Jersey author’s debut novel, ‘Tell Me One Thing,’ asks the question: Who gets to tell the story?

Kerri Schlottman will discuss her debut novel, Tell Me One Thing, at Watchung Books in Montclair on March 30.

A chance encounter and a snap of a camera. The resulting photo is a benchmark in the lives of the photographer, an ambitious young artist from New York, and the subject—a 9-year-old girl sitting on a trucker’s lap outside a motel room. In the decades that follow, the artist (Quinn) and the subject (Lulu) take divergent life journeys; both with relative ups and downs, but certainly different. Quinn’s career takes off in New York, which comes with its own set of losses and troubles; Lulu endures a cycle of sexual abuse and incarceration, yet manages to find a few moments of joy. 

So when, years later, Lulu sees the photo in a promotion for Quinn’s retrospective exhibition, she plans to confront Quinn and ask a simple question: Why didn’t you help that little girl in the picture?

Such is the plot of Jersey City author Kerri Schlottman’s debut novel Tell Me One Thing [Regal House Publishing], which vividly draws from her own experience growing up with a single mother in southeast Detroit and her 20 years working in the arts and asks, among other queries, one central question: Who gets to tell what story?

“I thought writing it would help me figure out the answer to that, because I’ve struggled with this question a lot, too,” says Schlottman. “When I look at that kind of work [social portraiture], I think, what is the goal here? Like, what are we supposed to be feeling and can we do anything and what are we supposed to be doing? Those are really hard questions to answer when things are in an art context because a lot of times, art asks us to look and to think and to feel, but there’s not necessarily an active kind of flashpoint to it. And I don’t want to walk away from seeing work like that and just feel bad about it. Is seeing something and feeling empathetic, is that power enough?”

There’s precedent for the type of scenario depicted in Tell Me One Thing in Mary Ellen Mark’s famous 1990 photograph “Amanda and her cousin Amy,” which captures 9-year-old Amanda smoking a cigarette in a kiddie pool in North Carolina. Years later, NPR found Amanda, then in her 30s, and asked her why she allowed herself to be photographed.

Credit: Kambui Olujimi

“She said she always thought someone would see those photographs and come and help her,” Schlottman says. “She had such a challenging life, so it was a really heartbreaking story. … She was in and out of foster care and out of juvenile detention and, and it just went on throughout her adulthood and out of prison and really hard times. So she never really was able to break that cycle.”

The NPR story served as a jumping off point for Schlottman to imagine Tell Me One Thing. In captivating, sometimes heavy, passages, Schlottman describes a tumultuous life for Lulu in the rural Pennsylvania trailer park in which she lived—a life that includes reckoning with her mother’s prostitution, facing sexual (and other forms of) abuse herself, drug addiction, incarceration, violence and more. In Lulu’s story, we see how situations breed cycles—with little agency to change her life circumstances, Lulu falls victim to many of the cultural traps that befell her elders in the trailer park.

“For someone like Lulu, it’s really hard to get out of the situation that she’s in. And in real life, the inspiration for that book, Amanda, never did,” Schlottman says. “And I’ve seen plenty of instances where people haven’t gotten out of those situations and unfortunately, they’re really unprotected situations. When you grow up without a support system around you, you’re very vulnerable. And so, I started this book with [Lulu] as a little girl at 9 years old, thinking about the kinds of vulnerabilities that she would be subjected to because she doesn’t have the protection of a mother who’s really caring for her and responsible [nor] any kind of support structure.”

Simultaneous to reading Lulu’s story, we follow Quinn as she gets her first photo exhibition, deals with her partner’s spiraling drug abuse, loses loved ones and faces her own cycle of unsteady housing as she endures the life of a struggling artist. Synchronous moments in the two stories—violence at the hands of men, drug use, housing insecurity, motherhood—regularly prompt the reader to consider privilege and, again, how situations effect outcomes. For instance, while Lulu and the father of her child both face the criminal justice system after getting wrapped up in drug dealing to make ends meet, Quinn’s partner faces a prison of his own making—thus, incarcerating Quinn, in a way, with him—via his drug addiction. But the distinction is clear: while one group of people face jail time and overtly disrupted lives for their association with drugs, another group of people get to make art.

“I’ve watched the difference between things I see people doing here with sort of no repercussions and then similar things happening to people I knew back in Michigan, and they’re going to jail and there’s all of these things happening. And I’m like, this is wild, the massive disparity in the way that society treats people depending on where they are and who they are,” Schlottman says. “And, again, getting into the cycle of things, I feel like when you’re in a small rural area, once one thing happens or there’s sort of this stigma against you, you’re stuck in that system.” 

Schlottman sets the bulk of the book in the ’80s, which was a “fascinating time period in art history,” she says, but also a challenging time in New York City society—drugs, AIDS, economics. Schlottman weaves these societal obstacles into Quinn’s story, which serves as a clever juxtaposition to the more acute obstacles Lulu faces in her life.

“I think with [Quinn], some of the challenges I brought in were external,” Schlottman says. “She reflects some of the bigger social issues that are happening at that time in the country, and it allowed me to have that conversation through her side of things in a way that was a little more challenging to try to do with Lulu.”

Schlottman takes care to present a real version of life for both Quinn and Lulu. While the heaviness of what happens to Lulu might cause a reader to pause and take a deep breath, it feels authentic. Trauma and its reverberations are ever-present in Lulu’s story, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. And instead of romanticizing a bygone era of arts in New York City, Schlottman brings us into the reality of working as an artist in a time of societal turmoil. We’re in it, and it doesn’t feel staged, sensationalized or opportunistic. And that extends to the resolution of Quinn’s and Lulu’s life journeys—I certainly won’t give away the ending, but Schlottman says that authenticity in the arcs of her characters was foremost in her mind while writing.

“Every time I was writing a scene, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be gratuitous with trauma and these issues, but I want to be real about like, at different stages of her life, what might have been happening here.’ And, there are good things that happen to her, too. And I think that those are realistic, too. Like, she finds love, she loses love— that happens to all of us,” Schlottman says. 

On where the characters end up, Schlottman adds, “I don’t want someone who has never had trauma or grief to think that this should just wind up into this fairytale kind of ending. That’s not really what happens to people in these circumstances. They continue to struggle. There’s probably going to be another cycle of that with the generation below them. And unfortunately, until we really face some of the bigger problems in this country, that’s what happens.”

Though scenes throughout the book grip the reader from page to page, the broader movement of the book hurls the reader toward a potential answer to the question of who gets to tell what story. It asks, among other things, a line of questions relevant to that end: Is an artist a voyeur by taking a photo like the one Quinn took of Lulu if it changed hearts and minds in viewers far away? Does it matter if that photo is encased in glass in some stuffy gallery in New York City or published in a national magazine in a documentarial setting? If the artist makes a large sum of money on it, or intends to, do they have a responsibility to do something benevolent with that money? Does the subject of that photo deserve some of that sum?

What right does an artist, or any documentarian, have to dip into someone else’s life and use their circumstances to, explicitly or not, advance their career?

“Is it just taking advantage or is it asking people to look at problems other people are having?” Schlottman says. “And I like to think it’s more about opening perspectives about how challenging life is for other people. That’s where I think the aspect of responsibility comes in. I think sometimes, again, the empathy that you might feel in looking at a photograph like that might be enough. Hopefully.” 

Kerri Schlottman will discuss Tell Me One Thing at Watchung Books in Montclair on March 30 at 7 p.m. Novelist Mimi Herman will also be discussing her book, “The Kudzu Queen,” at the event. More info here.  Buy Tell Me One Thing here