Gravitas, recently published by Total Joy and Éditions du Noroît, and Tender Points, published by Nightboat Books. Her writing and conversations have appeared in publications including Bitch, The Believer, BOMB, and Jewish Currents. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s working on a novel and a nonfiction project. More at amyberko.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Tender Points changed my life by introducing me to other disabled people. I wrote an afterword to the 2019 Nightboat edition about that (the book was originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015). When I started writing it, I didn’t know anyone else with fibromyalgia. Now disability community is an important part of my life.
My new book, Gravitas, which is coming out this month from Éditions du Noroît in Canada and Total Joy in the US, is funny and angry at the same time, like Tender Points. But while I made a big deal in Tender Points about trying to write in “straightforward, masculine prose” so that I’d be taken seriously, Gravitas is a poetry collection.
2 - How did you come to prose first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually started with poetry. I wrote poetry as a kid and all through college, and I got an MFA in poetry. But the professors at my MFA program taught me that poetry wasn’t an effective way to express myself — the only feedback they gave me was, “Amy, where’s the gravitas”? It was only 10 years after we graduated that a friend pointed out the sexism behind that criticism, and that’s what made me start writing Gravitas.
Anyway, I mostly stopped writing poetry after grad school. I wrote Tender Points and some shorter essays and one and half novels. I started writing Gravitas as an essay, but it was a very weird, dense essay. I put it away for a few months and then looked at it again and realized it needed to be poems. Which is ironic because it’s about how grad school made me stop writing poetry.
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?
Every project is different. With the novel I’m working on now, the idea came to me quickly and I wrote a few pages of notes. And then other projects came up and I kind of put it away, and then more than a year later I started writing it.
There are always some recognizable words or lines in finished work, and also some new and improved language as well. I’ve been in various writing groups IRL and online since 2017, and gathering and incorporating feedback from friends is a big part of my process. Even though I’m technically the author, it all feels collaborative to some extent.
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?
It depends: Tender Points and the fragmented essay I’m working on now are aggregations of short pieces. The novels I’ve worked on were more planned out, but I’ve been trying to think of ways to bring the ease and serendipity of fragmented writing into my fiction writing practice.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, I like doing readings, and I think poems like being read out loud. I hosted a reading series at my apartment for seven years and now I host an outdoor reading series with Erick Sáenz called Light Jacket Reading Series.
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 don’t think about the world in terms of theory. Generally my writing projects come from the question: why did this happen?
Why did I develop fibromyalgia after recalling my sexual assault (Tender Points)? Why did my grad school professors spend two years telling me my work lacked gravitas (Gravitas)? Why do so many well-meaning feminist people, including me, wind up reacting in unhelpful and even harmful ways after a friend is sexually assaulted (unpublished novel)? Why was figuring out my sexuality so confusing (novel in progress)?
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?
As AI is becoming more popular and so many people think it’s the hottest shit, the role of the writer is clearer than ever: our role is to have and express new ideas through language. The thing with all the AI writing programs is that they can do some pretty interesting things in terms of combining ideas, but they’re not able to come up with original ideas. The idea that they’re intelligent is an illusion. If we relied on AI for our writing, writing would be limited to remakes and remixes of ideas that already exist, including some pretty bad ideas. We won’t be able to move forward as a society if we limit ourselves to ruminating on a finite amount of ideas.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As I mentioned, feedback from friends is an essential part of my practice. I rarely publish something without showing it to someone first, because my friends always have great ideas. In a more formal capacity, I’ve worked with some great editors, like Niela Orr. I’ve only had one difficult experience working with an editor, and even then, most of her edits were useful! Her google doc comments were just phrased in a very harsh way, and I feel like there’s never a reason to give feedback like that — just be nice and people will have an easier time listening to and applying your suggestions.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t remember where I heard this, because it’s pretty common advice, but just the idea of using the Notes app as a place to write. I have a memory of Sarah Manguso mentioning it at a Green Apple event for her book Ongoingness, but that might not be true. I associate it with parents especially, because it can be harder to find the time to sit down with your computer when you have kids. I just had a baby in October, so I’m very interested in how my writing routine will shift and evolve.
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?
I don’t have a regular writing routine. I’ve always felt okay about this, maybe because I started as a poet.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go for a walk, which is what I do to solve a wide range of problems. Sometimes I’ll wind up writing on my Notes app while I walk, but that’s not the point of it. The point is to get out of my head.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wet asphalt after rain in the summer (New York City).
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?
All kinds of media and experiences influence my writing. I recently saw Desperately Seeking Susan for the first time and it kind of helped me unlock something about the relationship between the characters in the novel I’m writing.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I could make a long list but instead I’ll just name two big ones, Diane di Prima and Miriam Toews. Diane di Prima because she showed teenage me how to make a life as an artist and Miriam Toews because her novels are just as sad and funny as real life is.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to visit Japan. My husband and I had planned a trip there for May 2020 hahahaha.
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 became really interested in linguistics in college and took some classes on philosophy of language and child development of language, but my school didn’t have a linguistics major. I thought about transferring to a school with a linguistics major, but didn’t want to upend my life and start over in a new place. I think I’d really like being a linguist, but I’m happy doing what I’m doing now.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Through my teens I was equally interested in writing and photography. The thing that made me ultimately choose writing was that it doesn’t require special equipment. When I finished college, I didn’t have darkroom access anymore, but I still had ... a pen.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Zoe Tuck’s poetry collection, Bedroom Vowel. As for films, I really enjoyed the recent documentary about the Elephant 6 music collective. It’s a really beautiful depiction of collaborations that grow out of friendships and friendships that grow out of collaborations and the resulting art. I also really like the show Atlanta. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but if more shows were like Atlanta I would.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a nonfiction project that’s too new to talk about and a novel about bisexuality, imposter syndrome, making art, not making art, and the humiliating process of becoming yourself.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;