The Amy Fusselman Interview

September 26, 2003

Today is the day to make a big pile of stuff.

I first learned of today's interviewee a few years ago, when somebody told me about her quality, minimalist literature and art site, Surgery of Modern Warfare. I submitted something and was turned down, but the editor said, "I saw something on your website that I really liked. Why don't you expand that and submit that?" This is like heroin to a writer, that your editor knows you are, likes what you write, and encourages you. But anyway. She is better known, other than for stroking my ego, for winning a contest sponsored by McSweeney's. The challenge: to write a book about engineering and boats. She did that (sort of), and won, and the result is an acclaimed short novel interweaving the stories of her pregnancy and her father's death. Cool writer, cool lady

The Amy Fusselman Interview: Slighty Less Than Twenty Questions

One of the first things I wondered when I first heard of you was, "Why 'Surgery of Modern Warfare'?" So, why?
Surgery of Modern Warfare is the title of a book my husband bought for me at the flea market. It's a manual for physicians and has chapters on things like how to extract shrapnel from someone's rear end. My husband knows I like books like that. I have my father's copy of Christopher's Minor Surgery, which was the reference book he used when he was acting as the doctor on a Liberty Ship at the end of WWII.

Anyway. So I named the site after Surgery of Modern Warfare because I like the book, and because the title is ungainly and not cute and sort of hard to remember. I wanted something that was anti-Google.

This is a question, not a chance to air my bitterness: A while ago you turned down a piece I sent you saying something along the lines that it didn't really ring true for you. How important is truth, an application to real life, to you in writing?
Don't be bitter, Claire, I loved your Pills and Soap piece! Submit again to Surgery, we miss you!

This is a hard question, though. I think the importance of truth changes depending on whether you're a reader or a writer. As a reader, I want to be able to enter a writer's world. To that end, it needs to be a believable world. Whether it's true or not, as in nonfiction or not, is not important.

As a writer, though, the answer is a little less clear. I have written some things that are totally not true and some that are totally true. I would say that I'm in the process of figuring out which one I prefer writing, and why.

What's the last best thing you've read?
Yesterday I had to go to Tekserve and I usually have to wait a long time there, so I brought Ways of Seeing by John Berger with me. It's a book I reread occasionally. And I was struck by this line, on page 21:

"Yet the spiritual value of an object, as distinct from a message or an example, can only be explained in terms of magic or religion. And since in modern society neither of these is a living force, the art object, the 'work of art,' is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity."

I am really interested in the "bogus religiosity" of works of art, including writing. I also think it's interesting that Berger says that in modern society (he wrote this in 1972), neither magic nor religion is a living force. I think that's something that we're seeing in a lot of art right now, in writing as well as visual art-an attempt to counterbalance that absence.

All of a sudden I'm thinking of David Blaine, hanging over the Thames, getting his glass house pelted by beer bottles. I am not really a big fan of his, but I think I understand what he's trying to do, and I think his situation illustrates the primary artistic problem inherent in it: it's hard to take on magic/religion and not look like an idiot.

Tell us how The Pharmacist's Mate came to be published.
McSweeney's held a contest for a book about Electrical Engineering on Boats. The Pharmacist's Mate was my entry.

Was it difficult submitting tales of your personal life to a contest?
No. If there's one thing I like about writing autobiographically, it's that I think the process demands that you give up the idea that you even have a personal life, in the sense that you have some part of yourself that is sacred or special or different or weird or shameful or whatever. In order for the writing to work, I think, you have to remember at every moment that what you're saying is old news. It's like that idea that there's nothing new under the sun. I love that.

Did your pregnancy affect your writing at all? Did it make it easier or harder to concentrate?
I am probably not the best judge of whether pregnancy affects my ability to think or to write, because I'm actually five months pregnant right now. But in general I don't think of pregnancy as an affliction.

From the name of your site to the poem by a surgeon, you seem to have a fascination with science or medicine. Is this true?I do love doctors--partly, of course, because of my father, who took a run at being a doctor and then did a U-turn after the war. But I love that he was an almost-doctor, and there was that sense in my house growing up that he could administer to us. Like he had a special flashlight that he would use to look down my throat when it was sore. And he would prescribe things to us. He would get the medication from his father, my grandfather, who was a family doctor who had a practice in the house where my father grew up. My grandfather specialized in obstetrics and also delivered babies at a home for unwed mothers. I feel very connected to both those men.

I'm also envious of doctors in the sense that I think they (well, most of them, anyway) must sleep well at night knowing that they are trying to help people. And I love the Hippocratic Oath. And the caduceus. The caduceus is very rock 'n roll.

Scientists I am not so crazy about. I think they are really overrated, especially by artists. Artists love scientists because artists think they are their opposites-they have this aura of coldness, of impartiality and rationality. But I think scientists are a lot like artists in that most of them are seeking spiritual experiences of one kind or another. It's just that scientists won't say they're looking for God, they'll say they're looking for a new polymer or whatever. But scientists get more juice, culturally, than artists because they're smart and organized (whereas everyone knows that artists are crazy slobs) and are supposedly working for the common good (whereas most people aren't sure why artists are working). Artists love scientists and love to crib off them because they love that aura of respectability, an aura they're not likely to get. The better an artist's work is, the more likely people are to think he or she is a nutjob.

What separates a reading tour from a successful reading tour?
Having fun. Of course you want the audience to have fun but you can't always control that. But I would say a successful tour would be having fun at your own readings, and then having fun while you're traveling, which for me means just getting into the solitariness of it. I am someone who really loves to eat at crappy hotel restaurants by myself.

When I read that you had named your son King, I couldn't help but think of King Wenclas of the Underground Literary Alliance. Has anybody else made the same comparison?
No. My son is named after my dad, and then I found out after my son was born that Hank Williams' real first name is King, so now I think my son is named after my dad and Hank Williams. Maybe Wenclas is named after Hank Williams, too. That would be a good thing to have in common. I really don't know much about those guys, though. I dealt with someone who is supposedly involved with them, a guy named Will Ratblood. He was very nice. He has something on Surgery I really like, called "Why You Should Touch My Balls."

Tell us about Bunny Rabbit.
It was a 'zine I did for a few years. I wrote and illustrated it. I also included a cassette tape with a couple of issues. The tape was of my singing and playing guitar with a ridiculously talented guy named Tim Barnes, who has since gone on to play for a bunch of great people and has started his own label, Quakebasket. Bunny was distristributed internationally through Tower and distributed by myself through some independent bookstores. The whole thing was a really good exercise. I think everyone should do a 'zine. I may do one again, in fact.

Is it true you got an interview with Pee Wee Herman?
No, I interviewed my friend Paul Kelly, who had this period, growing up, where he was really into filmmaking. He made films with titles like "Death of a Leader" where he and his friend from down the street staged this elaborate mafia funeral in his basement and filmed it. I am really interested in that kind of play, i.e., theater. So I interviewed him about his childhood films. But Paul also happened to be Pee-Wee Herman's former assistant, so that was the celebrity hook, and the line I put on the cover. It was like Bunnyrabbit's version of Us magazine. At the end of the piece I got Paul to let me reprint the list of all the things Pee Wee had required in his trailer. One I remember is white Tic-tacs. They had to be white, not green.

While doing some research on you, I went from reading a review of your book claiming that you rose above the "McSweeney's schtick" and followed it to an interview with Dave Eggers where he has some pretty choice words regarding book critics. Do you agree with him or not?
I try not to think too much about book critics, and since I only have one book out, that's not too hard. But I remember when Dave did this rant a few years ago. It caused quite a stir.

You've said that you like a lot of white space on the page, with a lot of short sentences and short paragraphs. Are there any authors who provide inspiration?
Probably poets, but I haven't read much poetry lately beyond Dr. Seuss, who is a bona fide genius. I do love Hemingway for his spareness, particularly In Our Time. I've heard tapes of him reading and I love his reading voice, too. It's like he's a toddler learning to talk, each syllable weighted the same.

You're a Don Zimmer fan, are you? You know, he was a Cubs coach as well. Have you seen his Preparation H commercial?
I love Don Zimmer. I love his giant head with the three metal cones in it. And his giant smile, and how his eyes squint up when he smiles because his face is so big. He's like an extra character from "The Wizard of Oz." It should be the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and Don Zimmer. Maybe that's why his sitting on the bench with Joe Torre is so appealing, visually. It's like he's sitting next to the wizard at every game. Whatever he was missing, he's found it now.

I haven't seen that commerical but would love to.

Are you ever uncomfortable discussing sexuality in your writing?
So far, no. But I don't really think it's something I've written much about. I've written about my body, not about sex. Sex is much bigger than the body.

This quote has been attributed to you: "What can I say, I love writing, the stupid fucking fuck." What was in your mind when you uttered/typed it?
That was the last line of something I wrote for Hobart about my relationship with writing. I started off by saying that I love writing, but if writing were my husband we would need couples counseling. At the time I was struggling to write something that is now in a drawer. Everybody has to have the drawer manuscript, I guess.

What's your favorite AC/DC song?
I love the beginning of "Hell's Bell's," that rolling guitar line. When the singing starts it gets less interesting. As far as lyrics go, though, you can't beat "knockin' me out with those American thighs."

How does it feel to be the 74h person interviewed for
Good. Thanks a lot for asking me, Claire.