(Florham Park, NJ: Serving House Books, 2019)
I read incessantly. This morning, I was at a department meeting at work and my supervisor commented that she always sees me with a book — a different one every week. I read a wide variety of genres, including fantasy, contemporary, literary fiction, and creative non-fiction, but rarely do I encounter a voice as unique as Julia Van Middlesworth’s in her debut novel, Daddy Dead. When first introduced to Zoe, the main character, I was reminded of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, though Zoe’s family is distinctly dysfunctional. Rarely are novels for adults anchored in a child’s narration, and sometimes when they are the voice is stilted or forced. However, Van Middlesworth brilliantly depicts Zoe’s world, with language so centered in a child’s perspective that I was immediately immersed. Her imagination is vivid, and the characters she creates rise off the pages as actors in 3-D movies. She has a way of evoking emotion through imagery, emotions that inspire empathy in the reader: “Once a teardrop fell dead center in my mashed potatoes and when I ate that part I felt sad.” The novel began as a short story when Van Middlesworth was a graduate student. But the characters, with names you won’t forget — Daddy Dead, Mother Blind, and Aunt Oink — demanded more attention, and the rest of the story developed in a Little House in Somerville, New Jersey as Julia workshopped it monthly with the writing group she co-founded. Though the novel is based in reality (rooted in her own experiences), as she wrote, she opened the door to her imagination and took chances on characters and events that felt risky at the time, but proved vital for the novel’s success.
I conducted this interview with Julia via email over the course of a few days while I was reading Daddy Dead.
Elizabeth Jaeger: Congratulations on the publication of your first novel Daddy Dead! How does it feel to see your work in print?
Julia Van Middlesworth: Honestly, it’s hard for me to look at. I am much too close to it at this point. However, there is also a great sense of satisfaction because I worked really hard on doing the best job I could.
EJ: You definitely deserve to have a sense of satisfaction. Daddy Dead is an intriguing novel. Why, since it is based on real events and people, did you decide to write a novel instead of a memoir?
JVM: Daddy Dead is based in part on real life events but I didn’t want to be tied down with that. I wanted to be free to explore adventures that came up along the way. I think of some of the things that really happened as the spinal cord of the novel, but I fleshed that out with whatever popped into my imagination. The characters of Mother Blind, Aunt Oink, and Daddy Dead are grounded in reality. My mother was an intellectual, my aunt liked men a lot and was also very funny. My father was a pilot and a photographer. Willy was inspired by my brother, Billy. He is not autistic like the fictional character, but he is a genius who has flown all over the world to fix a particular printing machine. He always had a knack for taking things apart, putting them back together and making them work. Part Three of the novel is based predominantly in solid fact. I did spend one year and three months in the New Jersey Reformatory.
EJ: I understand wanting the freedom to explore what fiction provides. When I write non-fiction, I often find myself frustrated by boundaries of truth. Where in the novel did you find your imagination being the most creative or having the most fun?
JVM: I had a lot of fun with the pond, the New York scenes, the boy in the woods, Amelia Earhart, and King Car. While King Car was always part of the story, the others were not. I let them in. Also, Zuzu is a fictional character. I almost decided against writing about Zuzu because I knew it was risky, but in the end I went with the risk.
EJ: Zoe’s voice is extremely unique, one of the most unique I’ve experienced in literature. How did you tap into the childlike way a young girl might perceive and understand her surroundings?
JVM: It was just a voice that lives inside of me that I tapped into many years ago when Daddy Dead was a short story. It came to me as a whole piece that I wrote in one night. I was just transcribing what the voice was saying. It was late, maybe 10 o’clock, and the sentence about the pig knuckles just popped into my head, “My aunt buys pickled pig knuckles in a jar and chases me with them.” I typed it and the rest just seemed to flow out of me. My aunt did eat pig knuckles and chased me with them. I hated her when she did this and the feeling of being held down that way gave me a lot of rage as a child. I was four or five at the time. She thought it was funny and every time I fought back harder. The other “teasing” trick she and my father played was the pillow game which consisted of holding a pillow over my face and me fighting back. That was worse than the pig knuckles and stink cheese because I truly thought I would die. However, as adults, they thought it was just a game. They knew they weren’t going to smother me, but I didn’t know.
EJ: The short story must have been very different. But I can see how you’d need it to be a novel to fully develop the characters. One aspect of the book that I enjoyed most is the creative way in which Zoe and her brother, Willy, engage with their environment, something you couldn’t delve into as deeply in a shorter work. King Car and the Pond, especially, develop personalities of their own. What scenes did you most enjoy writing?
JVM: All the elements in the novel, King Car, Aunt Oink, Mother Blind, and Daddy Dead were all there in the original short story which ran around 10 pages and won the Sean O’Faolain Prize in Cork, Ireland. So I knew I had something but I wasn’t sure if it would work as a novel. The pond scenes were totally unplanned. One day while I was walking, a few years ago, I passed over a bridge where a creek ran and was struck by the sight of a bicycle submerged at the bottom. I stared at it for a long time and even photographed it but no matter how many times I tried the bicycle did not appear in the photograph. Also, I loved writing about King Car. When I was a child there was a jalopy hidden in our backyard and my brother and I spent a lot of time in it. My brother called it “Diney Car.” However, my husband told me about his childhood jalopy which was a Henry J. He named it King Car so that is where the name came from. I also love the idea of taking something broken down and bringing new life to it.
EJ: Tell me about the creation of Knife, Zoe’s doll/alter ego. You depict her so vividly in the novel, and she is such a vital character, there were times I forgot she wasn’t a real person. I couldn’t imagine this novel without her.
JVM: It’s hard to say where Knife came from. One day, when I wrote the original short story she was just there. That was totally out of my imagination. Knife was like a dermoid — a ball of teeth and flesh and hair left over from birth, possibly a twin. I never had a doll like her in reality but she was very much alive in my mind. I believe Knife was born of the rage I had as a child and I had a lot of it. I was very willful and stubborn and had a very strong personality. Perhaps Knife was the part of me where all that emotion and vitriol lived. I saw things that I thought weren’t right. I was jealous of my aunt who got all my father’s attention in all the wrong ways. I was vocal about it, but I was a young child and no one listened.
EJ: No one listened to Zoe either. The “system” failed her in many ways. She was a bright girl who struggled to think within the square boxes of a traditional educational system. Zoe’s experience in Part III was based almost completely on your own experience. Was it difficult to write about that period of your life in a girls’ correctional facility? Did you have any reservations about sharing your experience with your readers?
JVM: Yes, I did have reservations regarding the reformatory, mainly because of exposing the personal nature of it — naked, both physically and emotionally. However, writing about it gave it a purpose in my life. Until that point, I was extremely naive and thought the shows I watched, such as Perry Mason, were synonymous with reality. I never believed I’d be sent to a place like that. I had no idea that kind of hell existed here in America — locking up girls as young as eight-years-old and providing them little education. Ironic, considering I was sent there for skipping school. It was a joke. Mostly we were taught how to do laundry, fry eggs, fold hospital corners on sheets, clean toilets, wash dishes. There wasn’t a library. The only entertainment was a movie once a month. It was always something corny, considering the audience — like Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy.”
EJ: Your writing is so frank, so explicit, I find myself completely empathizing with Zoe. Did you learn anything that you found valuable in your stay at the facility?
JVM: My stay in the reformatory taught me a lot about how race and gender don’t mean anything. People are just people. And they are as crazy on the outside as they are in the inside. Especially in their relationships with one another.
EJ: You co-founded Sourland Workshop several years ago and workshopped much of this novel with them. Can you tell us how Sourland helped shape your novel. What are some of the advantages to participating in a professional writer’s circle?
JVM: Sourland Workshop was key in making this novel happen. It was founded over dinner in Princeton with Kitta MacPherson. We both felt lost after graduating, so the workshop was a way to keep our writing alive. We didn’t know if anyone would actually show up. But they did. It was a bit shaky in the beginning, figuring out how much time each writer was allowed. In other words, the structure, the nuts and bolts of how to make it work. However, as the team began to gel, things became more organic and we didn’t need the rules anymore. It helped me because with a workshop of talented writers you are obligated to post your work every month, so I kept adding chapters to my novel. The editing I received from our workshop was key — meaning they didn’t hold back if my narrator’s voice went astray. After each workshop, I rewrote the chapter I’d posted utilizing their suggestions and my work was always improved. Without the workshop I really don’t believe I would have Daddy Dead published today. The advantage of having a workshop is that with the right mix of writers you build up a trust, and even if you disagree with an editing suggestion, which was rare for me, it always gives you a new angle to consider. Our group is now like family, but we are all still sharp editors and not afraid to voice our opinions because it comes from a solid respect for one another. We’re now going into our fifth year and planning our second weekend retreat.
| | |
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!
Daddy Dead by Julia Van Middlesworth is available now from Serving House Books (Florham Park, NJ)