Today I got the chance to interview the incredibly talented author, Jessica Dainty. Some of what I found out was just how far Jessica is willing to go for her art (think torture) and the amount of research and detail she put into her portrayal of troubled youth, Gertie in Jessica’s novel THE SHAPE OF THE ATMOSPHERE.
Here’s the back of the book:
Gertie MacLarsen believes she was given ugliness at birth. Growing up in an estranged home, the only times she feels beautiful are the nights her father comes in to show her the stars. The day of her 16th birthday, the same day that Sputnik traverses the sky, Gertie’s life is irrevocably changed. After a family tragedy, her elusive and alcoholic mother sends her to Willow Estate, a private mental institution, where she is thrown into a world of harsh therapies, dangerous hospital politics, and, surprisingly, a sense of family.
Within the walls of Willow Estate Sanatorium, Gertie finds awfulness and grace, terror and family. From hydro and shock therapy, to first love, to rape and suicide, the only thing Gertie is sure of from day to day is that growing up is not a choice and that forgiveness and acceptance are perhaps the greatest gifts anyone can give. As Gertie learns her fellow patients’ stories, she realizes she is not the only one alone in this giant universe and that finding yourself sometimes means letting the past versions of yourself go and letting others help you define your own center of gravity.
Set against the historical backdrop of the early space race and freighting mental therapies circa 1950’s, THE SHAPE OF THE ATMOSPHERE features a spectrum of supporting characters that brings the dramatic setting to life and a plot that explores what it means to know yourself in a world that never stops expanding and changing, and that humanity is possible, in any universe.
Read on and enjoy!
(Francis) Space exploration and the discoveries that came along with it in the 1950’s and 1960’s are a big part of The Shape of the Atmosphere. How much research did you have to do to get the details of the time just right?
(Jessica) I actually did a lot more research on the mental health aspect of this novel. I researched procedures, settings (going so far as to look at blueprints of hospitals in the early-to mid-20th century), etc. I researched for about 6 weeks and then didn’t let myself start writing for a couple months, so that the information would feel organic when it came from the character.
The novel started for me with the first line, so once I knew it was going to take place with the launch of Sputnik, I knew what the time setting was. I spent time researching historical events in 1957-1960, printed out blank calendars of those years and mapped out the events. When I was done writing, I went back through and cross-referenced all of Gertie’s time with the calendars to make sure things were happening on the right day of the week, etc. So while it was a lot of work, it all sort of ended up blending together. The worst part was realizing that I was 2 days off after my 3rd draft and I had to re-map everything and shift the entire book. That took some time, but I’m really hoping the research comes through on the page organically.
I was fascinated by the different forms of “therapy” Gertrude receives while she is committed and the level of detail you put into describing them. Were all of these typical of a 1950’s treatment plan for someone in her situation?
(Jessica) Many of them were typical. I don’t want to spoil any events, but I will say that some were less common at the time Gertie was in the hospital, but not obsolete. If it was in there, it was certainly possible that some patient was going through it. For the sake of drama, of course, in this story, it really had to be Gertie. Such details as typing and etiquette lessons as “therapy” were not necessarily something I came across directly in my research, but those activities were a part of female patients’ lives. Many hospitals had the patients do much of the upkeep of facilities (mowing the lawns, cleaning the bathrooms, preparing the food, etc.), which shows up in the novel as well. I focused on it to hone in on the social commentary that threads through the novel as well.
Gertrude really hates her name. I thought that was a great insight into her personality. How did you land on that name?
Sometimes as a writer you fall into those perfect coincidences. I picked the name Gertrude because it felt old fashioned enough and a name a teenager would hate. However, once I got about halfway through, since the book has some religious undertones, I began to do a bit more research. It turns out St. Gertrude is the patron saint of mental illness and also gardeners, both of which are huge parts of the novel. So I’d say it could not have worked out better!
One of the things you do in The Shape of the Atmosphere was to use the institution newspaper as a tool to help Gertrude and her friends to cope with their situation. I think it’s a great device for moving the plot forward and anytime a writer has their characters write, it gives the reader an extra bit of insight into the author’s thoughts. Can you talk a little about the origins of that idea?
(Jessica) Up until that point of the novel, Gertie had been the recipient of a lot of action, but not the doer of a lot of action. Her biggest action yet had just resulted in her witnessing a horrible event. In other instances, such as her time on Ward 3, she is not brave enough to do anything and finds herself as a spectator of horror. I feel that all writers write because of some level of brokenness. This could be personal brokenness, or just recognition of the brokenness of the world that we want to recognize, churn around in words, and maybe put on the page in a way that makes it less painful. It’s still broken, but it makes us and the readers feel that welling-up of connection and hope, because we recognize something we may have thought we were alone in. I think at the point Gertie starts the paper, she has been broken as much as possible—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So she reaches out. And it’s incredibly healing for her in many ways, simply realizing she is not alone. So I am not sure the idea was a conscious one, but I think it was an appropriate one for someone like Gertie, to reach out almost silently and let other voices answer back the same way.
There are some deeply disturbing acts and events in TSOA that left me with my mouth hanging open at times. What was the hardest part of TSOA to write?
(Jessica) This is a great question. I am not sure what the hardest part to write was. I knew I wanted it to be authentic. I actually made myself sit in an ice cold bath for as long as I could last to see what effect it would have on my body. I only lasted 4 minutes, so writing Gertie’s first hydro scene was definitely a bit more visceral than some of the others. However, I think in re-reading, the ending is the most powerful for me. There is something very emotional for me in reflection, and I think Gertie’s story is most powerful in hindsight, when you think of her journey and where she ends up. I wanted to do her struggle justice, but also reflect back the truth of what she learned—that hope is possible anywhere, even from within the darkest of places.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? Has it hit you yet that you ARE a writer?
(Jessica) I’m going to answer the second question first because I think it’s really the answer to the first. I have loved words, language, and stories since I was a small child. I remember giving all the typical answers as a kid about what I wanted to be when I grew up (teacher, veterinarian, astronaut etc.), but I always loved to write. I remember getting in trouble in 4th grade because an in-class assignment I had to write about a pumpkin was “too long” for what was asked of me. I told the teacher the story wasn’t done at one page. It seemed obvious to me. So I think, in essence, why I write is because there are stories I want to tell. There are stories that are not finished that I want to finish.
I also think there is an element of loving to put myself into other people’s experiences. If I had a different personality, I could see this manifesting as a desire to act or be on stage—this need to be other people, to play other roles, to understand how someone would think or act. I find human nature fascinating, despite its tendency to not often surprise. I write because I want to know more about myself.
I think I’ve always known I’m a writer, just in terms of the definition of someone who has a drive to write in order to maintain some level of homeostasis. Has it hit me that I am a published author? Some days, yes. Most days, no. But it’s been an amazing journey. I can’t believe I’m “here,” but I also know I’m still not done traveling.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
(Jessica) I am definitely a pantser, at least for the first 2/3 of a manuscript. I usually get started from a line popping in my mind or just an idea of some type of person, conflict, or setting. When I start writing, I do have a general idea of who the character is and how they would respond to situations, but I do not necessarily know what is going to happen. And I, of course, learn more about the character as I go. I had to do a tremendous amount of research before writing this novel, as I said above, but that was more informational. It gave me ideas for plot points but not for when and how it was going to happen or fit in.
However, when I get about 2/3 of the way through, I do realize how the book is going to end. That is usually the hardest part of a novel for me to write because once I know what’s going to happen, I have to keep myself from rushing to get there. I like to write in order and see what happens and save the jumping around for revision, so when I know what the last scene is going to be, it’s very hard for me not to write it until I get there.
What’s your writing habit like?
I work in the school system, coach the high school swim team early in the morning, and tutor in the afternoons after I get off work. So, as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve been doing way less routine writing than I’d like to be doing. Plus, I have been revising two manuscripts simultaneously for the past year and a half, and much of my writing time has been taken up with that. I do try to do writing exercises at least once a week, and I take the time to indulge when inspiration hits. But now that these two projects are wrapping up, I am excited to dive back into my next WIP, which has been on the shelf for about 2 years. I spend a lot of my breaks from school and the summers writing new material and then use the work time between breaks to let the material simmer before returning to it. I hope to find a more regular routine as things calm down over the next couple weeks.
What is next for Jessica Dainty?
The other project I have been revising is with my agent, Linda Camacho of Prospect Agency. We have been working on revisions for about a year, and I think they are mostly done. So the next step there will be seeing if she can connect it to interested editors. This MS is about an actuary for an insurance company who gets involved in the dark world of an underground lifestyle club where people perform live blood exchange and some believe themselves to be vampires. It’s a dark, grittier piece of general/literary fiction, but still involves many of the same themes as THE SHAPE OF THE ATMOSPHERE.
In addition, as mentioned above, I will be returning to my shelved WIP, which is a generational novel told from varying perspectives (at least for now that is what I think it will be).
So, fingers crossed, people will be seeing more of me!
Thank you for a great interview.
Thanks so much for the questions and opportunity!
Jessica Dainty is a native New Englander who has bounced back and forth to Tennessee over the past 30 years. Currently residing in Middle Tennessee, Jessica works as an English/Special Education teacher and a Reading Interventionist at the local high school. When she can’t be writing, she loves helping students fall in love with words, especially those who may have given up on them long ago.
She received her undergraduate from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a concentration in Creative Writing. She started in poetry and took a fiction class for the simple reason that it terrified her. After her first fiction workshop, she never looked back, though her poetry roots are known to poke through on the page. She continued on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she studied with Hester Kaplan, AJ Verdelle, and Rachel Kadish, among others. Her short stories have been published in various places, including SNReview, Scholars & Rogues, and Fiction Weekly. She is represented by Linda Camacho of Prospect Agency.
Follow on Twitter and Instagram at @daintywriterj3
Facebook at www.facebook.com/jessicadaintyauthor
Pandamoon Publishing (www.pandamoonpub.com) Prospect agency http://www.prospectagency.com/