More Than Girl Trouble by Jaclyn Alexander

While the words girl trouble may conjure up images of teenaged girls talking on the phone about boys, please read further…

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Holly Goddard Jones. Image courtesy HarperCollins.

While the words “girl trouble” may conjure up images of teenaged girls talking on the phone about boys, please read further. Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection Girl Trouble offers intimate character portrayals set in Roma, Kentucky. From unexpected pregnancy to murder, the characters find themselves in desperate situations which often render them helpless. These stories elucidate the loneliness embedded in a small Southern town, and in the lives of the people who fill it. Holly Goddard Jones’ stories range in voice and reflect the talents of this young, new author. Hers is the kind of book whose characters will linger in your thoughts for days after.

Stories from Girl Trouble have previously been published in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2007, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, and Epoch.

Jaclyn Alexander Many of the stories that appear in Girl Trouble have been previously published in various journals and anthologies. That being said, how does it feel to have your first book published?

Holly Goddard Jones Having them in a book is certainly different from having the stories appear individually in journals, both professionally and personally. For instance, I do think that they really are a book now, not just a collection of mashed together, previously published stuff. Some of the stories have been drastically revised since they first appeared in print—in part because I’ve kept growing and evolving as a writer since I began drafting them, but also because they sometimes needed adjustments to work as components of a larger project. “Good Girl” is the oldest story in the collection, and it also became the first story in the book, so it ended up setting the tone for the book and focusing the set of themes.

It’s different too because there’s suddenly a lot of you out there, and your profile changes. When I published “Good Girl” in The Southern Review four years ago, I only heard from one reader about it. That was Jim Tomlinson, a fine writer from Kentucky, and we’re still friends. With a book, though, I’m reaching people that I didn’t think I’d ever reach, and that’s been a wonderful thing. Folks back home in Kentucky–Russellville, my hometown, and nearby Bowling Green–are reading it. The individual journals just weren’t reaching that audience.

JA Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? When did you decide to seriously pursue writing?

HGJ I’ve always been interested in writing, because I’ve always been an avid reader. The two went together for me from as far back as I can remember. I don’t know how serious I was, but I switched majors from journalism to English my sophomore year of college. I knew immediately that I wanted to be on a writing track rather than a literature track. I didn’t want to teach high school. I didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time I didn’t even want to be an academic. I didn’t think very far ahead, period. I’d just gotten married and transferred to University of Kentucky, and so in a way it seemed that I was already living out an “adult” life. I didn’t think about the future, about job prospects and goals, the way I probably should have. I just wanted a college degree. Then, the semester before I graduated, I found out what an MFA program was and did a little bit of research into programs near Kentucky, and that’s how I found out about Ohio State.

JA What process went into choosing the order you put your stories together?

HGJ Like I said, “Good Girl” was the oldest story in the collection, and it just seemed to set the right tone thematically, so that’s why it’s first. I think it embodies the book’s polar modes of tenderness and harshness. After that, I played with several different kinds of structures, and the book was even one story longer at an early stage. “An Upright Man,” which is almost novella length, is in the middle as an anchor. And I wanted the linked stories “Parts” and “Proof of God” to be spread far enough apart that, if the stories are read in order, “Proof of God” will come as kind of a surprise. The nice thing there, too, is that “Proof of God” is the last story, so it doesn’t set up the expectation that there will be a third linked piece. It was also important to me that the two first person POV stories not be side-by-side; it just seemed imbalanced. So in the end, a kind of thematic movement emerged. The more adult, violent stories are at the beginning and end, and the three less tragic coming-of-age stories are in the middle. The last lines of “Proof of God” seemed like the right kind of sorrowful sentiment for the book as a whole.

JA Many of your stories have males as the central characters. Can you tell me about your title choice?

HGJ It’s been interesting—and I’ll admit it, occasionally frustrating—to see how people have reacted to the title. There’s this knee-jerk reaction to “girl” that you don’t see to literary books with “boy” in the title: This Boy’s Life, Wonder Boys, Black Boy. The irony to me is that I chose “girl trouble” because it’s a phrase lodged in the male point-of-view. Women don’t generally have girl trouble. At its most benign, the phrase refers to a young man’s romantic problems, and you see that concretely in “An Upright Man” and “Allegory of a Cave.” But the bigger troubles in the book are just an amplification of that disconnection between men and women, that misplaced desire. In a story like “Life Expectancy,” about a high school basketball coach who gets his star player pregnant, there’s a pleasing irony to the suggestion that he’s having “girl trouble.” The phrase trivializes it, just as men trivialize women by calling them “girls.” The climax of that story underscores this: “Josie was a girl—a woman—who would, Theo was understanding, have her way, with his help or without it.” That little moment of him checking himself was as close as this character can get to being enlightened.

But no title should require that level of explanation, and so maybe it was a misstep. I did a reading at my hometown library a few weeks ago, and the father of a guy I’d gone to school with brought me a book to sign. “He couldn’t make it, but he read your book and really liked it,” this man said. “He told me I should read it, but I told him that I’m too old to read a book about girl trouble.” I’ve gotten other reactions like that. It’s a little depressing.

JA All of these stories are driven by characters who are plagued by a desperate loneliness. As a writer, was this a conscious choice or something that evolved naturally through your writing process?

HGJ I don’t know how consciously I thought about the issue of loneliness specifically, though you’re right that the characters are almost all abandoned or alienated. I was aware that I was writing these little contemporary tragedies, and I was aware, too, that I wanted to write about characters with intellect and dignity, even if they’re poor (in some cases) and rural and going through difficult times. I guess it seems to me that there’s something very dignified about loneliness. And—this is personal—but I’ve always thought that there was a kind of painful ache to loving and being loved. One of the characters thinks of it as “anticipatory sorrow”: the sense that your moments of joy are shadowed by the possibility of the loss of joy.

JA A theme that reoccurred throughout your stories was the concept of a child forming a more adult perception of his or her parent (for example, Ben in “Allegory of a Cave” or Ellen in “Theory of Realty”). Can you speak further on this?

HGJ Several stories in the collection pair for me, and those two definitely go together. You know, they’re the only kids’ stories in the book, and I wrote them with a retrospective third person narrator so that they could have the texture and weight of the adult stories. I guess it just seems like a dangerous time in one’s growing up—the discovery not just that parents are human and can be wrong, but that they can be wrong in a way that causes you harm.

JA Most of your stories end with characters in a similar state of despair, if not worse, than they started out in. What are you trying to say to readers through this choice?

HGJ I tell my students that I don’t believe stories necessarily record a process of change in a character—that’s how some textbooks define the form—so much as they offer a character the possibility of change, which the character then embraces or rejects. I guess my characters often reject change. But that doesn’t seem hopeless or nihilistic to me, believe it or not. I just like tragedy as a form. I like how seriously it takes the business of living, and I like the process of catharsis. The short stories that fail to interest me—and this is purely personal—are the ones that just don’t go for much, that deliver a nice little image or subtle idea and then dissipate. I don’t want to read a book full of those. I want something to happen, and I want to feel a big emotion in response to that something, whether it’s despair or hilarity or just the sense that my intellect’s gotten a good workout.

JA As a teacher, what concepts about writing are most important to you to get through to your students?

HGJ I don’t think that certain concepts are more important than others, but I do think that a writer gets used to filtering problems through specific lenses. For me, that first lens, the big one, is story structure. I tend to read for conflict, balance between narrative and back story, causal connections. I want my students to see when they’ve employed an episodic or associative structure as compared to a more traditional, Aristotelian structure, not because I always advocate the latter, but because making apparent that underlying shape can help during the revision process.

The second lens is point of view: levels of psychic distance, the way retrospection or lack of, can affect voice, why the story’s getting told, to whom, under what circumstances.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that these issues of craft just give you concrete language for tackling abstract problems. Recently I read a couple of student stories that another colleague had workshopped, and the students told me that so-and-so said the problem was voice or that the prose wasn’t interesting or that a character’s motive had gone unexplained. Sometimes we were identifying different issues entirely, but most often my colleague and I had sensed the same issue but were offering distinct tools for correcting it. Or, in some cases, we were offering the same tools but giving different advice about how and when to use them. To mix the metaphor up entirely, it’s like an old moment in All in the Family, when Archie and Meathead were arguing about whether a man should put on both socks and then both shoes, or one sock and one shoe followed by the other sock and shoe. “What if there’s a fire and it’s snowing outside?” one of them argued. But in the end, you end up with both shoes and both socks on, so who cares?

JA What now—are you working on a new writing project?

HGJ I’m working a novel and moving more slowly than I’d like, but I’m excited about it.

Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble is now available from Harper Perennial.

Mary Gaitskill by Stephen Westfall
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