Writing the Family Portrait

Julia Pierpont ’08

By by Abigail Deutsch

In the first scene of Julia Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things (Random House, 2015), 11-year-old Kay Shanley comes home to a mysterious package and can’t resist a peek. The carton turns out to be a Pandora’s box of letters, one bearing a secret that will forever change the way Kay understands her family—and the way her family members understand one another.

What follows is a book in canon form: we move out of Kay’s perspective and into her brother’s, her mother’s, her father’s, then back to Kay’s. Pierpont traces each character as precisely as the last: there’s Kay, forever uncertain what to say yet luridly expressive in her Seinfeld fan fiction; there’s her brother, Simon, who has embarked on a desperate quest for cool (and for girls); there’s Jack, their father, a sculptor who brings his flair for artifice to himself and his relationships—as the box reveals, he had an affair. Then there’s Deb, their mother, who is heartbreakingly aware that, though a victim of her husband’s philandering, she risks seeming to her children as though she is at fault. And as this impressively complex family portrait indicates, maybe, in a way, she is.

The book’s form serves various purposes, Pierpont says. “I love it when writers dip in and out of different characters’ perspectives, showing you different versions of the same event or coercing you into empathizing with opposing sides of a story. It feels truer to life’s many truths, and something to which fiction is uniquely well suited.”

At Barnard, Pierpont studied life’s many truths not as an English major but as a film major. She recalls, “I didn’t know at the time that I would become a writer, or more accurately, I didn’t know what form my writing would take.” Pierpont took several workshops that she considers necessary to her development as a writer, learning, she says, “to share my work with others, to receive criticism and insight from my peers, and from my professors—Mary Gordon, Lynne Tillman, and Richard Panek—all of whom were wonderful.”

After graduation, Pierpont stayed in touch with her writing professors, as well as with several alumnae who write. This network continues to yield fruit; recently, one professor introduced her to another Barnard alumna and first-time novelist, Cecily Wong ’10, author of the well-received Diamond Head .

Yet Pierpont’s path to full-time writing wasn’t always obvious. Immediately post-college, she spent a “scary” year or two working various jobs and planning what to do next. That uncertain time was, in the end, crucial for her work: “I found myself working on short stories obsessively,” she says. “At some point I became aware of MFA programs, and that there were about a dozen across the country that offered full funding to a small cohort. [That] became the impossible dream: time to write, and the authority to admit that it was what I was trying to do.” Pierpont graduated from New York University’s MFA program in 2013. At NYU, she learned a lot and found supportive friends and mentors; her time there, she says, made this novel possible.

The writing process was not without its challenges: “Writing is lonely, though while I was writing the book I didn’t mind.” Pierpont describes a “necessary trance” that enabled her to work harder than she’d ever thought possible. The rewards for that work have been considerable. Among the Ten Thousand Things has received excellent reviews and become a national bestseller. The financial rewards have been impressive, too: the novel sold for six figures. “I remember coming out of work and calling my mother [journalist and New Yorker writer Claudia Roth Pierpont ’79] in the middle of Times Square and just having no words,” Pierpont says of the day of the sale. But most meaningful of all are the reader’s compensations—delicately drawn characters navigating a strange, sad, funny landscape that closely resembles our own.

As for what’s next, “I’m taking notes and working on a short story that may or may not amount to more,” she says. “Mostly I’m trying to engage in looking at the world around me.” Such attention will no doubt prove essential to her next piece of meticulously observed fiction.