Jas Hammonds Talks with Roger

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In Jas Hammonds’s first novel, We Deserve Monuments, a reluctant Avery is sent to stay with her dying grandmother in a small Georgia town, where some old and painful secrets are about to come to light. Jas’s day job as a flight attendant takes them all over the place, but I was lucky to catch them on a day off at home in New Jersey.

Roger Sutton: What do you think being a flight attendant does for and against your writing?

Jas Hammonds: Well, I am always tired. That’s just my baseline. I am based in Seattle, so I commute from Newark to Seattle to start and end my trips. There are a lot of time changes, a lot of standby flights. It’s a whirlwind. When I started working on my book a couple years ago, I did a lot of writing on layovers. That’s one great thing that I love about my job; it gives me the freedom and flexibility during layovers — that time is mine to do with what I want. If I have twenty-four hours in Boston, I’m going to make sure that I hit up the Boston Public Library, because I love writing there. It’s such a beautiful space. I get to see a lot of the country that way.

RS: So you work out of Seattle and you live in New Jersey.

JH: Yes. I made the move for love. I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, but I moved a couple years ago. I really love my partner.

RS: I have a friend who was a flight attendant until he retired, and for many years, he flew out of New York or Detroit but lived here in Boston. I can’t imagine.

JH: Yeah, a lot of us commute. I’ve met some people who commute internationally, from Brazil, Spain, the Philippines. I’m kind of middle-of-the-road when it comes to that.

RS: Obviously, not when you’re working, but when you’re flying to get to work, can you write on the plane?

JH: I can. My last commute, I had a couple of interviews that I had to catch up on by email, so I spent the whole flight answering interview questions. I did feel very important, in my middle seat, as I snacked on peanuts.

RS: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor used to take trains everywhere because she loved to write on the train.

JH: I love Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Her Alice McKinley series was a touchstone of my childhood. I’ve never met her, but she is definitely a childhood hero when it comes to writing stories.

RS: In reading your book, I was thinking back to some of the early gay-themed books of the 1970s and 80s that I reviewed when I was a young pup like you. Annie on My Mind was the big breakthrough novel. What books did you read that helped lead you to write this one?

JH: I grew up in a military family. I spent a lot of time moving around from place to place, and books were a constant source of comfort. I remember when I was in elementary school on a military base in Germany, that’s where I stumbled across Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and one of the Alice books. It was during a time when the series was still ongoing, and every spring a new Alice book came out. That was a constant I had to look forward to, no matter where I was. Beyond that, a lot of the trailblazers in young adult literature with queer themes, like Julie Anne Peters. I spent a lot of time holed up with her books, even before I understood my sexuality or came out to myself. Her novel Far from Xanadu (it’s since been retitled Pretend You Love Me), about a girl in a small Kansas town, was so precious to me. It’s still on my bookshelves. All of Julie Anne Peters’s books, and when I got a little older, authors like Emily M. Danforth and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and Kelly Quindlen, who self-published a book called Her Name in the Sky. I was in college by that time; I was coming to terms with my sexuality and learning more about it, so those authors were like the warmest nightlight when I was really confused.

RS: Do you know Ruby by Rosa Guy? Published in 1976, it was far ahead of its time, not just in its depiction of a lesbian relationship between two girls but young women of color.

JH: Yes, absolutely. I think I might actually have a copy of that somewhere. My apartment is filled with books. My partner and I are big readers, obviously.

RS: I like when you young’uns recognize the ancestors.

JH: My partner is a poet, so they keep me in check with a lot of old-school authors and poets, especially Black authors. I’ve learned a lot just from being in a relationship with another literary person.

RS: Which one of your characters came first in this book?

JH: I want to say Mama Letty came first. I had this idea of somebody who was very angry because of something that had happened in their past, and it shaped the rest of their life. The book started out kind of as a weird ghost story. Avery (who wasn’t called Avery at the time) was going to be haunted by the ghost of a very, very angry woman, and that angry woman became her grandmother, Mama Letty. Mama Letty’s backstory has remained true throughout every version of the book I wrote. I wanted her to be as nuanced and as three-dimensional as I could possibly make her. She is incredibly grumpy, of course, but there’s also a lot underneath. That was important for me, to write a book about a young person who realizes, wow, my elders, my parents, really don’t have it all figured out. I think a lot of us grow up with the privilege of thinking, oh, everything is perfect, and then you hit a certain age where problems become too big to ignore. Mama Letty has always been a constant in this book, and Avery came very naturally after her.

RS: And Avery doesn’t even know the half of it, as we discover at the end of the story, which we can’t discuss because we don’t want to give it away, but wow. “The Night the Lights Went out in Georgia,” indeed. Do you know that song?

JH: Oh, Reba McEntire. I will listen to it when we hang up.

RS: That was pretty brave, to give an enormous revelation to the reader that your main girl just doesn’t know.

JH: It’s so funny, because some readers, even when they get to the end, don’t get it. They don’t understand what happened fully. My mom is one of those people. When my mom finished reading the book, she was like, oh, wow. I had to break it down for her, what happened, and then she was like, oh my goodness, and she went and reread it. I think if you start piecing the clues together, it becomes pretty clear fairly early what happens in the book. I don’t promote this book as a thriller. We’ve been pretty adamant that it’s a slow-burn mystery. I feel like people either love it, and they really want to talk about it with me and make it the topic of their book club conversations, or they’re disappointed that this is the direction that the story went. Obviously, I can’t do anything about that; I’m happy with the direction I ultimately took it in. When we were on submission with this novel, we did get some ooh, this is too much for us. This is too controversial. We did get shot down several times.

RS: Block that metaphor!

JH: Yeah. It’s funny, because the book that is coming out is actually super toned-down from what it was originally. At first there was a murder in the present day, and the book was way more fast-paced, way more Scooby Doo-esque, trying to solve this crime. I toned it way down, but I know it’s still a lot for people to digest.

RS: I like that you have these different parts working together, this young woman discovering who she is, her family relationships and love relationships, and this classic theme of small Southern town with a secret.

JH: I’m a sucker for that.

RS: I was just reading Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend. It’s another small Southern town with a secret. And Flannery O’Connor. And To Kill a Mockingbird. And Carson McCullers. You’re in good company.

JH: Thank you. I really love setting in a novel. That’s one of my favorite things to write about. I love making my setting feel like a character in itself. I always knew I wanted this to be in a small town somewhere, but it wasn’t until I started talking to my mom and learning more about our family history, learning that the Black side of my family has roots in these small southern Georgia towns. Learning more about my own family history and trying to include some of that in the novel was really important to me.

RS: Have you ever lived in a town like that?

JH: I haven’t, but a military base can feel like a small town in itself, where everybody knows everybody’s business. However, it’s a community where people are in and out — you’re only there for two years, and then you’re gone, which is kind of a mystery in itself — you don’t grow up around these people. That’s very much the opposite of Bardell County, where my characters Jade and Simone have known each other since they were girls. I never had that feeling, and I was always jealous of that as a child, of kids who could say, “Yeah, we’ve known each other since diapers.” I was always Avery, the new kid. That was where my perspective worked its way into the book.

RS: The metaphor I was trying to overextend here doesn’t work. On a military base, you’re all in the same situation, right? It’s not like a new person joining the old-timers. You’re all new people.

JH: When I was in the eighth grade, my family moved to Virginia, and I was able to stay there for the entirety of my high school years, which was a real luxury. Then I decided to go to college twenty minutes down the road at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, and my parents were twenty minutes away in Virginia Beach. I thought, oh, this is what it feels like to start to know a city like the back of your hand. I don’t have to use my GPS when I’m driving. I know what time of day the traffic’s going to hit. I know what route to take. That’s the only time I’ve really felt like that. I’ve been living in New Jersey for about two years now, and I feel like I’m getting to a place where I know my spots.

RS: What do you think gave you the nerve to write a novel in the first place?

JH: I don’t know if it was necessarily nerve. I am a flight attendant, which gave me the opportunity. I love, love, love my job. But it’s the same thing every day. The route changes, the passengers change, but the job itself is the same. I had started looking for a creative outlet, something to do that would make my brain tick in a way that I wasn’t getting from my regular job routine. I loved writing as a kid. I grew up in the fanfiction days, the days where you posted your stories online and waited for strangers on the internet to say what they thought about them. I really missed that feeling, so I started writing again, as I said, on my layovers. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I knew I wanted to finish something. I had a million beginnings but had never finished something.

RS: That’s the hard part, isn’t it?

JH: It’s really, really hard. I am not a fan of drafting. I much prefer revising. I like when the book is already done, I know what I’m doing, I know who these characters are, and I’ve just got to get them to say the right things and be in the right places. Drafting is really hard for me. It’s especially hard when there’s nobody waiting on it. I was just writing, and I didn’t know if anyone would even care. Having the stamina to continue even when I wasn’t sure what was going to come of it was really hard for me. I just wanted to say that I finished something. It took me about eighteen months to get a first draft done, and it was very, very chaotic. It was 120,000 words, very bloated, plot threads all over the place, characters popping in and out. That’s when I decided, okay, I want to do something with this. I want to pursue this. I never, ever thought it would lead me to the place where I’m at now. The goalposts kept moving. For example, I’m just going to apply to this one writers’ conference and see if I get in. That one thing became this, and then it became, okay, let’s try and get an agent. How about that? And now the book is coming out. It’ll have been six years, almost to the day, that I started writing — November 2016. It’s been an incredible, beautiful journey.

RS: I always wonder, particularly these days, how authors balance, one, their day job, two, their manuscript, and then three, all the business that goes on around writing and publishing. It’s a lot.

JH: It is. I’m just now starting to feel the heat. I was busy in the summer with a couple conferences. I’m an introvert, and those types of settings, while very fun and exciting, are a lot — being around a lot of people, during a pandemic, there’s anxiety about being in large group settings. I had a little lull between the end of summer and now, and now it’s gearing up again. I’m looking at my calendar, thinking ooh, I’m so excited...but also eek. Luckily, I’m finally at a place in my flight attendant job where I have a lot of flexibility, so I will say that it’s definitely easier than a standard job where the schedule’s cemented in stone. I managed to clear my schedule for November because I knew it was going to be chaos when it comes to book stuff. I’m very fortunate that I have a job that allows me to do that. I don’t write every day, but I haven’t been writing as much as I would like to because I’m so focused on bringing We Deserve Monuments into the world.

RS: Not to sound like your editor or your mother, but what’s happening with your second book?

JH: I actually wrote a second book when we were on submission with We Deserve Monuments. It’s another contemporary standalone, and this time it just poured out of me. I was going through a friendship breakup at the time, and it almost felt like that book wrote itself. I wasn’t even in control of some of these words. That was a couple years ago, and we’re in edits now. I’m waiting for my edit letter to come back. I think we’re slated to bring that book out in the summer of 2024.

RS: The hard part’s done.

JH: Like I said, I love to revise. I love that feeling of knowing who my characters are, really whittling down the story into what I really want to say. I’ve been working on another novel for two years now. It’s like pulling teeth. I love these characters, and I know what I want to say, but it’s the drafting. I think that’s a side effect of perfectionism. I know a lot of authors can relate to that feeling. I’m trying to get to that point where I can allow myself to have a messy first draft. I’m just — no. It has to be good. I’m my own worst enemy, Roger, truly.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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