The Beatrice Interview

Joy Nicholson

"The ocean's always going to be so much stronger than any group of surfers that ever goes out."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Joy Nicholson's debut novel, The Tribes of Palos Verdes, looks through the eyes of fourteen year-old Medina Mason as her parent's marriage collapses and her mother draws her twin brother Jim into dangerously incestous emotional territory. Fragmentary incidents gather resonance as Nicholson assembles them into a story; one of her most signficant strengths as a writer is the faith she has in her material, allowing the scenes to speak for themselves. Many beginning writers tell stories as if they feel they have to hold the reader's hand from one page to the next. Joy Nicholson's prose is clear and honest enough that she can trust you to understand what is happening and why it matters.

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 then?

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'd written.

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 life.

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 starting out?

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 books.

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 sell out.

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 everything.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Frank Baldwin | Marya Hornbacher

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan