Tupelo Hassman burst onto the literary scene in 2012 with “girlchild,” a novel that follows a young woman growing up in poverty in a Nevada trailer park. The debut earned positive reviews and gained the writer a host of fans eager for a follow-up.
After seven years, the wait is over. Hassman’s second novel, “gods with a little g,” tells the story of a teenager named Helen who is desperate to escape her life in the fictional town of Rosary, Calif. It’s more than the typical teen angst because the town is run by religious fundamentalists who have effectively banned the internet in an attempt to insulate young people from all things secular.
Helen, mourning the recent death of her mother, finds solace in a group of teenage misfits. She also befriends two young newcomers — Win, a boy with a checkered past, and his sister, a transgender girl named Rainbolene — and they help one another deal with growing up in a community that prizes conformity above all else.
“Teenagehood is, in my experience, very tough, and it’s tough for Helen,” Hassman says.
The Santa Cruz native grew up in California and Nevada. She worked in Los Angeles for the nonprofit A Window Between Worlds before attending Santa Monica College and USC, then earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York.
Two years ago, she and her family moved to Charleston, S.C., where her husband attends school. Hassman teaches remotely at Santa Monica College and Cal State East Bay.
She talks about the inspiration for her coming-of-age story in an interview from Charleston.
This book takes place in California, and “girlchild” also takes place in the Southwest. Is that familiar terrain?
Yes. I was born in Santa Cruz and lived so many years all around the Bay Area, with a few years outside of Reno, where “girlchild” is set, and I lived for 10 years in L.A. So aside from a couple of years in New York, it’s mostly been California.
Why chose small town settings?
I think it’s because I’m slightly terrified, or greatly terrified, of towns like Rosary. I am so comfortable in Los Angeles and New York; I feel right at home. I like to be a teeny-tiny fish.
So I think that I’m comfortable writing about small towns because there’s a tension built in it for me. I never wanted to escape New York or Los Angeles, but I certainly wanted to escape where I lived in Nevada, not that there aren’t beautiful parts of it. And where I live now, which is where I finished most of “gods with a little g,” Charleston is beautiful, but this is my first time ever living in the suburbs, and that was a change.
Helen and a lot of the other characters in “gods with a little g” have this urge to escape Rosary. Did you identify with that?
It was quite easy for me to identify with that. Also, I’m not good at committing to anything, so I’m always feeling claustrophobic. It was not a reach for me. But I think all teenagers — I don’t know how perfect it would have to be for a teenager to not want it different than it is. That’s part of their magic. And I think we have to trust that, because if you meet someone who never rebelled, you know it’s either coming or something’s wrong.
Where did you get the idea for the town of Rosary?
Yeah, it was definitely inspired by what we see around us. Jeff Chang talks about this a lot, if you know his work. He wrote “We Gon’ Be Alright,” which is a collection of essays about racial segregation. Moving to the South and getting a chance to see that here definitely informed everything about that in the book. It’s hard to escape that here, and it all feels very tricky to me, these quiet ways of separating people. My neighborhood doesn’t have any exits; there’s only one way in, and this is to keep people out. There’s one exit where you go in, and you can only leave that way, so you can’t just drive through. It feels complicated to me. I mean, everything feels complicated to me. But you see it everywhere. You don’t have to be in the South, obviously. And that was part of setting the book in California. I think I wanted to note that this happens everywhere, especially now. There’s no safe place from that.
Was it difficult for you to write about the high-school experience?
I dropped out of high school about two weeks into 10th grade and started working, so my life was a disaster. But this was fun for me mostly, especially compared to “girlchild,” which wasn’t fun. I have two friends that I made when I was 13, and we were total misfits, and the way that we raised each other and saved each other’s lives — I mean it sounds so corny, but that was nice to think about. It was nice to think that this is a thing that teenagers manage to replicate, over and over.
There’s this amnesia, right? I mean, when I see a teenager now, the first thing I think is, “There is a child,” and then I have to turn myself around and remember that even though I made terrible decisions when I was a colt, they’re much more capable than we give them credit for. It seems like adults’ tendency is to only remember the stupid things we did as teenagers and forget that they’re brilliant. And boy, we really need them now. So I just try to remember, especially since I’m a mom now, to give these young people, these young adults, the credit. They build these life-saving groups, somehow.
Helen is such a fully formed character. Do you remember when she first came to you?
Rainbolene was the first person I thought of that’s in this book, and Win, and I wanted to know them together, so Helen came as someone who could witness this love that they have for each other that I admire so much in siblings. I have a loved one who lives in a rural area in a Bible Belt state and is trans and was a teenage trans person, and this goes back to the life support of friendships — because of the friendships and siblings that are in that person’s life, they’re safe. And I have four brothers, and I love them very much, and that also informs that.
What do you think Helen’s relationship with religion is like? At one point, she refers to herself as a “frenemy” of God.
Oh, I do think she’s still a believer, though not in that prescriptive way that her dad favors. I can’t imagine that anyone doesn’t have some kind of questions about it. I feel like humans are plugs looking for an outlet, wanting to feel connected to some bigger plan, and she definitely has that plug, and she has the instinct to find the connection.
There are so many funny moments in this book. Was having the humor in the book a conscious decision?
I don’t know how to be funny on purpose. But with “girlchild,” my editor at one point said, “You know, you’re funny.” And I’ll never forget that moment, because I was like, “I — really? Oh!” I think at least if nothing else, it opened the door to just be funny, should such a thing occur. I don’t know what happens if you try to do it on purpose. I know there are people who do that for a living, but it seems like magic to me.
Schaub is a writer and book critic based in Austin, Texas.