by Sheri Boggs
Jasmine Paul's debut novel, A Girl, in Parts, opens with a troubled 9-year-old protagonist who has nightmares, asthma, bad teeth and no chin. Dottie, as this unfortunate young girl is called, endures the howling torment of her classmates on bus rides home, desperately craves the attention of her mother, loathes the Eastern Washington town where her family winds up and ultimately finds solace in basketball and the friendship of hoodlums. She's also the kind of kid who sucks her thumb, throws up every time she gets nervous and has funny phobias about the feminine hygiene products under the bathroom sink. A Girl, in Parts does not seem like the kind of book one would share with someone as tough, acerbic and famous as say, Judge Judy, but in fact, the lace-collared TV magistrate was one of the book's first readers.
"I worked on the Judge Judy show for three years after grad school," says Paul, who now lives in Spokane with her dog, Floyd. "It was surreal in a lot of ways, but she and I got along really well. We were as tight as you can get, really, considering that she was a multimillion dollar celebrity and I was a grunt."
For someone who had never thought of herself as a writer, Jasmine Paul is enjoying the elation that comes with publishing one's first book. Released in August, A Girl, in Parts won positive reviews in The Oregonian, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and has turned out to be a big favorite among bookstore staffers. Told in 97 vignettes (the "parts" of the book's title), A Girl is being lauded by critics for giving us a resilient-but-oh-so-real heroine and for being written in a fresh, authentically young voice. But with the elation comes a certain measure of skittishness. In addition to a few rejection slips and one really negative review, Paul is also concerned with how well she's going to do with her next book or two.
"I'm so ecstatic about this, but it also opens you up to an amazing amount of fear," she says. "Everybody loved Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, but he's never achieved anything like that since then. You think, 'God, that's scary.' "
The fact that Paul lives in Spokane illustrates one of the big truths about publishing: getting published does not change your life overnight. You don't suddenly get to tell your employer to sod off, nor does Dave Eggers suddenly start planting lunch invitations all over your answering machine. Although Spokane figures prominently in A Girl, in Parts -- Dottie's impoverished family moves from West Virginia to the Colville Indian Reservation -- Paul is not originally from here.
"We lived in Grand Coulee for awhile, and my family settled here," she explains. "I got to where I couldn't take L.A. anymore. I'd just had it. So I came and stayed with my folks and did nothing for awhile. Spokane is a great place for collapsing."
Paul has a day job here, working for a seed company, and she cheerfully describes her work as "answering phones and filing."
"I haven't figured out what my next step is, but for now," she says, "this is just what I need."
The 30-year-old writer originally graduated from UCLA with a degree in film and critical studies before working at Judge Judy. "My plan was to go on and get my Ph.D. and become a professor, but I suddenly felt like I was surrounded by assholes," she confides. "I had just spent four years in academia and realized, 'I'm not as smart as these people, but it's okay because I don't really wanna be here.' Towards the end I was writing all my papers on Thelma and Louise."
After graduating, she landed a gig on Judge Judy and put in many long hours but still found time to write poetry.
"I'd come home from putting in a 12-hour day, and I'd unwind by sitting down with a glass of wine and writing poetry," she says. "But I got to the point where I was writing the same poem over and over again, so I just stopped and didn't write anymore for about a year. When I wrote again, I just started writing prose, and I'd written what was basically this three-page blurb about a girl who goes to Seattle and has all these weird experiences."
Paul kept writing and the girl in the Seattle story began to unfold and become Dottie, the protagonist of A Girl, in Parts. She began showing pages to one of her "very literary, very smart" colleagues at Judge Judy, who told her, emphatically, to keep writing.
"I just kind of stumbled into it. I would come home and write five, or two or four pages and then bring them into work the next day. I wrote the entire novel like that, and it was literally a nine-month-long group effort."
She eventually approached Judge Judy with the manuscript. Her honor was so impressed, she passed it along to her own agent, who was considerably less enthused.
"Her agent sent it back with a note saying 'This is the worst book I've ever read,' " laughs Paul.
Some writers would have spent the next three days in the bathtub, drinking Gato Blanco and reaching over every so often to flush a few more pages of their manuscript down the toilet. But not Paul. She continued refining the manuscript, found an agent, and signed on with Counterpoint Books.
"[The manuscript] sat on this guy's table for months, and he didn't read it," she says. "It was so accidental, how it happened. His wife found it and started reading and said, 'You have to publish this.'"
It's no surprise that A Girl, in Parts resonates so well with female readers. Paul says that she loves the idea of being part of a long line of such confessional writers as Anne Sexton and especially Dorothy Allison.
"I still remember the first time I read Bastard Out of Carolina. That book really shook me up. I've read it about a dozen times now, and it still blows my mind how emotionally honest it is and how Allison can capture that child's voice so completely and so truthfully."
Which is not to say that it's only for women readers. Dottie is often mistaken for a boy throughout the course of the novel, and Paul's observations are dead-on funny in places. In fact, she has a seemingly effortless knack for evoking the shame of poverty, the long-forgotten pains of childhood and the hilarity of an orthodontic appliance called "the Bionator," all in one vignette.
"The book is a work of fiction, although some of the things are 'real,' in terms of being from my life -- for instance, my parents divorced. And a lot of the embarrassing things Dottie goes through, I went through," she says. "But that's what's so great about writing. I was able to make her cool, so much cooler than I was. And she's a much better basketball player. So that was a really healing thing for me."
She pauses, still joking, but there's no small amount of truth to her words. "I think being able to rewrite your own history is the only reason to write."