Jon Pineda deconstructs a landscape of emotion in his 2018 novel Let’s No One Get Hurt. The novel follows Pearl, a fifteen-year-old girl, on a journey of discovery, enduring a rather untamed existence. She lives off the land and petty thievery, squatting in a falling-down boathouse on a river with her father, a disgraced former college professor, and two of his friends: Dox and his grown son, Fritter. Early on, Pearl explains, “We gather and gather, and still, it never seems like it’s enough.” The reader comes to understand that it’s not just physical sustenance but emotional sustenance that is in short supply, following Pearl’s mother’s death a few years before. Then Pearl meets Mason Boyd, who she calls “Main Boy,” and his group of rich-boy friends who ride around in tricked-out golf carts, and the two enter into a dark relationship.
Jon, this is a coming-of-age story, but a nontraditional one. Pearl has no female role model to follow, living as she does with her father and his two male friends, and so her sense of her own body and her budding sexual self—she must discover largely alone. Living outside of society and popular culture, she doesn’t romanticize the act, but sex with Main Boy feels more transactional. She thinks of herself as stepping outside of her body, knowing she is just a means to his pleasure; at the same time, she gets to glimpse the boy’s lifestyle of material excess, comforts that are foreign to her. Sex then becomes a means to understanding the great class divide that exists between Pearl’s makeshift family and his, her type of people and his—those that live off the land and those that own it, both impoverished in their own ways. Did you set out to tackle these very public themes of class and land-ownership and material culture through what we think of as the private act of sex? Why through a fifteen-year-old girl’s point of view?
Initially, I was just trying to listen for Pearl’s voice and discover what was at risk in the story. With Pearl on the cusp of adulthood and facing a world that seemed intent on taking everything from her, I felt she was the only one who deserved to tell her story.
I have to admit that, since reading Jane Alison’s craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, I’m always on the lookout for narratives that break from the traditional arc, or wave, form: rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. The river in your novel is as much a character as the characters; and I wonder, did you set out to have the form of the novel follow that river, winding, and with the occasional switchback: a remembrance of Pearl’s dead mother, for instance?
Thanks for mentioning it. I also felt the river was a character in the novel. In the first drafts, I’d set out to try and understand how the river factored into the other characters’ lives. Things quickly became cyclical and even roiling. The final form the novel took settled, though, on how I was hearing and internalizing the rhythm of Pearl’s voice. The cadence of it was what kept carrying me through the landscape.
The form of your novel also feels mosaic-like, with very short chapters, one only a paragraph, one just a sentence: “If a body is abandoned, does it become a poem?” (I came to think of this line as the rudder for the book.) Much of the story arises in how these mosaic pieces butt up against each other. Do you think it’s your being a poet that makes you comfortable letting images speak for themselves, letting questions go unanswered, using white space to let the reader in to the conversation—rather than filling in those white spaces with exposition and backstory?
In some ways, yes, I can see that, but ultimately, I’m most interested in what’s essential. Sometimes that means removing all of the decorative layers the ego can easily create via intention. I’d lump exposition in there, for sure. Exposition can also be a delay, in the sense that it delays the reader’s active discovery. I’m not saying it’s not necessary as a device. It is, but I often think about something James Baldwin said in an interview: “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” I believe he was talking about the risk surrounding simplicity, how difficult it is to render, through language, the essential. For me, exposition and backstory can sometimes be safe spaces, framed by the writer’s intention. An image, though, is something different. An image is a wilderness.
Late in the book, Pearl and Fritter make a raft to float down the river to the city when their truck breaks down. It becomes a Huck Finn type of journey—where race inequality is brought into relief only once the two friends, Pearl and Fritter, who is black, make contact with the outside world of this southern city. Did you have Twain’s Huck and Jim in mind when you were writing this?
I started to suspect Pearl and Fritter might float into that same liminal space, and so rather than try to avoid Twain’s influence, I decided to embrace it. Pearl and Fritter’s makeshift raft is a little different, of course, with it being a framed wall of an unfinished home.
Some of the weightiest parts in this novel, theme-wise, were also some of the funniest to me. For instance: the image of this dripping wet skinny girl and a 300-pound black man with dreads running right through a reenactment of a Civil War battle. I adored that! Do you often use humor as a side door to enter into discussions on heavy issues, like racism, in your work?
I feel like this was a first for me. When I was writing that scene, it just felt right. Especially the disruption of the battle. So many things collide in this moment. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the book.
You teach writing at William & Mary and you’re part of the core faculty for the low-residency MFA program at Queens University at Charlotte. Can you tell us how your teaching influences your writing? And what do you like to teach most, and why?
My students and colleagues inspire me. I try my best to return the favor. For me, writing is about discovery, both for the writer and the reader. Teaching can do the same thing. There’s a conversation that occurs between the two activities, I think, and often, one’s teaching and one’s writing are inextricably linked, with one informing the other. Of course, there needs to be balance, since both require lots of attention. It’s work I enjoy, though. Good work. Restorative work. I really don’t have a preferred genre or topic to teach, and even if I did, I’m not sure I’d be able to admit it here, for fear of genre retribution. Is that even a thing, genre retribution? I’m going to pretend like that’s a thing. Maybe that’s not a thing. I will say one of my favorite moments as a teacher comes when a student pushes past their assumptions of characterization, narrative construction, etc., and produces a work independent of their initial vision. Intention only gets you so far. When a student realizes their potential and moves beyond intention, it signals to me that they’re engaging with their own work. Their future books are waiting for them on the other side of this discovery.
You’ve got three collections of poetry, a memoir, and two novels under your belt. How do you come at your creative process? Do you stick to one genre at a time? Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I think I come at my creative process through an ongoing curiosity for the world. I’ve taken to heart the poet Theodore Roethke’s edict: “Live in a perpetual great astonishment.” It’s not always the case, but I try to keep this curiosity close, to protect it from my own skepticism. Questions generate and accumulate, and in some ways I feel like my books are what’s leftover from the questions I’ve asked along the way. I take comfort in the unknown. Sometimes those questions guide me to poetry. Sometimes they guide me to fiction, or creative nonfiction. Right now, I’m at work on new novel, one set in the same landscape as Let’s No One Get Hurt. I don’t think Pearl is going to make an appearance, not yet at least, but I can’t say the same for some of the other characters. You never know.
Last, congrats on Let’s No One Get Hurt being named a finalist for the 2019 Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award! All of us at PLM are cheering for you!
Thank you! It’s an honor to be named a finalist, and I’m so grateful Pearl’s story has connected with readers.
Thank you to Jon Pineda, author of Let’s No One Get Hurt. Get it here!