Originally published in Willow Springs 74
From the author
Notes on “Model Girl”
I wrote “Model Girl” after I read an article in the New York Times about retired models fighting for child labor laws to be enacted in New York state to protect those girls who are fifteen, fourteen, thirteen. I was reading about their experiences and thinking everything they described was incredibly familiar. It’s disturbing to read a description of your own experiences as exploitative and illegal, without having previously recognized that yourself. Everyone always told me how lucky I was that I got to be involved in such an elite and glamorous career path. Nobody but my parents was worried about eating disorders, loss of education, or debt. But at the same time, I was a bookish teenager, completely unconcerned about fashion or clothes, and so it’s still funny that I happened to be born the right height, the right hip-size, with the kind of face I was told was “lopsided but interesting.” I was probably one of the only girls in America that was encouraged to stop reading Jane Austen and to start memorizing Vogue. I was absolutely the wrong choice for modeling personality-wise, but physically I fit the bill, so nobody noticed. One of the things I love about writing is that almost no one cares what you look like, which I think comes from being scrutinized too much in a bikini at sixteen. I’m just glad no one does that when they’re reading your manuscript. We’d have a lot fewer writers.
I’ll never get over the characters I met in fashion. I’d never met anyone like my agents, the photographers, the stylists, or the makeup artists. They were too over the top, too self-possessed. The vanity of the industry thrilled them, while I shrunk from it. They were the opposite of the kids I interacted with every day in high school. I’m still fascinated by them. I wanted to write about them before I forgot what it was like to meet people like that for the first time. Most of the models I knew were these pretty normal girls, plucked from Midwestern shopping malls or California beaches. But the people in charge of us were wild and creative. Now, I identify more with the creative people orchestrating the shoots, but at the time I was one of their props, which infuriated me. Writing about the whole thing has been rewarding. I feel enough emotional distance from the events to do them justice, but I keep small pieces of my modeling experience with me. The ability to keep my eyes open when a flashbulb goes off and an aversion to heels, for example.
Notes on Reading
I’m always reading five or six books at a time, in addition to the reading I do for class. Sometimes that creates a collage of plot lines, but mostly I like choosing from a stack, so I can match whatever mood I’m in. Right now, I’m reading ZZ Packer, David Gates, and Amy Hempel for their perfect sentences. For preciseness of characters, I continue to obsess over Edith Pearlman and Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m usually too influenced by the authors I’m reading, so I try to read things that might help certain aspects of whatever I’m working on, just so whatever they’re doing might bleed over a tiny bit into my own work.
Mostly, I’m fascinated by contemporary novels right now. I’d never given much thought to what qualifies as a novel—how they’re structured, what makes a short story different than a novel—until I tried to write one. So I’ve been trying to reread my favorite novels to figure out exactly what’s magical about them for me, and how I can steal from them. That means I’ve been rereading Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, fellow Portlander Katherine Dunn’s masterpiece Geek Love, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. When I read books like those, I spread the gospel to everyone I know. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a great book preacher. I’d paradrop crates of Geek Love into the Portland streets.
About Jules Ohman
Jules Ohman is currently seeking an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana. Her chapbook of short stories, Vertical Streets, recently won the Merriam-Frontier Award and is forthcoming this summer. She’s working on a novel set in Portland, Oregon, the city in which she grew up. “Model Girl” is her first published work.