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A Very Perplexing Place: An Interview with Writer Amy Fusselman

by Luc Rioual
July 25th, 2018

“I am pretty committed to trying not to live any weird, secret life beyond the life of writing, which is weird and secret enough.”

The Last Three Shows Amy Fusselman Saw in New York City:
Beth Henley’s 12-Hour Reading Festival
The Book of Mormon
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Amy Fusselman’s books seem to work their way into reader’s hands by way of an inexhaustible evangelism. To have not yet read her is quickly forgiven in the light of one’s future redemption, and the ministers of her staggering gospels are waiting, carrying the names of her books on their tongues, sending links, lending copies, and posting their own underlined and starred to those without and in need.

Or at least this was how I came to read Amy Fusselman, a copy of 8 thrust into my possession by a seasoned devotee and gifter of her books. I read it straight through while walking home, and when I was done felt a compulsion, a duty, a calling to tell everyone I knew of its existence. This has held true in my encounters with each of her four books—The Pharmacist’s Mate, Savage Park, and, from Coffee House Press, the newly published Idiophone.

Each of these books resembles one another in certain superficial and significant ways—they are short in length, fragmentary in presentation, lyrical in construction, and broad in their arenas of investigation; within each of them is the sort of love afforded by an attention, and diligence, and care often absent, one that can be felt in both what is stationary and what is in motion—and they are, each, by my account, canonical and foundational texts in the genre of essay-memoir, memoir-essay.

Idiophone is about The Nutcracker, alcoholism, parenthood, adult childhood, frustration, meaning making, queerness, writing, two mice in a VW bug and a drunk cockroach, dying, luck, accidents, and laughter, to name only some of what it touches upon, but it is also about the simultaneous and permanent irreconcilable difficulty of being a world within the world. I have had in my head, since I first started the book, a line from the French poet Paul Eluard: Il y a un autre monde mais il est dans celui-ci. There is another world but it is inside this one. This is the land Idiophone calls home.

Amy and I got to know each other over some art and lunch one day in June, and the interview below took place by email in the following weeks.

—Luc Rioual

I. About Anything

THE BELIEVER: I know you received an MFA in poetry. Was writing the essay-memoir a natural progression out of poetry for you?

AMY FUSSELMAN: It was an MA, yes. I went to Boston University, where the work of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell was still reverberating. Writing explicitly about your experience wasn’t in any way odd. I had always been interested in addressing the reader directly, and at a certain point I just decided to see what would happen if I stopped using line breaks.

BLVR: I guess I wonder, then, what is the relationship between the Amy in the book and the Amy I ate lunch with the other day?

AF: I am pretty committed to trying not to live any weird, secret life beyond the life of writing, which is weird and secret enough.

BLVR: Are there facets of your life you won’t write about?

AF: I don’t think the issue is content so much as treatment. I am willing to write about anything. The question is, how can I write about XXX in a way that satisfies me and that communicates what I want?

BLVR: What’s your relationship like to your own books and to the making of them? Has that relationship changed since The Pharmacist’s Mate?

AF: My relationship to writing has certainly changed in that I am more devoted to it.

I am grateful that my books are in the world and I love them. But I don’t look back very much.

BLVR: The second part of Idiophone, begins, “When who you are is an affront to other people…” Do you view yourself and your work, either by way of the literary sphere or the world, as antagonistic? To genre? To form? To anything?

AF: When I wrote that section I was thinking about all of it—my position as a woman, as a survivor of rape, as a recovering alcoholic, as an artist, a mother, a human aghast—just all of it. I don’t view myself as an antagonist in relation to the literary world. I love the literary world because I love, and am committed to, writing. But I am also not sure I see myself as part of it.

BLVR: Perhaps this is too direct a question, but—why do you think that is?

AF: Well, it’s not entirely true in that here I am, in conversation with you, for this literary magazine. But on some level I feel like I need to protect my aloneness.

BLVR: In a way, I feel like Idiophone is a movement into a different era or region, perhaps, of your writing; your first book dealt with the death of your father and your desire and difficulties in conceiving a child; the second, primarily, “my pedophile”; the third, your children and their safety and an ingrown American fear of death; and Idiophone with your mother and The Nutcracker but, in some respects, ultimately it is more directly, more explicitly, about you and yourself as a writer, about the making of the book itself.

Do you find that this new book, even with its lacking the more model-type confessional characteristics of your other books, to be more personal for you?

AF: Yes, I think you are right. This piece is more personal even though it is less confessional. I think it just took some time for me to find the courage to follow all of my impulses.

BLVR: What impulses are driving your work now, post Idiophone?

AF: Idiophone is a completely unrepeatable piece, which is a relief in some ways. I feel free to do something different. My primary goals are to challenge myself and to connect with people.

II. About Creating an Alternate World

BLVR: I’ve been thinking a lot about a question Salman Rushdie once asked Terry Gilliam, “What is the relationship of the imagined world to the real world?” Do you have a relationship to your audience, either real or imagined? In the act of writing, or publishing, or separate from those spaces?

AF: I have always been bothered by the wall between real and imagined worlds. I don’t really like entering imaginary worlds unless they are crazy-compelling or the voice is exquisite. I love Vonnegut’s voice in Slaughterhouse-Five.

BLVR: I’d like to talk about your writing process. How is a book like this put together?

AF: I was very rigid in some respects with this book. I had to start at the beginning of the piece every time I sat down to it. I was compulsive about that and I think the resulting flow is one of its strengths.

BLVR: Was this a different approach from that of your previous books? Sitting down with the content of the whole book, every time, sounds like a potentially daunting task.

AF: With other pieces I would sit and noodle at parts that were bothering me. But that approach wasn’t right for this.

BLVR: Do you have a routine for working? What are your days like?

AF: I have three kids and they are my first commitment. I write around their schedules. I also have a pretty broad definition of what “writing” is. I spend a lot of time thinking about whatever it is I want to write about, and that thinking is a type of writing for me. I am not a words-per-day person.  I don’t want to get into how hard it is. I try to focus on the fun of it. It’s about pleasure for me.

BLVR: One of your “Family Practice” pieces for McSweeney’s in 2014 mentioned your desire to write a book about The Nutcracker, and also touches on alcoholism—two major touchstones of Idiophone—and I’ve wondered if these themes or issues were, in Henry James terms, “the germ” of the book, or where it started?

AF: I love that you found that! Yes, I have been ruminating on The Nutcracker for some time. I’ve been fascinated by it as a sophisticated work of art that isn’t really seen as such, and that understanding became a good starting place for Idiophone.

BLVR: How did the other narrative and thematic strands find their way into the book? Do you proceed by association and hope that things fit, and abandon them if they do not, or do you have a more calculated approach?

AF: In thinking about The Nutcracker I had several ideas that I wanted to write about it, so in that sense it was calculated. But I don’t really write from a master outline or diagram.

BLVR: What about with the storyline of the mice and cockroach?

AF: That thread was about creating an alternate world for the mice. And I loved how it became very Richard Scarry-esque because his work is just riddled with accidents and mayhem but he sees it all from overhead—like POV Google maps. And in his hands those events never come across as tragic or scary, it’s just the human condition: mice rear-ending their truck into another mouse’s truck is just the human condition. And it’s presented to kids like it’s nothing, which I love. And of course that dovetails beautifully with The Nutcracker.

BLVR: I’ve been thinking about the moment when you write Tchaikovsky but mean Talking Heads (and Tchaikovsky and Kafka later in the book) and leave it there, telling the reader of the mistake. I’ve wondered whether or not these were happy accidents that you saw through to a point where they harmonized with the rest of the book, or were they choreographed from the get-go to fit the whole?

AF: The short answer to your question is: I do not choreograph like that. That would suck the joy out of it for me. I write so I can experience those accidents. That’s how I know I am on the right track.

III. ABOUT A PANDA

BLVR: My editor told me to ask you “why fiction sucks?”

AF: Ha! Fiction does not suck!

I will admit that I don’t like a lot of it, though. Part of my problem with fiction is that the whole storyteller-at-the-campfire scenario makes me nervous. I would much rather sit in a brightly lit classroom and listen to a researcher tell me something interesting about a panda. With nonfiction, I know that the author is at least trying to tell me something he or she thinks is true about the world. I find the world to be a very perplexing place, so I consider that to be a public service. With fiction, people write for all kinds of reasons. I’ve felt violated by some novels, in the way the author handled my attention and my trust.

BLVR: I find myself with a lot of similar feelings: I’d be fine never hearing another piece of fiction read aloud, but would go to a lecture or conversation any day of the week.

AF: To surrender to someone’s voice and vision for as long as it takes to read a book—that is a serious commitment to me. Reading is so intimate; I want to know who I’m dealing with. And it’s funny because Idiophone is a book that seeks, in some ways, to discombobulate. But I hope the discombobulation makes clear to the reader that I recognize, and appreciate, what they are offering me—their consciousness.

BLVR: Were there particular books of poetry or books of the nonfiction bent that you found formally instructive or permission-granting when you were first starting? Or even still? I feel like your first book, The Pharmacist’s Mate, was an early occurrence of a kind that has become quite common: the fragmentary, essay-memoir, memoir-essay, book-length meditation. 

AF: The Pharmacist’s Mate was unusual at the time. I remember some fuss about the length of it. I don’t think the response would be the same now.

I don’t really look to writing to give me permission for writings. I love visual art and performance of all kinds and I consider my viewing of art and performance as a type of reading. And I am lucky to live in NYC where so much great work is happening.

BLVR: And I have to ask—though I’d love to read a shit list—what pieces of fiction have you read that have not violated your trust?

AF: In the last few years I really haven’t been focused on fiction. Lately I’ve been sniffing around comedy. I’ve read a bunch of nonfiction about comedy that supposedly explains how it works. I’ve read some comedian/ienne memoirs. I’ve taken some comedy classes. I’ve performed some stand-up. I’ve watched some Netflix specials. I’ve seen Book of Mormon three times. I know this doesn’t answer your question exactly but I really love Book of Mormon. It’s known for its humor but there is so much heart in it. I also recently saw Hannah Gadsby’s stunning “Nanette,” and I’ll be thinking about that for some time.

BLVR: How did you find performing stand up to be? Tell me about this! When and where can I come see you perform?! If you had to share one (or two or three!) things you’ve learned from reading about comedy, what would it be?

AF: I don’t tell many people or put it on social media; it’s for my own learning. One thing I have found so far is that live comedy is about energy. Sometimes the jokes are not that funny—but the performer is bringing something to the stage that is just irresistible, and you laugh anyway. I find that really intriguing. Because with writing the focus is always on the holy word, and what the words are doing, and a lot of time I think that, for writers, the bar is really low: it’s about getting attention and then holding it for 200 pages. Comedy aims to do more than hold attention; it aims to explode your head. And the whole thing happens in seconds. I admire the mechanics of that.

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