“A lot of corny shit is true”: An Interview with Jaime Fountaine

“I hope I don’t seem too sympathetic” about flashers, Fountaine writes to me. “Because I do not, under any circumstances, think anyone should show their dick to anybody else, unprompted. I didn’t even remember that the town I grew up in had a flasher if its own until halfway through writing the book. For being such a bad idea, it seems like a lot of people have it.”

The subject of flashers has come up in our conversation because in Manhunt, Jaime Fountaine’s striking and tender debut novella about to be released from Mason Jar Press, a small-town flasher appears and reappears throughout the story. “The kids in Manhunt are much more judgmental about people who  have passively opted into seeing the dick than the person showing it. They’re still children. ‘Ha ha, made you look!’ hasn’t totally left their vocabulary.”

In my hometown of Maple Shade, NJ, there were a couple variations of flashers. As kids, we made fun of them, felt sorry for them even. Years later, we might call such tenderness a “coping device.” Fountaine helped me realize that, among other things, in Manhunt. “Flashers in pop culture are always a joke,” Jaime Fountaine writes to me. “We’re conditioned to find it funny. I wonder if part of that, part of why male nudity is so often presented as a joke, is to make it less threatening. Because, even if you laugh, the act of it is still someone lording a kind of power over you.”

Fountaine’s straightforward take on such matters should be of no surprise to readers of Fountaine of Advice, her truth-telling advice column at the website for the literary juggernaut Barrelhouse. In Manhunt, Fountaine tells the story of a young woman, unnamed, who experiences a summer on the cusp of womanhood. She feels pain, loneliness, and strikes out on her own, amidst the teenage wasteland of suburbia.

(Read an excerpt from Manhunt, “Single,” published here at Pine Hills Review.)

I shared questions about Manhunt with Fountaine on a Google Document, and over the course of the next few days, I could see Fountaine popping in and out answering questions, in her words, “the way I have done most of my writing in the last few years: piecemeal between the google docs app on my phone and my work computer, because I basically have to trick myself into being productive.” Between her day gig, writing projects, her regular interviews with fellow writers at The Fanzine, not to mention co-hosting the Tire Fire reading series with Mike Ingram in Philadelphia, it’s pretty evident whatever trickery she’s used is working.

Besides flashers, we talked about adulthood, class, using flash fiction to tell a coming-of-age story, rawness over accuracy, and, of course, bra technology.

In the acknowledgments, you write that “This is a lonely story.” While I understand that, I think that reading this story, with so many familiar people from my own small-town past, has made me feel less lonely. In the terms of our day, I feel seen, and I can’t help but think other readers, particularly younger women, will feel the same way. I guess that’s not a question, but if you have a comment, that’d be cool.

I spend a lot of the writing process thinking about myself from 20 years ago, and how absolutely terrible it was to be 13. It was scary and lonely and sad. I couldn’t have imagined the life I have at 34 (which isn’t even all that exciting or successful or magnificent) back then.

One of the greatest parts of being an adult is making friends with the kinds of people you wished you knew as a kid—and who wished for people like you. If you go looking, you will find your people someday.  I know that sounds really corny, but a lot of corny shit is true.

We’re speaking while the movie Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s film that tells the story of two young women who go through rites of passage. Do you think we’re in a moment when female coming-of-age stories are finally being told?

I think women’s coming-of-age stories have been told almost as long as men’s, but they’re framed differently, and rewarded for different things. Narratives about marginalized people (not just women) are so often expected to be centered around trauma, or to play out in some morally satisfying way for a comfortable, white audience. But boys becoming men? That’s always been a whole story.

There are as many ways to grow up as there are people, which is what makes these individual coming-of-age stories infinitely interesting and relatable.

One major difference between Manhunt and many stories is how it approaches class. Or, I should say, the economic and social class of the characters. Am I correct when I say these characters aren’t from the fancypants suburbs or prep school set? How important was representation of class to you in Manhunt, or did it not enter the equation?

Class is always part of the equation. There’s this very foolish, Horatio Alger kind of idea that in the United States, one can easily jump classes with just a little luck, which is absolutely false. I’m a white, cisgender woman who went to college, and the amount of privilege that affords me is astounding. I grew up without much emotional or financial stability, and I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to catch up to my debts, but I’ve had it pretty good, considering.

There are a lot of different ways to be poor. I was the kind of poor the narrator in this story is, which is very different than systematic poverty, or rural poverty, for example, but there’s still plenty of overlap in how it would feel to a 13-year-old, who is too young to really work but is also pretty anxious about money.

I’ve read enough stories about rich people at this point. It’s hard to make art without money, but so many of us do it anyway. It’s easy to treat people in poverty like they deserve to live that way, and the ways that narrative is supported can be insidious sometimes: by rewarding the kind of work that tells stories about struggle for “rawness” rather than accuracy, by the kinds of opportunities that are offered to people without the same worries, by the cultural and monetary barriers that can exist in every aspect of creating art—from application and submission fees to the sheer amount of time it takes to finish a project.

Would it be fair to say mother-daughter relationships form the emotional core, or an emotional core, of Manhunt? Have you learned anything about mother-daughter relationships putting the book together?

I don’t know shit about mother-daughter relationships. I have been pretty comfortably estranged from my mother for over 15 years. We never had a healthy relationship, and not continuing it in my adulthood is one of the best choices I’ve made for my own well being.

I hope that the relationship the narrator and her mother have in Manhunt feels real and lived in, but it’s an imagined one.

When I wrote the story that started this novella, I was thinking a lot about how different generations and types of women interact with and/or work around the patriarchy. It was March of 2016, a simpler time. When it became something bigger in scope (but, you know, still pretty small), that idea informed the way that the narrator and her mother interacted with the men in the story and with each other more than anything I ever experienced as some woman’s daughter.

I’m a fan of the structure and form of Manhunt, its super-short and episodic sections. Can you tell me a little bit about how you arrived at that structure? It’s my experience that editors and agents tend to be resistant to it, but readers not so much.

I wrote a story that used this narrator, and I liked the voice so much that I wrote another one. And then I sort of pretended I was writing a book for a year without doing very much. I’m not a “write every day” person. I have a full time job, and I run a reading series, and there’s just so much television I could be watching. I have to trick myself into writing.

During that pretending phase, I read Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat. The structure of that book, which is also a coming-of-age story told in flash, really made me think about what I wanted to do with the things that I had lying around, and how I could expand on it without having to become a completely different kind of writer.

When you’re a kid, the summer feels very different from the rest of the year. There’s no school. No laws! Your world shrinks to your neighborhood. You can be an entirely different person. But it’s really only like nine weeks, and most of its pretty uneventful. I remember summers in vignettes that knit themselves together into little movies of how that time passed. I wanted the story to feel like an entire summer, without including too many of the boring parts, and flash lends itself really well to that.

I don’t have any dedicated writing practice, because I’m busy and tired and lazy, but the rest of it came together fairly quickly (for me—probably not by anyone else’s standards). I picked at it in Google Docs at work and on my phone. Flash also lent itself really well to that.

Last question. I learned a lot about bras and bra technology in Manhunt. Has bra technology improved, what with the underwire and the sizing and fitting?

Though it’s truly lazy to use the limits of one’s own imagination as an excuse, I can’t even fathom what it’s like to be an adolescent with constant access to the internet, which is why this story takes place before then.

Bra technology has not particularly improved since the time Manhunt is set, which is roughly 1998, which is to say, when I was about 13. Those wires still work their way out and stab you in time. Not a lot of disrupters in the bra industry, I guess.

—Interview by Daniel Nester

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