By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer on Feb 24, 2013, at 1:59 AM Updated on 2/24/13 at 3:11 AM
When her first novel, “Girlchild,” was published last year, she decided that she would accept every invitation to give a reading, do book signings, whatever people wanted from her in the course of promoting her novel.
And she would film it all, as she trekked around the country trying to drum up interest in a novel about a young girl living a life of not-so-quiet desperation in a Nevada trailer park.
“I was pretty sure that my book was going to be received quietly, the way so many first novels are,” Hassman said. “So my big idea was to show how few people actually go to readings. I’d heard the stories of writers who have only one homeless person at their book signing, and he was there just to get out of the rain.”
She already had the title: “Hardbound.”
Then, things went wrong. But in a good way. “Girlchild” (Picador, $15) became one of the most highly praised novels of 2012, named a best book of the year by critics and publications such as Library Journal.
And those lonely book signings that Hassman was expecting turned out to draw large and enthusiastic crowds.
“Don’t get me wrong – I know I am very, very lucky,” Hassman said. “But it really changed my attitude toward this film I had thought about doing. Maybe I could make a documentary on how not to make a documentary.
“I’m thinking I might give it over to someone else and see what they make out of it,” she said. “I’m afraid that if I did it, it would come across as some kind of ego-stroking thing, and I really don’t want that.”
“Girlchild” is about a teenager named Rory Dawn Hendrix, who shares a mobile home outside Reno, Nev., with her bartender mother Joanna and the succession of men who pass through her mother’s life.
Rory Dawn is smart, and she knows that sets her apart from the rest of her family. But it’s a separation she’s not really ready for – when she is given the final word in the school spelling bee, for example, she deliberately spells it wrong so she won’t win, so she won’t stand out so obviously from the other Hendrixes in town.
Hassman tells this story through a series of brief vignettes – some as short as a sentence – narrated in Rory Dawn’s own voice, a pitch-perfect blend of sad intelligence and bruised innocence, along with documents such as entries from social workers, court cases and the like.
One of the touchstones in Rory Dawn’s life is a copy of “The Girl Scouts Handbook,” circa 1940.
“After my father died, I was helping my stepmother clean out his house,” Hassman said. “And she asked me if I wanted to take any of the books. I had no idea he had this, but that was one that I was drawn to.
“About a year later, I was paging through it and thought it was this beautiful, horrible thing,” she said. “There’s so many glaring gaps in it. It tells you how to be proper and polite, but when it comes to anything to do with sex, you were on your own. So this book became an important part of Rory Dawn’s life – a kind of frenemy with pages.”
Hassman said the novel has – “like most first novels” – a basis in her own life.
“When I started working on the book,” she said, “Rory and I were more alike. But as things went on, she became a lot tougher than me, much more sassy and brave than I would ever be.”
The Nevada setting was also chosen for a reason. “I lived there for a while a long time ago,” Hassman said. “And while Nevada has some big cities and some lovely places, it’s still a place that has this feeling of exile to it – being cut off from the rest of the world, almost.
“I went back recently, and if anything, it’s an even scarier place today,” she said. “That split between the ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ is so much more pronounced. The desperation in the air is frightening – everyone is a hustler, everyone is needing something.”
Tupelo Hassman will be the guest of BookSmart Tulsa, which will host “Great New Voices: An Evening with Tupelo Hassman,” 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St. Hassman will read from her novel “Girlchild,” sign copies and answer questions. The refreshments planned for the evening will include Girl Scout cookies.