Jen Doll on Being an Outsider, and (Finally) Becoming A Writer
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. One of the great things a book can do is make us feel less like outsiders. No matter who we are or where we are, we can find ourselves reflected somewhere in a book. And just the act of reading connects us to other readers. If you love a book you are instantly part of the tribe of booklovers. And there are more and more ways to connect—whether online at, say, Goodreads, or at an author reading at your favorite local indie. Sadly, it’s human nature to divide into groups and cliques and to define those not just by who we let in but who we keep out. And often we can be so preoccupied with the groups that won’t let us in that we fail to see the ways we keep others out. This year is the 50th anniversary of one of the great books about outsiders. If you are trying to guess which book I’m talking about, well, it’s the obvious one: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. In this classic, there are two groups—the socs and the greasers. Any teen worth her or his salt will identify with the greasers, who are the outsiders in the novel. But if you read the book with a truly open mind and heart, you may see yourself part soc and part greaser, sometimes on the inside and sometimes not, excluding and being excluded in all different kinds of ways every day. And recently, I got to talking about how one particular book helped ease the pain of feeling like an outsider with today’s guest.
Jen Doll: My name is Jen Doll, and I am the author of Unclaimed Baggage.
WS: Jen Doll has written for The Atlantic, The Cut, the Village Voice, and also two of her own books—a memoir called Save the Date and her latest, the YA book Unclaimed Baggage. And ever since she was a kid, there were three things you could count on for Jen: that she’d be reading, that she’d be writing, and that she’d probably be moving pretty soon.
JD: I had lived in eight places by the time I was eight, according to family lore. I was born in Houston, Texas, and I don’t it remember at all because I moved when I was one, and then my dad was a chemical engineer and so we were basically going from plant to plant as he worked his way up to plant manager. When I went to kindergarten, we had just moved to a new house in Downer’s Grove, Illinois, the wonderfully named town, suburb of Chicago. We drove our winnebago there and when we pulled into the driveway, it was too late to get out and move into the house, so my first day of kindergarten, I went to kindergarten out of the winnebago.
WS: Amidst all these moves, there was one constant, a hobby Jen could take with her wherever she went: reading.
JD: One of the first book that I really loved was called Morris’ Disappearing Bag, by Rosemary Wells. It’s about Morris, who is a rabbit and he’s sort of the less paid attention to member of the family, and for Christmas he gets a disappearing bag. Which, you know, there are always those moments where you just want no one to see you. If you could have this disappearing bag, it’s like, you could do things and be places, or if there was an embarrassing moment, you could just not be there all of the sudden. So I really loved that book.
I love Treehorn, which is by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey, illustrated, and he’s this character who shrinks because he orders this thing in a cereal box and it allows him the power of shrinking. And he gets smaller and smaller and people—adults—just don’t get it, and they half ignore him all the time anyway. I think I was really obsessed with this idea of like, being smaller, being able to fit in places where maybe no one could see me. But also then through that, not being invisible and having no power, but having immense power in that, because I could watch everybody. I could hear the conversations they were having. I could gain power through that.
JD: At the time, I was also writing a lot of my own little books and writing stories in my notebooks, often about tiny people who had the power of going wherever they wanted to. So yeah, I was obsessed.
WS: And it was at that moment that a book about a young girl who wants to be a writer came into Jen’s life.
JD: For my 11th birthday, my mom’s friend who lived down the street gave me a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And in the front flap, she inscribed it, to another 11 year old girl who loves books, because in the book, Francie Nolan is obsessed with books and they take her to places that save her from the poverty and struggles that she’s facing in real life. I think every 11 year old can relate to wanting to escape the ecosystem that they’re often put in against their will. I read that book over and over and over again, and I still read it every year. And this copy that I have that was a gift, the cover’s fallen off and it’s completely like—you can’t read it anymore, so I had to buy another one. So I have my reading copy, and my special sort of art object copy that I keep.
JD: I think when I turned 11, I wasn’t really wanting to read kids’ books anymore. I wanted to read grown up people’s books, and I would go into the library and ask for grown up books, and they would tell me that they were too old for me, so this was one that actually had been sanctioned by an adult and felt very exciting to get to read.
JD: I’ve read it so many times that the memory of the very first time has become conglomerated with all of the other times, and sort of mixed in with Francie’s reading. So I can picture her on the fire escape with the peppermint chips that she’s eating that she’s prepared in this beautiful bowl, which is chipped but still beautiful, and the tree that’s scraggly but beautiful, and I’m like, did I do that? I think I read it in my bedroom and my main feeling of it is being completely consumed by this book. Where I wasn’t where I was as much as I was in the pages of the book.
WS: When we come back from the break, as she embarks on another move, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn helps Jen feel rooted.
WS: Jen Doll was given A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on her 11th birthday—an experience that she says transformed her. But her 11th year would also include another big change.
JD: In fifth grade, just as I had been elected treasurer of the fifth grade class, my parents announced that we were going to be moving to Alabama.
JD: I had to move to Alabama, go to this new school, learn how to speak all these different languages—it felt like different languages. Like, instead of saying you guys, they said y’all. I had a teacher who told me that the Civil War was the war of northern aggression. And then I had to make all these new friends, which was really hard, especially because a new girl in fifth grade who’s awkward. . . and I think I was doing my hair in like, a really gross, greasy wave at the time. I don’t know, it just was difficult. I didn’t have the right clothes because it was a totally different world. So, it was a big culture shock.
JD: In Illinois, I felt like I was myself. And then when I moved to Alabama, it was sort of this question of, this self that I thought I was no longer applied in this new context, and maybe people didn’t even like that self. So I had to wear layers of camouflage, sort of putting on myself as I worked out in my brain how to be accepted. And now to be not popular necessarily, but not ostracized. There was a moment where I was pantsed on the playground and it was supposed to be a joke, but it was not funny. And I remember just crying, going back home after school, and my mom, with her super strong Chicago accent, comforting me, and feeling like we so did not fit in in this place. And the idea of, how do you go from just feeling like you’re in a place you don’t belong to belonging? It feels like an impossibility.
WS: An early incident with Jen’s new fifth grade teacher also didn’t help.
JD: Oh, God. I shouldn’t say her name, probably. But she had these long fingernails that were like talons, and they were always painted a coral color that’s actually probably popular now, but at the time was for a certain sort of southern lady. And she had this poofy white hair, and she had this strong southern accent. And I remember the classroom, and I think I had answered a question—like she’d asked a question, and I raised my hand. And when I answered it, I didn’t say ma’am, and so she didn’t like my answer. And then after she called me to her desk, and said, I’m not sure where you’re from or what your manners have been up to this point, but when you’re here and you’re in my classroom, you answer me ma’am. And I was like, holy shit! Like, what? You just don’t know that that’s what you’re supposed to do. And she was horribly offended. We didn’t get along very well after that. But it was just this painful experience of feeling like the rules had been changed and I didn’t know how to operate.
WS: As she settled into life in Alabama, Jen found herself returning and returning to her favorite book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
WS: In what ways do you think it comforted you when you were feeling the dislocation after moving to Alabama?
JD: There’s a possibility even when things are hard. And I think that’s something that is beneficial for all of us to remember. Like, the world right now feels very tumultuous and terrifying and frequently, totally rotten. But if we read, if we write, if we communicate, if we sort of seek out the inner humanity of each other, there’s a way to move past this.
WS: And A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also had an impact on the types of stories Jen found herself wanting to tell.
JD: What that book did for me in terms of writing stories was suddenly, I thought the story of my own life and experiences could be legitimate, and valid, and I could write about that stuff as much as I could write about these little humans who were very small running around and living in walls. And at that time, I was writing in a diary every night, so I have this diary from maybe third grade up through senior year in high school. And it’s incredible because my handwriting changes drastically, And you can see the course of a life, or a young person to a teenager’s life, through this handwriting where it’s huge and I’m figuring it out, and then it’s hearts and then it’s bubble letters, and then it’s this really cool script that’s kind of adult. It’s really funny. So I think I wasn’t writing so many stories at that point. I was chronicling my own story. And I think that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn helped me figure out that whether immediately worthwhile or worthwhile at some point in the future only to me, it was a really cool thing to sort of write about your own life, and like what you were experiencing.
WS: Although Jen was bit by the writing bug, it took a bit longer to fully take hold.
JD: When I went to college, I went to Georgetown and I got into the School of Foreign Service. And I thought that I would become a diplomat. This was partly because my dad was always like, writing is a really hard career, I don’t know if you want to be a writer. And I was just like, I want to be a writer, I want to be a writer, look, this is all I do, I need to be a writer. And so I transferred to the college. I majored in English, and I came out of college getting a job in advertising, and I hated that!
JD: I think there’s always been this push pull about how do you survive and make money, and how do you do your art. And certainly, I’m not the only person to feel that—it’s very common. And you live in a city like New York City, and it’s expensive, and it’s really hard. So I kept taking jobs where I’d get paid kind of okay, but I felt completely lost in them, and possibly resentful and also was bad at my job. And during that time, I’m taking creative writing classes because that was the way that I could at least have some outlet. I mean, it’s like Francie, you know? Like how do you do what you love and allow that to give you some power over the stuff you can’t control in life.
WS: Jen went to work at magazines, mostly on the production side. But when the magazine she was working at folded, she began to think about pursuing what had always been her dream: writing.
JD: I was like, what am I going to do? I’ve just always wanted to write, this is ridiculous, let me use this moment to figure out what I really want to do again. And I started a blog called Your Unemployed Daughter, and it was about being a 30 something who suddenly didn’t have a job, even though she’d supposedly done everything kind of right, and it was obviously like an homage to my dad. And then I got a job at The Village Voice. And then I got a job at The Atlantic. And so it was kind of like, allowing myself to do the thing I really wanted to do all along, and suddenly not be so afraid of failing.
WS: While she was working at The Atlantic, she was approached by an agent, and ended up writing Save the Date, a memoir about all the weddings she’d ever been to. And then, as she was trying to figure out what to write next, a new project at work pointed her in a new direction.
JD: I had started a column at The Atlantic called YA For Grownups, and so people were like, when are you going to write a YA book? Which is a nice push. And so I started writing a YA book, and that is. . .
WS: Unclaimed Baggage.
JD: Unclaimed Baggage.
WS: Unclaimed Baggage was just released, and is based on a real store that she came across in her childhood in Decatur, Alabama. The store sells lost luggage that never gets retrieved, and the book tells the story of the employees that work there, the friendships that they develop, and the various ways in which they each feel a bit like a fish out of water—an idea that’s been with her since she read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
JD: When you think about the idea of not totally being accepted by your surroundings or feeling outside of your surroundings and different than anybody else, I think that’s a core of my book and I think that’s a core of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This idea that you feel different, but that’s okay.
JD: There was something about the way that it showed all of this possibility that I really loved. And you know, my niece is only two, but I plan to give it to her very soon. I think I will give it to probably every one of my friends’ daughters. I have a friend whose daughter is a huge reader, and they were visiting this summer and she read two books on the porch like, within three hours. I think she needs it. So, yeah, I’ll probably just keep buying it over and over again for people.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Jen Doll and Morgan Rath. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.