Jon Pineda is an award-winning author of three collections of poetry; the memoir Sleep in Me, a 2010 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection; and a novel, Apology, winner of the 2013 Milkweed National Fiction Prize. He currently serves as a core member of the MFA faculty at Queens University of Charlotte and teaches at the University of Mary Washington. His latest book, Let's No One Get Hurt, received glowing reviews upon its March 2018 release. The intense narrative centers on Pearl, who is squatting with her disgraced father and ailing dog on recently purchased property. She builds an unlikely relationship with the new owner's affluent and irresponsible son, Main Boy, that culminates in a devastating confrontation. Critics have praised Pineda's lyric prose (Publishers Weekly) and the short novel's complex protagonist (NPR). Will Let's No One Get Hurt earn Pineda another prize? We sat down with the writer to discuss his work.
Bryce Piper: Your book, Apology, is visceral and frank in its presentation of the unpleasant; Sleep In Me was even more so due to the knowledge that it's nonfiction. Is Let's No One Get Hurt a departure from that style?
Jon Pineda: I can see it as a departure, in that I hope the book has its own feel, its own crafted sense of language. I also see it connected to the others I've written, but more so like it's a distant cousin. Some of the family traits are there, but they're faint and disappearing.
BP: You are not an impoverished teenage girl, yet reviews have praised the complexity of Let's No One Get Hurt's main character, Pearl. How did you put yourself into Pearl's mindset when creating her?
JP: It was difficult at first because I didn't really know her. So I started writing lots of scenes. What came forward were her grievances with her past. There was also the way she was fierce and yet naive. I found this combination particularly compelling.
BP: Two characters, Pearl and Main Boy, are opposites in many ways. What influenced your characterization in creating affluent, irresponsible Main Boy? Why is Pearl so drawn to him?
JP: I was interested in what might happen if youth raised in affluence were to go unchecked. At times, Main Boy literally has no boundaries. His disconnection from a sense of decency seems exacerbated by the facades the internet cultivates. Aside from the "amenities" that Main Boy offers, Pearl finds a distorted respite in Main Boy's presence: she gets to pretend to be someone else, even if that someone else is a shell of herself.
BP: How has your Filipino heritage influenced your character development? What role did it play in creating the themes of Let’s No One Get Hurt?
JP: I suppose Pearl could be seen as an embodiment of my “mestizo” sensibilities. She is often caught between worlds and has to negotiate each one differently. She is rooted in her rootlessness. I find that intriguing.
BP: Like many teens, Pearl must cope with circumstances caused by her parent(s) while learning to make her own decisions. Without giving too much away, can you point toward the commentary you make about free will and youth?
JP: Pearl is young and naive, and yet, in so many ways, she’s wise beyond her years. I feel like her innocence is a casualty of her parents’ transgressions, and yet she continues on in her life with a sense of responsibility for whatever innocence is left, struggling to keep some part of herself intact.
BP: Let’s No One Get Hurt contains many short "chapters." Tell us a little about how much and when to reveal information to an audience.
JP: I think it’s relative to the story you’re writing. Some novels are filled with summary and some are filled with scenes. Others are a beautiful, confusing mix, of course. Ultimately, I wanted to write a novel that I’d want to read later, but first, I had to listen closely to Pearl, to hear what it was she was willing to reveal and when she was willing to reveal it.
BP: The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that you pulled off a coup by selling this novel directly to a publishing house without an agent. What advice do you have for emerging authors in the complex publishing environment?
JP: My experience might have been an exception. I'd also published five books prior, and that helped, I think. But more importantly, you have to have a story that feels alive. Before considering publication, the first thing would be to read as much as possible and practice, through writing lots of stories, the elements of craft. The book you are meant to write is waiting patiently for you to discover it. Only after you've written your book should you query agents that you admire. That way if one connects with it, there will be no hesitation on your part. The agent is trying to sell your book, yes, but more so they should be pairing you with the book's best possible editor.