Little Islands of Faith: The Millions Interviews Tupelo Hassman

August 14, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 9 min read

Early in gods with a little g, the story’s teenage narrator, Helen Dedleder, describes a night with her friends: “And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened.” The syntax and sound of the sentence represents one of Tupelo Hassman’s gifts in this novel: her ability to capture the beautiful fragility of those teen years.

That fragility is created from the novel’s tender route between grief and faith. Helen lives each day with the memory of her mom’s death—and what that has done to her dad: “he fell right apart, and I’ve been collecting the pieces of him since.” He begins to date a woman named Iris, who “is the type of person who ends statements with question marks. She is the type of person who will use the word love in sentence after sentence until it is empty as a deflated balloon on a dance floor.” Yet Helen loves her dad—which makes her skepticism of Iris complicated. Love complicates everything in gods with a little g, Hassman’s second novel. Her first book, Girlchild, received the American Library Association’s Alex Award. She has written for The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. The first American to win London’s Literary Death Match, she earned her MFA at Columbia University.

Hassman and I spoke about faith, doubt, and the other ways that we fill the chasms in our lives.

The Millions: I love the way Helen Dedleder, the book’s first-person narrator, tells her story, and the stories of those around her. Early in the book, she describes hanging out with her friends at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage: “Like we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know, doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be. Without thinking, maybe.” How did you find her voice?

Tupelo Hassman: Helen is the kind of girl I am still not cool enough to be friends with, she’s confident and tough and doesn’t fumble (until she does) and if I get to live in someone else’s head, I’m checking into hers. The moments of boldness Helen has, when taking dares, when reading dirty books aloud, that’s when I knew I’d found my girl. Because of what she’s lost, in her mother’s death, she worries a little less than some might about how she presents herself and about getting hurt. Having nothing to lose is a magical thing.

TM: gods with a little g is suffused with belief and unbelief. Rosary, California, is full of “Thumpers”—nearly-fundamentalist Christians who regulate everything from tattoos to the Internet (which is not allowed). Helen’s relationship with God is beautifully strained; at Vacation Bible Camp, she would make paper flowers from pages from the Song of Solomon: “Bible pages tear quietly and easily and fold perfectly.” That feels a lot like a metaphor—in fact, listening to Helen made me think of the novelist R.O. Kwon, who fictionalized some of her own emotions and experiences in leaving religion within her novel The Incendiaries. Kwon said writing the book helped her realize “there is no resolving” faith and lost faith. She laments: “I loved God. I loved believing.” It’s a beautiful sense that I think is reflected in Helen’s life. All of this is to say: could you talk about Helen’s idea of God? Of faith? Of existence and meaning?

TH: Helen is a believer, in an unwilling way. She’s too smart to ignore an organic instinct for connection to something greater than herself but she’s pretty pissed at that something at the same time. And she’s too smart to ignore the hypocrisy around her in the performative connection to faith enacted by the Thumpers. This leaves her in a no-man’s land, really, water everywhere. But she has her Aunt Bev’s insistence that there is more to life than meets the eye, and Helen has her mother’s example. Helen’s mother was a person whose way of being proved her faith and proved to Helen that faith is worth having. Helen hasn’t quite gotten to figuring out existence and meaning yet, but she is beginning to think about responsibility, about serving, and she may find her answer to those questions, if she doesn’t burn it all down first.

TM: You have a way to make your readers feel—absolutely, intensely—the emotions of your characters, especially Helen. The grief she has for her dead mother is palpable. There’s a great moment when Helen thinks of how her mother would tuck her in at night: “I’d open my eyes then and watch her go, watching until she turned off the hall light. Just as she flipped the switch, I’d close my eyes tight, so the light would burn her shape into the darkness, a blazing pure white against the black of my eyelids and the night, more real than any electricity.” Her mother’s favorite Bible verse was Matthew 28:20: “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Her mother is always with Helen, especially giving her daughter a sense of wonder; Helen even imagines the shape of a human body forming “in the dirt and weeds of Rosary’s empty lot.” How do you envision their relationship—and what role does faith (in all its varieties) play in that relationship?

TH: Losing a mom. That’s a god-shaped hole. Helen’s mom, Evie, was one of those parents able to do the delicate work of instructing her child without damaging her autonomy. Maybe Evie was able to do this because she knew she wouldn’t be there to see the first years of her work done and maybe she was able to take a gentler hand because her parents had driven away her sister, Helen’s Aunt Bev. Of course, when a parent dies early, we have the silver-lined luxury of imagining perfect parenting that would have spanned a lifetime. But what is the relationship between Helen and her mom now? You know those kids who eat paint and dirt because they have a mineral deficiency? It’s brilliant and terrifying how we will try to fill unmet needs without even recognizing sometimes that anything is missing in the first place. The relationship now, for Helen, is a vacuum of need and her work is to figure out what will sustain her. In that process, she’s going to eat some dirt.

TM: Rosary feels like a place outside of time. I read gods with a little g in two days, during a heat wave, and it felt like I was incubating within the book, within this strangely surreal town. One of the many setting points that really resonates are the telephone poles: “The telephone poles around Rosary are white with flyers.” Helen adds to the collection, but the street sweepers take down flyers on poles: “Rosary’s desires are washed away. In the mornings after, all that’s left are the naked staples running the length of every pole like the bark of a petrified forest.” It’s a great, sad image. Rosary feels like a beautifully melancholic place. Did it feel that way to you during the writing of this book? How do you spatially, geographically imagine the town (is it inspired by a place? an amalgam of places)?

TH: Rosary’s skyline is inspired by Vallejo, Califf, just north of Berkeley, where there is a…beautiful, maybe, oil refinery right on the edge of the water. You crest a hill and there it is, sometimes in fog. It is out of place, if there even is a place for such a thing, and monstrous, and it has taken my breath away (not an air quality joke) my entire life. The economic disparity in the Bay Area is increasingly segregating and I’m struck by the other kinds of segregation that come with that, purposefully or not, especially for young people whose freedoms are still limited by their age. Just across the bay from that factory and what surrounds it is San Francisco and all of its complicated freedoms. How can a kid cross that water? And what happens to them if they don’t?

I wrote most of gods with a little g after moving to Charleston, S.C. This is my first time living in the suburbs and I was, and still am, unprepared for the pristine desolation of this kind of a lifestyle. People come out to mow but otherwise, the streets are empty. After living in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, this feels like another country, so well kept, and harder to escape.

TM: The scenes between Helen and Bird—her step-brother and romantic crush—are so awkward and believable. “When the food is ready we hold hands,” Helen narrates. “And when Bird’s hand touches mine for those seconds over the table, his middle finger circles around and around in my palm.” What attracts—compels—Helen to Bird?

TH: The heart, and various other parts of the body, want what the heart and all those parts want. Bird is shiny. He’s impossible. Bird has that kind of charisma that has to be mastered or it will get him into trouble his entire life. He needs a handler, really. To top it all off, he’s found out that he’s very good at something, sex, and can’t find any reason to stop doing this thing at which he apparently excels. Or, in other words, he’s a teenager. Helen is extremely disappointed in her attraction to Bird and this disappointment makes it harder for her to stop focusing on him. She sees herself as an original thinker, making her own decisions, and here she is, like everyone else, unable to resist being awed by Bird’s parade of sex-appeal. People in recovery have this saying about going to bars, in light of the temptation they hold to fall off the wagon: hang out at the barbershop long enough and you’re going to get a haircut. Even if Helen could’ve kept sidestepping her attraction to Bird, once they start spending even more time together because their parents are dating, well. Shave and a haircut, two bits.   

TM: Catholicism haunts this book. It is like a shadow; something a bit more incantational and mysterious than the rote beliefs of the Thumpers. Rosary was founded as a Catholic town, and a few streets still hold the names of saints. There’s a scene when Bird is at a church service, sitting “in the dusty light coming through the windows and the stained glass colors his face, blushes his cheeks…And he’s beatified, like the Bible promises it will do. If we were allowed saints here, if the Catholics weren’t cursed, I would call this a sighting.” The word and concept of Rosary, of course, are central to the faith practice of many Catholics. Why did you decide to name the town Rosary? What does the word mean to you—literally, as a concept?

TH: I love those outward symbols of faith. A person with a rosary in her hand, like someone reading a book, is doing this thing right before our eyes: she is believing in a world unseen. Whatever the religion, when I attend a service, I am so moved by what in a theater is called the suspension of disbelief, and in a place of worship, what is it? The…comprehension of belief? belief’s un-suspension? Those moments when we remember that this need to connect with something greater than ourselves is as real as anything else, as real as this conversation, anyway, there is something essential there, going back, I guess, to that god-shaped hole. To my mind, Catholicism has many of the prettiest and most satisfying ways of evidencing faith. Because we want to touch it, don’t we? We just want to hold this thing in our hands that we feel inside of us so heavily but cannot manifest. Rosaries meet that need for physical connection to what is immaterial. It makes sense to me. There are so many gaps in life, chasms, and we fill them with faith and conceit and whatever else we can find, rocks, to make it across. For me, I see these chasms everywhere, it’s like there’s an insurance agent in my head with a fist full of actuarial tables, running risk assessments for every instance: is the helmet on tight enough? how many days until the paycheck? how far away are those sirens? here are the 100 ways to give your family salmonella. Each bead on a rosary is a way of managing those questions and chasms, little islands of faith.

TM: gods with a little g so authentically captures the wild years of high school (and I say this about to start my 16th year as a public-school teacher). Can you talk about those years? Are they particularly ripe for great stories?

TH: Holy moly, Nick. You know a lot about teenagers. If we had a time machine and I was a student in your class, I would be…invisible. I dropped out two weeks into 10th grade and my teenage years were…a mess? a disaster? dangerous…a thesaurus entry for “unseemly adventure.” And, frankly, it is a wonder that I am here. But I had two friends, also living on edges, and though we led each other to the danger sometimes, we ultimately saved each other too, over and over again. That’s the only story there is, maybe. Those friendships we form in our teenage years can and do save our lives. And then we forget. Adult amnesia about the wherewithal of teens is a phenomenon to me. We all made stupid choices in our teens, but we also were quite more capable then most teenagers are given credit for being. How does this amnesia happen? I am guilty of slipping into this too, it’s like being slowly roofied, how as we age we succumb to this idea that teenagers aren’t the actual shit. Some child sociologists note that keeping teenagers in the category of children serves to preserve power for the older generations. Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright) talks about young people as our primary change agents. Teenage years are ripe for great stories because we make big choices then, with the power of immortality behind them. And this ability seems to escape us as we grow older and then we are suspicious of it, or jealous. We go from ride or die to bide our time in a hot second and then spend all of this old-people energy trying to stop the powerful, young, fire-bellied creatures from doing their actual jobs of fucking up and saving the world while they’re at it. I wanted to write about those kids, the ones we need now more than ever, the ones we once were.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

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