My first encounter with Jaime Fountaine came via her role as one of the two hosts of Philadelphia’s Tire Fire Reading Series. Then we had the good fortune of publishing her essay “19, 16, and 1” here at Vol.1 Brooklyn, showing off another side of her literary works. This summer brings with it the release of her debut novella Manhunt, the story of a teenage girl dealing with her complex relationship with her mother, the mundane horrors of growing up, and the restrictions of suburbia. I talked with Fountaine about her book, suburban landscapes, and the game that gave her book its title.
As someone with a huge fondness for the novella, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with a question about that. When you began writing Manhunt, did you have this length in mind? Did it emerge from something smaller, or was it whittled down from a larger work?
It’s very kind of you to assume I have any idea what I’m doing at any given time. I don’t. Manhunt started out with a short story. The voice stayed with me, so I wrote another one. And then it still wasn’t out of my system, so I kept thinking about it. Most of my “writing process” is just thinking, letting little movies of my ideas play out in the back of my mind while I’m at work and buying groceries and singing along to the Law and Order: SVU theme song. (I know there aren’t words.) I don’t have anything resembling a real writing practice. I have to sit with things until they’re ready to be written, which isn’t very efficient.
So it was one story, and then it was two stories, and then it was two stories and a couple of sketches that I lied about working on more often than I wrote it. At some point, in spite of myself, it was the draft I sent to Mason Jar Press, and then, bless them, it was the three or four drafts we powered through in the months before it went to print.
I know that mainstream publishing has set ideas about how long books should be, but I don’t think readers feel the same way. Novellas are great because, when properly executed, they’re exactly as long as the story requires them to be.
What was your own experience of playing Manhunt growing up? Reading your novel brought me flashbacks to playing it in high school between watching Jurassic Park and one of the Faces of Death videos, which made for an unsettling night…
That sounds creepy as hell!
I grew up on a block with a lot of kids who were within a five or so year age range. Even though we didn’t all necessarily like each other, we spent a decent amount of time together. The summer is such a weird time when you’re old enough to be unsupervised but young enough that you can’t really get a job. Your world shrinks.
We played a lot of Manhunt those summers. It was a pretty straightforward version. I’ve talked to a lot of people about the game since the book’s been out, and it turns out there are a lot of variations in name and in danger levels. Aside from the possibility of falling down, the only real danger involved was emotional. I’ve heard some games that had, like, fires and feats of strength in them. We weren’t that creative, I guess.
When reading Manhunt, it struck me as a story that could take place at almost any time in the last thirty years. What were the challenges you faced in terms of maintaining a sense of place without ever getting overly specific?
I’ve always admired (envied?) the way that poets and songwriters can build the framework of a world in a few lines. The efficiency! I have a pretty visual imagination, but I’d rather evoke the feeling of a kind of place than describe what one looks like. If I were to say “purple” to you, we probably wouldn’t think of the same shade of purple, or associate it with the same things, you know? Everything is subjective. If I wanted to make people see things as I saw them, I’d be a painter or something.
The suburbs I grew up in were different from the ones you might’ve lived in, but the limitations, the boredom, the sprawl are similar enough to recognize.
What I’m trying to do (although whether or not I’m achieving it is arguable) is give the reader enough to anchor the story in something familiar, so that it can stretch out in their imagination, become something that isn’t just mine anymore.
There’s a lot of talk about bodies in this book, from the deeply fun experience of puberty to the flasher’s tendency to do what flashers do. How do you convey the physical using only prose?
Having a body is such a strange thing. Everybody’s got one, and they’re all uniquely awful and wonderful to have to live in. It’s the fucking worst.
In this case, it’s about a girl who develops early, a time when you’re still a child, but suddenly your body is something that attracts diametrically opposed attention — you’re as grotesque as you are suddenly desirable. “Concerned” adults treat you like your body is a thing that will cause trouble — as if the boys and grown men who feel entitled to it have no culpability. You’re told that you have a kind of power over them, and you must be careful, as if your tits could negate another person’s individual responsibility.
And of course, that’s just one way it’s terrible! This country treats black and brown children like they’re adults, but white men over 40 are still young enough not to know better. Fat bodies are policed as if wearing above a size medium is some kind of moral crime. Women are treated as objects until they are treated like garbage. Trans bodies don’t get to be safe.
There’s no default, but we’re expected to act like there is one, and then reach for it — to be as thin and hot and white and abled and cis as possible, and to fear and despise any part of ourselves that prevents us from achieving it.
It mattered less to me what her body looked like than what it felt like for her to be in it. Discomfort is pretty universal. We’re all just shuffling along in these meat prisons, trying to get by.
One of the details I enjoyed most about the book is the fact that Jeff’s name is actually Geoff, but since he’s terrible it doesn’t matter. To what extent is the novel narrated objectively, and to what extent is the narration, if not unreliable, then subjective to a stylized extent?
One of my favorite things about first-person narratives is that there is not even the illusion of objectivity. I know that the first-person has its detractors, but I love it— both as a writer and a reader. That layer of story between what the narrator says and the reader’s understanding of what’s happening is such a fun thing to play with.
The narrator in Manhunt can’t be objective. She’s smart and observant, but she’s also 13 and angry and lonely and sad. That colors everything — how she interacts with and talks about her mother, the way she deals with the girls who aren’t quite her friends, how she acts around the men who insert themselves into her life.
I don’t think anyone is truly objective. Even omniscient narrators have a perspective.
In running a reading series, you’ve had occasion to encounter a wide variety of writers. Would you say that that experience has had any effect on the way that you write — or, more broadly, think of literature?
I don’t know if the reading series has influenced the way I think of literature or if the way I think of literature has influenced the way we run Tire Fire. Chicken, egg, etc. Art should for everyone. It shouldn’t matter how formally educated you are, or what kind of access you have.
I want our audience to have fun, to be able to put faces to work they already love and to find new books to read. I want the people who read for us to feel like the work they’re making is important, to be able to see that on the faces in the crowd when they’re at the microphone. It doesn’t matter if you have a book out or if ours is the first or second reading you’ve ever done.
Was there a particular aspect of Manhunt that was especially challenging, either in terms of writing or editing?
Finishing it? Can I say that?
I wrote a lot of the book in google docs on my phone, piecemeal, picking at sentences, sketching things out. I’m still surprised it worked.