The Biggest Little Birdy Told Me: Author Pam Jones talks magical realism, writing, and the 60s
Hello, readers! Once again, I bring you a post that isn’t about banned books. However, I have a real treat in store today: an interview with author Pam Jones! Her first book, The Biggest Little Bird, was published by Black Hill Press and released in December 2013. You can read my review of it here.
The magical realism novella is hard to describe and fascinating to discuss, so without further ado, I bring you a writer’s thoughts on the amusement park’s place in literature, reinvented histories, writing majors, the murky underbelly of a bygone era, and the rollercoaster ride that is getting a book published.
Your book is very grounded in time and setting. What interested you about this period in history?
The 1960s, I feel, is a decade of real growth. It’s an era during which the innocence-and-apple-pie mentality of the ‘50’s was slowly ebbing away with the realization that the ‘50’s were not necessarily everyone’s Good Old Days. A lot of the music and movies of that era (1950’s-early ‘60’s) is peppy and very sugary and cheerful, this was also the era of the Ideal American Family, as presented in advertising, as it were all an enchantment against life’s bleakness and darkness. And yet, the same awful things that occur in every era (kidnapping, assault, loss of innocence in general) happened during this time, in spite of the enchantment.
How much research did you do about the time and place? Especially given the themes of the story, how much of an obligation did you feel to authenticity/historical accuracy? How did you balance that with the fantastic nature of the story and your own creative licence?
In terms of time, research came from watching a lot of what Turner Classic Movies had to offer! I also spent a lot of time digging up those old public service films from the ‘50s and ‘60s with themes along the lines of, “Are You Ready for Marriage?”, “What to Do on a Date”, “Habit Patterns”, which discuss etiquette and family living in a way that I can only describe as desperate—again, the enchantment against the bleak. (As an aside, the show Mystery Science Theater 3,000 supplies great riffs for these films.) In terms of place, I’ve only ever been to California twice, once when I was ten and again this past summer, and had to rely more on quick encyclopedia articles and imagination to get the feel.
This book touches on some heavy topics (Nazi death camps, eating disorders, child molestation, unwanted pregnancy, mob mentality, etc) in both a rose-tinted historical period and an amusement park (literally marketed as “the happiest place on earth”). Is it easier or harder to address difficult subjects in such a fantastic, idealized setting?
I would say that it’s easier. It skews the ugly things that occur, with (literally) a lot of bells and whistles and metaphors to stand in the way of what is actually happening. In other ways, it’s also more disturbing when ugly things are told with a pretty façade, it really drives home the horror of a thing like child molestation or eating disorders, how close to the surface and how approachable it can really be. I just started reading Stephen King’s It; Pennywise is more sinister to me in his clown suit than when he becomes a literal monster with fangs.
The amusement park or carnival appears in countless works of literature, particularly in speculative fiction. Obviously it’s a powerful symbol in our cultural psyche. What does it symbolize to you? What made you want to write about it?
An amusement park, to me, symbolizes the kid-delight in things. As a kid, you would never expect for anything to go wrong in a place like Disney World; when I was little, visiting that place for the first time, I was always trying to wander off on my own. Then, maybe twelve years later, I went back with my high school class for our senior trip and felt cagey and anxious. I recalled that sensation when I set out to write this story.
Your book is full of vivid, quirky, and unusual characters. How much of them is drawn from real people or the imagined lives of strangers while people-watching and how much is from your own imagination?
Well, Freddy is definitely me—I’m gawky, clumsy, and I used to be the kind of person who let other people decide what was going to happen to me. Dorothea is also me, the little me that liked to wander off and read. The rest, imagined.
What influences you as a writer? What is your writing process like?
What influences me is language, how you can manipulate it. I like to read a lot of authors that appreciate good, playful prose: Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter are two examples. My writing process is as follows: I try to write every day, 400-1,000 words, with music in the background. Lately, I’ve been on a Nujabes kick.
What are your favorite books?
Favorite books, there’s a lot of them:
Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson
The Magic Toyshop, by Angela Carter
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
And while I’m still just starting, I think I’ll add Stephen King’s It to the list once I’ve finished.
What made you want to be a writer?
Well, I’m not very good at getting my thoughts together when I’m speaking to someone directly, I’m too shy. And I’ve always been better able to get “the point” of something if it’s told in a story.
As someone who studied writing in school, what was your experience like? Did you benefit more from actual writing classes, teachers, and workshops or from less organized experiences like bouncing ideas off of friends or getting inspired outside of the classroom?
I think that I benefited the most from one-on-one sessions with someone, whether it was a professor or a fellow student who will tell you honestly what works and what doesn’t. When you’re in a group (at least this was what I’ve found), everyone tends to focus mostly on what’s good about a fellow writer’s work. It’s never fun to hear criticism, but you need it in order to grow. I got inspired both in and out of the classroom: I read The Magic Toyshop in a class at Hampshire College called Writing Fiction About Families, and absolutely loved the prose and the fairy-tale imagery, and from there discovered Angela Carter and wanted to learn more about the genre she worked in, magical realism.
Your book has gone from senior thesis to self-published to published. What was this journey like?
I was told that the novella would be a tough thing to sell, but was recommended that I at least try to self-publish through Amazon.com. I was also told that such a book would work well with illustrations. At that point, I queried around to people I knew who were pursuing art, and thought of my friend and fellow Hampshire alum, Austin Rote, who did the artwork for the original self-published version of the book. His stuff is still up on the book’s Facebook page, and it’s beautiful work. The self-published version and the collaboration with Austin took about a year; it was a giddy experience, having images from my book come to life.
When I set out to find a traditional publisher, I encountered the same experience that every writer does (and should) encounter: All the Nos. I queried agents who were accepting magical realism, and I think they were unsure of what to do with a book that could either be a long short story or a short novel. The novella is an amphibious thing. But then one day, I was fooling around on Facebook and I came across a post that my friend Veronica Bane had put up: She had just published a novella with a company called Black Hill Press, a publisher out in Los Angeles that worked only with novellas. I sent my manuscript off right away. I learned upon its acceptance that Black Hill Press is also a collective, in which writers can also choose to edit new manuscripts. Veronica liked it and has been a fantastic editor, a real eye for structure.
Following up with the last question: how much did the book change along the way and were these changes prompted more by time and perspective or a change in editor/audience?
Again, Veronica has an eye for structure and so with her help I was able to start the book off with a bang, which meant moving one scene from the middle to the very beginning.
While we’re on the topic of audience/demographics, your book is hard to pin down into any one genre. Did this make it harder to pitch to traditional publishers/agents?
When I queried agents, I categorized it as magical realism, which can be a tricky genre. Generally, it’s a realistic setting with fantastical elements thrown in to emphasize the point an author is trying to make. Some say that it’s a fancy way of saying that you write fantasy, which can be true, depending on how far you push the fantastical elements. I also have the narrative shown from different perspectives, mostly from people at young ages (a six-year-old and a twenty-four-year-old). I don’t think I could place it as Young Adult, simply because it’s told from the perspective of a young person, any more than you could categorize Carrie as Young Adult. I can’t speak for what the agents wanted, exactly, but I do get the impression that if a book is pitched as a specific genre (fantasy, Young Adult, etc.), it’ll make marketing easier on an agent’s end of things.
Did you have a specific audience in mind with this book or did you write what you wanted and whoever likes it likes it?
I wrote the story that I wanted to read. I think that that’s what all of my favorite authors set out to do, and that’s what I intend to do also.
What was your favorite part about writing this book? What was your least favorite?
What I loved most was getting into the character’s brains, their fears and whacked-out notions of their situations (i.e., Freddy’s nightmare). Least favorite was a scene that has been cut from the Black Hill Press version, thankfully, one that involved the villain, Mister Teagarden, a truly monstrous figure, a child molester. I felt ugly and uneasy writing it, having to get into a head like that.
The novella is a lesser-known medium. Did you set out to write something this length or did a short story or novel have a mind of its own?
It was originally going to be a set of short stories for my senior thesis at Hampshire, but I’m a little more long-winded than that, so one story grew very quickly into a novella.
Nearly every character in this book has changed their name, reinvented themself, or lied about who they are. Given that writers frequently use false names or use their persona (real or not) as a branding/marketing tool, not unlike Shake and Ickack Pleasure Gardens, what are your thoughts on this?
That’s a very American thing, to reinvent yourself. The U.S. is a big place, there’s room enough to hide and too many people to care about the details of your life (unless they can be profited from in some way). That’s what I was thinking in terms of the characters, and I guess the same goes for writers, too. When I think of Mark Twain, for example, I think of a big old guy with a wry smile and crazy hair, spouting funny things. It’s the first thing you think of and the first thing you see.
What’s next for Pam Jones?
A new novel! I hope to have it finished by this summer. I also have another novella up my sleeve, another short story growing into something bigger—a ghost story, but that’s all I’ll say about it right now.
A huge thank you to Pam Jones for taking the time to let me pick her brain, and one to Black Hill Press for letting me interview her. She gave me some fascinating answers and I’m so excited to have the chance to share them with my readers.
The Biggest Little Bird is available on Amazon.com. Black Hill Press is working on making it available in indie bookstores. You can also read the first chapter for free here. For more on Pam Jones, check out her author portfolio on the Black Hill Press website, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter at @PanimalJones.
Tags: 1960s, amusement park, Austin Rote, author, Black Hill Press, carnival, Hampshire alum, Hampshire College, Hampshire College Writing Program, historical fiction, indie, interview, magical surrealism, novella, Pam Jones, publishing, self-publishing, The Biggest Little Bird, theme park, WPLongform, writer, writing
About boundandgaggedbooksShannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.
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