Q&A with Allie Rowbottom
In celebration of the memoir JELL-O Girls bookseller and writer Nicola Maye Goldberg interviewed author Allie Rowbottom about the origins and inspirations behind JELL-O Girls and her current and favorite reads. Read the Q&A on our blog!
A "gorgeous" (New York Times) memoir that braids the evolution of one of America's most iconic branding campaigns with the stirring tales of the women who lived behind its facade - told by the inheritor of their stories.
In 1899, Allie Rowbottom's great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege - but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.
More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie's mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother's life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the "Jell-O curse" and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family's past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. JELL-O Girls is the liberation of that story.
A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, JELL-O Girls is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.
Allie Rowbottom received her BA from New York University, her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Her work has received scholarships, essay prizes and honorable mentions from Tin House, Inprint, the Best American Essays series, the Florida Review, The Bellingham Review, the Black Warrior Review, The Southampton Review, and Hunger Mountain. She lives in Los Angeles.
Nicola Maye Goldberg: How did you come up with the title for Jell-O Girls? What do you hope the title conveys to potential readers?
Allie Rowbottom: For a while as I was drafting and workshopping, the book was titled GIRLS OF LEROY. But the opening scene (and this also changed in the final version) was of “The Jell-O Girl,” who was an invention of the Jell-O Company’s marketing department in the early 1900s. Even though she no longer opens the book, The Jell-O Girl has always felt like a cohesive force in JELL-O Girls, binding the book’s thematic preoccupations to the stories of literal girls and women. In the book I suggest that all women living in America are “Jell-O Girls” in as much as we have all been shaped and influenced but the cultural expectations placed on our gender and sexuality.
Did you ever consider telling the stories in Jell-O Girls as fiction instead of fact?
I knew I wanted to write the book as a non-fiction text - I think part of the power of the story comes from the constraint of my mother’s memory, and my own, as subjective as they both are. And to my mind, the book’s narrative line didn’t need the liberty fiction enables. It lived more on the page as memoir, and the researched portion felt like it breathed more life into my mother’s life story, and my own, than fictionalization ever could. I do think that I’ll probably write more about mothers, daughters, care taking and grief in my career, but perhaps not in non-fictional form.
Jell-O Girls is both a family history and a cultural history. Can you talk a little about how you wove those two elements together? Was it ever difficult to balance them?
It was. It took me years to figure out how to balance these elements. For a long time I envisioned the text as a seamless interweave of memoir and cultural history, and I wrote it as such. I wanted a dreamlike text, a memoir like The Chronology of Water or I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. But most readers I workshopped with felt that the slipstream form was too opaque to really settle into. In the end, I found a structure that, although more “conventional” or formulaic than I ever thought I’d use, allowed me to do more with the book’s content than I’d previously been able to manage.
Much of the content of the book is deeply personal and intense. How did you take care of yourself while delving into this material?
I wish I had an answer like “long walks” or “massages,” but honestly, I don’t. Some of the most personal, searing material in the book was written while my mom was sick and dying. During that time I was in survival mode, and I was in a PhD program, teaching full time, spending my breaks at the hospital. Towards the very end, which comprises the last 1/4 of the book, I had a dissertation completion fellowship which enabled me to stay with my mom in Connecticut. I went to the gym at night a lot, but other than that, I just went through the motions. Later, when it came to finishing and editing the book, I remember myself (though I didn’t see it at the time) as being deep in grief time. I wrote in bed a lot. I remember crying as I wrote the ending.
While reading your book, I was reminded of a line from Louise Gluck's "Dedication to Hunger": "a woman’s body/ is a grave; it will accept/ anything." In the poem, she compares her eating disorder to writing poetry; "the same need to be perfect." Did the writing of Jell-O Girls in any way mirror the struggles you or your family members that are depicted in the book?
Nicola, I LOVE this question. The first few years of working on JELL-O Girls were scattered, and I was certainly performing “that same need to be perfect” in my PhD work, but less so in the writing of my book. Oddly, I feel like it was the absence of that perfectionistic drive that helped me write JELL-O Girls and to take the time I needed to do so well. But since it sold, I’ve felt an obsessive urgency, “that same need to be perfect” driving my writing, and probably not to its benefit. I think for me the next step is to follow Gluck’s lead and to try and root out in writing that perfectionistic drive. Where does it come from and why? Can it be escaped? Or is it only in death that the truly perfectionistic among us find freedom?
Much of the book deals with your family curse, and at the end of it you describe seeing a medium. What role does the metaphysical - literal or metaphorical - play in your writing?
I suppose it has everything to do with how I navigate the world, which then shows up in my writing. Witchcraft, intuition, energy work, whatever you want to call it, is a source of empowerment for me. When I feel disempowered as a woman in a patriarchy, or when I feel like I am losing myself to perfectionism, obsession, disorder, I turn to magic to remind me of my power, and to give me a healthy sense of control. It feels womanly in a way - I sense that I am not the first woman to source power from “alternate” sources, such as the spirit world, or crystals, or tarot.
What was the first book you loved?
What was the most recent book you loved?
Sarah McColl’s Joy Enough (coming in January 2019)
What is a book you think everyone should read?
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts
Photo Credit: Willy Busfield
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