Julia Pierpont (Photo: Shiva Rouhani)
by Andrew DeCanniere
Last month, I stumbled upon Julia Pierpont’s outstanding debut novel Among the Ten Thousand Things (Random House, 2015). The book is centered around the Shanleys and what happens when their children, eleven-year-old Kay and fifteen-year-old Simon, discover that their father, Jack — a well-known New York artist — has cheated on their mother, Deb — a former dancer — after Kay opens a package addressed to their mother, thinking that perhaps it is actually a gift that is meant for her. This is one beautifully written, meticulously crafted, unputdownable debut novel that will have you absolutely hooked from the very first page. Read on to see what she had to say about her inspiration for the novel, the Shanleys and her influences.
UR Chicago Magazine: Among the Ten Thousand Things is a wonderful read. I know it certainly had my attention from page one. What was your inspiration for the book?
Julia Pierpont: When I started writing, I knew that I wanted to write about a family. I knew that I wanted to write about different perspectives within the family. I didn’t necessarily know my entry point into it. I guess I wanted to write about the betrayal of that family and the way one incident can sort of trickle down and cause all of these other things to spiral out. So, infidelity and this affair that I stumbled upon was this device that serve as this kind of lens through which I ended up exploring those things. It wasn’t as though those were the themes I necessarily wanted to explore specifically, so much as the ways that family members can misunderstand each other and grow apart.
UR: And I think that’s really very well captured from all of the different perspectives, and you really get the sense of who each member of the family is. As far as Jack, the father of the family, is concerned, he really seems to see things almost exclusively from his own point of view. He just seems very unable or unwilling to consider things from any other perspective.
JP: He’s a very strong personality and he was a lot of fun to write, in part because he was sort of so ‘every man for himself’ in the way he approaches things. It was more fun in a way, because of all of the characters he seemed the least anguished in the situation. He was still sort of bobbing along. Every time something terrible happens, he would just see the absurdity in it and feel confident that things will work out in the end. He was just a kind of very buoyant character to write.
UR: What surprised me most about him, however, is that here he is, he’s had this affair that has just been discovered by his children and yet he just assumes it’s only a matter of time before he’s forgiven. In fact, he even says he can already feel that he’s begun to forgive himself for what he has done.
JP: Right. He can already see his own defense better than anybody else, and he wants to use it, but he knows that would just incite more anger.
UR: Right. Here he is and he just dumps pages and pages of these e-mails written between him and the girl he has been cheating with out the window of their apartment. It seems like in so doing, he feels that he has already cleared this tremendous hurdle, and that without it he’s well on the way to things going back to the way they were.
JP: He thinks he can control the situation, and it’s totally out of his control.
UR: It shows this disconnect that exists.
JP: Absolutely. He’s really not thinking clearly in that way.
UR: To him it’s more about the evidence of what he has done — or about getting rid of it — than the actual act of having cheated on his wife.
JP: I think that was a moment of panic for him, but even just the idea that he’s already sort of forgiving himself is sort of an indication of how limited his empathy is and his ability to understand other peoples’ perspectives. Other characters, like Deb and maybe Kay, perhaps over-empathize.
UR: And then you see this inability or unwillingness rear its ugly head again, when this woman gets injured by Jack’s own work, while attending the opening of his newest exhibit at a gallery.
JP: Yeah. He flies off the handle there.
UR: In talking to the woman you see him almost immediately go into this mode of ‘What have you done?’ Then it happens again the following day, when Stanley, who is from the gallery, calls the morning after the incident. Jack tells Stanley that he wants him to make it go away. The concern isn’t really for the injured woman at all. It’s all about what he perceives the incident and this woman will do to him and his career.
JP: Exactly. It’s ‘How is this affecting me?’ He has a very one-sided approach to everything, which is catching up with him finally.
UR: And on top of it all, he pushes a lot of it — the cheating, anyhow — off onto his wife. Somehow he feels a lot it is really her fault, saying in effect that she just doesn’t want to understand him.
JP: It’s a way of reassigning blame again. He always finds ways to excuse himself for what has happened, or even in finding fault in the way his mother raised him or the way that his mother is. He basically finds reasons why other things are to blame for the way things have turned out for him.
UR: It’s always this external factor from his point of view, and he always seems to revert back to the same behaviors time and again, as Deb points out when they’re in the diner and he flirts with their waitress. Deb, on the other hand, is much more focused on the kids.
JP: Yeah. I was interested in looking at how people teach their kids certain values that they don’t necessarily wind up living by. It’s kind of a weird thing we do, and so certain things that you would maybe accept as being good enough for your situation — or perhaps you’d just say your relationship with the person is complicated and you make compromises — when you know your kids are aware, how do you justify that? How do you explain that to them, or do you behave differently if the kids are aware of it. Deb is very aware of what is affecting the kids. I think the reason she makes the decision to go to Jamestown is that the last straw is when she finds out Kay has gotten in trouble at school. She thinks she’s protecting them, but she realizes that she can’t and she isn’t. She needs to just press pause for a second and figure out what to do, and going away is the one way she can think of doing that. What we expect for ourselves and what we want our children to expect for themselves are usually very different things.
UR: And it seems she’s also very concerned not only about how they’ll view the situation as a whole but, understandably, how they’ll view her or how she decides to react to the situation.
JP: Absolutely. There is that aspect where Deb has been a victim as much as anyone, in a way, but the kids are pretty angry with her for allowing this to happen. Then, furthermore, there’s stuff they don’t even know about from her past, so she’s also trying to protect herself. Everyone has a little bit of that going on.
UR: Especially because, as you say, there are those certain elements of the past the kids don’t know about. Maybe it’s me reading into it, but perhaps that is part of the reason Deb seems so slow to react to begin with.
JP: She can’t pretend she’s entirely surprised this is something that Jack is capable of doing.
UR: And it certainly doesn’t make it any better, but if she demonizes it too much or gets too upset about it, what does that say about what she and Jack did?
JP: She’s also being practical to a certain point. If parts of their life are working and she doesn’t want to make a major change in her life, maybe she doesn’t want to be divorced or live on her own. Maybe it’s a difficult decision to make, but either decision, to stay or to leave, is difficult, you know? It’s kind of an unfortunate position that he puts them in.
UR: Right. She even articulates the fact that she doesn’t know which would be more difficult for her, making the decision to get a divorce or making the decision to remain married to him.
JP: She resents that he has even put her in the position where she has to make that decision. She feels like she’s between a rock and a hard place.
UR: On top of which, it seems like she knew about his infidelity even before the kids found out. So, she had an idea of what was going on, but didn’t want to let on anything to that effect, again lest the kids find out what he’s been doing and that somehow ends up negatively impacting their children.
JP: She’s been hiding it. She doesn’t want to cause any long-term negative effects, especially with Kay who is so impressionable at that age.
UR: Speaking of which, she really seems to be the one who has the harder time dealing with it and with knowing how to feel about the whole thing. You can see she’s kind of conflicted. I think that one of the places in the book where you see that really clearly is when Jack and Kay end up going to the museum following a school field trip to the planetarium.
JP: She knows that she’s been hurt and she knows that he has betrayed the family, but at the same time there is that acknowledgment that not everything is about her in his life. That, in and of itself, is sometimes hurtful to a child — to realize their parents have other values and other concerns outside of them.
UR: And what’s interesting about that is that there’s this implication that he almost didn’t even stop to consider them when he chose to do what he did. It’s as if he didn’t really think about what the consequences of his actions might be. He, as seems to be the usual with Jack, literally was thinking of himself and himself only.
JP: Right. He didn’t mean to hurt them. He wasn’t thinking about them, and that’s sort of the hurtful part.
UR: And she doesn’t really seem to feel like she has much of a say in the whole matter, either.
JP: Yeah. Kay is very reserved and very much an observer. She doesn’t really express her opinion because she’s afraid it’s going to be wrong, whereas her brother kind of steamrolls her. He’s comfortable voicing his opinions.
UR: He also seems to be much more detached from the whole situation and preoccupied with other things that are going on in his life.
JP: He’s in that phase where he’s more concerned with the girls at school and being cool and stuff. He’s comparing his family to everyone else. He just wants to be like everyone else, and divorce is actually something that is common in his school. He wants to deny that it is even a big deal. In a way that’s a defense mechanism, as well.
UR: Yeah. You aren’t really sure whether he really just doesn’t care — which I guess is theoretically possible — or he is just attempting to downplay the situation as a sort of defense.
JP: He’s just put up so much distance between them that he won’t even let himself consider that it could hurt him. He doesn’t want it to.
UR: And while he is most angry at his father, he also seems to be angry with his mom. There is definitely some hostility there. From his perspective, his mother’s reaction upon learning what his father has done does not seem to be quite enough. It’s not a strong enough reaction. It seems like he expected her to say or do more.
JP: He’s angry at her for being weak, I think.
UR: Which is also unfair. He’s passing judgment on somebody who is in a situation that he has never had to deal with.
JP: I totally agree. I think that sometimes happens in families. That’s one of those examples of how a single betrayal — Jack betraying his family — then leads to other apparent ones. Simon feels betrayed by his mother, because she doesn’t immediately kick the father out. There are all these little things. He doesn’t understand her actions.
UR: And then he also seems to want attention from the outside, at least on some level. He wants people to be aware of what is going on, to have an audience, so he can prove that he can handle the situation on his own.
JP: He wants this recognition from the outside world.
UR: And even where that’s concerned, he seems confused or conflicted, which you see in that one part of the book where someone has found one of the pages of e-mails that Jack threw out the window. Someone has taken it and tacked it up on this bulletin board inside the elevator of their condo building. When Simon finds it, he takes it down and hides it. So, he kind of seems torn, even about that.
UR: While they both align themselves with Deb, and they both protest what the father did, Simon and Kay are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum.
JP: Well, one of them is sort of coming from a place of sadness, while the other is coming from a place of anger.
UR: Switching gears a little bit, last but certainly not least, who would you say are your influences?
JP: For this book in particular, some of the more obvious influences, both structurally and thematically, were Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Those just influenced the way I sort of dealt with time in the book. Then also some of my favorite writers that I read a lot. E.M. Forster, Willa Cather and Philip Roth. So, a wide range, but those two works were very influential. Then there’s also the poet Galway Kinnell from whom I got the title and the epigraph for the book, as well as James Salter and Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, and Nicholson Baker — but of course there are so many authors I admire that the list could go on forever.
Julia Pierpont is the author of Among the Ten Thousand Things, her debut novel. She is a graduate of Barnard College and the M.F.A. program at N.Y.U., where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow, as well as the recipient of a Stein Fellowship. She works at The New Yorker and lives in Brooklyn with her lunatic dog, Dash.
You can find out more about Julia and her book, Among the Ten Thousand Things, as well as upcoming events, by logging onto her website, www.juliapierpont.com. You can also find Julia on Twitter @juliapierpont and on Facebook.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.