Author Q&A: Julianna Baggott

  • May 17, 2012

Wendy Coakley-Thompson’s Q&A with the author of Pure.

The critically acclaimed best-selling author Julianna Baggott also writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. She has published 17 books in the last 10 years. Film rights for her forthcoming novel Pure have been acquired by Fox 2000. There are approximately 50 foreign editions of her novels to date. Baggott is an associate professor at Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program.

About Pure:

“Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost ― how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers … to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run.”

Wendy Coakley-Thompson’s Q&A with Julianna Baggott, the author of Pure.

Jamie Raab, your publisher at Grand Central, says that “Dystopian novels are evergreen works: every generation has their game-changing story.” Raab goes on to cite 1984, The Passage and The Hunger Games as exemplars. What would you say is Pure’s contribution to changing the game?

I’ve heard theme explained as a stain that the reader is left with, maybe an emotional after-image. I don’t write with it in mind. As a writer, my main objective is to tell the story urgently ― as if whispering it into one ear ― and to know the characters intimately. As for themes, I often don’t realize how political, feminist, theological … a work of mine is until long after it’s published. Those issues often come up in interviews. For example, Publishers Weekly talked about Pure in terms of the 99 percent. That term had no relevance when I was writing Pure, but those themes are there ― the haves and have-nots. I start with my own obsessions, as I believe the writers above likely did too. Their obsessions proved to be incredibly resonant. As for Pure, I don’t think I’m the one to call it.

You’ve written pseudonymously in other genres. What about dystopia attracted you to that particular genre?

Dystopia does demand one thing that I was truly drawn to, “world building.” I was restless to do something really visual on a large canvas, and dystopia requires that level of creation. I wanted to create a world that was part-dark realism, part-revisionist history, part-dream and myth, part-fantasy, partly inspired by science. … I wanted a world so different from our own that it required hand-stitching.

Pressia is a Wretch with permanent scars as a result of surviving the Detonations. Partridge is a Pure who escaped unblemished in the Dome. Explain the opposing dualities of the Pures and the Wretches in the novel, as well as how the characteristics of each enable Pressia and Partridge to survive on their individual quests.

I think everyone feels marked in some way. Surely, both of these characters are scarred. One has to wear her scars, but the other has them too. I think that they recognize this commonality. They’re drawn to each other at first based solely on the fact that each needs something from the other, but their losses ― their scars ― and their longing create a bridge between them. The collision of these two characters’ lives and what binds them inextricably is what propels the plot and gives it some of the elements of a thriller.

What’s the significance of the blue butterfly on the cover of Pure?

The blue butterfly is in a bell jar. I think that speaks to purity ― whether the blue butterfly exists within the delicate ribs of a 16-year-old girl or a 17-year-old boy trapped in a dome. There are more literal references to the blue butterfly in the second novel, Fuse, which comes out this time next year.

Pressia’s doll-head hand was the least disconcerting of the imagery within Pure. How did you approach the task of infusing humanity into such a disturbingly dark context populated with mutated bodies and psyches?

I was working on a series of fabulist short stories that weren’t working. They were artistic and literary, and the images were applied to characters who weren’t really psychologically affected by their fusings. They also lived wholly in the real contemporary world. When I found Pressia with the doll-head fused to her fist, hiding in an ashen cabinet, I knew that the world around her wasn’t ours, not at all. And I knew that this was a novel, not stories. I had my world and my main character within it.

Fox 2000 Pictures has optioned the film rights to Pure. It’s usually a given that films are never as good as the books that spawned them. What aspects of the story must Pure, the film, contain to make it as good as Pure, the book?

Yes, but there’s The Godfather, The Color Purple, The World According to Garp, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; I thought The Hours was an example of an incredible novel that would never translate to the screen, and I thought it was done magnificently. When they are their best, they do so on their own terms. I would love an artful director who wants to make it his or her own. Not beautiful, but beautiful in its honesty.

Wendy Coakley-Thompson, a journalist, author and award-winning commentator based in Alexandria, Va.,covers the publishing industry. Her new novel, “Writing White Black” is forthcoming. (

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