Interview With an Author: Jacqueline Holland

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Jacqueline Holland and her first novel, The God of Endings
Author Jacqueline Holland and her first novel, The God of Endings. Photo of author: C. Zea Corrinne

Jacqueline Holland holds an MFA from the University of Kansas. Her work has appeared in Hotel Amerika and Big Fiction magazine, among others. She lives in the Twin Cities with her husband and two sons. The God of Endings is her first novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The God of Endings?

It was my first year in my MFA program, and I was walking home from classes thinking about strange things as I always am, and I don’t know why but the particular strange thing that I was pondering was what would you do with your time if you were never going to die? Like, really. Concretely. How would you pass the time? And how would it feel? Suddenly, this woman began speaking to me, explaining in great detail what she had done to pass the time for the centuries she had already been alive. I got out my phone and began recording in voice notes all that she said. Then when I got home, I got out my computer and began typing furiously. It was a genuine frenzy.

But a book is more than a monologue from a single main character, and I’m certain that the inspiration for the heart of the story was already there, germinating in my subconscious. I was a young mother. I had a three-year-old son and a baby boy less than a year old. My older son has autism, and his symptoms at that time were extremely challenging. Lots of fits, lots of battles. I didn’t always respond to him the way I wanted to with consistent gentleness and endless patience, and it killed me. In the past, I had understood that I was a horribly flawed person—easily frustrated, selfish, prone to depression and mood swings—but those flaws had only seemed to affect me and perhaps a handful of peers who could always walk away if I became more trouble than I was worth. But suddenly, my flawed-ness didn’t just affect me, it affected this tiny, innocent child to whom I was basically the whole world and for whom I wanted nothing but good things. The mother’s enormous power and responsibility to do good or do evil was totally terrifying, and my failures to consistently do the good that I wished and to never do harm was agonizing. At times, I wondered, as I think many mothers do, how much bad is too much? How much makes you a bad mother? And the book is really about that horrible painful parsing and weighing that we do to ourselves when we try to figure out if we are good people or bad people, if we are more blessing to the people around us or curse.

Collette’s vampirism felt like the perfect vehicle for this question, this struggle. She has this insuperable destructive flaw that makes her quite dangerous, and her immortality means that she can’t bow out. She’s genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place (as mothers can often feel they are), so she has to find a way to reconcile with her darkness, to reconcile with the inescapable fact that she will always be both a blessing and curse to the people she loves, and be both blessed and cursed by them and by the world, which is shot through with this very same beautiful and painful duality.

Are Collette, Leo, Agoston, Katherine, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Some are, to various degrees, and some aren’t. My minor characters will more often be based on someone real, essentially because I don’t want or need to take the time to think all that hard about their personalities, backstories etc. Roundness and specific detail is what’s important in minor characters, not psychology or motivation per say. May Henderson is my mother-in-law, as my mother-in-law will take pleasure in telling anyone! Henry Emerson was our wonderfully kind lovely landlord in Kansas City. Dave Hardman is pretty neatly a good friend of mine, who often provokes immediate dislike until people get to know him better. Many others are composites. I often need a very clear visual in my mind of a character, so sometimes I will pick someone I know or someone famous to be sort of the body double for a character, but then the personality is pure invention. Other characters, however, are only themselves and have no root in reality, and despite this, feel actually more real. Collette’s Grandfather is one who is so unique and fully realized in my mind that he feels like someone I knew very well in another life. He’s a callus old bastard, and you really have to keep your eye on him, but I like him immensely.

Leo is kind of an interesting one. I was writing this book from when my children were little, and so of course, I watched them very closely in order to capture the movement, behavior, and speech and thought patterns of young children, but since my children were growing up as I was writing, Leo’s age fluctuated quite a bit, and throughout the process of writing, he got older and he spoke more.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Wow, I could write a twenty-page essay in answer to this question.

It took me about six years and probably eighty Word documents to write this novel. They say that about every ten years, people swap out all the cells in their bodies for new ones, becoming essentially new people on a cellular level. I think the timeline for books in progress is probably fairly similar, and I would be very curious to see an analysis of my book to discover how many words actually made it from the first draft to the final draft. And yet, just like people, the larger organism somehow maintains a surprisingly consistent and recognizable shape despite these continual changes.

I feel like I was rather lucky with the process of this book though. It began as a novella that I wrote in my first year of grad school. What’s so great about this is that I got to workshop a completed work, almost like an abridged version. I got tons of brilliant feedback from my super smart and helpful peers, plus a lot of encouragement without which I probably would have forgotten about it and moved on. Later, when I decided to turn it into a novel, that process was primarily one of dreaming up more (my favorite part of writing) and adding that new material in.

The book I’m working on now is the first I’ve written in a more linear fashion, starting, as the March Hare says, at the beginning, and stopping at the end. That means I’ll have to wait so long before sharing the full arc of the story with any beta readers!

And yes, there are things that got left out. Not scenes really, but passages. There was a passage that readers consistently loved from the first draft, myself included, and I tried my best to keep it. I held on for so long, but ultimately it didn’t fit so, farewell, my darling.

Are you a painter in addition to being a writer? Do you have a favorite painter? A favorite of their works?

First of all, I’m incredibly flattered by the question. I hope it means that I’ve portrayed being a painter with some authenticity, but no, I am not a painter. I’m lucky enough, however, to live with my favorite painter: my husband, Peter Holland, who is an extraordinary artist and has, for as long as I’ve known him, shared with me how he sees and interacts with the world as a visual artist. His process, materials, and artistic concerns have become a part of my own life, and I really geek out on comparing and contrasting the visual and language arts (or any arts! I also feel that authors and actors have a lot in common). There are so many interesting corollaries and divergences between painting and writing. It’s a bit like learning another language and discovering both the cognates, but also the things that can be said or even thought in one language but not in another. My husband has explained so much of the process of drawing and painting to me, and I’ve gotten to watch him work. I feel incredibly lucky to have such intimate access to a different kind of art from my own.

I have many other artists that I adore, and it was fun working shout-outs to them into the novel. Probably due in large part to Irving Stone’s extraordinary novel Lust For Life, I have a fondness for Vincent Van Gogh that feels almost familial, kind of sisterly. In a way, Paul, the wandering artist in the novel, is a healthy version of Vincent, a version that actually finds the things—love, art, peace—that Vincent so deeply and painfully longed for. I’m also obsessed with Odilon Redon, who is mentioned in the novel. John Singer Sargent, James Tissot, and Wassily Kandinsky are just a couple of other favorites of mine.

Do you have a favorite vampire pastiche, television show or movie? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

I really like the movie Only Lovers Left Alive, and I’m very excited to see Renfield, the new Vampire movie with Nicholas Cage and Nicholas Hoult. I will confess something to you that people will likely find horribly offensive coming from a vampire novelist: I have not consumed a ton of vampire media. In my research for the novel, I focused more on the history and lore of vampires, read lots of Montague Summers, than on the literature, and that was because I didn’t want to be reacting to other works and creating around them, at least not initially. I actually didn’t even read Dracula until after I had the first draft completed! But then it was really fun to go back and put little references and resonances in. Now that the book is done, I’m very enthusiastic to take in more vampire literature.

The only vampire work I’ve experienced that I did not like was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. I know it’s a cult classic, and I will just be pissing people off by saying this, but I found it way too cringy. And the sexuality is just drummed up to such an extreme that I think Bram Stoker, with his carefully repressed Victorian sensibilities, would have walked out of the theater just horribly embarrassed.

If you could, would you want to be immortal like Collette?

My feelings on immortality are pretty nearly coterminous with Collette’s feelings on the matter. It terrifies me. I too want an escape into oblivion, nothingness, just as she does, but when you think of it as a choice between everything forever and nothing forever, the choice of nothing forever does strike me as sad and cynical and also sort of as a symptom of senescence.

There’s a brilliant theologian, G.K. Chesterton, who gives this delightful description of God as being youthful, even childlike in his gameness, his inexhaustibility, his endless delight in everything good and beautiful. Chesterton speaks of how if you toss a child up in the air or delight them in any way, the instant and automatic refrain is again! They are absolutely tireless. They always have the room and the wonder and the energy for more, but as people age, that capacity and energy drains like an old crusty battery. I think it’s interesting that, in general, children fear death, but adults, as they age, increasingly accept death and switch to a fear of eternity.

God, Chesterton says, is almost certainly more like the child. When he makes a sunflower in some field in Nebraska, his delight in its beauty is so fresh and pure that his refrain is, just like the child, again! So that when we drive past a Nebraska field full as far as the eye can see with sunflowers, we are seeing the immortal youth of God, the inexhaustible capacity for delight. But we, the dying, are old and tired, and after one small excitement, we’re ready for bed. We drive past that field of sunflowers and quickly find it monotonous. That listlessness, fatigue, ennui, Chesterton would say that it’s a symptom of decay, decline. As a tired mother of two energetic children, with that contrast between youth and agedness on constant display, I would have to agree. Heaven, by Chesterton’s logic, could be thought of as a garden of delight, and us with the capacity at last to fully enjoy it forever. But most of us would find even that thought exhausting.

That death impulse, that lust for annihilation that creeps in with age, what Walker Percy called the Thanatos syndrome, it’s surprisingly seductive. I look around, and I see it growing in the world and even in myself, like a blight, like a poison vine choking out all else. We’re all so fixated on apocalypse these days (myself included), and some of that certainly is a protest, a resistance, but I wonder at times if there isn’t a kind of subtle beckoning in it as well: a “come global catastrophe, come zombie apocalypse, come and put us all out of our misery.”

Colette was infected with this Thanatos syndrome. It had nearly overtaken her, made a walking corpse of her, until she woke up and started fighting to feel and engage, to live, despite how much easier it is to just die.

So—to answer the question lol!—do I want to be immortal? The old, tired, dying part of me says, no way. Kill me now. But the indefatigable child buried somewhere beneath all the wrinkles and aches and weariness, whispers yes! Give me all of it, forever—but you must give me also the capacity for it. Give me back (or for the first time) my full appetite for wonder.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how vampires (and vampire-like characters) continue to influence and inspire contemporary authors?

I think literary tropes function much like poetic forms. They are a formal constraint that focuses the creative powers. When you write a sonnet, you don’t have to concern yourself with inventing a rhyme scheme. There is less that is open to choice, so what remains (how to rhyme the first line with the third for instance) becomes the focus of all the creative powers. Our creativity becomes laser-focused and laser potent, rather than improvisational and diffuse. Both artistic approaches have tremendous value (the later innovates and expands, the former deepens and refines). The vampire trope, or werewolf trope, or witch trope—any trope! Acts like that rhyme scheme, taking certain creative questions off the table and inviting deeper creative exploration in the areas that remain open to invention.

But why vampires in particular? Um, just cuz they’re fuckin cool! They’re the most emo of all monsters, and in many ways, I think they are the most human of all monsters. They are quite like regular people, just secretly a little more fucked up. I don’t know about you, but I immediately relate to that. They also have this blood lust that is horrifying, but also understandable. Everybody’s gotta eat! Slasher murderers are hard to empathize with; their motives are so pure and so bad. But the motives of blood drinkers invite wonderful ambivalence and nuance. They’re just so damn evocative!

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Ursula Leguin’s Three Hainish Novels, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Jaron Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I feel like Ray Bradbury is my most kindred authorial spirit. He’s a raving lunatic just like me, and his books are all just pure imagination. They’re a little sloppy even, in their feverish haste to grab every idea and sensation that flits through his head, but I am totally fine with that. I also adore the way he marries heavy, thoughtful concepts with gorgeous aesthetics. My experiences reading The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes stand out in my memory so clearly for the dreamy pictures they painted in my head, the atmosphere, the mystery, the heavy-ladenness of the images on the pages.

I have a recorded rant of his that he did for a documentary that I listen to whenever I need a kick in the writing pants, or even the living pants. He was in love with life and the world. Like Thoreau, he was determined to suck the marrow from the bones of life, and from what I can tell, he did.

From Dostoevsky, I gained the confidence to write with my natural intensity. His characters are always running around with rosy cheeks and burning eyes. They grab you by the lapels and spray spittle across your cheeks as they plead with you to just hear them out! They use so many exclamation points! I, myself, often feel a bit like a Dostoevsky character, and I might never have let that voice out in writing if not for his example. I also love that his books take on everything. They are tragic, deranged, funny, violent, rapturous, and philosophical. They cover religion and politics and small personal dramas. They are so incredibly ambitious and they inspire me to go big, just pack it all in without holding back.

On the stylistic side, I have long been so in awe of Dennis Johnson’s Jesus Son and Train Dreams. I just marvel at the spare poetic elegance of those novels. The stories feel like they are spun from the thinnest of spiderwebs, but, like poetry, they incite the imagination to see so much and dream and feel so much. Parts of them feel as much like music as anything else. I have always wanted to try my hand at writing something in that light minimalist style. I don’t know if I could pull it off though. I naturally lean a bit more toward dense prose, but I think it would be a great exercise.

Toni Morrison is probably the writer whose entire oeuvre I most admire. She followed her imagination, let it run wild, but also always had something hard and true to say. It seems to me, as time goes on, that writers have less and less to say. There is no shortage of stories, so many of them wonderful, but fewer authors seem to know what their stories mean, or else they intentionally don’t mean anything because what is meaning anyway? I have always taught my writing students, even in freshman comp, that every piece of writing should contain a gift for the reader, some valuable kernel that the reader will be glad to receive. I teach them that they, as the authors, need to know what that gift is that they are giving (if they don’t, the reader sure as heck won’t). It always felt to me like Morrison knew exactly what gift she was offering her reader should they be brave enough to take it.

There are plenty more, but I’m so long-winded, that I’ll stop at four!

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

Oh goodness, so much! Everything! I knew nothing about getting published. It’s actually really important to me to be a resource to pre-published writers. I prefer the phrase "pre-published" rather than like, say, "young writers" because I’m getting my first book published at 39! (which in my opinion is young, but not everyone shares my opinion) or "aspiring writers" which sounds so condescending. For now though, the most helpful things I think I can say are, write what excites you. Get good at taking feedback, but don’t compromise on your vision. Choose your agent almost as carefully as you would a spouse because it’s a long and important relationship and they really do leave their mark on your work as they advise you on how to get it into shape for putting in front of publishers. And finally, everything takes forever. Writing the book takes forever, revising takes forever, (selling, curiously, can happen super fast) but then getting paid takes forever, going to print takes forever. There are long periods of radio silence that can legitimately feel like a hazard to your sanity. Refuse to fret and don’t put things on hold! Don’t spend your life waiting, move forward with your life while the book process crawls along. And keep writing! Keep pursuing the joy of it! The joy of writing is what it’s all about, not the numbers, the reception, the whatever else! It’s like a marriage, nurture it. Keep it fun.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

There’s no way I could possibly choose one. I read everything from great children’s literature to plain trash. I read all of Nancy Drew mysteries, all of The Baby Sitters Club, all the Oz books, all the classics, all the Goosebumps books, Christopher Pike. Honestly, you name it, I read it. I suppose some that stand out, however, would be Harriet The Spy, which I recently reread and was even more blown away by, The Oz books, of which Ozma is undoubtedly the best, The Egypt Game, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Secret Garden, and Alice in Wonderland. I’m realizing, from this list, that I was clearly drawn to books where the child protagonist is thrown into or steals an adult-free space of autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency, a garden or hideaway where they not only survive, but thrive. Perhaps that is the most cherished fantasy of all children. Clearly it was mine.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

There really wasn’t. I look back on that, and I’m actually kind of amazed. I almost wished as a kid that my parents would have sheltered me more, not from books, but like, I remember being very young and my dad watching Jaws and Reservoir Dogs on the TV in the living room and I would be creeping along the edge of the wall trying not to see it because it was too scary or violent for me.

I think, ultimately it was a good strategy, even if it wasn’t at all strategic on their part. I’m particularly grateful that they didn’t shelter me from books or concern themselves with what I read. My parents had a lot of books around the house, popular fiction mostly, and a good amount of horror. I remember being very young and studying covers of Stephen King books like The Stand, The Drawing of the Three, and The Tommyknockers, and feeling simultaneously enchanted and terrified of what lay inside. Then later, when I was seven and eight, one way to feel very old and mature was to try to read their thick grown-up books. That was how I picked up and read my dad’s copy of Dean KoontzThe Mask and some Mary Higgins Clark murder mysteries. Looking back, I’m surprised my parents didn’t snatch those books out of my hand as inappropriate for such a young kid, but I think it was Judy Blume who said that the best way to get a child to want to read a book is to tell them they’re not yet old enough for it, so I’m sure I would have gotten my hands on the books even if they had, and they probably knew that.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

What a funny question! And there is! I was on a phone call, my first call actually, with Jen, my agent, and she compared a character in my novel to the titular character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Dostoevsky was already one of my favorite authors and for a few minutes, I played along as if I’d read the book and knew exactly what she was talking about, but then I finally confessed that I hadn’t read it. After that conversation, I immediately went and read The Idiot, and it is honestly one of the most influential books that I’ve ever read. The main character, Prince Lev Nikolayevich, is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and arresting characters in all of literature. Saints are very difficult to capture in a sympathetic way; they so easily come off as irritatingly superior. But Dostoevsky’s Prince is undoubtedly a saint and also a totally irresistible character. You can’t help but love him.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Oh, I buy lots of books for their covers! I’m helpless to resist a good cover.

Is there a book that changed your life?

C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. A school friend gave me that book when I was eighteen. I opened the cover, a very dark, probably rather frightening (I got much of my clothing at Hot Topic if that tells you anything) and proudly professed atheist and nihilist. I closed the book, a totally astonished and bewildered Christian. I felt like I’d been in a car wreck, it was all so disorienting. I’m not sure that a book could change a person more than that book changed me.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I push Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death on everyone I can. It’s brilliant and eerily prophetic. I regularly use the first chapters in my Freshman composition classes to teach students how to organize ideas logically in writing because it’s just so well written while also being a conceptual bulldozer of a book. My students always love it and often go on to read the rest of the book of their own volition.

Then there is Toni Morrison’s, Jazz, which is the most beautiful and profound marriage book I’ve ever read,Tender is the Night, comes in a close second) and I recommend it and give it to people all the time. And then, of course, Fahrenheit 451. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing right this very minute and go read it.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

My experience of reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was very pleasurable. I read the whole thing on a flight, and I had that feeling like, "okay, slow down. If you read it too fast, it’ll be over." And it’s something of a mystery, so it would be nice to get that feeling again of going through it for the first time. Plus the characters are so intoxicating. You feel like Nick in the Great Gatsby, just wondering how you worked your way into such wild, fascinating company.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I recently read Paula McLain’s Love and Ruin, about Hemingway’s affair and then marriage to Martha Gelhorn, or I should say, Martha Gelhorn’s affair and then marriage to Hemingway because she definitely steals the show in the book. I wasn’t sure for the first chunk of the book if I would like it, but at some point Gelhorn got her hooks in me, and I finally came to admire her so much. I was sad when that book ended and Gelhorn and I had to part ways.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

You’ve cut to the heart of my greatest struggle in life! Writing and reading are very time consuming activities, and I feel a constant angst in dividing my time between the two of them—and that’s before I even get around to spending time with my family! Or friends! Or doing any of the other normal things that normal people do! It’s just way too many slices in the tiny little pie chart of my waking hours!

So, my perfect day would involve a bit of magic, or some fiddling with the laws of space/time. On my perfect day, I would have one timeline where I sit and read all day with a pot of tea beside me that just automatically refills and I would feel absolutely no guilt for spending my whole day that way. In another timeline, I would write all day in some idyllic cabin in the woods and feel absolutely no guilt for spending my whole day that way. And in yet another timeline, I would be riding roller coasters on a summer day with my two sons and feeling absolutely no guilt for not writing that day. My husband, by the way, would be off at The Art Students’ League in Manhattan having his own perfect day painting from sunrise to sunset, so we wouldn’t see each other, but we’d understand. No conflict, no guilt. That would be the perfect day.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

For so many years, I labored in obscurity like all the other foolish, starry-eyed, first time novelists, so honestly, at this point, it’s amazing that anyone is asking me any questions at all. I’m still getting used to that, and I haven’t really had a chance to get picky. Plus you’ve asked basically all the good questions there are to be asked!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on too many things. I’m writing and revising some short stories. I’m working on some nonfiction, and I’m also working on another novel that once again seems to be heading in the four-hundred-page doorstop direction. My husband likes to suggest that I “consider writing a short book this time.” Heck, I would really like me to write a short book this time, but for now, the ideas I’m drawn to seem to be of the large and sprawling variety.

Book cover for The God of Endings
The God of Endings
Holland, Jacqueline