Baggott likes staying very close to home

October 25, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

NEWARK, Del. - It is easy to see why family features so prominently in the writing of Delaware-based novelist Julianna Baggott.

Strolling the leafy, serpentine streets of her neighborhood here, Baggott's three children swirl and bounce around her with a candy-fueled energy from an afternoon spent at a Halloween party.

With her husband out playing soccer, Baggott seems to be providing as idyllic an upbringing as she got in the same quiet town where her parents live just minutes away.

But, as Baggott says, "There is no such thing as a normal childhood."

Her point is best understood after reading her fiction, described by The New York Times Book Review as "witty, psychological observation" that is "dark and corrosive."

As her three novels in the last three years attest, every family has its secrets, which most often center on truths that its members fear acknowledging. For Baggott, unraveling those underpinnings is what lend an acute intimacy to her tales. And it is what eventually led her to reveal her own family's big secret.

"Secrets are definitely structure," says the 34-year-old author, whose works are featured this weekend at Book Bash in Towson. "What is the person not saying, when will they say the truth, and to whom?"

The families in Baggott's novels are always fleeing the truth, and each other. In her first novel, Girl Talk (Simon & Schuster, 2001), its 30-year-old narrator is a woman who, pregnant and unmarried, reflects on the summer her father ran off with a bank teller. In her second, The Miss America Family, published in 2002, the mother and son co-narrators work through their family's troubles after Dad turns out to be gay.

In her third novel, The Madam, a husband abandons his wife after they temporarily abandon their children to seek a fool's fortune. The wife must then retrieve her children and raise them alone - in a whorehouse.

Ironically, it was the willingness of Baggott's family to share its secrets that permitted her to write The Madam. Out since September, it is a fictional account of Baggott's grandmother, who was raised in a whorehouse, and her great-grandmother, its madam.

"The Madam was very hard to write because it was family," Baggott says. "My grandmother's thing was always to say she had a very ordinary upbringing, that she was very loved."

The truth?

"She was left at an orphanage. She was raised in a brothel," Baggott says. "To break her away from her normal schtick was a betrayal of her mother."

What breaks apart families in Baggott's stories is an inability to live with the truth. What keeps her own family members tight is their willingness to face up to the truth, evident in her grandmother's full cooperation, and her father's "tireless research" for The Madam. In the acknowledgements, she writes: "I would like to thank my mother for never burying anything, not even our ugliness."

Besides a mess at which she feigns embarrassment, there's nothing ugly about Baggott's home. As a mother of three children, ages 8, 6 and 3, she seems delighted that her house's walls are covered with finger-painted pictures, her floors are strewn with stuffed animals. Her office, in an upstairs corner bedroom, is just as unruly with papers piled haphazardly on the desk and the floor.

On most mornings, her husband, David G.W. Scott, rises first, preparing breakfast and shuffling the children off to school. Baggott gets up around 9 a.m., after writing late into the night. She goes almost immediately to the computer again, breaks for lunch at 1 p.m., then is back to work until 3, when she stops to spend the remainder of the day with the children.

"When they go to bed, I work at night," Baggott says.

Her New York-based literary agent, Nat Sobel, said her work ethic indicates a fiery ambition. "She's so dedicated to the work and has such a fierce desire to be a writer," Sobel says.

Her parents bestowed artistic desire in her. Her mother is a pianist, her father an engineer/lawyer who loves theater. Her older sister's move to New York to become an actress proved most influential. Traveling there to visit, she was inspired by the theater she saw. "By 10, I wanted to be a writer," she said.

That pursuit led her to Loyola College, where she graduated in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in creative writing and French. She supported her writing with odd jobs: teaching school, ballroom dancing, raking leaves. She then headed to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to pursue a master's degree in the same subjects.

She fell in love, to her parents' chagrin, with Scott, another poet. They quickly married.

After Greensboro, the couple decided that Newark, Del., was the ideal location to seriously pursue their writing because of its cheap living and proximity to family. They supported their creative writing with stories for newspapers and magazines and started a family.

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