Conversations Between Friends: BettyJoyce Nash and Jody Hobbs Hesler
BettyJoyce Nash and Jody Hobbs Hesler are Charlottesville authors who teach at the community writing center, WriterHouse, and participate in writing groups together. Over the years, they have workshopped each other’s stories, served on panels together, and hiked in the woods. Here, they discuss their debut books: BettyJoyce Nash’s novel, Everybody Here Is Kin, and Jody Hobbs Hesler’s story collection, What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better.
BettyJoyce Nash: Your domestic stories in your collection, What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better, “detonate”—quietly, effectively, profoundly. Characters emerge from a variety of social and economic circumstances, and they are not quite “making it.” Even when their lives seem safe and secure, they fill with longing and wonder why they don’t “feel better.” Stories depict not only two-parent families, single dads, single moms and their children, but also older, single characters like Otto and Ida. This brilliant title implies all the quotidian and strange situations that can warp, clarify, confuse how we humans navigate our worlds. Meticulous descriptions of places, people, and circumstances, with specific details, ground readers so thoroughly that we become characters.
Jody Hobbs Hesler: Both our books live in domestic spaces, though your novel, Everybody Here Is Kin, also encompasses sweeping natural surroundings. We write about characters navigating untenable relationships. In yours, Lucille struggles to care for herself and her half-siblings while her mother, Naomi, abandons them on a barrier island to pursue an ill-fated romantic fling. The well-meaning if erratic motel manager, Will, a veteran, feels duty bound to monitor the kids. Another broken relationship in your book is the human relationship with the earth, a cause Lucille takes up with fervor to compensate for the out-of-control elements in her own life. I love how your title, Everybody Here Is Kin, characterizes both the tight-knit nature of the island setting along with the profound relatedness of everything else on earth.
BJN: How do you gauge the amount and sorts of details to include? I’d like to highlight one: the boomerang in “Grown-Up Party.” A boomerang is a weapon and a toy. Dana’s three-year-old brother, Alec, thwacks the boomerang in his palm, then jabs it into her arm. At the end, the boomerang plays a critical role. When and how did it emerge as a telling detail?
JHH: You throw a boomerang, and it comes back. It can’t choose not to. In “Grown-Up Party,” the boomerang rescues Dana from one fate, but returns her to the one she was aiming to escape. I didn’t know to give Dana’s brother the boomerang until later drafts of the story. Before then, he was already an irritant and an agent of change, but the boomerang amplified and unified those roles. In the last scene, when the boomerang whings into sight, we know Alec isn’t far behind.
Effective details lead readers toward the heart of a story without spelling out a particular message, so if a detail feels too spot-on, I look for another. I wish I knew when I’d landed on the right ones, but a lot of the zeroing in comes down to trusting the imagination.
The challenge is to select details that communicate more than their literal substance, which you do so well with your depictions of nature and place. Lucille’s fixation on climate disaster deepens her love of the natural world and her fears of losing it in her lifetime. Queen, the elderly turtle guardian, enhances Lucille’s knowledge not only of wild herbs but also of these very endangered wild creatures. This story belongs intimately and inextricably to Boneyard Beach. At what point in the writing process did Boneyard “find” you?
BJN: These characters simply showed up on the island! Naturally, I asked them tons of questions. Seriously, I lived for five years on a South Carolina barrier island in the 1970s. Back then, half the island was wild. I could walk the beach for a mile without seeing a house. I love research, so I hopped on a ferry to Sapelo Island, Georgia, where an islander jounced me around in his pickup. He even showed me the native shell mounds.
Though I love my strange settings, I enjoy the way you use ordinary suburban homes and yards to create the extraordinary. Windows become potent symbols in two of your stories. In “Alone” and “Sweetness,” characters struggle to “see” into themselves through actual windows. How did these “glass” scenes evolve?
JHH: My knee-jerk reaction is to think how different the windows are in each story. In “Alone,” Pearl’s window belongs to a dead neighbor, and the glass functions as a lens for her to examine her life from a distance, which parallels her dissociation. Meanwhile, in “Sweetness,” the narrator’s window belongs to his father’s boss and he’s using it to spy on the boss’s daughter. What these characters see through their respective windows is utterly different, but, ultimately, they’re both seeing themselves from the outside with a clarity they’d lacked on their own.
In Everybody Here Is Kin, Lucille learns about herself as if from the outside too. This perspective shows her that her mother Naomi’s continuing emotional tailspin threatens the quality of Lucille’s life. I like how you planted these concerns but left them largely unresolved. What made you decide to leave the ending so open?
BJN: She finally understands her own power—living through the storm with Queen taught her that. Will has noticed, all week, her unwavering commitment to her siblings and the natural world. He believes in her. She now believes in herself. She also grasps the power of community. At first, Lucille couldn’t trust Will or the world—she’d never had a stable, reliable grown-up behind her. Now she does. For Lucille, simply knowing she has backup relieves her anxiety and she no longer feels alone. Even if her mother goes off the rails again, she can find help.
Lucille, in Everybody Here Is Kin, is over-responsible, convincing herself she likes and needs responsibility. Both our books portray unsupervised adolescents. Why are your compelling, vulnerable characters like Beverly, Layna, Leslie, and Dana so important to you?
JHH: I know these characters intimately. Their experiences are inspired by my childhood and young adulthood, which spanned the 1970s and early ’80s. Weird years to be young and female. Now, the toxic masculinity that was glorified back then is circling back through policy and political rhetoric, punishing female-identifying people for the independence so many of us are still fighting and dying for.
I’m angry. In fiction, a powerful vehicle for this kind of anger is a story that peels back the skin and shows the anatomy of what’s gone wrong. Fiction helps us feel, and we need to feel these truths deeply to refuel and fight forward.
This focus on un(der)protected children might be the biggest overlap between our books. In Everybody Here Is Kin, Lucille (13) and her half-siblings, Mayzie (8) and Jack (5), qualify under this category, and so does Nature itself. I love Lucille’s passion for protecting the planet and caring for her little siblings. She bucks up to her unasked-for responsibilities and even finds her strengths despite being misused herself. What draws you to a character like Lucille?
BJN: I come from generations of strong, mouthy women. One grandmother was a solo, small-allotment tobacco farmer. These female forebears lived back when women were dissed and/or barred from employment, education, and birth control. Lucille has constraints—at thirteen, she can’t drive, but she’s got responsibilities, and all she has is her brain and smart mouth, which she deploys to keep herself sane.
In the story “If Wishes Were Children,” a seemingly neglected child reignites old longing in the wife of a retired, childless couple, irritating the husband. Moments later, an idle complaint about a box of tissues defuses the tension. I love the way children in your stories provoke adult action and epiphany and how you enlarge trivial moments into meaningful ones.
JHH: I think the story included that scene with the tissues from the beginning. It’s all about tenderness—a moment that quietly speaks of the couple’s mutual, abiding affection, even though they’ve processed their losses differently and don’t always fully understand each other.
In Everybody Here Is Kin, Lucille shows similar tenderness toward her mother, which is a challenge. Your adult characters, Naomi and Will, struggle to fulfill commitments due to addiction, histories of trauma, and general stubbornness. Lucille’s necessary reliance on unreliable people echoes Gen Z’s chronic disappointment over the failures of previous generations to protect the planet. Lucille’s and Gen Z’s anger make such a perfect foil that I wondered how it developed.
BJN: We can’t help but write our world: the good, bad, and ugly. Grown-up ignorance disgusts Lucille. She spews depressing facts and often blames grown-ups for ruining the world. Faced with a fish dinner, she loses her appetite and mutters about microplastics in the food chain. Lucille’s vulnerable but can’t show her pain.
Your characters, too, hide scars. Several protagonists have miscarried, and their losses haunt them. Such wounds drive character vulnerability. What draws you to these particular wounds, and what pitfalls might lurk in writing them?
JHH: A few months after my own miscarriage, I became pregnant again, but it took holding my child in my arms the first time to believe that she wouldn’t be taken from me, too. Only later did I learn how many other women I knew had also miscarried. One statistic suggests that about 25% of pregnancies end this way, often without the pregnant person’s knowledge, but we rarely talk about it. Pregnancy and its every outcome are intimately personal, yet universal experiences, and that’s why I write about them.
Detailing grief over the loss of a child risks suggesting women should derive their identities from their capacity to reproduce. Writing about a man’s regrets over how he behaved around his ex-girlfriend’s abortion, as in “Beautiful Day,” risks suggesting men should have a role in deciding what a woman chooses to do with her body. I don’t think my characters or their experiences promote these ideas, though I understood the tightrope I was walking. These stories are an enormous part of the human experience, so I want to be careful in how I represent them, but I don’t want to be afraid to do it.
BJN: You include race in two stories. One takes place in 1955. A white mother fusses at her two teenage daughters for listening to Black jazz music. The younger girl, Susan, infers her mom’s discomfort is about race. At her sister’s dare, Susan enters a store in a Black business district, even after a white man grabs her arm and tells her not to. She buys jawbreakers, but a smashed cantaloupe and a glance at a news magazine revolts her. How did you find this powerful ending?
JHH: After Unite the Right descended on our town in 2017, I wanted to find a story that could help express the fury and shame I felt about the place I call home. “Trespassing” was what emerged. White culture spends a lot of time, energy, and hidden messaging selling the idea that Black culture is something to be afraid of or to control, but when we’re allowed to learn real history, we see that white people can be a hell of a lot more frightening and dangerous. Susan is more of a threat in that neighborhood than anyone there is to her because the context of the times gave her the same power that wound up brutalizing Emmett Till.
I’m disgusted by my current governor’s efforts, along with those of so many others, to quash telling the true history of our state and country. Racial injustice defines where I live. Neighborhoods in the Charlottesville area derive their names from plantations that once stood there, meaning that every beautiful old street I walk along was once a field worked by enslaved laborers. The trademark red brick of our historic downtown and the original buildings of the University of Virginia began as Virginia red clay that enslaved laborers dug from the ground, shaped, and baked in the sun. I try to deliver some of this history into my stories. I haven’t approached our Indigenous history yet.
It seems like my investment in these suppressed histories mirrors your passion for the environment. Clearly, you have a deep understanding of beach habitats and imminent threats of climate change on our shores. Can you talk about how you gained this expertise and about how knowing these places and circumstances has changed you, as well as your storytelling?
BJN: I’ve been hyperaware of environmental issues since the 1980s, partly because I’m married to an environmental economist and couldn’t escape it if I wanted to, but I still remember how moved I was on the first Earth Day in 1970—rivers were so polluted that at least one caught fire! I also wrote professionally, for years, for an economics magazine and reported on the true costs of environmental damage.
Writing a novel, for me, is an opportunity to learn. I read books about coastal ecology, climate change, hurricanes, how wind blows and shifts, clouds, and about the native shell formations that exist all over the world. I interviewed an archeologist from the University of Georgia who studies the shell formation on Sapelo Island in Georgia. I studied a scientific sea turtle reference book by Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop. I visited Sapelo, home of the last intact Geechee/Gullah community in the Georgia Sea Islands, Hogg Hummock. They are descended from people brought to the island through slavery in 1802. I researched enough for a trilogy, but that won’t happen unless Lucille and Will decide to open up and share their new lives.
I love that you spotlight strong females, like Ida in “Sorry Enough.” Why are strong female-driven stories important?
JHH: These are scary times with the extreme religious right wanting to hurl us backward in time, and we need more stories about strong women. While we’re at it, we need more strong women who aren’t shaped to look like strong men—wielding guns, performing feats of strength, marking territory, as if typically male strengths haven’t caused as many wars, famines, and genocides as they’ve waged against. In my stories, women show their strength through wisdom, and they engage or confront their community with what they know. Sometimes, the women I write fight—and lose—battles I recognize. Sometimes they win. The hope is that readers will identify with their struggles, either way.
BETTYJOYCE NASH is the author of Everybody Here Is Kin (September 19, 2023; Madville Publishing). Her writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Reckon Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. Her work has been recognized with fellowships from MacDowell, the Tyrone Guthrie Center (Ireland), and Ragdale. She earned a master’s from Medill School of Journalism, and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She credits her success to her many day jobs: mother, chambermaid, daycare worker, VISTA volunteer, ceramic artist, economics writer, freelancer. She’s taught writing at community centers and the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. Find her on Instagram @bettyjoyce7396.
JODY HOBBS HESLER is the author of the story collection What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better (October 15, 2023; Cornerstone Press) and the forthcoming novel, Without You Here (November 2024; Flexible Press). Her words also appear in Necessary Fiction, Gargoyle, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, CRAFT, Arts & Letters, and many other journals. She earned her MFA in fiction from Lesley University, and she teaches at WriterHouse; writes and copyedits for Virginia Wine & Country and Charlottesville Family Magazine; and reads for the Los Angeles Review. Find her on Instagram @Jody_Write_Now.