character here, who is also me," you know, in some way. And so I can kind of transfer them. So it helps me a lot of times do a lot of emotional work for character work. I do some of the work in short stories where I'm trying to figure out, "Where is my terrain? What do I wanna write?" It's mucking around in the silt, you know, at the bottom of the river. And so then, sometimes, they continue to kind of be in one space and then I realize, "Oh, they're connected. Oh, I know how these people are connected," and then they can kind of become a novel.
Jo Reed: When you grew up, were you a reader?
Julianna Baggott: Was I a reader? I was not really a reader. I was very hyper kid so the speed thing has been, you know, a part of my life. I'm quick, you know what I mean in that way. I'm hyper, energetic. So I was really an athlete as a kid. I was a very fast runner. I was good at sports. But my parents loved the theatre. And my oldest sister, by the time I was ten or eleven, lived in New York City and was studying to be an actress. And so I saw more theatre as a kid. And everything. I mean, I saw incredibly bad theatre. I saw really excellent theatre. You know, so my parents also let me see anything, you know. Whatever was good in theatre they were no hold barred, you could go in and just watch. And so I saw a ton of great theatre as a kid. So that really developed my ear because, again, I wasn't as much of a reader. I wasn't sedentary. You know, I was much more active, for me.
Jo Reed: You know it strikes me that another thing that is true about writers and artists, in general, is the relationship to their audience has really shifted a lot over the past decade, 15 years. That the involvement that one has to have with social media, the kind of self-promotion, and I don't mean that in a negative way. But there's the part where you have to write, and then there's the part where you're really expected to go out there and put yourself out there.
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, I worry I'm not likable, you know <laughs>. That's my fear. You know, every once in a while I'll see these writers that I've loved and then I see them really excited about a lunch. And I'm like, "But I loved your great, masterful masterpiece. How can you be excited about this? It's a very nice lunch. It looks great," you know what I mean? But sometimes the minutia that you get involved with now and seeing that somebody's pulling the curtain, and you're seeing this real human being. And that's not always the relationship I wanna have with the writer, you know. So yes, there is a lot. The promotional aspect is a big part of what we're supposed to do.
Jo Reed: I have a relationship with your books. I will not see them the way you see them because it's that individual. And the relationship really used to be with the book but now a relationship between the writer and the audience member is also expected. And I think that's where social media comes in.
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, right. And Harriet Wolf was a famous writer in the book, and she became a recluse. And so that's a little bit of wish fulfillment <laughter>. That part of it, definitely wish fulfillment that I could disappear a little bit more. I mean, I think that—I mean, people have said to me, "Oh, you're so good at social media," you know. "You have such a presence on Facebook and you tweet," and you know, and all that stuff. I am increasingly private and it's almost like this persona that you can create is the buffer. I don't know, it's a strange thing. And you get really strange—I think maybe women more than men—but you get strange, threatening, occasionally, very imbalanced people who will contact you. And I've been taught as a woman to take everything as a little bit of a caution. Like, "I don't like that guy over there across the street. I don't like the way he's looking," or whatever. So I take those threats very seriously, you know, and they kind of hit close to home. It's strange; it's just a strange time. And you can find out where somebody lives and like and get Google map to their house and see their house, you know. All that stuff makes me uncomfortable.
Jo Reed: We're all voyeurs in some ways.
Julianna Baggott: Right.
Jo Reed: So what is next?
Julianna Baggott: What is next?
Jo Reed: Which is a terrible thing to ask somebody who just published two books.
Julianna Baggott: Yes, I know.
Jo Reed: So you can just say…
Julianna Baggott: Let me take a break <laughs>.
Jo Reed: "To hell with this."
Julianna Baggott: No…
Jo Reed: Or what are you working on now, that's a much better way of putting it, I apologize.
Julianna Baggott: No, no I appreciate the question. I do have a fourth book of poems coming out. It's been a very long time.
Jo Reed: That's wonderful.
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, so I've been working on those. Right now it's called Instructions: Abject and Fuming or something like or Burial Instructions: Abject and Fuming? I'm not sure but it will be abject and it will be fuming. So that will be out probably not 'till 2017 or something but. And then I wrote a novel with a friend of mine from graduate school and we, together, will be J.Q. Coyle. That's the author's name. And it's a parallel universe. It's for teens, and it was incredibly hard to write because parallel universes and time travel—all the inherent inconsistencies that you run into. You just paint yourself into little corners over and over and over again. But that'll come out with St. Martin's Press in the fall, and it's called The Infinity of You and Me because of their infinite parallel universes out there, so.
Jo Reed: Well, I'm looking forward to it all. So thank you, thank you. I really appreciate you giving me your time before your reading tonight. Thank you, Julianna.
Julianna Baggott: Yeah, well it's been a pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was Julianna Baggott. We were talking about her book, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Special thanks to Teri Cross Davis, poetry coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, for coordinating this interview.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders took Julianna Baggott 18 years to write… Julianna discusses how writing 14 other novels in a variety of genres, three collections of poetry, and a children’s series helped her finish Harriet Wolf.