Q&A with PURE Author Julianna Baggott

Books GeekMom

The New York Times described Pressia, the main character of Julianna Baggott’s dystopian thriller, Pure, as “fearless, spirited, unflinching,” “a heroine for the video-game age.” Upon finishing the novel, School Library Journal reviewer Liz Burns tweeted that it was “so wonderful I feel sorry for whatever book I read next.” My sixteen-year-old daughter, who had the honor of being an early reader of the book (who, me jealous?), described it as “stunning, thought-provoking, gripping, fascinating, sad but ultimately hopeful, beautiful.”

Those are just a few of the glowing reviews garnered by Pure, a harrowing tale of life after the Detonations, both inside the Dome, where the unscathed Pures live under rigid order, and in the scarred, choked landscape outside, where Pressia–motherless, with a doll’s head actually fused to her hand–struggles for survival alongside her fellow Wretches.

As a longtime fan–and longtime friend–of Julianna Baggott, I was curious to know more about the story behind the story. Julianna obliged me with a bit of Q & A.

Melissa Wiley: First things first. Who’s on your personal post-apocalyptic survival team?

Julianna Baggott: Ryan Gosling. If you have to ask why, you don’t really understand the depth of possibilities and responsibilities this question proposes.

MW: Oh believe me, I understand. [Pauses to imagine post-apocalyptic Gosling fused centaur-like to the back of a horse, .] OK, next question. For world-building, do you write back-stories, draw maps, make collages? Do your walls/desk/wherever fill up with reference and/or inspirational images?

JB: I prefer a cluttered workspace. I nest. I tape things to walls. I have a cork board and I pin things to it. Maps, yes. I draw maps. I keep research books stacked up around me. I have my pads of large art paper with my plotlines mapped on them. I have bins for each project on my radar–from first notion to final edits in marked metal bins and I add slips of scrawled-on papers into them. I tally word counts sometimes. I tape sheets to the bookcases. Basically if you burst into my office the walls themselves will flutter as if alive–maybe that’s the reason for all the wings in Pure.

MW: So, the movie rights sold to Fox2000 before the novel was bought by a publishing house. Walk us through that process.

JB: I know I’m not going to get much sympathy here –I don’t feel sorry for myself (at all)–but the honest truth is that the process was agonizing. We had an offer from another studio. Things weren’t going well though. How can things not go well if you have an offer from a studio to buy film rights for a trilogy that hasn’t even yet sold to publishers? Well, it had never, ever dawned on me that things couldn’t go well at that point. But, turns out, they can. And the process was this. People had late night phone conversations on my behalf–LA time which means I was up until midnight to await the news. And the news seemed to entail I make a major decision before noon the next day. So I’d stay up with Dave, my husband and, really, my business partner too, and we’d try to hash it out. I’d barely sleep. At one point, I got all Southern about it and took to the bed, as my ancestors would have suggested. And then it would start again the next day. But then… Fox2000 swooped in and made an offer that worked. And peace and joy rang throughout, well, our living room and the kitchen. And I’m not ashamed to admit it: I cried–in front of the kids and my husband and the dogs. But not in front of the cat. He’d never respect me again. He barely respects me now.

MW: Tell us the story behind the story. What was the writing of Pure like for you? Did you know where it was going from the beginning? What changed along the way?

JB: I always think I know the way a novel will go. I write maps on oversized art pads like the kind I carried around in college when I was earnest about drawing. I need to have some idea of the shape of the novel, where its headed, so that I can proceed with confidence. But the truth is my characters start doing and saying things I don’t expect. The come up with memories, afflictions, attitudes, needs, desires, abiding longings and fears and so I have to make a new map to address these changes. Eventually, I make many maps and then abandon all maps and follow my characters–in a servile manner. Then I make new maps once more. But here’s the thing–and this is where a stubborn stupidity in a writer comes in handy–let’s call it blind confidence– I always believe that every map I write will see me through–down to the last word. It never does.

MW: You’ve written across so many genres and for a wide variety of audiences. Tell us what drew you to dystopian fiction or, if not what drew you in, what kept you rapt.

JB: I’m going to come at this question as a woman writer. I realize it’s dangerous to do so because I’m going to tread on some sexist stereotypes. But here goes. I was liberated by the idea of entering into the largely male-dominated themes of war and violence and horror. I’m not alone, of course. There are many women who’ve treaded in especially recently–both writers and readers. And the territory is becoming our own. Honestly, this question makes me want to talk about Salman Rushdie denigrating Jane Austen in a talk I heard a few years ago and about the brutality of domesticity as portrayed by the likes of Virginia Woolf and others. There’s a lot to say about all of this–women storming these particular gates of genre (post-apocalyptic, dystopian, horror, thriller…). But I haven’t yet sorted it all out, and, honestly, I don’t think I’m the best person to get at it. All I know is that it’s the first time I’ve really tackled such themes, ones that because they were more aligned with the writing of men, perhaps, became great American themes of literature. When I set out to write Pure, I didn’t realize how ambitious the project was, and yet once let loose, I fell deeply into the ash-choked world of my own making, and I hope readers follow me in that fall.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A with PURE Author Julianna Baggott

  1. Wow! I look forward to reading this – in fact, I’m off to add it to my Goodreads list right now 🙂

  2. What a wonderful interview Melissa.
    I, too, was lucky enough to read Pure early and inverview Julianna.
    This book is truly one of the greatest books I have read in years. And it has ruined me since as well (and I am a tough reviewer).
    I feel like throwing every book I read now towards the trash (but they’re ebooks, so I would suffer more than they) because nothing measures up.
    All writers should read this book as well. I felt I learnt more about pacing and the magic of writing from this one book than I could ever learn studying the craft.
    Thank you for such thoughtful questions.

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