By: Jaime Stickle
My introduction to Gloria Harrison was the short film Let’s See How Fast This Baby Will Go, based on her essay of the same title, first published by The Nervous Breakdown. It is the true story of a nineteen-year-old woman in labor, on the verge of giving away her baby, who first stops to buy a car. That woman is Gloria.
Gloria Harrison is a storyteller whose work has appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, This American Life, The Weeklings, Fictionaut, Other People with Brad Listi podcast, The Manifest Station, and Sweatpants and Coffee. In January 2017, a short film adaptation of her story that appeared on This American Life, “Let’s See How Fast This Baby Will Go,” was released by Australian director Julietta Boscolo. It is currently playing at film festivals around the world.
I had the honor of talking with Gloria about writing, the film, and her next projects.
The Coachella Review: When you started writing, did you know that being so raw and honest about your life was the direction your writing would take?
Gloria Harrison: Not at all. I started out as a fiction writer—starting when I was 7, and I wrote, illustrated, and hand-bound (with brass brads) a book about Afrika (stet . . .). But then, when I returned to college in my late twenties (after having quit after about a year in my early twenties), I was assigned a memoir piece in a 100-level writing class. I was always in advanced/AP English throughout my primary education (fun fact: I was the only pregnant tenth-grade girl in AP English!) (I love parenthetical asides—it reflects how I talk/think, too) (Oh, and Dillon—from the movie—was the second baby I had. I have a daughter, too, who is nearly twenty-six. I had her when I was sixteen. That’s a very long, very complicated, very stressful conversation), so I wasn’t surprised that I got a great grade on the assignment. But when the teacher pulled me aside and told me I was onto something, I felt emboldened. The piece I wrote was so subversive—it told a truth about growing up that I was warned under penalty of harm never to tell anyone outside my house about. It was nerve-wracking to write, but then to have a college teacher tell me—above all the others—that I was onto something . . . Well, I was like—you know, it felt pretty freaking good to tell that truth. I’m going to do that more. Then, when I went to a four-year university to finish my bachelor’s, I took many, many women’s study classes, all of which had personal essay assignments (either reading or writing), and here we are. It still feels a little naughty, to tell the truth, but I’ve come to identify that feeling as a relic from an old life and not who I am today.
TCR: What was your family’s reaction (your sister and your biological son) to your story “Let’s See How Fast This Baby Will Go”? First, you bravely read it on This American Life (TAL) for an audience of seven hundred thousand people. Did you worry? Did they worry? Did you ask for their approval or permission beforehand?
GH: Well, I wrote the story, first, for The Nervous Breakdown. It was, in fact, my first creative piece that I wrote for them after Brad Listi added me as a contributor. My sister had a chance to adjust to me telling my side of things—and, really, owning my experience of being the mom of her son—long before TAL picked it up. I submitted it to TAL soon after publishing it, knowing that I’d written something good, but they didn’t call until two years later.
When they called, they said, “Hey, we’ve been carrying this around for two years, and we need to have it produced in six days. You up for it?” Who would say no to that? Ha. 🙂 But, that “produce it in six days” required a ridiculous amount of work, including fact-checking my story even down to the most minute detail. So, at that point, I had to tell Kim that she’d be called and kind of interrogated and would she be willing to do that? Then, I asked Dillon (who was fifteen at the time) if he was emotionally comfortable with this happening. He said yes. I told him I’d cut him in on a bit of the money I received, and he said, “Woo-hoo.”
TCR: What has their reaction to the film been?
GH: Dillon has been nothing but positive about the film. In fact, he’s been pretty playful about it. He even lobbied to play baby Dillon in the film since he was a shoe-in for the role. But Julietta (director Julietta Boscolo) had to reject his request. Kim didn’t watch it until very recently. She and I are different in almost every way. She’s a good person, but she goes inside when she needs to process, and I go outside. Writing about my experience as a spark driving around a meat machine has been a literal sanity saver if not a life saver. So, it wasn’t until after I got back from the Shortfest in Palm Springs very recently that she finally watched the film. She sent me a text afterward that said, “I love you, sister.” I take that as a good sign, but I didn’t press.
TCR: The film squarely focuses on you. There are no judgments, just an honest account of a young woman’s journey while she is literally in labor. I wonder, and I’m sure we’ll find out soon, hopefully in your memoir, but where did that car take the nineteen-year-old Gloria?
GH: This memoir, as I imagine it now, kinda stops where the movie does. I don’t know. I’ll share a piece that I’ve been tinkering with recently with you, and you can see why I say this, but it may be impossible to tell a big part of this story without interjecting the voice of me-now. This is one of the reasons why I’m on year ten of “writing my memoir” even though I only have fifty thousand words down.
But, to answer your question, immediately afterward, I drove my sister (her husband didn’t actually travel with her to get Dillon) and newborn Dillon down to southern New Mexico to visit our mom, and, while they visited, I went to a nearby town to see friends. Yep, three days after giving birth. 🙂 Kim left soon afterward, and I drove all over. All over. Long, long drives. It was therapy. I met my now-ex-husband (my twins’ dad) a year after getting that car, the day after completing a two thousand–mile round-trip tour of the western US states with two friends. He and I put thousands of miles on it. We traveled from New Mexico to Oregon in it twice—the final time, to move here. Then, I traveled from Oregon to New Mexico in it twice. He and I had twins five years after I got the car. We sold the car six years after I got it—and it already had 140,000 miles on it. It had seen so much battle. I wasn’t careful with it. I once accidentally drove it down a set of pedestrian stairs. Like a getaway scene in a Jason Bourne movie, only way dorkier. Thank god no one got hurt. That car . . . I loved that car. But, it was actually easy to get rid of it. Once Tolkien and Indigo were born, I didn’t have the same attachment to it I had previously. It was, for the first time, just a car.
TCR: How do you feel about seeing your life on the screen, being interpreted by a director, an actress, and a screenwriter?
GH: It was surreal. I knew it was happening, obviously. There were three or more years between my first conversation with Julietta and her emailing me a link to the film in January 2017.
I’d spoken to Liv (actor Liv Hewson) over Skype, emailed a million things, etc., but nothing really prepares you for seeing someone who has embodied a version of you—one that you haven’t been for a long time—and who people are calling your name.
Julietta was the primary screenwriter. She asked me to review every iteration of the script, but I had very few objections or edits. And she didn’t have to accept any of them anyway, but she’s a decent human in addition to being a brilliant writer and director, so she always weighted my thoughts heavily.
Overall, though, I feel like Julietta did the most respectful and beautiful job of portraying this story. And Liv man, oh man they are a powerhouse (they are nonbinary, btw, so that’s why the pronoun “they”).
You know the scene after Dillon is born, where they’re walking out of the hospital, and then they walk up to the car and break down crying?
GH: I didn’t know that was going to happen. I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I mean, the script said, “Gloria gets emotional” or some such thing, but I described that exact scene in a Skype conversation with Julietta and Liv a year earlier, then got on with my life. Jaime—I saw that scene, and I went to sleep for three days. Called out to work. Couldn’t talk to anyone. If you think I’m exaggerating (which, to be fair, I often do for comedic effect), I’m not. It leveled me.
TCR: As a mother myself, I pretty much lost it in a very public place when that scene happened. I wanted to hug young Gloria on the screen so bad.
TCR: How has having a film made about your story affected your writing path? Has it changed the way you look at what you’ve written? And moreover, how has it affected what you’re writing now?
GH: After the film was finished, in early January 2017, I kinda quit writing memoir. For a while, I quit writing at all. I published the piece about my experience of being in the accident on The Rumpus (“Where the Highway Splits”) about six months later, but I’d written many of those words already, and if I hadn’t worked with the inimitable Julie Greicius, I’m not sure I could’ve produced such a gorgeous piece. (Seriously—nothing beats a good editor, kids. Check it.) I was just spent. I’d already been inside the thing for seven years. Several dear friends pointed out that every time I did a deep dive into it, I emerged sick. Like, I’d get a cold or a sinus infection or something, and I’d be sick for days. This happened, too, after Julietta shared the film with me. So, I thought, you know what? I don’t have to do this. No one is beating down my door for this memoir. In fact, there are a handful of people who would prefer that it just go away. And since it’s memoir, it’s already happened, and it will, therefore, always still be true (though how that truth is manifested in my writing is constantly evolving), so I can wait until all of those people are dead before I write it. Or not. But I don’t have to choose now! So, I started writing a fictional screenplay with a friend, which I spent the last year working on, only tinkering with memoir (because that shit doesn’t leave you alone. If you’re a memoirist, you know what I mean) when I felt like it or just couldn’t avoid it. I also did some self-work around healing from trauma— especially sexual trauma—and I quit smoking, quit an extremely toxic job, and trained to be a self-defense instructor. Taking a year and a half off from writing memoir with such focus has been incredible for my health. I’m only just now dipping my toes back in to see if the water is comfortable.
TCR: Do you have any aspirations of adapting or writing directly for film now that you’ve been a part of the cinematic world?
GH: I think so. Working on this script with my friend John and being a peripheral part of Julietta’s filmmaking has lit a writing fire in me I haven’t felt since before I started associating illness with writing. So, that’s optimistic!
TCR: You mentioned briefly to me that you teach and are reworking a Re-writing Trauma workshop. Obviously, people feel trauma in so many different ways, and this must be such a cathartic and rewarding workshop for everyone involved. What I want to know is, how do you continue to write through difficult and trying times? Your physical pain from the accident and the tumor. Through the curveballs life throws at you . . . how do you keep writing?
GH: I don’t get to not write about trauma. I know that sounds pretentious as hell, but it’s true. It’s a sickness. It’s like an extra immune response only memoir writers get—it’s how I bleed poison. Trust me—if I could stop, I would’ve so many times. I’d be, like, scrapbooking or something.
TCR: How do you protect the privacy of the ones you love while writing your own story in which they play an integral role?
GH: If it’s a sensitive subject, I always ask permission first. Ditto for if I want to use someone’s real name. If I don’t feel safe reaching out to someone who appears as a character in my story—and if they’re there, it’s only because their role in the scene is salient to the story—then I’ll change their name. And if they were an asshole, I make a choice on the fly. Look, if you were shitty and I write about you being shitty, and you don’t like it, well, maybe you shouldn’t have been shitty!
I’ve wanted to use Anne Lamott’s “give them a teeny tiny pee pee” advice, but I generally avoid writing about anyone’s genitals unless absolutely necessary.
Gloria’s most recent piece, “As I Walk Through the Uncanny Valley of Death,” is now published on her blog site, Words by Gloria Harrison.
Jaime Parker Stickle started her journey in Detroit but has considered herself an
Angelino since the day she arrived in California. She is the neurotic, anxious, and
downright panicky author of the upcoming novel The Habitation Game and the slice-of-life blog Leave It To Beebers. Jaime has made a career writing stand-up, television, film, web-series, candy packaging, and radio and has learned the most important thing about herself through writing: she loves to entertain readers. Jaime is an MFA candidate at the UCR Palm Desert Low Residency program. You can read more of her work in the 2018 Adelaide Voices Award Anthology and on her website JaimeParkerStickle.com. You can follow her on Instagram: @JaimeParkerStickle.