Jon Pineda is a boxless writer. He is a poet, a memoirist, and most recently, a novelist. Lyrical moments bleed into his prose and narrative leans on poetic images. His most recent novel Let’s No One Get Hurt will be released March 20 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Following a main character, Pearl, who negotiates her identity in separate societies, it is a meditation on survival told in his personal style of ever-poetic prose.
According to Pineda, staying within one genre wouldn’t be workable for him as a writer. “I can’t imagine someone saying you can only write poems,” he said. He never starts out intending to write within a genre. With Let’s No One Get Hurt, he didn’t set out to wrote a novel, only to explore an image. Like his poems, it was never intended for its destined form.
“It comes down to what the line wants to do,” he said. “If it wants to extend, then I let narrative come forward and it’s prose. Sometimes the line is just creating an image. I work with that image and realize: this is a tercet. And even with memoir, in letting the emotional truth come forward I find myself spending more time with facts, the hard truth of the subject.”
Writing this novel was a freeing experience for Pineda. Its irreverent section breaks, playful treatment of time, and depth of character over traditionally driven plot show just how flexible the form can be. He said the experience of writing it “challenges you to say what can’t go in a novel.”
He is also the author of the novel Apology, exploring the effects of trauma on a family raising first-generation Americans. That first novel followed his memoir Sleep in Me, chronicling his sister’s experiences after she was left wheelchair-bound and unable to talk after a teenage car accident, as well as the poetry collections Little Anodynes, The Translator's Diary, and Birthmark.
He has been writing about his sister for so long in poems, in nonfiction and in themes resonant in Apology, that writing something completely different was a liberating experience, he said. “I’m now at a point, I’ve written a book for her and I’m in this interesting space of not writing about her anymore,” he said. “It still resonates in themes, but there’s a freedom for me.”
He connected that freedom to a makeshift raft that appears in Let’s No One Get Hurt. “That’s mine,” he said about floating farther from his typical writing impulses. Part of that was writing in a physically different space. He started the work of writing this novel shortly after arriving in Fredericksburg five years ago when he took a teaching position at the University of Mary Washington.
The first version was close to Pearl’s mother, but after working with it for two years, that didn’t feel right. He considered casting the narrative in alternating points of view, but realized a novel through Pearl could touch all of the groups of characters he needed to represent. He said she lives in multiple worlds: with her father and his band of squatters, with the suburban boys she refers to as the “flies,” and she negotiates these roles with men who are broken in different ways to survive. “Once I did that, the novel was waiting for me,” he said. He finished it one year later.
Pineda said, as a writer, he is alway suspect of his intentions. His winding path to finding the true narrator of the story shows that suspicion in action. “Instead, I need to pay attention to what the character wants to do,” he said. “Being a writer means letting the character do what they want instead of what I want. It takes a long time to allow both the confidence and vulnerability that comes with sitting down to write come forth at the same time.” With six publications to his name, he has now reached a point where he can feel comfortable doing this and not make excuses for genre-less impulses.
Pineda also writes to delve into his own interests. He teaches eco-literature at UMW and, throughout the novel, it is apparent that the landscape is its own character. Characters are involved in subsisting through scavenging or actively destroying the land. How they interact with the swampy landscape tells a lot about their motivations.
Living in Fredericksburg brought its own set of preoccupations forward for Pineda. The city is bound on one side by Civil War battlefields, and the impulse to understand reenactors is apparent. It’s bound on the other by the Rappahannock River. Every spring, the shad run, and Pineda is out in the river twice a day fly fishing. “I can’t get enough of river,” he said. Likewise, the character Fritter in Let’s No One Get Hurt knows the river comes alive with shad each April and is versed in the art of fly fishing.
He said he’s not sure where the characters came from, but noted that while “I love Pearl, Fritter is my favorite. There’s a silence he carries and a lot of pain. He’s not interested in being seen. I started thinking about people who had gone through tragedy and don’t want to talk. He’s willing to carry that burden. He’s just gorgeous and quiet.”
Like the other characters Pearl lives with, her father and Fritter’s father Dox, he at one point stands in as a father figure. “It takes all of them to be one functioning father,” he said. But outside of individual characters, the story revolves around the theme of negotiating one’s own space in the world. “Pearl’s presence asks, is there a place in the world for her?”
There are larger questions here at work for the reader: Is there space for everyone? Is there room for someone like me? Is there room for Pineda’s voice in fiction? The answer is undoubtedly yes to all of the above.
It’s something he tried to impart to his students at UMW and through the classes he teaches remotely for the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. “It can be done,” he said. “It’s not something just a handful can attain. It takes a little bit of discovery and a relationship with rejection. Most of all, it’s about pushing past all that to find the voice of the book.”
Pineda writes every day and is currently working on his next novel. Though at the moment, he’s just enjoying every opportunity to write, inhabiting that space where artists find themselves. “It feels natural,” he said. “I never expected I would arrive at a point where I’m really happy in my writing life and I always want to do this.”
For Pineda, it’s a golden, treasured time. He never wants to sit back and be done.
Jon Pineda will host a book launch for Let’s No One Get Hurt on Tuesday, March 20 at 6 PM at the Ridderhof Martin Gallery at UMW. A reading will also be held at LibertyTown Arts Workshop on Saturday, March 31 at 7 PM. Pre-orders and full book tour schedule available at >www.jonpineda.com.
Photography by Aaron Spicer