“Pigs/a novel,” by Johanna Stoberock, 258 pages, $16.95, Red Hen Press, October 2019, available at Book & Game Co., Whitman Bookstore and Earth Light Books, online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indies and Powell’s books. For more information see johannastoberock.com
In the days leading up to the release of Johanna Stroberock’s latest book, “Pigs,” I was making room for the next phase of my life. I spent the morning sorting. I am guilty of keeping beloveds past their prime, as they still warm my skin. Relics of pre-school, and cancer fights fill my art-making clothing drawers.
What is my fear of throwing things away, as if the past would disappear? That life — this life never happened? The things we keep, are they in balance to the things we throw away, the people, the love, the possibility of a future? What matters, what has value, what?
Stoberock’s adult novel is about a small cohort of children on an island, the pigs they feed and the adults they must endure.
The pigs are fed the world’s unending trash: yes, the things we throw away. Nothing is to be kept that is given, and the land of fairy tales has much to share with us.
Trash holds the intentions and value of their maker, and someone else’s choice to pass it along.
This is the writing of a woman who considers the breaking and the growth of beings. I am always struck with her ability to describe uncomfortable beauty. She explores unquestioned roles and rules, the pain we stifle and the pain we commit, and the process of change and release and giving as sacrifice. When writing about her book in the essay “Stumbling Upon the World of Your Novel,” she says, “ … There’s a lot in ‘Pigs’ that I wish didn’t overlap with the real world.”
In our community, Stoberock works as an adjunct professor at Whitman College, as a published writer and as a mother. Her eyes cast a long gaze on her own childhood and her children’s and their future. In the same essay she continues:
“Sometimes imagination helps us remember the past more clearly. And sometimes memories of the past help lead us to somewhere new inside our heads. And then sometimes that new place inside our heads turns out to be real in the world outside our heads, too, and it’s like any control we had while we imagined it just vanishes.”
What do you call yourself? Johanna. But people have always had a hard time remembering the “h,” so I answer to a lot of different names: Joanna, Yoanna, Joanne. It bothers my friends when people say my name wrong, but I’m so used to it that it doesn’t really bother me.
How long have you been in the Walla Walla Valley? Fourteen years. I keep track of it by my daughter’s age: she was 5 months old when we moved here, and she’s 141/2 now.
What moves you, what brings you most alive? Walking. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved walking pretty much more than anything. I lived in New York City before I moved to Walla Walla, and one of my favorite things about that city is the way it forces you to walk. Here in Walla Walla I walk a lot around my neighborhood, but I also go to Rooks Park and Bennington Lake pretty often.
Titled work or untitled? Titled. I feel lost when I work on anything that doesn’t have a name. One of the first things I do when I start a project is give it a working title. The title usually changes by the time the project is done, but that working title gives me something to hold onto, and lets me trust that the thin thread I’m following will eventually form into something concrete.
How do you handle rejection? It makes me depressed. Then I try again.
Reuse or brand-new? Reuse. The older I get, the more interested I’ve become in stories that were meaningful to me as a child. Lately I’ve been thinking in particular about fairy tales and the ways in which they embrace darkness so richly and so matter-of-factly. And I find that, when I draw on personal experience in my writing, I often go back to the same moments in my life. Though the events of those moments remain the same, how I understand them, and what they mean to me, changes based on who I’ve become in the present.
Childhood game that feels pertinent to your work now? When I was a kid, I spent hours and hours and hours playing with Barbie dolls — I loved them unconditionally, even though now I think they’re pretty strange.
My bottom dresser drawer was filled with the dolls and their gear. I made up stories that extended over days. I sewed clothes for them. I set up little houses all over my room for them.
My friends brought their own dolls over when they came to visit. I think playing with dolls gave me my first experience of the pleasures of writing fiction. I just read Kristen Arnett’s amazing essay, “Queering Barbie.”
Her experience with Barbie dolls was definitely different than mine, but I loved seeing another writer allow for their centrality to her imagination.
What would you say in a moment of bravery? No. Or yes, depending on the moment.