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Pam Jones

Author Pam Jones 

Author Pam Jones 

Drunk Monkeys staff writer Sean Woodard had the opportunity to speak with author Pam Jones in conjunction with his review of her latest book, Andermatt County: Two Parables. A native of Connecticut, Jones studied Creative Writing at Hampshire College. She now lives in Texas, where the fictional Andermatt County of her work is located. Pam has previously published the novella “The Biggest Little Bird” through 1888. Her latest short story, “Translations,” is featured in the Spaceboy Books anthology BONED: Every Which Way, 2017. Join us as we discuss Andermatt County’s Southern Gothic charms.

Please introduce yourself and Andermatt County: Two Parables to our readers.

I’m not a native Texan, for starters. I’m from New England, having grown up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. My husband and I came down to Austin in 2013. 

I think Andermatt County carries some of the North in it. New England is very haunted and coexists with the ghosts; people live in houses that were built in the 1600s, and you’ll find an 18th century cemetery next to a CVS. Andermatt County is set in the Texas Hills, where there’s an undulating landscape, lots of green and flowers in spring that wither to the spindly stuff underneath. You’ll find boar carcasses on a picnic. People collect deer skulls and do a lot of taxidermy. 

Could you describe your writing process for Andermatt County? How did you formulate and approach both novellas in the collection?

Both were written very quickly, almost in a frenzy. I love it when it’s in a frenzy. I would always have something to add, every day of the process, even if it was only a hundred words. Happy Birthday, Dear Bitsy  was written first, as a novella. Ye Shall Be As Gods was written maybe five months later, initially as a short story, which appeared in Boned: A Collection of Skeletal Fiction

Both ideas started incubating on car rides, to and from where I worked at the time. I would pass through a stretch of country where the railroad runs and where there’s an oil rig. Also, there used to be a tiny funfair out in this part, with a merry-go-round and a petting zoo. It looked very out of place. I had been driving past this funfair for months before I noticed it, and it took me by surprise. Unfortunately, it was torn down in the last year. That set things up for Gods. Bitsy came from a ride further out into the Hill Country; in the spring, there are a lot of flowers, bluebonnets and so on. But under the bluebonnets, there’s always something unsightly: a skull, and a vulture circling high above the bluebirds to pick it clean. 

While reading, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia. Maybe it was because I love period coming-of-age stories. You imbue “Ye Shall Be Gods” and “Happy Birthday, Dear Bitsy” with so much period detail — Sears & Roebuck catalogs, food recipes, drive-in theater film screenings —  that it sucks the reader into that late ’50s, early ’60s time period. How much research informed your development of your fictional county and how it fit into this timeline and what made this time in particular perfect for these stories?

I grew up watching a lot of movies from that era. I guess the ‘50s and early ‘60s was the golden age of musicals. When you grow up with something, it’s easy to just absorb it. And of course, I relied on good old Wikipedia, which led to articles, and on Youtube, which led to commercials from the era and those crazy old etiquette films with titles like “Arranging the Tea Table” or “How to Be Well Groomed”. I also read Elizabeth Winder’s book, Pain, Parties, Work, which detailed Sylvia Plath’s summer interning at Mademoiselle magazine; this was particularly helpful because it got into the details of 1950s culture, from the overall social climate  to how a woman was expected to dress for an office job. 

“Happy Birthday, Dear Bitsy” and “Ye Shall Be Gods” are so different in terms of narrative —  one’s about a doll-themed birthday party gone horribly wrong, the other about a young boy who is practically adopted by a serial killer — but they both feel thematically and tonally related by a sense of macabre.

Yes. Though the difference to the macabre is in attitude. Bitsy is about getting to know that darkness within and growing comfortable with it, if only to acknowledge that you, like everyone, have something inside that’s a little off. Gods is about succumbing to that inner darkness, to the point where you are unable to think of it as darkness anymore, where you are so far gone that you have rationalized it and justified it. Rex Henry is absolutely shaken when he realizes, at last, that what he is doing is totally wrong. Esther, however, knows her limits; she is curious about the world around her and wants to know how it’s put together. Unlike Rex Henry, she has no ambitions to take it apart. 

Although some people might point out similarities to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, I feel Andermatt County possessed a closer kinship with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy through the following criteria:

1) The relationship between Catholicism and violence

2) A certain Grace that extends beyond the violence that defines your characters

3) A sense of foreshadowing of the sinister in your work which adheres to the Southern Gothic tradition of pairing these two themes.

Taken as a whole, Andermatt County can be described as a work searching for the sacred among the beauty of the profane. Can you elaborate on how you incorporated these traits into your stories?

Unlike Flannery O’Connor, I did not grow up Catholic. I was raised a Bible Student (to whom Catholicism is considered unsavory, even a little treacherous) and in my teens tried exploring my Jewish roots. Now, I’m not really anything. I’m on the outside looking in, and when you’re looking in, you tend to be a little more fascinated by the rituals and imagery. All those paintings depicting the trials of the saints are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. You can almost ignore the fact that you’re looking at someone getting her teeth pulled out or her breasts crushed. Indeed, with the very symbol of Christianity, you’re wont to forget that what you’re looking at is a form of execution, suffered horribly by many. 

Your protagonist Emmett in “Ye Shall be Gods” appears to initially only see himself as being defined by those people in relational proximity to him —  his Aunt, Rex Henry, Magical, and others —  but he has knowing himself outside of those terms until the end of the text . In contrast, Esther in “Happy Birthday, Dear Bitsy” is defined by her character quirks —  collected squirrel skulls and bugs, a sense of mischievousness. How did you grapple with building these and other main characters in your work? What about them made you want to tell their stories?

I think just remembering who I was as a kid and who I was as a teenager. When I was a kid, I was very much in my own little world, I had my own ideas of how things worked and could accept big changes as a matter of course. I wasn’t touched very deeply by other people, I could sit back and experiment with behavior, I guess, to see what everyone else thought of it. Then, when you’re a teen, everything hits you like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, you’re grasping for your scaffolding. I fell in love for the first time as a teen; when it ended, I thought I would die. I tried to find faith all throughout my teens; when I lost it, I thought I would die. There’s this awful desperation to BE something at that age, the hugeness of consequence, whereas when you’re five, six, seven, you’re a-okay just learning as you go. 

You repeat the phrase, “What is the difference between a thing that is quiet and a thing that is ordinary?” in “Ye Shall Be Gods.” Likewise, you use the metaphor of dolls losing their veneer —  even exploding and shattering into little pieces in a specific scene —  to reveal the brokeness in human individuals hiding behind outward appearances in “Happy Birthday, Dear Bitsy.” Would you say these are the central lessons or constructs behind the parable aspect of Andermatt County?

I don’t know about brokenness, exactly. I thought the “quiet” in that phrase to mean “extraordinary”. The extraordinary can be maimed, it can be, at the same time, the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. It something that’s strong enough to stick with you, if you’re willing to look, but something that doesn’t feel the need to show itself too much. I just finished reading Saint Therese of Lisieux’s memoir, The Story of a Soul. I’m currently working my way through Saint Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Both revolve around the idea of outwardly living simply, but maintaining a rich inner life. 

In both novellas, the central conflict between each protagonist (Emmett and Rex Henry, Esther and her Mother) is a power struggle that overall changes them. What do you feel is the most important things the characters learn (or don’t learn) about themselves?

Consequence, ultimately. They are at a point at which they are learning the power of what they can do. Esther is at the beginning, and she at that point at which she wants to know how the world is put together. Emmett, though he won’t admit it until it’s too late, wants to know how to take it apart. Both, I think, are realizing that they don’t need a big, divine hand to set a new course for themselves and others. They are perfectly capable of doing it themselves. For better or for worse. 

What do you hope readers will take away from Andermatt County: Two Parables?

Know the value of knowing yourself, good and bad. Don’t allow someone else to decide what will happen to you. You have your own divinity. As a shy person, this is something that’s easy for me to forget. I have to step back and return to the center to remember the importance of the things I do/don’t do. 

You previously published a novella called the The Biggest Little Bird through 1888. Andermatt County is released through April Gloaming, which features illustrations by Drew Holden. How has the process been working with small independent presses and the community of support they provide for independent authors?

It’s been fun, very personal. I can work closely with everyone involved and not feel like I have to go through a gatekeeper. They are as enthusiastic about the work and about literature as I am, and are happy to take risks on something that a bigger publishing house might not. 

What current writing projects are you working on?

Right now, I’m working on two projects, one of which I’m hoping will be released through Spaceboy Books sometime in the next year or so. That project is sci-fi-ish, with a focus on celebrity and immortality. The second is another Andermatt County story, set a few years later and about the idea of being outside and looking in. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Many thanks to you, Sean, and to Drunk Monkeys!