RH: How did this novel get started?
JN: A friend of mine was doing a literary zine called One
Little Ball and asked me to write a story for it. So I wrote a story
about my brother and the place where I grew up. I didn't really
think about it too much after that until an agent tracked me down
through the 'zine and asked me if I was writing a book.
RH: Had you even thought about writing a book before
JN: I knew that I wanted to write, but I never intended to
write a book. Or maybe I had a vague intent, but I never really had
the confidence to do it. I don't think I ever really thought of myself
as a 'writer.'
RH: So what was it like putting together the confidence to do this
project, once you knew it was going to be a book?
JN: It wasn't really a decision. I just took it in incremental
stages. I didn't go to college, and I didn't know how to write a book,
so I just started looking through a lot of books that I liked. I'd cut
pages out and paste them together, then hang them from the walls
and study them to see how different writers wrote, how they made
transitions and all that. Once I got a chapter done, I started thinking
about the second chapter...only they weren't even really chapters,
they were more like vignettes. When I had about fifty of them, a
year later, I turned them in to the agent who called me, and then I
told her I wasn't sure how to make them tie together. She told me
not to worry, that it would eventually tie together, and to just keep
writing those vignettes. Then she cut out about three-fourths of what
I was really shocked, because I'd put a lot of work into all that
writing, and she still hadn't signed me for her agency yet, either. She
told me, "We still have to see if we can work together. It's going to be
really hard on you, because you'll keep writing this hard, and I'll
keep editing you this strongly." When I finally got it back, what was
left seemed so thin and depressing, but I just kept writing more and
more vignettes about Palos Verdes and my brother.
RH: When you were writing, it took you to an emotional place that
you'd put off being in for a long time. Once it became clear what the
emotional impact of this book was going to be for you, how did you
find the strength to keep writing?
JN: It was strange when I started, because I felt completely
numb to all the things that I was writing. I could see scenes
happening, but I really didn't feel. At first I didn't totally connect to
myself being Medina or my brother being Jim. Then, when my
brother killed himself two and a half years ago, I KNEW. The first
thing I did was cut him out of the story. I hadn't even seen him for
the last five or six years of his life because I didn't want to watch
him die. And when he finally did it, I knew it was a feeling of relief
for him. He'd been tortured by the psychiatric industry for so long.
They were experimenting on him, trying out different drugs, and if
one didn't work out they'd try another, then mix that with another
until he was on maybe five or six different drugs.
After he killed himself, I didn't do any writing for a few months.
Putting him back in the story was a way of not feeling so lonely. But
this time I made Jim more fictional and less like my brother. The end
of the novel was really hard, though. I was trying to think of a way
to make things better for these two characters, and I finally realized
that I couldn't fight against what was going to happen to them.
RH: But it is fictional. As a first novelist, you're probably
getting a lot of people asking you, "Well, you're just writing about
you, aren't you?"
JN: It's a little scary. I didn't want anyone in my family to
read it. Most of the things in the book aren't based on reality, but
some of them are. Still, I'm not going to censor myself.
RH: Have you gotten responses back from people outside your
family who are weirded out or creeped out by the family dynamic of
the story? People who want to know how you could possibly write
about that sort of thing?
JN: No, not yet, but it would be interesting if I did. Part of
what I wrote is, "How could anyone do this to their son?" And I
don't know the answer to that. If you're a mother, your son is going
to feel a need to please you and to protect you, and if you play upon
that and draw it out of him, that can be one of the sickest
relationships going. It happens more than we think--adults dump
their emotions onto their kids in a lot of twisted ways.
RH: Tell me a little bit about Palo Verdes. In the book it comes
across as a place that's totally cut off not just from the rest of Los
Angeles, but from the rest of the world.
JN: It's on a peninsula, sticking out into the water like the end
of a syringe. There's only one road in and one road out. It was very
safe and you didn't ever have to worry about crime. Everyone was
pretty much white and highly educated. The worst that kids would
do is smoke a little pot and maybe snort cocaine. When I grew up
there, I walked around at night all the time and it never occurred to
me to feel unsafe. People didn't lock their doors. Even in the surfing
culture, Palos Verdes was a real throwback to the '50s. Boards were
getting smaller and faster, and wetsuits were being made in brighter
colors, but in Palos Verdes the boards remained long... I think the
frozenness of time there is only possible because of the money and
the physical isolation. And because of the money, you also felt sorry
for people who lived anywhere else. It was a pervasive feeling. You
just felt...maybe not 'better' than them, but separate.
RH: In other interviews, you've talked about how people you run
into again can't imagine why you would have left Palos Verdes, and
have no idea where you moved to, even though the part of LA you
live in isn't that far away.
JN: I was at my brother's funeral, the first time I'd gone back
to Palos Verdes in many, many years, and met some of the surfers I
used to knew, the ones who always made me nervous when I was a
girl. They were in their late twenties and early thirties, still living in
Palos Verdes with their parents, still surfing in the same spots, and
they asked me, "Why would you ever leave here? This is the most
beautiful place in the world." I told them I just wanted to see other
places. "Well, why?" And one guy, the one I'd had the biggest
crush on when I was growing up, said, "You could go all the way
around the world and never see anything as great as this, so I don't
see any reason to leave." So he and a lot of these other guys will
probably just inherit their parents' houses and still live there and
still surf there...
RH: But surfing also turns out to be a major step in Medina coming
to terms with who she is and gaining confidence in herself. Was that
true of you as well?
JN: She's a much better surfer than I ever was. My brother
was the great surfer. I am in awe of his ability to surf almost any
wave. I would just observe, and wish not only that I could surf like
him but BE him. What Medina and I share is that neither one of us
buys into the system. We don't automatically believe things always
work out, but one of the things we do believe is that the ocean -- and
all of nature -- is healing.
RH: What about the ocean is 'healing' for you?
JN: I don't know if I was thinking of this at the time, but
surfing turned out to be a great metaphor for trying to stay on top of
something. Now, I find myself just wanting to swim in the ocean; I
have no desire to stay on top or dominate the waves at all. The water
always makes me feel clean. When I was younger being in the water
made me feel clean and good. I still does.
It's false to think that you can stay on top of the ocean. You can't. The
ocean's always going to be so much stronger than any group of
surfers that ever goes out. I find the whole male domination thing--
i.e. " I slaughtered that wave!" so absurd. Humans think that we
control things, because we seem to dominate other animals. But it's
inevitable that nature will come back and we'll see how powerless
we really are.
RH: Medina feels like a loser not just in Palos Verdes terms, but
entirely, because she's a girl. At one point, she wishes she were a
boy, because she feels like there are so many opportunities denied
her. But she comes to realize that she can take some control in her
JN: I would love to hand this book out to teenage girls. A lot of
them have gone through the feelings Medina goes through. Like the
scene where Medina has sex with Dan; she wasn't passive; she was
definitely a part of what happened, but it was because she wanted
somebody, anybody, to tell her that she was special or pretty or
something. I understand that! A lot of girls end up having sex with
guys because they don't feel beautiful and they just want the male
attention. There's so much emphasis placed on models and beauty,
it's easy to feel like a loser.
Here's the secret! Girls have choices. Question what you're told. Say
no. In fact--say screw you! If you don't really want to go to college,
don't go. If you get fired from your job, don't worry. I've been fired
from lots of jobs. Trust yourself--inside you know what you're doing.
RH: Did you have contact with a lot of writers when you were
JN: I didn't really know any other writers. Recently I became
friends with Stokes Howell. Many writers seem to know so much
about writing and other writers...and I don't. I love to read, and I
read a lot, but the things that you're supposed to like if you're an
'intellectual' writer aren't the things that I like. I just don't think I
relate to intellectuals very well.
But 'zine writing is so great. You can just publish stuff that you like
without caring about Famous Names or how writerly it is. Plus it's
cheaper! I was shocked when my book cost twenty bucks. I can't
afford my own book! Ha! Even paperbacks are fourteen dollars. But
you can publish good stories in a 'zine and then charge four, five
bucks. Distribution is hard, but 'zine publishers have passion. Cool!
RH: Of course, agents and publishers are going to be looking at the
'zines trying to find the next writer for their twenty dollar
JN: Yeah, but you can make the choice to keep writing for
'zines. I just turned in a new story for One Little Ball, the first
part of my new novel. As an artist, you have the opportunity to not
RH: What's your second novel going to be like?
JN: It's about a brother and sister again, but they're a little bit
older,a nd the story's different. It's about two people trying to escape
civilization, escape the relentless consumerism of modern life. When
I was writing Tribes, I was running low on money, and I had
to keep working different jobs to save up money so I'd have time to
write. I was frustrated at how much everything cost, and my
husband and I decided to move to Mexico where we could live in a
house that ran on solar power. So after I finished the first novel, we
packed everything in a car and took off. While I was down there, I
got the idea for the new book, and we hooked up my computer to a
car battery attached to a solar panel. The battery charged during the
day, and then I would work at night.
RH: It sounds like it was fun, and you got to live on your own
terms while you were doing it.
JN: You can say 'No' to the things that the world tells you that
you have to have -- I don't have a college degree or own a house or
even a car! I don't buy into ambitiousness. I just want to get out and
see things. I want to see the last of the great animals that are dying
off. I love animals a lot, and I like to go out in the wild and imagine
the way things used to be, when everything was more
interconnected and humans weren't so intent on dominating