I’m excited to introduce our readers to Jacinda Townsend! I first heard of her at my MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she is a visiting facility member. I didn’t have the chance to work with her personally (she advises the fiction students, and I was in the creative nonfiction track) but I heard so many good things about her that I asked if she would participate in our virtual interview.
Jacinda Townsend is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950’s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and was longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and shortlisted for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize.
Jacinda took her first Creative Writing classes at Harvard, where she received her BA, and then cross-registered to take more classes through the English Department at Duke University, where she received her JD. After practicing law for four years, she went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire. She recently finished a novel called Kif. Jacinda is mom to two children, about whom she writes frequently.
Amazon describes SAINT MONKEY as follows:
A stunning debut novel of two girls raised in hardship, separated by fortune, and reunited through tragedy.
Fourteen-year-old Audrey Martin, with her Poindexter glasses and her head humming the 3/4 meter of gospel music, knows she’ll never get out of Kentucky—but when her fingers touch the piano keys, the whole church trembles. Her best friend, Caroline, daydreams about Hollywood stardom, but both girls feel destined to languish in a slow-moving stopover town in Montgomery County.
That is, until chance intervenes and a booking agent offers Audrey a ticket to join the booming jazz scene in Harlem—an offer she can’t resist, not even for Caroline. And in New York City the music never stops. Audrey flirts with love and takes the stage at the Apollo, with its fast-dancing crowds and blinding lights. But fortunes can turn fast in the city—young talent means tough competition, and for Audrey failure is always one step away. Meanwhile, Caroline sinks into the quiet anguish of a Black woman in a backwards country, where her ambitions and desires only slip further out of reach.
Jacinda Townsend’s remarkable first novel is a coming-of-age story made at once gripping and poignant by the wild energy of the Jazz Era and the stark realities of segregation. Marrying musical prose with lyric vernacular, Saint Monkey delivers a stirring portrait of American storytelling and marks the appearance of an auspicious new voice in literary fiction.
The Virtual Interview:
Who is one of your favorite (fictional or non-fictional) characters?
Perhaps my favorite character in the entire literary ballroom is Rabbit Angstrom, the subject of all five of the novels in John Updike’s Rabbit series. As I understand it, John Updike set out to write a version of the people he’d encountered but not closely known in his native Eastern Pennsylvania, and he quite brilliantly did so. Literary fiction often presumes that we are all upper-middle-class, heteronormative, white, progressive Democrats who think of the trailer park as our comic playground, but the Rabbit novels treat all their characters as actual characters rather than socioeconomic code. I also love Rabbit because his view of the world is so simply motivated yet so beautifully rendered, and I guess, though I’m not demographically supposed to, I relate to Rabbit Angstrom in some fundamental ways. Who among us doesn’t have daddy issues? What modern wife and mother wouldn’t like to run out for cigarettes one day and somehow stay gone an entire month?
Where do you love to be?
“Home” for me is a deep, fundamental thing. My actual home, in terms of homeland, is Kentucky. I grew up there. I always returned for summers there, and still return for holidays. I am a gabillionth generation Kentuckian, and that culture is such a part of who I am. I live in California now, but I long for the hills and mountains and foliage of Kentucky. I spend my winters in California pining away for the summers in Kentucky, the strains of banjo on the air and the fireflies dotting the evening. I am always so excited to get to the Charlotte airport, which is my normal transfer spot. I hear the version of a Southern accent that’s *almost* Kentucky, and I buy a glass of sweet tea, and I’m almost there. The minute I step off the plane in Louisville, I feel less anxious. My accent changes back. Kentucky is just who I am. That being said, I am spiritually at home in Morocco, which has become a second home of sorts. (My second novel, Kif, is set there, and I have traveled to various Saharan countries researching it.) My children and I return every couple of years for a month or two, and the thing we have most come to love about it is the hospitality, but I fell in love for so many reasons. There is a pretty stiff Moroccan culture, even in the melting of various ethnic groups, but there is this wild psychedelic desert aesthetic that makes anything and everything happen there, as well. So you’ll always get your three cups of tea, and you know if you don’t get the standard three cups you’ve somehow offended your host, but while you’re drinking it, there will be a guy playing electric oud in the corner, or a Tuareg painting a street mural. It is a mindblowing place, and I will always look forward to my family’s return.
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
The hardest part, for me, is actually (gasp!) publicity. I’m a big-time introvert. When I warm up to people I heat up to boiling pretty quickly, but it’s difficult for me to expose myself to people as anything other than a writer, and alas, I think that more and more, that is what the literary world requires of its writers. I like to be down deep in the surreal with my characters, and it’s so weird to then be asked to come up for air at, say, a reading, and talk about something that’s not them. The easiest part of my job is, well, my job. I am very fortunate that I separated my ego from my writing a long time ago. Rejection doesn’t really bother me that much—it’s just another day of work for me. Creation isn’t hard for me, either, because I’ve invested less in the way of ego and more in the way of creating a work life that fosters the life of my imagination. One of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to make writing a daily habit. It has helped tremendously. I know that every day, right around the same time and in the same place, I will get to immerse myself in the world of my characters.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
I don’t think so. But a good part of Audrey’s father is based on my father, whose way of dealing with the Jim Crow South, as an Air Force cadet, was to never leave his base. My father had grown up in Kentucky in the 50’s, but the system of segregation there was nothing like what he found in Biloxi, Mississipi. The rest of Lindell is nothing like my father, but I took that idea—that there are so many paths of resistance and one of them is nonparticipation—and turned it into the backbone of my plot.
Share one quirk…
There are only two things in Saint Monkey that are autobiographical and one of them is the fact that Audrey likes for things to finish off in fours. It’s an obsession, or maybe a compulsion of mine—I am in love with the numbers four, sixteen, and 256. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in a lot of ways, which would surprise most people who know me well—I tend to get very sunk in one thing and let everything else go. It’s not possible to sustain my level of compulsion across too many categories.
What’s your next big thing?
I just finished the first draft of a novel called James Loves Ruth. Now that I’ve finished a draft I can talk about it, so you’re the first person I get to tell this to—it’s about a woman who survives a shocking incident of police brutality, who has to then take all that grief and make a shocking life change with it. I didn’t understand this while writing it, but I myself was going through some grief, as we had just moved across the country and left our friends, the girls’ schools, and a whole way of life behind. I had to do something with my grief or I was going to lose my mind. It came pouring out of me. I wrote this 370 page draft in ten months. My agent has it now. I look forward to revising it.
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