Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pure by Julianna Baggott

Pure is brutal, layered, and new. Its world is bleak and strange, its characters are flawed, complicated, beautiful, and damned, every single one of them. This book is highly original, with a plot you could never predict and a climax you'll never see coming. You have not read a book like this -- you may think you have, but this is different.

Reviewers are comparing Pure to The Hunger Games. Alright, let's talk about that. I've read The Hunger Games. At the base of it, the idea is simple: People are cruel. War is hell. Power corrupts. Compelling engines, but not exactly ripping the lid off anything new. A spunky heroine takes on the cruel world. This is familiar.

Pure explodes more interesting questions. Where does humanity begin and end? What is absolute ruin, beyond which point you cannot be saved? and what does redemption look like, for people beyond that point? Where is the point of no return? What happens after that? These characters have no precedent -- they're not salvageable, they can't be cleaned up and put right or dressed properly and put in a parade, and that's what makes them so interesting. Meet Pressia, who has a doll head fused to her hand, so it is part of her. Meet Bradwell, who has living birds embedded in his back. Meet El Capitan, whose brother Helmud is permanently affixed to him in a life-and-death piggy-back ride. They cannot be extricated. Since it cannot end well for these characters, how will it end?

Baggott takes every question too far, and then asks it anyway. She's got her fist around a full throttle and she's burning every drop of gas in the tank. I have absolute respect for the scope of her vision, I'm totally obsessed with these fascinating characters, and I can't believe I have to wait so long to read the next book in the series.


I met Julianna Baggott in person at ABA Winter Institute. I had been a fan since my son decided her The Ever Breath was a stay-up-all-night must-read during a time he was only reading books about space. So after I finished reading Pure, I sent her an email with the one burning question I was dying to ask. Here's the question and her response.

Lydia: My favorite character was El Capitan. He is so original, so complicated. He had my full attention from the first time he came on the scene. Talk to me about the evolution of this guy. Did he emerge from your imagination as fused with his brother -- was that the beginning of the idea of his character? When did his backstory come to you? Did you always know that Helmud would be on some level separately sentient or did that happen during the writing? I'm so interested in how these layers evolved and how he came to be... anything you can share about your process in creating him, without giving too much away?  

Julianna: I was a small child. Abnormally small and the youngest of four kids. And so I was always hoisted on shoulders, piggybacked. I complained to my mother that the other kids in kindergarten were always picking me up. I was the smallest in my school for years. I remember when I finally got ONTO the doctor's charts at all, as undersized. A real feat. My 16 year old daughter will now often walk up to me and instead of a hug, she'll pick me right up off the ground. I also grew up in the era of doubling people on the backs of bikes, on handle bars. There were packs of kids all over the place and we rode in packs on bikes and someone was always short a bike. I was the one on the back of the bike, never strong enough to peddle. 
In other words, I was, in fact, Helmud, El Capitan's younger brother, the one who was fused to him when the Detonations hit, while he was doubling Helmud on the back of his motorbike. El Capitan is doomed to carry his brother for the rest of his life. I'm that brother. El Capitan loves his brother and is deeply burdened by him. This is how I was raised -- by my siblings at least -- sometimes cute sometimes a terrible burden.
I love El Capitan. He began for me as purely evil. He had no point of view. But as soon as he showed up eating a tin of chicken, his brother bobbing over his shoulder, I felt for him. Once he started having his own voice, I was in. No characters in the novel surprised me more than El Capitan.

Pressia with her doll-head fist came first to my mind, along with Our Good Mother, fused to her child. In fact, Our Good Mother may have come first. The fusings, in general, come in large part from having offspring -- oddly named, because in those early years, they don't spring off. They are Velcro-ed to the body, attached, fused. Partridge was next. Bradwell, too. He's Marquez-influenced. I had the concept of Beasts, Dusts, and Groupies wandering the scorched earth, and I wanted a groupie as an important set of characters. He' ain't heavy; he's my brother... Yeah, I know the song. Not well, but those lines are there in my head.
It felt like the quintessential story of brothers -- literally bound. I wanted to explore that relationship and then, of course, Helmud surprised me greatly, and, of course, El Capitan's response to his brother's surprise was completely and absolutely natural. (I think is what you meant by "without giving much away.")
The fact is that I can't write a character who's purely evil -- not if I get into their point of view. I don't know anyone who thinks they're the evil in the world. El Capitan is a strong character, a survivor, a protector, and as I got to know him, I learned how very, very tender he is. 
I'm deep into book II edits, FUSE, and looking closely at this relationship. I love them both. But of the two, yes, I'm Helmud. No doubt about it.


Thank you, Julianna, for that window into your head. I recommend Pure for the kid that loved The Hunger Games and wants more, or for the adult that's ready for smart post-apocalyptic fiction with more of a purpose than just grossing you out.


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