“I was standing there in my usual spot behind the counter at the Top Hat Cafe, looking down, thinking about evil, buttering toast.” From that killer first sentence, Rebecca Wolff drops us into the mind of Ginger Pritt, a 15-year-old girl from a small New England town named Wick. She is still innocent enough to want to play make-believe with her best friend Cherry, but she’s about to come into awareness of the world of sex, death and evil, in the form of her connection to the history of the Salem witch trials and the drowned town that lies beneath the reservoir.
Read the last Bookslut on Jesse Ball's The Curfew.
While The Beginners is Wolff’s first novel, she’s a veteran to the writing scene. She’s the author of several books of poetry and the founder of both Fence the literary journal and Fence the publisher. Wolff and I had a chat about the mysterious strangers who wander into Wick and enchant young Ginger, the different roles she plays in the literary community, and why teenage girls are natural black magicians.
First off, and this is an inevitable question, why the switch from poetry to a novel?
Well, I guess I haven't really switched. I'm doing both now. I wrote a poem just the other day! Truly, though, I started writing and publishing poems as a teenager, but I've always been a lover of the novel. It seemed fairly inevitable to me that I would one day attempt one. The biggest influences on my poems, or poetic sensibility if you will, have always been novels/novelists. I'm a fan of the sentence and how to manage it; disrupt it or spin it out. My earliest poems were laden with semicolons. When the idea struck me for this novel, it was in much the same way as a poem strikes one, so I didn't really question it, I just started writing.
That being said, the experience of completing a novel has certainly effected my interior poetic discourse and the resulting poems. Basically I have more of a relationship with clarity. I should also say that I have some weird compulsion to try out genres and forms—I've written a play, and tried a screenplay, and I come up with T-shirts and bumper stickers all the time.
Ginger's interest in the macabre and the occult read as so genuine, it might be a young girl thing. I remember a time when I read everything I could find on spontaneous combustion, until I became paranoid I might burst into flames at any minute. Did you go through a similar reading streak when you were younger? And was there a particular form of the supernatural you were hooked on?
Well, yes. Ginger's involvement in otherworldly matters is definitely a concentrated version of a long, more diffuse interest on my part. Most relevantly to the novel I grew up knowing about my family relationship to Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged as a witch in the Salem witch trials and for whom I am named. So that certainly sparked an interest in reading about the history of perceptions of witchery and what it might mean to be a keeper of certain kinds of powers. Then my brother and I spent a lot of time as young kids reading fantasy and horror, and what might now be called "speculative fiction"—stuff that treated the occult as an entertaining and available alternative to the humdrum world of visible phenomena. There was in the ’70s an occult shop near our apartment in Chelsea called The Warlock's Childe, and we LOVED it, and would go there after school and just look at all the weird pamphlets and black candles and books of spells, etc. Loved it. I guess we were looking for an alternative world.
In writing the novel I became aware that I had a desire to recapture the most necessary ingredient of that world, which is fear: One has to enjoy being afraid, and find it a productive mental space, in order to really want to spend a lot of time in there.
Let's talk about the Salem witch trial aspect to your novel. I loved the way you described the coming down from that frenzy, that after the trials people were looking at each other shamefaced, like puppies who had pissed the carpet. What made you decide to set a modern novel into that historical background?
The relationship to history, or the past, that I try to examine in the novel is mostly about how it is a story, like any other, and how there are these multiple perspectives, or belief systems even, that can arise in response to, or even determine the story. The essential mystery of the book is: Why would anyone ever move to Wick, the small, isolated town that Ginger has been born into?
Raquel and Theo, the couple who appear there, offer several wildly varying stories as answer to that question, and all of them are believable: They are a couple of disaffected, besotted graduate students with dissertations to write. They are the reincarnated souls of a pair of sibling lovers who lived in the town long before. They are a sociopath and his mentally ill lover on the lam. All of these might be the true story—the order in which they are offered does not determine the amount of truth they hold: one's capacity for belief does.
So, in this sense I like the self-referentially determined presence in the novel of my actual family connection to the Salem witch trials. Though it is a true biographical back story, and integral to the novel's original inspiration, I offer it up almost as a red herring: It is possible that the inclusion of it is just an amusing flourish Raquel adds to the dissertation story. Nevertheless, the trope of the "afflicted girls," the ones who did all the accusing in Salem, is thematically relevant to and illustrative of the power of the teenaged girls who rule the story of The Beginners in the end, and therefore deserves its place in the story.
As for your work with Fence, what made you decide not only to produce your own poetry, but to assist in the curation and publication of the poetry of others as well?
It was pretty connected to my own poetry, that desire to become involved in publishing. A long time ago, in a world practically unimaginable now, my writing was very difficult for publishers to appreciate. I'm taking the piss, but not entirely. I really had a very pragmatic response to the experience of seeing that there was not, seemingly, room in the publishing landscape for poems that, as I loosely and naively characterized my own at the time, were "weird" and not part of any ordained experimental culture yet also clearly not of interest or relevance to the more establishment venues.
So I decided to take my karma in my hands and create a venue for this. Of course as soon as I did I started to see how much more complicated and depthful and intractable this situation was, but it took a long while before I became fully jaded and disenfranchised, as I am now, also a joke but not entirely. I believe I am repeating a truism when I say that often for an idea to get off the ground it has to be sufficiently simple and even ignorant of complication, and it is very clear to me that I never could have started Fence without being sufficiently armed with my own potent brand of sassy ignorance.
Jessa Crispin is the editor-in-chief of Bookslut.