‘Tis The Season: Authors Talk Holidays 2017 with Joy McCullough

‘Tis The Season: Authors Talk Holidays is a special seasonal feature on Pop! Goes The Reader in which some of my favourite authors help me to celebrate the spirit of the season and spread a little holiday cheer. So, pour yourself a cup of hot chocolate and snuggle in by the fireside as they answer the question: “What does the holiday season mean to you?” You can find a complete list of this year’s participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!


About Joy McCullough

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate. Blood Water Paint is her debut novel.

Author Links: WebsiteTwitterInstagramGoodreads


My father was a pastor, and Christmas was the busiest season of the year.

We opened our gifts in between the four services on Christmas Eve. My father would run home in between services, we’d open some presents, he’d go again and return, we’d open more presents.

During one of his breaks, we always had soup for dinner — a family tradition from my father’s side. Except my mother loathed cooking, and she especially loathed cooking soup. Every year something went disastrously wrong with the soup. I don’t know how one burns soup, but my mother managed multiple times.

She would laugh about it, a little unhinged. I didn’t understand why she didn’t just cook something else. But she wasn’t trying to make soup. She was trying to construct the perfect Christmas. She had grown up in a house where they bought two Christmas trees. They would set one up, and drill holes in the trunk where the branch distribution wasn’t perfect, and wrench branches off the second tree to fill in the offending gaps.

There were so many gaps in our tree, and my mother was trying desperately to fill them.

I didn’t know that then.

I noticed some things — like when my father fell and broke his finger right before the staff Christmas party, he blamed it on my mother mopping the kitchen floor. (How dare she?!) Or when I was running a high fever, too sick to play my part in a Christmas service, and my father told me to buck up. (I was seven.)

But how could my mother fill in the gap left by my father’s chronic infidelity? How could any of us?

I didn’t realize then that an infinite number of Christmas trees would never be enough. There were too many gaps. Our family was a tree of smoke and lies and misdirection. It could never hold together.

Now I have my own home, and my own family, with an almost intentional chaos because the hell with perfect Christmas trees and unmarred traditions and fucking soup for soup’s sake.

We decorate the tree in a messy, imperfect way, in my messy, imperfect home, and I want to simply delight in my children and my husband and the fact that I made it through the maze of smoke and lies and emerged at least functional.

Instead, I usually end up sobbing the day we decorate the tree.

It’s not because I want it to be perfect. It’s the gut punch reminder every year that my childhood family tried to tell a story with perfect Christmas trees and perfect soup and children who would plaster on a smile and a pretty dress and play their part even though they were burning up because if we made it look perfect enough, maybe our family would somehow, through the magic of Christmas, be perfect.

I believed it then, I think, in the uneasy way of a child who doesn’t want to question the adults around her who tell her everything is fine. But I look back through old photos and I know the perfectly wrapped, shiny presents under the magazine-cover Christmas tree had nothing inside. My father’s arm around my mother was as big a lie as the three kings in a pageant arriving the very night Jesus was born.

But was my mother lying? Or was she trying desperately to tell a different story than the one in which she was stuck? Maybe if she finally made the perfect soup, decorated the perfect tree, my father would stop cheating. It was a twisted sort of hope, almost.

But there I go telling my own story. Because I don’t know what my mother was thinking. I certainly don’t know what my father was thinking. I grapple with the balance between what’s true and what’s imagined, what’s remembered and what will serve the way I want to make sense of the the story now.

Every year now, as we drag our tree home, amidst my children’s excitement, I want to forge my own story, a new one. History is tenacious, though, and memory is unforgiving. And grieving my childhood may be an inescapable part of my story.

But maybe there’s hope in that, too — telling my story as honestly as I can, through my children’s laughter, my own tears, and the traditions they’ll one day grieve and release as they create their own.

Title Blood Water Paint
Author Joy McCullough
Pages 304 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Historical Fiction, Poetry
To Be Published March 6th 2018 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChaptersThe Book Depository

A stunning debut novel based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

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