Interview: Novelist Julia Stoops on Anti-War Activism and Using Research to Build a Realistic Fictional World

Julia Stoops is one of the most accomplished creative professionals I know. She has earned acclaim in numerous fields, including visual art, teaching, innovative website design and fiction writing. She recently completed her first novel, PARTS PER MILLION. Julia’s work on this manuscript has been supported by an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship in 2005 and a grant from the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

PARTS PER MILLION is an intense, fast-paced journey through the lives of three eco-activists who run an underground media operation from their house in Southeast Portland. Their delicate balance of power is disrupted when their young, well-meaning patron brings home a disheveled stranger he meets at the bus stop.

Julia’s writing is a heady blend of plot and specific, true details she has collected through meticulous research. PARTS PER MILLION uses three point-of-view characters—each activist has an original and distinctive voice—to create a realistic, interior world of the seemingly mismatched roommates as they battle the injustices happening beyond their front door.

Julia, a New Zealand native and Portland, Oregon, resident since 1994, earned a bachelor’s degree in visual art from the Corcoran College of Art, a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Auckland and a master’s degree in painting from Portland State University. She taught at the Pacific Northwest College of Art for more than a decade, and she has a twenty-five-year history of exhibiting her visual art.

In 2001, Julia founded her own company, Blue Mouse Monkey, specializing in web design and branding. Since its inception, the business has thrived, building original sites for various foundations, nonprofits, cultural organizations, progressive businesses and creative professionals. For a window into the process, check out this case study about the site Blue Mouse Monkey composed for Scott Sparling, author of the forthcoming Wire to Wire.

See? She’s amazing.

I met Julia in May 2003, when she joined the critique group led by Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. She’s been an important part of my writing community ever since, including designing www.laurastanfill.com back in 2005. Julia has a remarkable stick-to-it work ethic, coupled with finely honed artistic sensibilities–not to mention a great abundance of talent and passion. Her careful studies of point of view and plot have inspired me and informed my own writing process. I’m so pleased to feature her today as part of the Seven Questions interview series. Welcome, Julia! 

1. Tell us about your novel, PARTS PER MILLION.

Julia Stoops painted several works featuring Nelson, the protagonist of PARTS PER MILLION. See question 5 for details.

It’s about a guy, John Nelson, who once worked for the Forest Service. He had a house, a wife, the usual middle-class deal. Then one day he had an epiphany and left it all to join a band of radical media activists.

That was years ago, and by the time the story opens in 2002, John Nelson still hasn’t figured out if he’s done the right thing. He didn’t envision saving the world would be so hard. His ideals remain strong, but the acts of sabotage have become tiresome. His fellow activists—young computer hacker Jen Owens and Vietnam vet Irving Fetzer— think he’s a square. Their radio show can’t compete with corporate media. And the Bush administration is growing scarier by the day.

The activists’ household gets shaken up by the arrival of Deirdre, an Irish photographer with a secret drug problem. Maybe Nelson can’t save the world, but he is going to try to save Deirdre.

As the country gears up for an unwanted war, Nelson, Jen and Fetzer’s sleuthing uncovers war-technologies fraud and corruption at a local university. As they close in on the truth, they face escalating danger. Meanwhile, Deirdre’s increasingly destructive behavior forces the compadres to confront their commitment to each other and the cause to which they have sacrificed “normal” lives.

Stepping back from the plot, PARTS PER MILLION is also about not having control over your world: shit gets strange and you can’t explain it. It’s about democracy and freedom under threat during a difficult time in recent American history. It’s about a subculture that is misunderstood, and even feared, yet wants nothing more than a free and fair existence for all.

And it’s also about enduring friendship and commitment and rising above adversity. And there’s humor in the book, too! We read because we like to be absorbed in entertaining stories. I kept coming back to that key precept while I wrote this book.

2. Your book is rooted in a specific place and time, namely Portland, Oregon, in 2002. Why there and then? How did your background in anti-war activism and alternative news radio play into your decision to write about this particular moment in history? 

I dove into anti-war activism and alternative news radio. There was so much to say about what was happening in our society. But after a while I became frustrated. It felt like preaching to the choir. Fiction, because of its entertainment value, seemed like a good alternative tactic. In 2002, the U.S. built the false case for invading Iraq. It was also the year that the government rolled out Homeland Security, Operation TIPS and Total Information Awareness. And ordinary people really were being thrown out of shopping malls for wearing Peace t-shirts and detained for requesting non-flag stamps at the post office. It was a crazy, messed up time. I wanted to depict that time through complex characters as they grappled with the everyday experience of absurdity and anxiety.

3. In PARTS PER MILLION, you convey many amazing technical details with great authority—and without slowing the plot down. What kind of research did you do? Was it an ongoing effort throughout your various drafts, or did you compile facts first, then write?

I did different kinds of research. For instance, in PARTS PER MILLION, every word the characters read in a newspaper or hear on the TV is verbatim from news reports at that time. I have VHS tapes, news clippings, magazines, and so many digital files you wouldn’t believe. I’m glad I captured what I could, because some of it I can’t find on the Internet now.

Then there were the points I got help with, for instance the computer security details. I admire Jen’s hacking prowess, but it’s a talent that I unfortunately do not share. A couple of computer security guys were kind enough to help me with the hacking scenes. I had the scenes blocked out already—I knew how they fit into the plot—but the actual blow-by-blow details came from experts.

Jen also gets arrested. Now I’ve not been arrested in Portland during an anti-war demonstration, but I got details from a woman who was. We met up through Indymedia: She put a call out for a videotape of her arrest, and I happened to have her arrest on tape, because I was in the habit of bringing a camera to demonstrations. I gave her the video and she let me interview her. Most of the juicy material, like how pitch dark and disorienting the police wagon was, didn’t make it to the final draft, but the snippets that remain are authentic.

The real challenge was not getting the material, it was editing down what I had. When you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to find out exactly how something works, it takes restraint to pare that information down to just-enough-to-make-it-believable.

4. In your novel, there are three point-of-view characters. When in your writing process did you decide to tell the story that way? What was challenging about your choice?

The point of view characters are Nelson, Jen, and Fetzer, the three media activists who live together. Getting to there took a several iterations. Originally the novel was all omniscient third person, because that was the only way I knew how to write. I hadn’t studied creative writing nor literature in college, so from a craft perspective I was ignorant of alternatives.

Then I joined Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose’s critique group. They opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing not only in point of view, but in voice. That was a revelation, and I had fun playing with the characters in new ways.

At first there were five voices: Deirdre had a say, and so did Franky, the trust-fund kid who helps the media group out. Franky is sweet but not too bright. I struggled to render him authentically and later dropped his POV. So I was down to four: the three activists and Deirdre. And the novel stayed with four voices through a couple more drafts.

Then it became clear that the novel was way too long. As Stevan said, “You haven’t written a novel, you’ve written a mini-series.” I had to make massive cuts to bring it down to a typical novel size. Many subplots got the axe, as did some characters’ backstories. Scenes were cut. And Deirdre’s POV was cut. That was the hardest decision to make. I grieved when I cut her voice out of the novel. It was the most poetic and beautiful of the voices, and she noticed things the other characters took for granted. But the clincher was that her interior drama was so big and so sad that it was dominating the story. And it’s Nelson’s story. Deirdre’s purpose as a character is to wring him out and change him. It wasn’t appropriate for her to upstage him.

So I settled on three alternating voices, and that’s the final form of the novel.

5. Julia, you’ve created some art featuring John Nelson, your protagonist. What medium did you use? Did portraying Nelson in a visual way change your relationship to him on the page?

John Nelson is an everyman figure: average build, average height, average clothes. He’s sensitive, and burdened with the weight of the world, and when he experiences tragedy it’s transformative, allowing him to find his true role in life. As a visual artist, it was a natural avenue of exploration for me to depict Nelson visually. He’s in several small acrylic and oil paintings from 2003 and 2004-6.

He and his compadres dominated my imagination for years. I don’t think working on the paintings changed my relationship to him on the page, but it let me explore him in another dimension. You can see the paintings at www.juliastoops.net, under “The Things in the Sky” and “As a Young Man.”

6. Along with bringing PARTS PER MILLION to our writing group, you’ve hand-picked a few readers in various fields to offer you feedback. Please tell us about that process and how those extra sets of eyes have shaped your manuscript revisions.

The weekly critique group was fantastic at helping me with the craft of the sentence. I learned so much at Stevan and Joanna’s table, and the book would simply not exist without their steady guidance over the years. The later handpicked readers, to whom I will be ever grateful, were a great complement to the critique group. They came from different backgrounds and read the whole novel at once. I think it’s important to not rely solely on other writers to critique your work. Non-writers will be smart and perceptive about a novel in a whole different way. The readers I chose represented a cross-section of the book’s ideal audiences, and so their advice, usually on the level of larger patterns and themes, helped shape the book on a different scale.

The weekly critique group helped me craft each brick and build structures. The later readers told me whether the structures were well-balanced and intuitive to move through. Additionally, after making those massive cuts, it was the readers with fresh eyes who told me where I needed to restore crucial information!

7. How do you balance writing and working as a creative professional in the web design industry? When do you find time to write?

Hahahahaha! That’s a trick question, right? But seriously, it’s taken a lot of discipline to work through the novel’s drafts while leaving my teaching career and growing a small business. I write in spurts. And I’ll admit there have been periods of weeks, sometimes months, without writing. My web-design work involves a lot of sitting at a computer and problem-solving. Writing also entails sitting at a computer and problem-solving. (Extended handwriting is almost impossible now due to tendonitis.) Sometimes I’m all used up at the end of a day. But other times I’m not. I guess there were enough of those other times over the last ten years for me to get this book finished!

Thanks so much for your time, Julia! You can learn more about her art at partspermillion.net. Visit the Blue Mouse Monkey site to see some more of the company’s innovative design work. And check back next week for another installment of the Seven Questions series. 

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Research, Seven Questions, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Interview: Novelist Julia Stoops on Anti-War Activism and Using Research to Build a Realistic Fictional World

  1. Emerald Barnes says:

    I really enjoyed reading this interview, and I must say, her stance on Point of View goes back to what you and I had discussed just last week. I, also, enjoyed reading about her finding new and fresh eyes to read over her novel and help her with it. I’ve thought that finding non-writers but avid readers to read over a final manuscript would be a good idea because they know what makes for good reading and won’t pay too close attention to the actually writing. Thank you for posting this wonderful interview! (And, I really want to read “Parts Per Million” now.)

    • Hi, Emerald! I’m glad you connected to the interview both in terms of POV and Julia’s quest to get “real” people to read her work. It’s a beautiful novel. I haven’t read the final draft, but the last one I saw was fabulous!

  2. Pingback: Blue Mouse Monkey Blog » Blog Archive » Interview on Laura Stanfill’s writing blog

  3. Christi Krug says:

    Delightful interview! Thank you Laura; thank you Julia. Wow – Julia’s process is so incisive and well-articulated and at the same time so enormous and visionary and multi-dimensional. It was a treat to find out about the Nelson paintings. It was inspiring to hear about the “obsessional” quality of this many-faceted creator, and how she is able to wear all her hats with such grace.

  4. Pingback: Blue Mouse Monkey Blog » Blog Archive » Welcoming the lull

  5. Pingback: Check Out This Innovative Novel Website | Laura Stanfill

  6. Pingback: Writing Challenge #17: Cutting Back on Minor Characters | Laura Stanfill

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