Lessening Life’s Loneliness Through Books: An Interview with Jiordan Castle

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Few of us look back fondly on adolescence, but it is tougher for some people than others. On the cusp of her teenage years, Jiordan Castle’s father was arrested and incarcerated. In her debut book, Disappearing Act, Jiordan relives her adolescence, intertwining the usual concerns of first love and turbulent friendships with this familial cataclysm. 

A New Yorker-published poet, Jiordan’s lyrical talents are on full display in this YA memoir-in-verse. She renders her story in vivid, aching, accessible poems. In her author’s note, she writes: “For years I searched bookstores for anything that resembled my story. There were prison cookbooks and memoirs written by guards and former prisoners, but nothing for young people like me, connected to prison by a tin can on a string. Only static at the other end.” 

It was a true delight to speak with Jiordan about the perils of memoir, casting a retrospective lens on adolescence, the prison system, and the glory of dogs, among many other topics. Disappearing Act is on sale on August 15, but it is already available for preorder.

-Emily Mirengoff 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

TriQuarterly: What qualms or fears did you have before embarking on this deeply vulnerable and personal project? How did you overcome them?

Jiordan Castle: This is probably too truthful an answer, but I was almost exclusively afraid the family I have left would stop loving me if I wrote this book. Fortunately, that’s not the case! I wrote this book on a deadline, and I always knew it would become a product—which is not typical of many writing projects. Consequently, I spent a lot of the writing process forcing myself to pretend I was someone who’d already forgiven myself for writing about my family. For making certain private things public. I think it’s a kind of “fake it ‘til you make it” scenario for me in that I gave myself a little bit of permission, finally, through pretending. I tried to treat myself like a friend, someone I would support on this journey. That helped.

TQ: This is an uncomfortable question, but as a Jewish writer myself, I couldn’t help thinking about it. Your father was incarcerated for financial crimes. Were you worried that your book would perpetuate stereotypes about Jews and money?

JC: I’m so glad you asked this! I absolutely thought about this—the racial and socioeconomic implications of this white Jewish man from Long Island going to prison for financial crimes. Surprisingly, even on Long Island, I was actually bullied a lot for being Jewish. In my experience, you’re too Jewish for those who want to other you, but not Jewish enough to feel like a “good Jew.” 

I did worry that people who already believe harmful Jewish stereotypes about money would use my book in bad faith. But those people probably wouldn’t approach my book with an open mind to begin with. I certainly hope no one will read the book and form worse opinions about Jews! But my story is my story. It would be someone else’s story if the crimes weren’t financial, if the crimes weren’t the product of him being a mentally ill man from a certain generation, who thought he needed to provide for his family in a certain way, in capitalist America—where more is more. I can’t imagine why he did what he did, but I do think it’s important to talk about the nature of crimes, especially in relation to sentencing. With first time, non-violent offenders like him, people assume that they’ll walk, or go to a low-security facility. In fact, my father’s prison was a medium-security psychiatric facility, which was quite dangerous. Because of his race, because of his means, he absolutely had privilege—and yet, despite that privilege, he still had a very “standard” prison experience in many ways. 

TQ: Though the book is mostly retrospective—in your voice as a teenager—there are also a couple poems from your future, adult self. Were those intended as relief for the reader, retroactive comfort to yourself, or some other purpose? 

JC: When adults write for teen audiences, I think it is our responsibility to help them not lose hope. When you’re young and struggling through extraordinary circumstances or even the usual awkward times in adolescence, ideally, there is time to grow, to leave, to learn, to become a safer, beloved self. But you probably don’t feel it then. I didn’t feel it then. So for me, the ability to dip back into my own past, and the past I’m writing to share with other young people (or adults in need of maybe some of the same healing or kinship), it felt important to pull back the curtain—to say not only that it gets better, but that you’re not alone. You have yourself. Yourself in all your iterations and possibilities. To have yourself is to have hope. That’s my belief, anyway.

And absolutely, writing a bit from the future was a strange but very real way to comfort myself while writing this particular history. I realized at certain points that if it helped me, maybe it would help readers. Maybe it would tap us all on the shoulder, remind us that we’re in this life together. Life can be lonely, especially as a young person. Books can sometimes do the work that friends and family can’t or won’t.

TQ: One of the trickiest issues for memoirists is balancing their stories with their families’ reactions. How did your family feel about your book?

JC: I think some reactions were as loving and complicated as the subject matter itself. I tried to write the book with no unequivocal heroes or villains—except the prison system—so of course complicated feelings will emerge from those portrayals. This book, especially with its retrospective lens, does not reflect the full complexity of our relationships. 

TQ: One of the book's most interesting throughlines is your relationship with your mother. Her portrayal is so nuanced—neither an apologia nor a condemnation. Did you rely primarily on your past feelings or your current understanding of her for this depiction? 

JC: This! Thank you for your reading of our relationship, and of how I portrayed my mother.

I specifically shared the second draft of the book with certain family members, including her. Every writer has a different relationship when writing and publishing work about loved ones. I hoped to tell the truth without sacrificing the goodwill of the people who love me enough to give me the benefit of the doubt. To me, that means sharing the work and being open to conversations and maybe changing details that matter more to others—though not at the expense of your experience. I’m not saying to my family, If you don’t like it, go write your own book. But rather that I can only write from one perspective. I’m going to fail a little. I shared the second draft because I had reached the point where the big picture of the story was done; from there, I could fuss with the details and try not to harm people I love. For the record, my mother is very excited about the book and green-lit it wholeheartedly.

As far as writing about our relationship… Some adults, I think, can only view their parents as two-dimensional characters, like most of us do growing up: as our chauffeurs, the people buying the snacks, the ones saying no to a new video game that’s too expensive. But I’m uniquely my mother’s kid, whatever that means. Maybe that I saw and lived things that were partly her fault and not at all her fault and tried to understand the difference because I loved her. I knew I was collateral damage and that I was loved.

The book only scratches the surface, and I had a front row seat to her comeback story. She made sure we had a home, she made sure there was food in the fridge. No one has a stronger work ethic than my mother. I saw it then, but I understand it better now.

TQ: Although your father's incarceration is the linchpin of the book, you also spend considerable amounts of time on more universal, everyday teenager concerns: a first boyfriend, friends growing apart. How did you decide which other aspects of your life back then to highlight or de-emphasize? Was it the extent to which they related to your father's incarceration, or their relative importance to your state of mind?

JC: The question of what to include and what to leave out is always tricky, isn’t it? Especially when considering the stakes in your story, memoir or otherwise. For a teenager, something as consuming as an incarcerated parent really does sit beside the everyday stuff of fighting with your friend, a crush, a class that isn’t going well… I wanted to make sure to stay true to that reality. Most days are going to have their highs and lows and with this subject matter, it’s going to be a little lower on average. But that doesn’t negate the moments of true friendship or hope within my family, or even the comfort I found in pizza. And there’s a lot of pizza in the book… as in my life.

TQ: Some of the book's most heartbreaking moments revolve around phone calls with your dad while he's incarcerated. I had never thought much about the power dynamics of those calls—the way their limited phone access forces you, on the outside, to be available anytime; that the prisoner will almost always end the call because they run out of phone time. Did it reshape the way you thought about being at home? Have you ever talked to other children of incarcerated parents about this dynamic?

JC: Not really, and I would be interested in discussing exactly this, from a social, emotional, and economic perspective. I’m going to go on a quick tangent, but it has to be said: Prison costs a lot for the families of incarcerated people. Phone calls, underwear, beans, mail, you name it. It adds up. Meanwhile, prisoners typically work for money, but they earn so much less than anyone on the outside can conceive of. This is a system designed to work against incarcerated people and anyone who might care about them. Prison has never been about justice or reform; it’s about control. Limited or costly access in all its forms is about control.

But on the phone front, when I was home after school and the house phone rang, my immediate response was always fear. Anxiety. The worry that something might have happened. It’s a horrible thing, to admit that I wanted to stay gone, be at a friend’s, be somewhere else. If I didn’t or couldn’t answer the phone, everything could be fine. He could be safe. Or a good day at school could go unburdened, unruined. That feels selfish—it is. It was. But it’s also reasonable, I think, to expect, especially from a teenager.

TQ: My single favorite poem of the book is called “Maybe.” It reads: “Maybe/ the only person I can count on/ to be in the deep end with me is me.” I love that it's so free of judgment—you don't frame it as a positive or negative, but a simple fact. Is that a revelation you reached in adulthood, or something you came to understand back then?

JC: I love that “Maybe” is your favorite poem! It was something I considered back then but pushed to the back of my mind, as if it were cruel. As if I was discounting the people who loved me.

But in adulthood, while writing the poem and thinking of my younger self, I felt this flood of grace. Like I understood her better now. That she was safe with me. It’s in the realm of “be your own best friend,” but maybe more so. If I as the author allowed my younger self to be alone, really alone, and appreciate it, I could release both of us from feeling constantly beholden to other people. It’s the kind of grace I think most of us can only give ourselves when we’re a little removed, when we’re not in chaos or crisis.

TQ: Several of your poems have words omitted in them—like Mad Libs, inviting the reader to fill in certain feelings or terms for themselves. Why did you choose this style for some of your more fraught poems? 

JC: On the one hand, it’s a way for me to escape having to say the brutal thing out loud—to admit it, whatever it is. To allow me, the character of me, to feel temporarily invisible and safe without leaving the page. On the other hand, it’s a way for me to allow readers to pursue their own meaning or see themselves in the story if the story is at all familiar to them. I think the blanks help us engage each other at a distance.

TQ: As an adult, everyone knows you as the mom of Hacksaw, an adorable pug who adorns your bookmarks. In the book, you have a dog named Peanut, who becomes a character in her own right. What is it about dogs? 

JC: Bless you for appreciating the magic that is Hacksaw. And really, what isn’t it about dogs? If I am great at anything, it’s loving dogs. There aren’t enough words to explain how grateful I am to the dogs who have saved me and loved me back.

And while two dogs may have been too many for the book—can you ever have too many?—I’ve got to mention Pepper, one half of the iconic real-life duo Peanut and Pepper. As a collective and as wholly unique creatures, Peanut, Pepper, and Hacksaw have each been my security blanket, my simple joy, and my great love. We feed dogs and they perform miracles.