Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #4: Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Jessica Maria Tuccelli (photo by Shirin Tinati)
Jessica Maria Tuccelli and I met when we were both undergraduates at MIT, living in the same dorm (Baker House).  We were both slight oddballs at MIT, interested in a bunch of different topics outside of engineering (but still pretty geeky, truth be told).  For me, it was writing, theatre, and filmmaking.  For Jessica it was anthropology and archaeology.  We remained friends after school, though we lived on different coasts.  When she moved back to New York, in addition to film work, Jessica got involved with theatre, doing acting and improv, and even directing one of my plays.  Then she started writing.  Her first novel, Glow, is just out from Viking, and it's wonderful--lovely and ambitious and deep.  She's also a new mother.  She's juggled a huge number of different professions and interests over the years (check out the list in this interview).  I asked her to spend a little time answering some questions about her book and her life.

First, thanks for taking the time to do this—I know it’s a crazy time with the book coming out right now.  What struck me first about Glow is the power of the language.  You’ve created a book that begs to be savored.  The voices are so distinct and powerful, and the images paint this lush Appalachian landscape, in several different eras.  You’ve worked a lot in film and photography, especially in lighting.  Did you draw on those experiences as you painted your mental picture of the world of Glow?

My pleasure, Pat. I’m so thrilled to collaborate with you again!

My dad gave me my first camera when I was eight, and I’ve been fascinated with lighting ever since, be it Stanley Kubrick’s Barry London (some of which was lit solely by candlelight), a photograph by Minor White (who taught at MIT!), or a chiaroscuro painting by Peter Paul Reubens. I don’t know exactly what it is about light that excites me—but the way it shapes or wraps around a landscape, object, or person and what it can reveal or hide has largely influenced my style in photography and film, and now in Glow, where ghosts slip in and out of shadows; the light of a streetlamp floods through a hole in the window of a darkened townhouse, illuminating broken glass strewn across the floor; and the youngest protagonist, Ella, has a vision in the middle of the night of her mother dying, surrounded by dancing speckles of light, just to share a few examples. My devotion to the nuances of light is directly connected to my ability and desire to paint a detailed verbal picture of the surroundings in Glow.

You also did some work as an actress when you moved back to New York.  How do think your acting work influenced your ability to write so distinctly in different voices?    (If it did at all.)

I love to listen to the tenor, pitch, and levels of a person’s voice as she speaks. I accessed this passion in my theatre work, especially in my one-woman shows, which were populated with multiple characters. I think this made for a relativity easy transition to writing in the first person point of view for Glow.  My acting skills facilitated my ability to embody the voice, character and spirit of the individual narrators in the novel, to keep their language distinct.

Everyone is going to ask you this, but I can’t help myself.  What was the spark that brought you to Persimmon and these characters?  Do you remember a specific inciting thought or moment?

Absolutely! One of the sparks was a last will and testament I had come across during my on-line research. Rabun County, Georgia maintains an extensive archive of its white settlers, including records of estates and wills. Of interest to me was the will of Samuel B., who had died in 1870 and left a 200-acre lot to one of his former slaves, Lucinda B., who alone “has staid with [him] since emancipation,” and her two children. Wanting to know if the land had been transferred to Lucinda and being curious about who lived upon the lot now, I contacted the Rabun County Historical Society and made an appointment to sift through their historical documents. That was the first of my many adventures in northeastern Georgia, and it stands out as the ignition that led me to this part of the South. Once I arrived there, I knew I had found the right setting for Glow. The land was lush and mountainous; the valleys filled with the flowers the likes of which I had never seen. It seemed the perfect place for living beings and ghosts to cohabitate, as they do in Glow. And so, I found my setting and my spark in the same place!

You’ve written five narrators, each with a very different voice.  And there is some great historical detail.  How did you keep track of it all while you were writing?  Were there tools or techniques that you found useful?  Tell me a little bit about how you approached the research?  I get sucked into research pretty easily--did you have to cut yourself off at some point?

I adore research too; learning about other cultures has always excited me. In fact, it’s one the reasons I write: it gives me an excuse to travel and learn something new.

I read a lot: History books, of course, and online data collections, including those of the Smithsonian and the U.S. Census Bureau; I read books about the times and of the times; I read cookbooks and newspapers and obituaries.

Basically, I kept three databases: a chronological one for my historical research, another for the events in Glow, and a third database which merged the first two, so that I could see where historical events and events in Glow aligned. In this way, I could guide my characters to behave in accordance to or against the laws and customs of the time. It also allowed me to ensure that I didn’t have any anachronistic objects in my scenes. Plus, I enjoyed setting up the databases. I guess it’s the nerd in me!

My approach to research is to physically absorb myself in it as fully as possible. For Glow, this included three summers hiking through the mountains of northeastern Georgia, spending time on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, talking to people in the regions I was exploring and listening to their stories. When it came to physical objects such as a Kentucky rifle, I went to antique shows in order to find one and handle it myself.  If it’s food, I ate it—luckily there is a lot of good food in Glow. I even put my favorite dessert in the novel, jelly-filled doughnuts.

When researching the book, you got to go on some pretty fun trips and adventures.  What were some of your favorite or more interesting experiences from the research process?

One of my favorite research experiences was soaring into the sky in a 1929 New Standard biplane, not dissimilar to the 1924 Jenny in Glow. The flight was amazing: the wind whips pretty fiercely around your head, and the heat from the prop is intense. I enjoyed having nothing separating me from the sky except the air, which made landing and take off particularly thrilling. Very unlike any other airplane experience I’ve had.

I also met many wonderful people during my research trips to Georgia such as Robert Murray of Mountain City. Known locally as “a living encyclopedia,” Robert was Appalachian-born and raised, and a teacher, former Marine, NSA agent, and curator at the Foxfire Museum. I spent much time at Robert’s side, soaking in as much as I could about the Appalachian people, whose culture and geography serve as templates for those in Glow. Robert passed away three years ago at the age of 54. Before I found out about his death, I had always imagined traveling back down to Mountain City and presenting him with a copy of my novel, a novel enriched by his storytelling and knowledge.

You worked on this book for a long time—when you started out, you weren’t a mother, but clearly motherhood, and the bond between mothers and daughters, is important to this book.  How do you think working through these themes might have affected your readiness to become a mother?   Does it affect the way you view parenthood now that you’re a new mom?

I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for becoming a mother. I’m still figuring it out!

I definitely have a lot more respect for parenthood now that I am a mom. And a lot more empathy for parents. I used to be one of those people who grumbled about the crying baby in the airplane, and now I totally get it. Babies cry, it’s what they do, and you do your best to figure out why and remedy the situation. That’s my inner airplane sound track now!

As parents we are solely responsible for this little person, every facet of her life is in our hands, and I can’t think of anything weightier. The depth of this responsibility began the minute I found I was pregnant, and has only grown. I’m hoping that as I mature as parent and my daughter’s independence grows I will mellow out a bit. There is hope for me!

The last two years have been quite dramatic—you had a pretty big year last year—you landed an agent, a book contract, gave birth to your daughter, and had to undergo the editing process for Glow, which is never easy, but can be especially challenging for such a rich and complex story.  Your husband, Joel, was starting up a new food company, Fig Food Co.  That’s a lot all at once.  How did you/do cope and juggle it all?  

It was a lot at once, and still is. The whole experience: a new baby, a new book, and a new business (or baby, book and beans, as we like to say), really threw us off balance. We are two passionate and social people who enjoy each other, our vocations and our avocations, and (before the baby) freedom from time limitations. Spontaneity was integral to our life style. For me, it was a difficult transition to give up that spontaneity. That being said, Joel and I are very fortunate to have professions that allow us to create our own schedules and co-parent. I still don’t feel I have the right balance yet; I want more time with my family and more time to work and play, but I know from speaking with other working parents, that this is a common experience. For me, the key to balance is prioritizing what is most important and giving my attention to those pursuits, and setting aside the rest of the list for the moment. At least that is my working theory.

I know you’re caught up in the whirlwind of this book right now, but what’s next for you?  Another book?  Work on a film?  (Visiting your friends in Boston?)  When I was a new parent, I found that suddenly it was impossible to write about parenthood for a little while, because my perspective was changing so quickly.  I’m curious to see what themes/topics you tackle next.
Much of Glow is written from the child’s perspective, and I’m still fascinated with that perspective. Currently, I’m working now on a story about an Irish-American family of five: four children (one sister, three brothers), a mom, and a father who has passed away. Coincidentally, the spark for this story came from a visit to the Boston Common, where I stumbled over a dead bat that was squirming alive with maggots. Now there’s an image! I’m also working on a feature length script that takes place in Rome about a music teacher—an American man who survived the Battle of the Bulge, freed the Jews at Bergen-Belsen, studied cello under Pablo Casals—and his student, a young Italian girl. I’m not certain which project will win my attention, but I expect to find out when I return from my book tour and have more time (oh there’s that luscious commodity again), to dream, dwell, and write.

Thanks, Jessica!

You can read more about Jessica and Glow at her web site at

Next Wednesday, I'll talk with Stephanie Alison Walker about her book and blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, and her experiences as a playwright and mother.

1 comment:

Diana Renn said...

Great interview, and I'm very excited about this book! (We also eat Fig soups. Talented family!)