Hello again, pretty blog people! The other day I met up with independent author Missy Anne Peterson at a local hotspot where they serve a mean tofu and egg English muffin sandwich and asked her questions about her debut novel, Jimmy James Blood, a dark story about a rough group of teenagers growing up in a twisted rural logging town. There are no jobs in town. There is no sense of safety. But there is a small group of loyal friends, a truck waiting with the engine running, a pair of boots covered in blood and a hot 1911 with a pearl pistol grip.
Kirkus Reviews called the book “…an eloquent description of today’s desensitized, emotionally detached youth….An intense, lyrical portrait of America’s vulnerable underbelly.”
Tall, blond, and as tough as her characters, Missy’s down-to-earth, easy-going nature masks a whip-smart intellect. The longer you talk to her, the more she reveals her science braininess and her deep curiosity about the world. I enjoyed every minute of our conversation, which ranged from frozen water pipes to her theory on how salmon use lunar queues to navigate. As I was eating the center out of my delicious dessert brownie, I checked the time on my phone and realized we’d been talking for several hours. We both had to get up and feed the parking meter. Thanks to Missy for agreeing to the interview. Here are the highlights:
MM: Jimmy James Blood is a tough read in many ways. Gritty, but at the same time, poetic. I don’t feel like I’ve read this story before. Not written in this way.
MA: First, I want to say that the book was a community effort. A lot of people helped with editing, for which I’m very grateful.
I see this as a story about a small community of people living on the edge of a society in a world that’s fading. As the larger economy changes, these people are left behind by capitalism. In science it’s referred to as a “remnant population.” We often forget, amidst change, that there are those people who don’t move on from hardship. They get lost in the struggle. I wanted to give voice to these people.
MM: Why don’t the people in this community just reinvent themselves?
MA: So many reasons. Sometimes people don’t have the time or ability or money to go to school for four more years. Age can be a factor—older adults may be retirement age by the time they completed training and if it’s been thirty years since they’ve been in school that becomes a big barrier. Kids often are isolated—physically and socially, lacking the self-esteem and basic skills to navigate a new society. What’s new is foreign. The skills they do possess aren’t valuable in the new society.
One of the characters in the novel, Duane, grows up isolated in the woods. His knowledge about nature and the environment, his skills—being able to walk quietly in the woods or knowing how things grow and where—become totally unnecessary when he moves into town. He has to learn a new language. He’s behind before he begins. It’s very discouraging and ravages his confidence.
What do you think the main character, Vera Violet, discovers over the course of the novel?
MA: I think she learns about survival, her place in a potentially unfair society. Independence. How to move on. Realizing what she can and can’t change in life.
MM: That makes me think about hope. Some readers feel this is a hopeless story, but not me. The story captures aspects of change. Change is a sign of hope.
MA: The story is complex, at times both hopeful and hopeless. It would have been unrealistic for me to reflect the state of Vera Violet’s upbringing in any other way than I did. It would have felt dishonest. In reality, kids that grow up in situations like that, end up in ways similar to how the story ended. Having ownership over her knowledge, however, gave her strength especially toward the end of the novel. Knowing that her struggles didn’t have to define her, but could give her leverage. She proved to herself that she could overcome—or at least survive—difficulties. Sometimes surviving IS the miracle.
MM: It struck me that time functions in an unusual way in this novel. What were you doing there?
MA: The novel works backward. It’s told in pieces and haltingly. I wanted to replicate a victim dialogue. How someone would verbally relate a story of assault, maybe a person suffering from PTSD, who is not necessarily remembering or relating things in a linear fashion. Vera Violet tells the easiest things first because she’s not remembering the hardest things until later when she’s strong enough. Closer to the end, she’s starting to heal, so is able to think about the more difficult things.
MM: Tell me about Vera’s love interest, Jimmy James Blood, also called the “Man from Angel Road.” He seems a symbolic character in many ways. What does he represent in the story?
MA: We see Jimmy James through Vera’s eyes. Because he’s absent from the present of the book, readers only know him through her memories. He is her idea of a boyfriend. In many ways he’s a flight of fancy. Her nickname for him, “Man from Angel Road,” makes him mysterious. I guess it’s her way of romanticizing in a very unromantic set of circumstances. Throughout the book you see the ways her ideas about him fall victim to disenchantment. But reality catches up with her. Before that, if she can think of him as a character—a beautiful mind trapped in an unfortunate set of circumstances—she can keep living with hope. Her imagined view of the world not only gives her hope with Jimmy James, but also allows her to imagine herself moving on to something better.
What about Jimmy’s infamous 14i Oxblood work boots?
MA: Jimmy and the boots are a manifestation of virile male boy. Nihilism. Pure rage and physical strength and energy with nowhere to go, no real way to conquer the world. Jimmy’s strength is in his body. The boot metaphor is actually less prevalent than originally. Jimmy’s boots, Vera’s father’s work boots, her own boots—they all symbolize working-class sensibility and the ethic of hard physical work.
In an early chapter, when Vera’s father takes off his boots and sets them by the door, they stop meaning what they once did. His idealism crumbles. Because her father was such an absent male figure, Vera essentially learned to love Jimmy James before she even met him. There is a shadow of her father in Jimmy James, but he is in his youth, still fighting and trying to change the world. His is all anarchism and rebellion, whereas her own boots take on distinctly female characteristics. They begin to stand for plotting, cleaning up, resilience, and moving on.
MM: Let’s talk about other female characters in the book. Tell me about Kat and Annie.
MA: Kat’s a tough one. Her character was difficult to write. She doesn’t have a huge role, but her actions absolutely affect the other characters. Readers have strong reactions to her character. People tell me they relate to or were struck by her character more than any other in the novel. I think people are really touched by her story. She really didn’t have a chance. She was just so lost.
It’s interesting that you name those two women. They’re mirrors in many ways, but with lots of commonalities. They both grew up in abusive homes with very little resources at their disposal. I think the difference is that Kat isolated herself and let her surroundings make her bitter. Annie strove to reach out and make friendships, improve her life, get an education. Readers don’t necessarily blame Kat for her actions, but in the end, that’s why Kat did what she did. For Kat, Annie represented hope and love, something Kat felt she couldn’t access. And that tore her apart. She panicked. She did what she did out of panic.
MM: Why did you decide to publish the book yourself rather than go through traditional channels?
MA: I had a lot of fears about certain aspects of the book being sensationalized. I didn’t want the book to be about shock value. I wanted to tell a story about the struggles of kids—their story rather than a story about them. I was afraid I’d get stuck with an editor who wouldn’t share that vision. Plus, there are so many tools for independent writers now. The publishing industry has and is changing. Writers have more power to own their work and produce it in any way they see fit. I think that allows more creative freedom. It also allows you to go faster, skip the query process, and get to the editing and publishing part.
MM: Would you do it again.
MA: Yep. I’m about to do it again. The key is finding good people to give you editorial help.
MM: What are you working on now?
MA: Six Little Fish is my tentative title for the current manuscript. Salmon play a key metaphoric role. The book follows two tormented lovers through a completely hopeless situation, but the story is about grief and rebirth. The transformations you go through while grieving. This one is more science-heavy than Jimmy James Blood. The main character is a girl in her mid-twenties working in fisheries. She has to make certain sacrifices for her career.
There’s a lot about the confusion of growing and how a person’s physical environment influences mood. Each chapter is a scene, like in a play, and emotion is largely communicated through scene and setting. I chose present tense because I think it most accurately reflects youth. Less reflection on past. More in the moment. I play around with mythical characters. At one point my main character, Valeriana, talks to a mermaid, a creature that doesn’t talk back, so essentially it’s written as a monologue. Other characters write letters. The structure is very non-linear. It’s an experiment. We’ll see how that turns out.
MM: What are you reading now?
MA: A book about evolution called Your Inner Fish. It’s great.
MM: What has been the hardest part of publishing and touring to support your novel?
MA: The hardest part has been finding the time and energy to do it. You can only run on empty for so long before you crash. I’ve crashed twice in this life.
Here are some links for finding out more and also buying the book…