“I dream about living with him, me on the pullout couch, him in the bed. In the mornings he cooks me breakfast, readies a brown paper bag with my lunch. We drive to campus together and he kisses my forehead before I leap out of the car. Dinner is on the table when I come home and we eat together like a regular family. Afterwards, while the dishwasher runs, I do my homework at the dining room table while he goes over case files and listens to NPR.”
—Amanda Stern, The Long Haul
I was in New York City in the summer of the great power failure. However, minutes if not days before the blackout, I managed to attend a Soft Skull reading on the Lower East Side. One of the participants was Amanda Stern, who read from her then-forthcoming debut novel, The Long Haul. The Long Haul is about a frozen relationship between a college-age alcoholic (“the Alcoholic”) and his codependent girlfriend (the protagonist, whose name is never spoken). Shifting between upstate New York and New York City, the story follows the trajectory of the couple’s doomed six-year relationship.
Nathaniel Moore: Amanda, I enjoyed running around in your Web site. Why do you have rejection notices on it? What made you decide to include this?
Amanda Stern: Thanks. Glad you like the site, we put a lot of work into it and I definitely wanted it to reflect my personality rather than just being monoblastic and about my book. So, to that end, the idea of putting other things up, things that would fill it out and stay true to my personality, felt essential. The idea of a whole page of rejection letters appealed to me because, on their own, letters of that nature can be very painful, but a page of them, a confluence of letters, becomes a sort of cacophonous hum, a chorus that drowns out the emotional consequence and resonance of just one, bringing all us rejects together to laugh and commiserate and really just not care anymore.
NM: When did you start The Long Haul?
AS: I think I started it in 2000, but one can never be too sure about when they start and stop anything, can they? Or is that just me? I started it around 2000 and finished it in about nine months, then rewrote it a bit before selling it and rewrote it a bit more after selling it. I’m in a state of perpetual revision. I will always rewrite it. I will always rewrite everything, which is, I guess, why I can never be sure when I start and stop anything.
NM: For those compiling biographical data surveillance, Amanda trivia games, etc., bit of background on your writing development, schools, inspirations?
AS: I started out as an actor and a playwright. When I was a teenager I was in a theatre company for kids and we wrote plays that we also performed. One of those plays was picked up and produced off-Broadway and the lot of us were suddenly off-Broadway actors. I kicked the acting bug soon after that and continued writing, but moved toward film. I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker, but I never made more than one or two short films; I was too busy writing them. It took a long while for me to figure out that writing could be my career, that it didn’t have to be the means to an end, but the actual end itself. I didn’t realize and commit to writing fiction as a career until I was twenty-seven. By that point I had tried my hand at several careers, including comedy.
NM: In terms of actually walking and going to a school for writing, did this occur?
AS: I didn’t study writing, I didn’t go to graduate school. I majored in film theory in college and have taken, I think, four writing courses in my life. My writing is not academic, it’s not about school, so the notion of studying writing, for me, is a bit daunting. But when I realized that, yes, fiction was where it was at for me, I began to fall into books the way I had when I was a child. I discovered Denis Johnson, Ethan Canin, James Salter, Chris Offutt and rediscovered Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Rainer Rilke, Joan Didion and Richard Yates. Those authors were and are my education, and I continue to be inspired by them. I also have an intense hunger for discovering new writers, published and unpublished.
NM: What about the literary community in New York and on the Lower East Side? What are some of the readings you attend or participate in?
AS: Well, I curate and run a reading series on the Lower East Side called the Happy Ending Reading Series whose aim is to highlight the personality behind the author. I occasionally pair emerging with established, but the main bent is to coax people into taking a risk: poets read their fiction, fiction writers sing.
NM: What are some of the other series you are fond of? I remember always looking forward to the fresh issue of the Village Voice just so I could figure out what reading was going on next. Usually there were three or four good ones in a night.
AS: I have read in a bunch of other people’s series and would love to read in some I haven’t even attended yet. But, I am quite fond of the Cupcake series and I think the world of John Hodgman, who runs the Little Gray Book series, and although I’ve never been (it’s on the same night as my series), I have no doubt it’s fabulous. Then of course there is KGB Bar, and the Half King. There’s a lot going on; there’s just no real collective thunder yet, but I think it’ll happen. I think there is a lot of untapped energy out there right now, a whole new flock of writers who are interested in more than just their own work, people who are genuinely interested in literature and the people writing it. There is a certain tentativeness in the air right now, a particular claustrophobia, and I think when it lifts, or shifts, you’ll feel the vibrations from downtown.
NM: You call the narrator’s eventual love interest “the free therapist.” Why? Did you see a certain mutual power reflection in this romantic projection, perhaps a submissive quality to the doctor/patient dynamic?
AS: The character titles are not supposed to be clever or coy. I chose labels instead of proper names to serve as signposts for impoverished personalities. I was exploring the internal world, and proper names to me, for this project, were detracting from what I was trying to do. I suppose I could have just called the therapist “the therapist,” but I wanted to be as specific as I could about the type of therapy he was practising. Because he was a graduate student, probably not much older than the narrator, his label came with a caveat, one that defined his profession but also spoke of his level of expertise. To be clear, the narrator’s love for the free therapist is not romantic. When she envisions herself living with him, they are sleeping in separate quarters. While she is projecting her needs onto the free therapist, it’s not romantic love she wants returned but parental love. In that regard, the free therapist serves as a composite for her vision of the perfect parent. He represents safety, security and unconditional love. His love is replenishing for her, while the Alcoholic’s love is depleting her of her entire life force.
NM: What has it been like working with Soft Skull Press (SSP) and Richard Nash? How does that situate you in the New York scene?
AS: There are definite pluses and minuses associated with publishing with a punk press. The people at Soft Skull are attentive, bold, daring and game to try anything as long as they think it will work. I think I was remarkably lucky. From what I’ve heard, the author/publisher relationship can be notoriously gripe-y, but I think SSP and I did very well together. There are pluses and minuses associated with working with any publisher, punk rock or not. I probably would have had more difficulty starting off with a big press because mine is a small book and most likely would have gotten lost in there. Funnily enough, though, I don’t think of SSP as a punk press. I think of them as an independent press with a punk rock aesthetic, because when it comes right down to it, SSP is as savvy and on top of the game as the next guy. In terms of where it situates me in the New York scene, well, that’s harder to answer. I don’t know where I’m situated. At the bottom? It’s an interesting question and I’d be naive to say that all first-time writers are in the same boat, because we’re not. However, I don’t think in those terms; to do so would be very damaging. It’s not a race for me. I don’t need to be a boldfaced name or in all the glossy magazines right out of the gate to feel valid as an author. In fact, I think it’s quite distracting to make such a loud entrance into the literary scene. So, while someone may have a lot of money behind their first book and may be “better situated” than I am, they still have to do what we all have to do, which is write.
NM: How does a city like New York, a beacon for both the establishment and the anti-establishment, negotiate the line between big and small, mainstream and punk, in and out, etc.? How do you personally?
AS: I can’t speak for the city of New York (though I’d like to think I could). There is a place for everyone here. There isn’t the need to negotiate between anti-establishment and establishment. It’s pretty clear-cut. People in New York know what they want and they know what they like. But, most importantly, they know where to go to get it. So, no one is going to go to ABC No Rio thinking Britney Spears is going to take the mic and no one is going to go to a Britney Spears concert thinking they’ll hear Regie Cabico MCing. That’s just not going to happen.
Nathaniel G. Moore divides his time between Montreal and Toronto. Recently his work has appeared in Forget magazine and Career Suicide! (DC Books, 2003). He is represented online courtesy of Notho Entertainment.