Friday, April 10, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Amy Long

Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays, winner of the 2018 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Collection Competition. Her work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I don’t know that it has changed my life much! I guess people can know a lot more about me without ever meeting me than they could before. But I started writing Codependence in 2014 and querying agents and editors in early 2017; I found out the manuscript won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s essay collection contest in May 2018 and it came out in September 2019, so it was kind of like a slow motion bomb going off every few weeks—like, “I’m going to have a book! My book has a cover! It’s release day! I’m on the internet! Tour! Reviews!”—and then it just started to just feel normal, I guess. But, really, I’m super grateful to Brian for loving and choosing it and to CSUPC for really getting it and working so hard to make it this beautiful object. My main goal for most of my life—like, since I was a little kid—was to have a book published, and now that I’ve done it, I put both less pressure (I accomplished my goal!) and more pressure (I have to beat my biggest accomplishment!) on my writing. I’ve been having a hard time with it lately since my pain management, on which the book centers in part, is much worse than it was while I was writing Codependence (My pain is way under treated, as is most chronic pain now; I had to ration and hoard my painkillers so I’d have extras to do the edits and the tour, which was fun but also a little overly ambitious for someone with a chronic pain problem), so I haven’t been doing much writing. But, when I have a good day and get to sit down and do it, I play around with form a lot because it’s fun, and I can blame the form if the idea doesn’t work out! It’s also made me want to get a little further from myself in my work, so I’m doing research for a book on Taylor Swift’s reputation that I‘ll pitch to the 33 1/3 series. It’s not that I don’t want to write about myself anymore; I find myself inherently interesting, and I’m always going to write about myself. It’s more that I spent so much time thinking about my whole life for this book, and I need to clear my head a little before I go back in to excavate. So, I guess this book got me thinking about how I want my career to look. Mostly, though, and most important, it confirmed for me that I’m actually good at the thing that means the most to me and that I can actually do what I always wanted to do.

2 - How did you come to essays first, as opposed to, say, poetry or fiction?

I wrote fiction for most of my life. I write about this in Codependence; I quit doing any writing except academic writing when I started college (it felt embarrassing to show my work to people, and I had trouble believing that an 18 year old had anything worthwhile to say), and I didn’t start writing fiction again until I was maybe 26 or 27. I went into my MFA program a fiction writer, and then I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer, and it felt so much more natural to me, so I switched over. I just like writing essays more.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It depends. For Codependence, I’d narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet as a final project in Matthew’s class, and I used that as an outline. I made the medicine cabinet in the spring of 2014. I’d been trying to write the book as a novel for at least six months, and then I spent a few writing essays that didn’t really stick around, but some of the shorter essays in Codependence come straight from the medicine cabinet—the motel key essays and a collage that got cut from the book and lives at DIAGRAM now, for example; the prescription information format that “Product Warning” takes is also pretty much exactly what was on the pill bottle labels I made for that. After I’d made the cabinet, the essays usually came out pretty fast, but I‘d done a lot of work to get to a place where I knew basically what I was doing and what I needed to write to give the book the shape I wanted it to have. Until I made the medicine, though, I’d never been able to work from an outline. I’d just do a lot of upfront work before I got to a draft that started working. And sometimes I’ll sit down and write a whole new essay that has nothing to do with anything I’m working on in a day. So, it varies.

I do a lot of editing while I’m writing—I’m one of those people who sits down to write and rereads what she wrote the day before and tinkers a lot with it before she actually gets anything new on the page—so my first drafts are pretty clean, and the final drafts end up looking pretty much how they did when I started writing. When I write from notes, I always think “There’s so much here! This will be easy,” and then I use, like, one sentence from the notes. I still take a lot of notes, especially now while I’m in a sort of larvae stage, but they usually stay in my phone.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I think in books. Like, I know that my next book (that isn’t the Taylor Swift book) will focus on relationships, loneliness, and pain—almost like an album of breakup songs. I‘ve drafted a couple pieces and have a lot of ideas, but I almost can’t write an essay if I don’t know how it connects to a larger story or theme or set of other essays, and I’m still kind of looking for the thread that will make it all a little more cohesive and specific. I start on a book idea the same way I start an essay; when I’m writing an essay, I tend to throw two or three “big” ideas up on a board in my head—like, “Comedown” began as “depression and opioids,” and the first essay, “Relapse,” started as “opioids and my mom”—and the images and style and stories and all the specificities and connections emerge while I’m writing. For Codependence, the idea was basically “my recreational and medicinal drug use talking to each other,” and all of that connective tissue in the essays is what really makes the book a book. I’ve been saying I’m going to make a dollhouse full of bedrooms to recreate the medicine cabinet outline. That process was just so easy! I don’t think it will ever be that easy again.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like doing them. My essays are typically long (as people like to tell me, I live up to my last name), so it can feel constricting, but I love the Q&As afterward and talking to people about my book and the issues it raises or addresses. I’ve had productive conversations about opioids, chronic pain and pain management, addiction, the roots of the overdose problem, and even parenting (I know, it’s weird) at readings. I did readings all over the country—in New York; at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg; and in Durham, Athens, Austin, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, and Cleveland—and people (even if there weren’t always a lot of them!) have asked good questions and seemed to want to understand how pain patients have been hurt by the narrative we use to make explicable the overdose problem. Codependence subverts that narrative, and it’s a good starting point for conversations about the current pain care crisis in the US.

So, readings are especially important to me because I want to facilitate those conversations. Talking about the book often means talking about responses to the overdose issue that have hurt pain patients and other drug users; correcting misinformation or contextualizing the huge numbers that get circulated to support the official narrative, which says that pharmaceutical companies lied to doctors, doctors wrote too many opioids, and patients got addicted and moved to heroin when their refills ran out. Really, most people who overdose never had their own prescription (80% of addictions start as recreational use), and as prescribing has hit about a 20-year low, ODs keep going up because the safe, regulated pills that used to get diverted to the illicit market aren’t there anymore. All drug users were safer when they didn’t have to choose between fentanyl-laced heroin and withdrawal—or constant pain, but pain patients are surprisingly law abiding; we mostly just suffer or commit suicide when we get cut off our meds. Doctors are so scared of the DEA and that they’re undertreating pain, and only now, nearly four years after a big change that really fucked over pain patients who take opioid painkillers, has anyone even started to talk about helping us. Pain patients make good pawns in the drug war because it’s easier to control doctors than it is to control drug dealers, and restricting prescriptions makes the government look like it’s doing something to help people with addiction issues even though nothing they’ve done has decreased addiction at all, and some studies find that addiction rates haven’t actually increased since the 1970s anyway.

I also had wonderful, intelligent writers who led these conversation—Amy Shearn, Amy Gentry, Anna Hamilton, and Sophia Shalmiyev—and did a few events with musicians Brice Randall Bickford and Ray Raposa (Castanets). Those were fun and brought out people who wouldn’t have come otherwise. I’d love to do more hybrid readings with bands. It’s a cool format, and I like getting to sit down and watch a show or dance or whatever when I’m done reading.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I can’t think too hard about that stuff or I clam up. If I go into an essay knowing what I want to say, the essay is doomed! With Codependence, I knew I wanted to put my past recreational drug use with an addicted boyfriend in conversation with my current opioid use for chronic pain. I didn’t know what would happen when I did it. I’m still not sure I know what the book means or says. I don’t think that’s my job. I leave it up to the reader to decide a lot of that stuff—whether I’m really in pain, if I’m addicted or dependent or something in between, how my previous use relates to my use now—so I guess the question matters more to me than the answer. But I didn’t start with a question. I started with the idea that it‘s interesting that I used to have fun with the same drugs I use now to control my pain, and I figured something would emerge from putting those periods of my life together. But if I’d gone in saying “I want this book to explore the ways in which medicinal and recreational drug use overlap” or “I want to look at how drugs have shaped my identity,” I would have gotten caught up in the answer rather than using the idea or the question to tell stories and let the answer come out of the narrative or narratives. I don’t even know if I believe in answers. But I know my work has a lot to do with bodies and what it means to be a person, and I don’t know how far beyond that I want to go. I don’t want to theorize until I feel trapped outside the story. Because, to me, the story is the most important thing, and any theoretical concerns come out of the way the essay as a form allows me to reflect on experience.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

It doesn’t always feel much like the writer has a big role in the larger culture! But I know that’s not true. We talk about writing all the time. A short story can go viral, or an article can take down a mogul. In a lot of ways, the writer has never been more important. We have so much writing—not just books but TV, movies, games, songs—waiting for us in our phones. But it’s also scary in that everything gets flattened into “content,” and I don’t really know what that means, but I think it’s related to a tendency toward shallow engagement with culture that other teachers and I have noticed in the college students we teach, and it’s weird to me because, when I was their age, albums and books—narratives, really—meant so much to me. They still do. And I would expect that all the complex TV shows we watch, genre-bending music, news that might look like news and might look like a tweet or a statement typed into a celebrity’s Notes app or an opinion piece or a documentary series would make young people more literate readers. But my students just put a song on a Spotify playlist and listen to it if it comes on like they don’t think it’s trying to speak to them or that they need to hear what its creator is saying. They don’t sit with a record and read its liner notes while they listen to it for the first time; even my sister, who’s my age (35), puts albums on shuffle as if the order isn’t part of the text. I don’t want to be a Luddite and say that all this media has made us stupid and lazy and passive, but I don’t know. I think the role of the writer in the world is too big and complex a question for anyone to tease out alone, but maybe the role of the writer is just to cut through all the noise and touch someone enough that they feel it.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both, and it depends on the editor. My editors at CSU Poetry Center didn’t ask for a lot of changes on Codependence, but sometimes, even though I knew they had the book’s and my best interests at heart, I‘d feel myself bristling at minor edit suggestions that shouldn’t have gotten under my skin. I‘d just spent so much time with the manuscript that any change started to feel dangerous; I worried that I’d make a change at the last minute and regret it or not make it and regret it (of course, now I read the book and find new words I want to change or new sentences I want to restructure and probably always will!). But my editors, Caryl Pagel and Hilary Plum, are both smart, insightful women who really, really understood the book and what I was trying to do with it. So, I have no room to complain about editors! Mine are great. But it will always be a little bit hard to give someone 80k words you crafted from your experience and let them poke at it—especially if that experience is as intimate as chronic pain and an abusive relationship and the time you were maybe raped on an OkCupid date or yelled at a baby on the subway! My editors on this book and at journals that have published my work (especially Jodee Stanley and the staff at Ninth Letter) were invaluable, and I know the book and I are better because we listened to them even if we didn’t always implement their suggestions!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

My advisor in undergrad and in my women’s studies MA program told me “There’s no such thing as writing, only editing.”

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It’s a little different now because of the aforementioned pain stuff, but on an ideal day, which was a typical day until 2016, I wake up, drink a Coke and eat Cheerios from the box while I watch a morning show, teach so my brain is alive or read until my second painkiller kicks in, and write for four to seven hours with my big suitcase speakers on in the living room so I can hear music but it’s not right in my face. (Sometimes I write on the porch at my favorite record store in my hometown, too, because they pick good records, and I don’t always feel like picking.) No breaks except to let pills digest or to eat a quick microwave burrito or something. But I like to start early and just go for as long as I can.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I reread Bluets, which is a really foundational text for me and probably a ton of women writers my age. I listen to Tori Amos songs because I’ve loved her music since I was 13, and her stuff holds a lot of memories for me. I start a new thing with no stakes—like, when I was burned out from applying to MFA programs, I wrote a couple chapters of a novel that are really similar to the novels I wrote as a teenager. I guess I kind of cocoon into myself and the things I love, if that makes sense.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Salt water and humidity. (I grew up in a tourist town in the Florida panhandle.)

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh, definitely. Music plays a huge role in my process. It’s almost always on when I’m writing, and I use it to access memories and stuff (that sounds so new age-y; my apologies!) and to give myself a rhythm. Like, sometimes an essay calls for Taylor Swift, but sometimes it calls for Jawbreaker or Fiona Apple or Les Savy Fav or a playlist of, like, Jason Molina and the Court and Spark and Neutral Milk Hotel and Phosphorescent-type folk-ish stuff. Or I get to go back to emo records I listened to in high school, which is always fun. I like to analyze TV as if it were a book or a book chapter to keep from turning off my brain (I also do that to get “inspired;” I call it “bathing myself in narrative,” but it’s really just an excuse to be lazy). I use a kind of cinematic part of my brain when I write, too, so sometimes I’ll try to recreate or conjure up a feeling from a film or TV show that pulls it out of me. But mostly I sit and close my eyes and picture the scene I’m writing or the fabric or feeling I want to describe until I find the right word.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’ve really loved the recent spate of chronic illness narratives that I’ve seen released in the last few years: Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points, which was the first book I read about chronic illness in which the narrator didn’t get better; Karen Havelin’s novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, which centers on a woman with endometriosis; Sonya Huber’s collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys; Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater: The New Confessions.

I think I have to call Joyce Carol Oates my forever favorite. I read nearly all her books in high school and college, and her obsession with the grotesque gave me permission to go dark in my work. (I have similar feelings about Wuthering Heights, which I blame for my awful taste in men.) I read a lot of Bret Easton Ellis then, too, and I’m always kind of iffy on how much I like those books, but I know they were big influences on the work I’d do later even if we aren’t at all similar. Obviously, Joan Didion and Clarice Lispector and are big touchstones, too.

Matthew Vollmer, my MFA advisor, is not only one of my favorite people but one of my favorite writers; he’s innovative but has a lot of heart, and that combination is lovely. Emma Straub, with whom I took some classes before I did my MFA, was so helpful and is so nice, and I love her work, especially her first collection.

I love David Shields, Sheila Heti, Claire Dederer, Brian Blanchfield (I only entered the contest that got my book published because he was judging it!), Suzanne Scanlon, and Sarah Gerard’s nonfiction (I mean, I also like her fiction, but I adore her nonfiction). Rob Roberge’s Liar is great; I kind of grew up on addiction memoirs and novels, so I’ve got a lot of those (Jesus’ Son is my favorite—the sentences!—and, more recently, I liked Nico Walker’s Cherry a lot), so any book that departs from the usual addiction-narrative structure is, like, a three-year-old’s Christmas morning for me. Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, which won the same contest Codependence did, acted as a sort of goal book for me. Leslie Jamison has been a huge influence; she made me believe that I could make a career out of my writing. Suzanne Riveca’s short-story collection made me feel more comfortable getting into the feminine-coded aspects of my themes. Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules had a huge influence on my experiments with form, and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was a big deal for its narrative voice.

I feel like my references are too contemporary, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a ton, but I don’t think anyone wants me to go to my bookshelves and just start listing stuff.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Publish a second book and write that Taylor Swift 33 1/3. Live abroad. Get a dog. Start my own autonomous town (or maybe my own country, but I don’t want to end up like those bitcoin libertarian guys who bought an island). Teach myself to write songs.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I mean, I still have to do stuff for money even though I am a writer! I used to work in nonprofit communications, and I liked it, but working for a group without a lot of money is hard; everyone’s stressed out all the time! I think I’d try to work behind the scenes in TV—maybe in wardrobe or music supervision. I think I’d make a good interior designer, too. I also fantasize about opening a dog shelter or dog hotel or something with dogs. I’m dog sitting a lot right now, and being around dogs makes me happy. I feel like your work should make you happy, but writing is the only work that really does that for me.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know. I always did it, and when I started again, I’d been pretty miserable for a while, so I guess I started writing seriously because I was depressed. I took some classes at Sackett Street Writers Workshop to see if it was worth pursuing in a real way, and it was, so I quit my job with two free speech nonprofits in New York, applied to MFA programs, lived in Virginia for three years, and my first book came out three years after I graduated.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

My friend Sophia Shalmiyev wrote my favorite book of 2019, Mother Winter, and it’s incredible. Her prose is just fire all the way around. I don’t watch as many movies as I do TV shows, so I’m probably missing, like, everyone’s favorite movies, but the last film I saw and thought was truly great was probably Cold War.

19 - What are you currently working on?

A conference presentation! But, no, I mean, I am working on a conference presentation, but I’m mostly slowly working toward the breakup-album book and the reputation 33 1/3 pitch—and on improving my pain management situation so I can start going faster!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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