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In October 2009, TNB contributor Matt Baldwin emailed me to say that a good friend of his from college, another writer, was moving to Portland and she and I may hit it off. Thus was my first introduction to Jen Violi, who not only became my fast friend, but also became a great source of inspiration for my own writing.  Jen is one of the most hilarious and loving people I’ve ever met in my life, and she approaches writing from this angle as well, which I discovered when I had the pleasure of attending one of her workshops. (Jen also offers writing coaching and sundry other services related to writing. She’s one of those mythical beasts who actually butters her bread through writing.)

On May 24 of this year, Jen’s first novel, Putting Makeup on Dead People, was released. Putting Makeup on Dead People follows Donna Parisi, a young woman on the brink of her high school graduation.  Donna is a girl many young woman can relate to, even those who haven’t lost a parent or who haven’t decided to rebel by attending mortuary college. She struggles with questions many of us faced or will face about the future – especially about what kind of person we ultimately want to become while trying to balance what our loved ones hope for us. Written with heart and great humor (there are many riotous moments in this book), Putting Makeup on Dead People takes the reader on a slow walk through the twilight days of high school, and into the dawn of adulthood.

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Jen top discuss writing, YA fiction, and her new novel.

Gloria Harrison: What was the inspiration for your book?

Jen Violi: Well, the biggest inspiration was my dad. The book is dedicated to him. Like Donna, the protagonist, I lost my dad right as I started high school. Experiencing such a profound loss as a fourteen year old put grief and death front and central for me at a pivotal time. Since then, I’ve spent lots of time reflecting upon that loss, learning about my own grief, and finding ways to come to some sense of peace with it and some sense of ease in moving through the inevitable cycles of life and death and life again. So of course, all of this showed up in my writing, my primary form of artistic expression. I loved short story cycles and felt sure that’s the kind of book I would write about it–a cycle of stories, fiction, exploring loss of a father and transformation of grief.

Did you, too, explore a career in the mortuary arts?

No, I didn’t! But as I started writing, my character told me she wanted to become a mortician.  And who am I to say no? I’m just the writer.

What did you do to research the book, as much of it talks in depth about burial rights and practices and humane treatment of death, much of it in the context of the funeral business. I’d like to hear about how you researched the other stuff, too, like the witchy aunt.  (I’ll pretend like I don’t know you and know that you’re pretty good-witchy yourself.)

Almost as soon as Donna told me she wanted to be a mortician, one of the students-Suzanne- I used to work with in campus ministry told me she was starting mortuary school. So I just started asking her questions and she was happy to be a resource for me – sharing her notes from class, answering things like “what does that smell like?” and “what color is embalming fluid?” She was so gracious and generally awesome about it! Also, from my end, I spent a lot of time at funeral homes growing up. In addition to losing my dad, I had numerous other losses, more it seemed than usual for most of my friends. So funeral homes were also very present in my consciousness. Oh, and as for Witchy aunt, well, I’ve done some Witchy studies myself and find great wisdom in earth religions. Donna had such big questions about life and belief and meaning that I think she beckoned an Aunt Selena out of the ether.

Is it like in a dream – where you’re everyone in your dream? You’re Donna, and your mom, and aunt Selena? They’re all aspects of yourself? I’m talking process here because it fascinates me.

Oh, that’s a really good way to put it. I would say that yes, all of the characters are aspects of myself. Dear old friends from Dayton said that they’re referring to the characters as “All the Jens.” Which sounds creepy. And funny. And true.

How much of your own personal experience with loss went into sculpting the character of Donna?

All of my emotional experience of loss went in to crafting Donna. While there are certainly echoes of my personal experience, the book is a novel; it is fiction. So the story is Donna’s. And it is true for me. As I hope it rings true for many people. Tim O’Brien talks about story truth versus actual truth in his brilliant book, The Things They Carried. He writes about how it doesn’t matter what exactly happened, but rather if it is true. Of course he writes it a lot better than I just said it.

I love that story.

I know. Brilliant, right? He also has a character, Tim, in “The Lives of the Dead,” who flashes back to his younger self at one point.  This story comes on the heels of Tim narrating all kinds of other losses and death he’s experienced since childhood, in Vietnam and elsewhere.  This one paragraph always sticks with me:  ” . . . sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Although of course with an entirely different context, this excerpt expresses how I feel about Putting Makeup on Dead People, as though the writing of it was Jen trying to saving Jenny’s life with a story.

I’d now like to ask you a bit about how your book came to be a young adult (YA) novel. There’s a whole story there; didn’t it start out as adult fiction? Are satisfied with it being YA in the end?

I think mostly what I had to get over is that I had written something I thought was done, something I was proud of, something I’d had a particular vision for. Hearing that it might work best as something else was pretty alarming. But as in good fiction, the unexpected in real life can lead to good stories. Like taking a wise suggestion and insight and doing a major rewrite and submitting a manuscript and having two offers from publishers all in the course of four months. Unexpected turns can lead to exciting places.  As for the “is YA credible literature?” thing, I mostly roll my eyes at that. Good stories are good stories. Well told stories are well told stories.

Ha! Four months?! Wow. You must have just buried yourself in that thing. What major changes had to happen with the original manuscript in order to bring more into the YA parameters?

Well, I needed a whole new outline, basically.

Oh. Just that.

Well, part of what made that revision work is that I had already spent several years with the characters, so I knew them well and could salvage some beloved scenes, but definitely had to give up others.

Kill your darlings…

Yes, with the cold, cold delete button.

Stupid delete button. Wish it worked with romance. And finances.

Ha! Yes, for real.

I don’t want to leave the subject of YA yet. I would like to take this in one final direction. Recently, on Twitter, author Lish McBride linked to an article that’s basically a blogger blasting The Wall Street Journal for printing a report on YA and how it’s dangerous for kids. What do you need to know to write a book for young people who aren’t quite kids and aren’t quite adults? What did you read as a young person?

I think it means just the simple thing that my agent explained to me when he first brought up YA – that it basically just needs a main character who is a young adult. Otherwise, I think writing a YA book is like writing any other book – you write the best book you can. You write it honestly, you edit it fiercely, you pour your heart into it. When I was officially a young adult, I read everything I could get my hands on, from fairy tales to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle to the Bronte sisters. And I loved stories that made me laugh and made me cry and surprised me and felt honest and not preachy.

The WSJ article lambasted YA novels – specifically dark ones that are trending: vampires, zombies, etc. I think a lot of YA is getting darker, or more serious, or, maybe, more honest. There’s a scene in your book where your main character, Donna, gets a hand job in the back of a car. Which I’m for – both for you writing it and for it happening. I’m pro hand jobs! But I’m not sure that Blume would’ve written that. I’m also not sure what was actually available for youth in an earlier era. I’d like your thoughts on this – on how YA is changing and evolving.

First, we must work on getting you a shirt that says, “I’m pro hand jobs.” Some thoughts, perhaps not particularly coherent, but we’ll see how they come out: I think that writing gratuitous anything, just for the sake of gratuitousness is kind of juvenile and not very interesting to me – stories with gratuitous violence or sexualization or yelling or swimming or blueberry picking are not really good stories. I guess I should be clear that by gratuitous, I don’t mean a lot, I mean an amount that takes away from a good story being told. Good stories could have a lot of those things if they are in line with, organic to, honest for, the story.

There are never too many blueberries, Jen.

Well, you have a point.  As to that scene with Donna, to me, it felt like a real moment and one narrated in Donna’s real voice.  She’s a character who’s hyper aware of herself and who’s fascinated with bodies.  Something big happened with hers right then, and she wanted to describe it.  I suppose my biggest belief/opinion around all of this is that a good story is a good story. And I think exploring “darkness” is vital, especially for teenagers. My friend & fellow YA writer Lena Roy wrote about this, and I could just as easily say, “What she said.”

So good = honest.

I’m pretty sure that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, addresses the idea that if you want to write and never think about an audience then you don’t really want to be a published writer (he also might yell at me for that adverb). I do think some thinking about an audience is helpful and mostly in terms of what makes a good engaging story. If something – violence, sex, or excessive blueberry picking – is getting in the way of a fluid plot or isn’t honest for the character, etc. then it’s getting in the way of a good story than can reach a reader. I might be convoluting things.

Great advice. You’ve said it beautifully.

And we all can reach readers in different ways. I think maybe what’s most important for me is story as medicine – writing the kinds of stories that can create movement and healing, wherein redemption is possible. Good lord – you ask really great questions. You’ve got my brain and heart and spirit all ridiculously engaged and wrestling with all of this stuff.

And you give great answers! Thank you for this. And thank you for taking the time tonight to answer my questions.

I love to talk about all of this. I’m grateful for you spending your time with me!

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Gloria Harrison GLORIA HARRISON is a writer whose work has been featured on The Nervous Breakdown, Fictionaut, and This American Life. Gloria was the lead editor for The Portland Red Guide: Sites & Stories of Our Radical Past by Michael Munk, which was published through Ooligan Press in 2007. She was also a contributing editor to Pete Anthony's book, Immaculate, for which she received a high five and a ten dollar gift card to Stumptown Coffee. Gloria graduated from Portland State University with her B.A. in English in 2006 and now focuses on her own writing. She had a work of flash fiction published in The Bear Deluxe Magazine (No. 26). You can follow her on Twitter here.

Gloria lives in Portland, Oregon with her school-age twin boys. She is currently working on both a memoir and her first novel. You can contact Gloria via her Facebook page.

44 Responses to “Putting Makeup on Dead People: An Interview With Jen Violi”

  1. amanda says:

    Love it! Wonderfully executed on both of your parts. And might i add my own plug: “Read This Book!”

    xoxo

  2. New Orleans Lady says:

    “As for the ‘is YA credible literature?’ thing, I mostly roll my eyes at that. Good stories are good stories. Well told stories are well told stories.” I couldn’t agree more.

    Jen, you make me smile and I am so excited for you. Congratulations!

    G, you’re good at the interviewing thing. I know first-hand about your peircing questions that leave the mind reeling. You make it hurt so good. (I just snorted a laugh.)

    Also, I’m pro hand jobs, too and love t-shirts. Just sayin’…
    <3

    • James D. Irwin says:

      It’s all to do with unnecessarily labelling literature as this or that or the other. If they were just books that younger people were more likely to enjoy it wouldn’t be an issue.

      ”that it basically just needs a main character who is a young adult”

      which would make The Catcher in the Rye a YA novel, right? Or Huck Finn for that matter.

      Man, I hate labels *flies into non-conformist rage*

      • Jen Violi says:

        Yes, James–so much unnecessary labeling. I hear you on the rage front.

        One might say the YA label exists because young people most want to read about other young people, people like themselves. But that does not explain me as a young adult wanting to read about old quirky writers living in the woods or fairy queens riding unicorns–okay, maybe it does.

        Anyway, I think what I’m trying to get at is that some of the greatest fun of reading fiction is having a mirror held up to my own humanity, especially by a character that seems not at all like me–a Vietnam Vet named Tim, for instance.

    • Jen Violi says:

      Ashley, you make me smile, too–and thank you! That Gloria is really good at interviewing and making it hurt so good–I am also laughing, although not snorting.

      And okay, T-shirts, all around!

  3. dwoz says:

    That’s something that I don’t know anything about, too. What kinds of constraints and changes would you have to make to convert a novel into a YA novel?

    I always assumed you’d have to tone down or chop any sexuality or sexual violence…anything else?

    • Jen Violi says:

      In terms of “the market,” I truly think all you need is a young adult protagonist (and a good story).

      There are lots of examples of sexuality and violence uncut in what currently falls under the YA label. While I haven’t read the series, I know Gossip Girl falls into the first category, and the amazing Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins falls into the second.

      • dwoz says:

        Apparently my understanding is even worse than I thought.

        So body functions are in play! I guess it’s naive to think that today’s teen doesn’t have daily exposure to sexual themes.

        I wonder what other assumptions I’ve made, might be completely unsupported? One example of why I had that assumption about sex and depictions of sex, was a comment from a reader of my own manuscript, (she) commented that certain aspects of my female character (that has an underlying sexual theme) and some characters that have peppery language traits, would eliminate any MARKETING to readers under, say, 18 yrs old.

        May I take your comment to mean that she is incorrect about that?

        • Jen Violi says:

          David, my guess would be that yes, she is incorrect.

          I will say, though, that depending on what the content is, it might pose some marketing challenges as well as possibly some earlier in the process (agent, editor). I’ve already gotten some reviews from readers who don’t feel comfortable with the sexual content in my book, and I’m sure that could mean that some librarians and some booksellers might feel the same. Same goes for your work.

          For some great perspective and good company as you work on your own book (it sounds like you do have a young adult protagonist–i.e. aged 12 or 13 to 20ish), I definitely recommend going to the library and asking a reference librarian to help you select a handful of YA novels with themes similar to those in your novel.

          Also, I’m totally co-opting the phrase “peppery language traits” and will use that liberally to describe many of my friends :) .

  4. Great interview, Gloria. And great writing advice, Jen. I can’t wait to read your book!

    • Jen Violi says:

      Gloria is a masterful interviewer! And thank you, Tawni–can’t wait for you to read it, too!

      • Gloria says:

        In addition to my I’M PRO HAND JOBS shirt, can I have one that also says INTERVIEW MASTER?

        • dwoz says:

          The only problem I see is the need for impeccable specificity of punctuation, to solve the dilemma of the shirt being mis-read as PRO-fessional, instead of PRO-i.e. “for”.

          Come to think of it, expressing ambivalence, as in “I’m pro/con hand jobs” could be wildly misinterpreted amongst the incarcerated population.

          I love how sloppy English is.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Yay! Two of my favorite people in one post!

    Great interview – both of you. Gloria does ask good questions. This was fun to read.

    The YA kerfluffle is an interesting one, to me. Perhaps, in part, because I live in Texas (home to the country’s most infamous State Board of Education) and I work for the state’s ACLU affiliate, which publishes an annual report (during Banned Books Week) on books that have been banned from various schools and libraries in the state.

    Irwin brings up an interesting point – if the criteria for publishing a work as YA literature is having a young adult protagonist, then what does that do for the likes of “Catcher in the Rye”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (even younger than YA – a child), “The Secret Life of Bees”, or other books that have not, to my knowledge, been labeled YA?

    I agree with Jen that the first consideration of any book – no matter how it is classified – is that it is a good story. Good stories are good stories. But the YA designation seems to be a better marketing classification than it is a set of criteria by which a particular work is classified.

    YA literature is indeed exploring dark themes these days. I dismiss much of the “Twilight” and similar stuff (I haven’t read it so that may not be fair, but a person has only so much time) as your typical good girl-bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold-teen-girl-sex-fantasy. I mean, who doesn’t want to be fought over by a vampire and a werewolf?

    Aside from the thinly disguised sex fantasy stuff, there are YA books about incest, rape, cutting, molestation – a far cry from Judy Blume or even Madeline L’Engle. And yet, all children’s literature (all the good stuff anyway) has had a good dose of the darkness, ambiguity and evil that pervades the world. Since the beginning of time, we have prepared children (and adults) to make their way in an uncertain world through stories. Joseph Campbell and the Heroes Journey and all that good stuff. Sugar-coating it or “protecting” our children from it works about as well as abstinence-only sex education. Which, for anyone not paying attention, doesn’t work.

    I could go on and on. I love this stuff. But I am preaching to the choir, so I will stfu :)

    Congrats on the book, Jen! Great to see you here :)

    • Gloria says:

      Or, for that matter, what does that broad description do for Lolita or Lord of the Flies?

      • Cheryl says:

        I am also thinking about my high school class reading lists (as much as I can remember), where we were reading works not written for a particular age group, and you don’t see any NYT articles condemning kids reading those books. And those are “adult-themed” books (gasp!)

        I think I read Lord of the Flies in my 9th grade English class. It may have even been 8th grade. As far as I can remember, no one in my class paraded around with a pig’s head on a stick as a result of reading the book.

        • Gloria says:

          We obviously went to two different high schools.

          I’ve been thinking for two days of the books that we could add to the not head in the sand YA category. The Outsiders comes to mind. Man, that book… That movie…

          And yes to children not being criticized for reading adult books. I read Carrie when I was 12 and went into a deep, deep Stephen King phase. Ditto with Poe. Neither of those two fine writers write warm and fuzzy. And look how well adjusted I am now!

          I guess the point seems to be that YA books target youth – like Joe Camel adds, they aim to seek out our impressionable young people and get them addicted to vice as early as possible in some sort of cradle-to-the-grave marketing strategy. Why, without these books, I’m positive kids wouldn’t have sex or take drugs or run with rough crowds!

    • dwoz says:

      Completely agree.

      My question about the sex themes wasn’t based on the idea that kids wouldn’t read them…I mean, all you really have to do is tell a teen “this book isn’t for you because it has some sex themes in it.” and they’ll have their nose in page 277 before you can say “time to turn off the lights and go to bed!”

      The question really only has relevance in the sense of how it is accepted for marketing…which sounds like I’m just double-speaking myself to death, but I think you know what I mean.

      Here also, I’m not talking about the inclusion of gratuitous material, though the same standard applies, I don’t doubt.

      • Cheryl says:

        I knew what you were getting at with your question, and the marketing aspect of it is confusing. Jen’s advice to read some YA titles with themes similar to your manuscript is good. You might also make note of who is publishing those titles.

        I’m grumpy now cos I read that WSJ report on YA from the link in the interview and it pissed me off. At the end of the day, conversations between parents and their kids is what is being left out of the equation. Censorship (parental or otherwise) is stupid. You wanna know why your kid is reading a book about a teenage gay vampire who was molested by a werewolf and by cutting himself was transported to an alternate universe where he is forced by owls into a fight to the death with his own sister, who he ends up having sex with? 1) read the goddam book; and 2) have a fucking conversation with your kid about it. Like, a real conversation. You might learn something.

        This is not directed at at you, dwoz, or anyone on this board. I just felt a rant coming on and went with it!

    • Jen Violi says:

      Cheryl, thank you for such thoughtful comments and for the congrats! You are lovely, and I wish we were at a picnic table to discuss this.

      And this paragraph?? “And yet, all children’s literature (all the good stuff anyway) has had a good dose of the darkness, ambiguity and evil that pervades the world. Since the beginning of time, we have prepared children (and adults) to make their way in an uncertain world through stories. Joseph Campbell and the Heroes Journey and all that good stuff. Sugar-coating it or “protecting” our children from it works about as well as abstinence-only sex education. Which, for anyone not paying attention, doesn’t work.” Yes, yes, yes to the yes! The only thing I really know how to do is make my way through an uncertain world through stories. And I guess I make a pretty great red sauce. But just those two. xo

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Gloria-

    Fun interview- Jen’s enthusiasm and sincerity really shine through and are quite refreshing. I continue to find myself fascinated with the YA culture and the views both inside and outside. Our own Sean Beaudoin has carved quite an illustrious career in that genre, which I’ve come to see can be just as sharp and relevant as any conventional “adult” lit.

    Great job to both of you for a readable and insightful interview.

    Oh, and as far as corpses go, I’m a vegetarian, so I avoid them.

    • Jen Violi says:

      Joe, thank you for this–much appreciated! “YA world” is definitely a fascinating one, and I have to tell you, as I meet more and more YA authors, they just happen to be some of the warmest, funniest, most genuine people I know and are so great about supporting each others’ work.

      Also, side note, if “cow corpse” was written on menus, I wonder what that would do to order stats.

  7. jmblaine says:

    i love the little skating story
    once after
    yet another
    concussion
    & a fever dream
    I saw my sweetheart
    ice skating on the lakes of heaven
    she was old yet young
    at the same time.

    I can’t explain it.

    Writerly people, so sweet.

  8. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Nice to read an interview between two people who seem to share the same kind of lively spirit and love for writing. I’m glad to hear her cite O’Brien too, whose explorations into “story truth and actual truth” had a huge impact on my own writing, and even casual storytelling for that matter.

    And kill your darlings with that cold, cold button is a point I’m again glad to be reminded of. No matter how many times I hear such advice, I still find myself intent on trimming down yet saying “Certainly that can’t apply to this lovely passage.”

    • Jen Violi says:

      Nathaniel, Gloria is a lively creature and I find such joy in our shared love of words. Very few people more fun to chat with–in person, online, while looking at human brains in formaldehyde.

      Also yes on the O’Brien–I feel like I’m constantly referencing “story truth” and “actual truth”–such a power insight.

      And, in summation, we will delete our lovely passages in solidarity. Many thanks for reading and chiming in here!

  9. Jessica Blau says:

    Excellent interview–what an engaging conversation!

    So glad you are Pro-Handjobs!

  10. Laura says:

    Loved reading this, Gloria! It has piqued my interested in reading the novel, yet I am not considered a “YA”. (I hate labels too, Irwin!)

  11. Thomas says:

    I’m with James on the whole genre label thing. Why does something have to be labeled “crime fiction” or “horror” unless the story itself isn’t good enough on its own to deserve publication? Let’s be realistic, here. Most genre fiction only gets read because certain readers will read anything if it has a vampire in it. Or a hard-boiled detective. Or spaceships. Whatever.

    However, I think YA might be a bit different in that, depending on the target age, you’re probably going to town down the cursing and the sex. Interesting how the young adults themselves don’t tone down cursing or sex in real life, though.

    Excellent interview, Gloria and Jen.

    • Jen Violi says:

      Thomas, thank you for reading and commenting and jumping in the genre discussion–certainly a rich topic.

      Just had a conversation with a friend this morning about teens really appreciating writers not toning things down for them or really talking down to them in any way. At least I know what I (as a teenager and well, now) appreciated most was writing that met me where I was and invited me to stretch myself beyond that.

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Hey – great interview! I like “All the Jens”. Good stuff and I will be on the lookout for the book!

  13. Love this conversation! Good job Gloria and Jen. I have a feeling what I’m just finishing up might be thought of as YA because the narrator is young, so I found the genre discussion particularly insightful. But, hey, don’t forget Judy Blume’s Forever. It helps to have had a bad-girl friend as a kid who knew just which Blume to read ;)

  14. Irene Zion says:

    This was a great interview, Gloria.
    It makes me want to read the book.

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