Interviews

Bookforum talks with Tupelo Hassman

Tupelo Hassman

Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g is out now, and announces its own universe—a town somewhere in California called Rosary. Like most towns, Rosary has its merits, but it has been overrun by Bible-thumpers. The book’s central character, Helen, nicknamed “Hell,” navigates the margins of the town, and dwells on topics like teen pregnancy, addiction, magic, sexuality. The novel is extremely funny and extremely dark—often both at the same time. Though fundamentalists are threatening to rule Rosary, pockets of freedom remain: There’s a magic shop, run by Helen's Aunt Bev; and there’s the neighboring town, Sky, which Rosary dwellers connect to via Sky’s “Sky Radio,” a sort of sexualized NPR, which allows Rosary residents to hear honest information about sexuality and life. Hassman sat down with Bookforum to talk about her new novel, about politics, her past life of divining tea leaves, the crew of toughs she names “Dickheads” in the novel, and much more.

First off, congratulations on all the amazing reviews so far! I think that yours is the best novel I've read all year. So funny, so dark, and a really amazing second novel in a career that I hope will go on for decades.

Thank you for that! I would like to keep living. And the reviews have really knocked me out.

There’s a legendary quote out there—I think Roy Blount Jr. said it—that “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” I got the same sense when reading your writing—that, if you’d wanted to, you could have easily made this whole novel quite bleak. But that you preferred to make it funnybleak instead. Did you make that decision on purpose?

Funnybleak! It is like a cheese. I would eat this cheese. It happens that with humor, I do reach for it on purpose because bleak is my default. My poor husband.

I hear you’re doing tea leaf readings as part of the promotion for gods with a little g? I think you’ve done actual tea leaf readings for a living in real life, but I was curious whether you had any thoughts on book promotion like that in general?

I feel, what's the word . . . extremely uncomfortable.

Why?

I'm of a couple of minds. Usually, bleak and multiple-personalitied are the defaults. One is generally fearful and worried that my clutziness with tea-leaf reading will detract from the book. The other sits in a Mad Men cigarette haze in a dark corner of my heart and wants to be a copywriter and would have me be a publicity stunt double if necessary. And I have mouths to feed. And I trust my editor, Jenna Johnson, and this was her idea. Those are all my minds, Gee. Nice and tidy.

I also loved that the characters in Rosary would sometimes listen to the signal from the radio station in the neighboring, more secular town, Sky. “Sky Radio.” Radio, especially late-night radio, has a lot of emotional resonance for some people, including me, but what does it mean for Hell?

Sky Radio, for Helen, is like proof that the world is not flat. Or, maybe, that the monsters when you drop off the edge of the flat earth don't want to eat you, just help you, you know, self-actualize. And she knows there is so much she doesn't know.

Helen makes a really amazing connection at one point between the amount of nursing homes in Rosary and the town’s tendency to vote conservative. Of course, Hell is the complete opposite of the nursing homes’ clientele, so I was curious as to who you thought she might support for president in 2020? My guess is Klobuchar, but mostly because I wanted to say the word “Klobuchar” out loud.

Helen's torn between voting for a box of matches and burning it all down and—since as you say, she is connecting the political dots—Elizabeth Warren. Or, better, give the matches to Elizabeth Warren. She'll know when it's time.

There’s such a trope in our culture of a woman choosing between the “bad boy” and the “good boy,” one in which the woman has to make an impossible choice between impossible desires. That theme plays out in gods with a little g, between Hell’s relationship with Winthrop and her relationship with Bird. Without giving away the ending, I wanted to ask if there was anything about Bird or Winthrop in general that would lead to the evolution of Hell’s thinking on them.

This is such a question. Like, a design-a-college-course-question. Helen does at last realize that Win is into her, and that is useful information to have. But those guys are pretty much who they are. The evolution is in her. As it maybe always is in these situations. I do worry about that trope, though, and keeping cis-hetero-etc. men down by this idea. No shade.

Was there a “turning point” toward hope, for Hell, for you, in gods with a little g? For me, it was when she imagined holding a sign up toward an imaginary airplane, saying “take me with you.”

I am so pleased you find that hopeful! I do not. I love these moments.

She was imagining a life outside Rosary, though!

But she was doing it in despair.

I get it.

I don't know if it is a spoiler, or maybe I'm not answering correctly. I think Helen turns, obviously, on her birthday. For me, and answering correctly, I could not find an ending that suited. I might have had to write "hope" into . . . another book? I had to write pages of "after this" to find the place to close and close with hope. Also, my editor, Jenna, encouraged me to end with hope. I have been supremely lucky with editors, and both have been like, "uh . . . lighten up, sister." Bleakcheese. Or what was it? Bleakhumor. "Bleakcheese" is better. Spread it on some crackers.

"Bleakcheese" is better, yes.

Mmmmm.

This is silly, but who would you cast as Hell in a television adaption of gods with a little g?

I need and want to watch more television. I have these small humans here. But! If it weren't robbing music, can I say Billie Eilish? I would also vote for Billie Eilish for president, for what it's worth.

Oh! Amazing!

And Dolly Parton for Aunt Bev. Also for president, forever.

I love the chapter where Hell and Winthrop read through Winthrop’s father’s collection of pornographic books. Books! Not even magazines or internet porn. They enact the various “remarks” of the women in the books—remarks that you hilariously break down into five categories: Directional; Observational; Hyperbolic; Encouraging; and “Unhnnh.” That cracked me up. It made me want to ask you two questions. First, have you ever read the Hilton Als essay in White Girls where he imagines the interior dialogue of Richard Pryor’s (fictional) sister, who does voice-over work in porn?

I have not read that, I am looking forward to finding it.

And the other question, of course, is: Why aren’t more literary writers using porn as a literary device? It’s such a rich source of material! Hell and Winthrop, for example, create a poem out of some of the dialogue in his dad’s books: “right / there in / my pussy my nipples / on fire I love / your monster / cock yeah oh / yeah u / nhnnh.”

For one thing, it is terrifying. It was terrifying for me to write words that I barely even say. Clearly, I use . . . a variety of language, as you have heard, but there are some words reserved for moments of great anger, or intimacy, maybe, that were strenuous to write. But maybe this is like television. Something people experience only on the DL.

This leads to a related, much less off-the-cuff question. There’s a chapter in the book that questions how porn deals with issues like consent. How do you deal with necessary questions like consent in fiction? Is it different than dealing with them in nonfiction?

I love consent. I love it so much. It is like a new creature on the planet. Or, now that it is named, it exists. We have microaggressions now, and privilege, and consent. And the world is better for them.

I'm trying to fathom how these are different . . . how consent is handled in fiction v. nonfiction. In issues of predation, the first question is whether, in a first-person point-of-view fictional account, the victim consciously considers the void of consent and either way, conscious or not, how she deals with the fallout. In Rosary, the Dickheads are aware of consent, thanks to Sky Radio, if not their own good sense. Helen has the pleasure of trust. In my first novel, Girlchild, Rory Dawn has another fate.

I find it fascinating—consent as a topic—because it's everything.

Indeed. Salty—do you read or follow them? They had a wonderful and hilarious article about sexy ways to ask for consent while having sex. It was informative and hot. Like most things they share.

I follow Salty on Instagram, and I will look for it. And, as an aside, I hope your small humans appreciate how funny you are!

They do not. Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants) has two books coming out the same day as mine. That is what the small humans care about.

Let's demolish Captain Underpants.

Ha! No. He's good. There are good things in there amid the farting.

Gee Henry is a writer living in Nashville.