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Author Interview: Jessica Hagedorn [in Bookslut]

Jessica HagedornWhen I first met the inimitable Jessica Hagedorn eight years ago – her 2003 novel Dream Jungle, in which Hagedorn intertwines the alleged discovery of an ancient “lost tribe” in the remote hills of the Philippines with the problematic filming of Apocalypse Now, was just about to come out – we bonded over fiery bums. I confessed to her how my mother always told me that my backend was on fire because I did too many things at the same time, her warning that I would burn out and die young. Hagedorn – who remains eternal – admitted that she, too, thought she might die young, “but it’s all turned out fine,” she assured me, “I had nurturing people who took care of me along the way.” She also wisely cautioned, “…that urge – to have your bum on fire – it never ends. That fire never goes out.”

Hagedorn’s personal flame has certainly kept her creatively fueled, involved in countless projects in various media. She entered the literary world fully formed: her now-classic coming-of-age debut novel, Dogeaters, garnered a highly coveted National Book Award nomination in 1990. In the two decades since, Hagedorn has been recognized as both a leader and a mentor at the forefront of Asian Pacific America (she was born and raised in the Philippines and arrived in the United States in her early teens) with her compilation of Asian Pacific American writings, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, both of which she edited, in addition to her various other novels, poetry, films, plays, multimedia performance pieces, and a musical.

Eight years after Dream Jungle, Hagedorn’s much-awaited new novel, Toxicology, hit shelves earlier this year in April. Populated with her usual cast of unpredictable characters, Toxicology opens with the spectacular death of a beloved young actor. Separately joining the multiplying crowd of shocked mourners outside the actor’s apartment are Mimi Smith, a filmmaker with a minor cult slasher hit who is suffering through a rough patch both creatively and personally, and her estranged 14-year-old daughter Violet. Across the East River, Mimi’s older brother Melo is trying to stay sober, and is convinced that their cousin Agnes has met a sinister end at the hands of her wealthy New Jersey employers. Down the hall from Mimi, her neighbor Eleanor Delacroix, once a famous writer, now an eccentric octogenarian addicted to cocaine and alcohol, has effectively shut herself in while mourning the death of her long-time lover and partner, the renowned artist Yvonne Wilder. Brought together by loneliness – not to mention the flowing booze and drugs – Mimi and Eleanor’s disparate lives dovetail one into the other, as both find a strange comfort in their acerbic exchanges and desperate binges.

Always fascinated by Hagedorn’s writing, I recently caught up with her by phone (“some things never change,” she assures me about her phone number). We laughed, sighed, cackled, debated, and generally plotted to take over the universe…

Of course, I have so much to ask you, but we’ll start with Toxicology. We always have to start with a book! In the last couple of your major works, a factual death sparked your fiction: the passing of Manuel Elizalde Jr. for Dream Jungle, then Andrew Cunanan’s multiple murders and suicide for your musical Most Wanted. Toxicology also opens with death, the possible suicide or accidental overdose of a bad-boy Hollywood star. Dare I say, Heath Ledger came immediately to mind. Any chance that this “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” event ignited what became Toxicology?

I so remember that day [Ledger’s death] happened, how fascinating it was that such a wide range of people were affected by his passing. For a lot of us, he wasn’t just another movie or pop star who died too young. Something about Heath Ledger and his vulnerability and great talent moved people. That day, I heard from writer friends who only watch artsy fartsy movies, from my kids and my colleagues at work, a really wide range of people, and the solemn mood was the same for all. The country was already in a deep funk over dirty politics, dirty wars, the recession, and all that, and this sudden, intimate, human tragedy seemed to bring folks together. It was also a very New York City event. And yes, Ledger’s unfortunate death jumpstarted the opening chapter to Toxicology. [… click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Jessica Hagedorn,”, September 2011

Readers: Adult


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