In a year of really exceptional fiction, Jon Pineda’s new novel, Let’s No One Get Hurt, is a revelation. Told from the perspective of the feisty, fifteen-year-old Pearl, it throws us into a life on the margins. Pearl navigates living with her father, a disgraced professor, and his two adult friends, Fritter and Dox, who are squatting in an abandoned boathouse by a river in the south of nowhere. With her mother’s abandonment looming over her family, and an ailing dog named Marianne Moore, Pearl has to grow up fast.
Let’s No One Get Hurt is a powerful coming-of-age story, and I recently chatted with Pineda about his novel, characters, liminal spaces, and necessary silences.
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Pearl is such an amazing and complex character. At fifteen, she’s been marginalized and let down by just about everyone in her life. She’s squatting in this abandoned, crumbling boathouse with her father and his friends. I was struck with her capacity for empathy, and, despite her strength, her need to belong and be accepted. Can you talk about developing her? What was it like writing from her perspective?
I love Pearl’s spirit, how she’s fierce and yet laced with hurt. That kept me going. In writing through Pearl’s perspective, I had to disappear into her frustrations, as well as absorb the immense burden of her mother’s memory. It’s one of the reasons I cast the novel in present tense. I could feel Pearl wanting to shear away the past.
I love that and could really see Pearl carrying this tremendous weight, but still, ultimately, being a teenager and wanting to live as one. Enter: Main Boy, so aptly nicknamed. Rich, privileged, with a clean house and a comfy bed. There’s also a cruel streak, especially when he’s around his friends. What Pearl is looking for in Main Boy? Love? Security? Or is there something else she’s seeking here?
I feel like Pearl senses the facade, that Main Boy’s bravado is an act, ultimately. It’s meant to shield him, because in Main Boy’s world, there are no parents or even adults, just remnants of them. In this way, he, too, is abandoned. So much is unaccountable, and Pearl gets to indulge briefly in the “amenities” of Main Boy’s privilege, but it’s all an emptiness from the onset. Pearl knows this and knows it will never be love or security. It can’t be. Yet, even though she accepts this notion, I think there’s still a part of her that wants her idea of the world—all of the hard lessons it’s taught her up to this point—to be disproven.
It’s interesting how Pearl sees the three adults in her life—her father, Fritter, and Fritter’s father, Dox—and how they’ve become a kind of family. What roles do they play in Pearl’s life?
In many ways, Fritter and Dox are stand-ins for Pearl’s parents. They listen to her and teach her things. Pearl also senses they’re “broken” men, though, just like her father is a broken man. It’s almost as if all three men combined make for one functioning parent in her life. They’re trying to protect Pearl, but she’s trying to protect them, too. Her immense sense of responsibility extends even to the fraught memories she has of her mother.
Pearl’s memories of her mother are so heartbreaking. Her presence—and lack thereof—looms over the lives of Pearl and her father. I found that it manifested in the dysfunction of this home they’ve made, in this broken down boathouse. I was wondering if you could address the setting of the book: this stretch of land they occupy, but also the south itself, and how important it was to place the characters there.
The setting, with all of its contradictions, is crucial. The land provides a deceptive promise of freedom, yet also presents itself as a burden. I’m drawn to these contradictions. They feed the emotional intensity of the novel. At the onset, the landscape summons in Pearl a sense of longing: “The river waits for me, and that’s all that matters.” It’s impossible for me not to think of her mother’s absence as woven into this landscape’s presence. So much is inseparable. Later, Pearl goes on to mention the river is a virgule, a slash dividing—and bridging—boundaries. This echoes the way Pearl’s consciousness (imbued with longing) continually fills liminal spaces.
Speaking of the liminal and boundaries, you yourself are a poet and a novelist—as well as a memoirist. So much of Let’s No One Get Hurt is lyrical and spare, and it made me wonder how poetry influences your prose. Do you reach a different place when writing fiction as opposed to poetry? Or is there less of a distinction here?
Poetry is a huge influence. The two are actually inseparable for me. I’m always trying to discover the necessary silence, what holds the language beyond the words’ presence on the page. That’s what I’m after, I think. How a text’s utterance and silence can reside inside the reader.
What writers have inspired you and influenced your work? What books are you reading right now?
I’m inspired by the Kundiman family of writers, which is why I dedicated the book to them. Too many to name here, but they all have my love and admiration. The organization blossomed from the brilliance of Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi and continues on under the guidance of Cathy Linh Che to light the world. Hard for me not to point to the influences of Marguerite Duras, Michael Ondaatje, the early work of Denis Johnson, and Nicholas Montemarano. I’m currently reading Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks and Idra Novey’s thoughtful translation of Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. And I can’t wait for new books from Maryse Meijer, Jenny Offill, Lauren Groff, and Laura van den Berg.
Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published March 20, 2018
Jon Pineda is the award-winning author of several books, including his debut novel Apology, winner of the 2013 Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and the memoir Sleep in Me, a Library Journal “Best Books of 2010” selection. He has also authored the poetry collections The Translator’s Diary, Birthmark, and Little Anodynes. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte and at the University of Mary Washington.
I am a Korean American writer, bookseller, and teacher living in Chicago. I have work published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Entropy, and Oyez Review. I have my MFA in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University.
Hi,loved your post great thoughts look forward to the next posting.