The Amy Shearn Interview

Today I'm interviewing an old Internet friend and recent real-life friend of mine who has an awesome new book out out called "How Far Is the Ocean From Here." But I'm too pissed off about having my "So You Think You Can Dance" finale pre-empted and THEN cut off to write a cute bio of hers so I'm just going to steal one from this site: "Born in Evanston, IL, Amy was educated in New Mexico, Chicago, Iowa and Minneapolis, where she received her MFA in fiction writing from the University of Minnesota." Also from here: "Amy Shearn's work has appeared in Jane, West Branch, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn." And also she teaches here.

Evanston represent!

How and when did HFITOFH begin to germinate?
It started with this image popping into my head of a pregnant woman driving through the desert. This now seems like a somewhat obvious metaphor but I'm not very quick sometimes and wasn't aware of it at the time. So the writing of the first draft was like putting together a puzzle - I knew very little about the character or what she was doing or why. I just had this vague, insane idea that the baby wasn't hers, and so a lot of my project was figuring out how this could be.

Also, around the time I started writing the book, I felt that people I knew and loved were making really bad decisions, and as a somewhat cautious person I was interested in this - what drives people to make careless, self-destructive decisions? Susannah makes a series of worse and worse decisions, and this was what kept me interested in her.

Oh and also, the collection of short stories that was my graduate thesis included many stories about people taking care of other people's children or creatures, people failing to take care of their responsibilities, phantom pregnancies, and that kind of thing. I guess it's a theme I've been chewing over for a while, news which I hope doesn't trouble any of the families I used to babysit for.

For aspiring authors, what's the story of how this book came to be published?

I was lucky in that I really only contacted one agent, who I knew represented some young authors I admired. I sent him a query letter, he asked to see the first 50 pages, and then he asked to see the rest. This was in the late fall of '06. (I'd started writing the book in May of '05.) My agent, who is an incredibly astute and clever reader, had a couple suggestions for smallish changes, which I made. Then in January of '07 he sent it out to a small list of editors and soon it had sold to Shaye Areheart Books, which ended up being a match made in heaven. My editor was insightful, sensitive, and engaged, and over the next year or so helped me to make that woolly beast of a manuscript presentable. It's a terrifically slow process, but it was also wonderful to have so much time to work on it together.

What lessons did you learn from writing, editing, and selling this book that can help you on future projects?
I think for me the most important thing is to develop some patience. I started working on a new book right after this one sold, which in retrospect was not a great idea, since you end up going back and forth so many times. It was difficult to concentrate on the two very different projects at once and to keep starting and stopping on the new book whenever I'd get edits for HFITOFH. Then again, it is nice to have the distraction of the "new baby" to keep you from worrying too much about the, you know, old baby.

How did you decide to have Susannah head to the Southwest (as opposed to any other part of the country?)
I'd lived briefly in New Mexico and found the landscape incredibly appealing and evocative. The desert and sky are so otherworldly. I remember visiting Roswell with friends and thinking, "Totally. I totally believe that aliens landed here." There's just this weirdness there that makes it feel like anything could happen -- it's the landscape but also the pathologically laid-back, quiet way of the people there. I figured Susannah needed some wide-open spaces and a place that felt very different from Chicago, and I know when I moved to the Southwest from Chicago I was sure I'd landed on another planet, one where I could have an entirely different kind of life.

Did you do any research for the book on surrogacy?
A little, but only after the first draft. I wanted to stay focused on these characters and this world I was creating, and not get distracted by other peoples' stories. I actually had a boss who had two children through a surrogate (I started that job when I was maybe halfway through the first draft and just couldn't believe the coincidence) - I asked her questions about her experience and wove some of that into the narrative. But once I had a draft I did check up on surrogacy law, which is different in different state -- surrogacy is so relatively new and rare that it's not that well-regulated.

Still, I realize that it's very unlikely that someone like Susannah, who's never had a baby before, would be chosen as a surrogate since presumably she wouldn't even know if she was really fertile. But hey, that's the joy of fiction. I liked the idea of this being her first birth so voila, it is.

What happened at the Literary Deathmatch?

Death and destruction, mostly. It was pretty intense.

There are two rounds. So the first two ladies read in their round and then my worthy opponent John Williams and I read in round 2. The judges all said very nice things about my stories - I read two extremely short stories about mischievous chairs. Julie Klausner liked my dress and Ben Greenman liked how short my reading was. But then John Williams, despite being ridiculed for his plain name, was selected to advance to the next round. He'd read a charming and funny story about a literary feud which I really liked, so I was happy he won. And I have to admit that once I realized what happened next - John and the other semi-finalist, Debbie Kuan, had to complete an obstacle course around a playground while hopping in garbage bags! - I was relieved I had not advanced, due to said dress and my constitutional non-athleticness. I probably would have toppled onto a child and caused a lawsuit or something. John Williams was crowned champion, and then everyone stood around chatting for a while, and then I went to get slices with my husband and our friend Doug. I really like pizza, so it for me it was a win-win.

Do you have a writing schedule?

I do, and I'm very uptight about it. I write in the mornings before work, from 5:30-7:43, because at 7:43 I need to watch Pat Kiernan on In the Papers or my whole day feels sad and empty. Then I go to work. This was how I wrote HFITOFH. Now I'm actually only working 4 days a week and so in addition to my mornings Friday is a writing day. I'm very strict about this - a friend asked if I wanted to have lunch on a Friday once and I was horrified. I would never! The whole day must be devoted to writing or research or revising or petting the dog while thinking about aforementioned activities. And I very rarely, though sometimes, write on the weekends. I think you have to treat it like a job. Even if you have a job already.

How did Cloud Train get started?

I've been into making collages lately, I think because it's something creative you can do when you're tired after work and watching a movie or something. It's not as involved as painting or drawing, which I also like to do when I can. The blog itself started when I couldn't sleep one night. This is very rare for me and I didn't know what it is that sleepless people are supposed to do, so I scanned a bunch of collages and started the blog. The name comes from a paper bag I received with a purchase when I was in Japan last summer. I thought it somehow went with the name of my book blog, Moonlight Ambulette. They are like cousin celestial vehicles, or something.

What have been some of the highlights and lowlights of your book tour so far?

Having just completed leg one of the world's slowest book tour (Leg 2 is in October, with various NYC-area readings scattered throughout), I can say it has been pretty much all highlights so far. Each reading has been a wonderful and weird reunion of people from different parts of my life with a few friendly strangers mixed in. Reading in my hometown and having some of my high school English teachers show up was pretty amazing. Obviously Funny-HaHa was mind-numblingly awesome - I was totally intimidated by what good company I was in. Though I guess maybe that was also my lowlight. When the hilarious and talented Carmen Esposito took the mic off the stand and said, "You guys are a great audience," I knew that my reading could only be a huge let-down - I mean, who wants to follow a brilliant stand-up comic!? - it was like that scene in Annie Hall -- but it came out okay in the end. I survived. And I also got to see Carmen Esposito and other insanely talented women be insanely talented, so I guess it really was a highlight anyway. Oh and I got to meet the lovely Claire Zulkey in person, which obviously that was THE highlight!

Your Gotham Writers' Workshop bio calls you a "Midwest proponent": does that mean you spread the word the New York that there is indeed life between the coasts? How is that information received?
You know, that was written by a former student of mine and I have wondered many times what I said in our interview to inspire such a statement. Don't get me wrong, it's a title I am pleased to have. I definitely get worked up when people disparage the Midwest. It's like family - I can make fun of it, but not some snotball New Yorker! And being married to a Des Moines native, I strongly believe that Iowa makes the best boys of any state, and that girls who complain about guys in NYC should immediately head to the Iowa State Fair.

Can you tell us a story about Iowa or your MFA program that is a horrible cliché of the writer's life?
Ha! Actually the people in my MFA program were all pretty down-to-earth, which is part of what I liked about the program in Minnesota so much. Iowa seemed to be a different story. There was one awesome night when a group of us undergrads (including my now-husband) crashed a Workshop party in Iowa City where we met one of the fiction writers, who carried around a hollowed-out copy of Ulysses in which he stowed his weed. It just seemed so off-the-charts pretentious and silly. We haven't really stopped laughing about that.

What's the hardest part about teaching creative writing?

I think the hardest part is wanting to be really tough on the students who actually show promise and talent, while telling the less promising students "Yeah, it's great, nice job, whatever," because you don't really think you can help them. That sounds condescending and terrible and lazy, and it is. I try not to fall into that.

I really love teaching. I teach adult education courses now, and there is something so wonderful about being around these people who have taken time out of their busy lives to do something creative, for no reason other than that they want to. I really find them inspirational, even when we're all tired and grouchy from day jobs and life. We are trying! We are making things! Despite everything!

Who are some of your favorite funny females, either writers, performers, or none of the above?

I love reading Lorrie Moore and Dorothy Parker for their devastating wit. Flannery O'Connor can be so funny in the "funny because it hurts" way, and I know people don't believe me but Virginia Woolf can be quite funny. The passage in Orlando on young poets is seriously hilarious. Sara Barron, a brilliant New York City-based comedienne and author of the forthcoming book People Are Unappealing, is one of the funniest people I've ever met, and I'm not just saying that because I've known her since we were twelve. I know this will sound like pandering, but Claire Zulkey's stuff makes me laugh out loud.

As for performers, I've long been a fan of Amy Poehler, and feel even more like she secretly wants to be my best friend since she made that surrogate mother movie. Why won't she just be my best friend already? I don't understand what she's waiting for.

What have you read lately that you've really enjoyed?
I've been rereading the stories of Flannery O'Connor, actually, which are even better than I think I realized as first. Shana Youngdahl, a classmate of mine from grad school, just published this beautiful and haunting chapbook called Donner: A Passing, which I thought was wonderful. And I'm in the middle of Rivka Galchen's wonderful Atmospheric Disturbances. Annoyingly, it's just as good as you've heard.

What's your second novel about?

I really believe in that hoo-doo of not talking about projects while you're working on them - I feel like it makes me lose interest, or something - but I will say that I think it's very, very different from HFITOFH. It's weirder and funnier, I think, or maybe I mean more tragic.

Here's a reading guide question from your publisher for you to answer: "What is the significance of little boy across the road?"

You know, when they first sent me those questions I remember thinking, "Gosh, these questions are hard! I'm glad I don't have to answer them..." But I guess I would say that everyone in the book wants something so bad he/she can almost taste it, can almost see it, sees it in everything - Julian and Kit want their child, Susannah thinks she wants the child but really just wants love. Susannah has come there for answers and is seeing signs and symbols in everything. In a way it's her little spirit guide. The little boy -- perfect but distant -- is the baby, but it's also Frankie, it's also Tim. It's the idealized version of each of these troubled characters.

I don't know, how did that sound to you? I'm sure book groups could come up with something better.

Whose mom was more appalled by your second, Vegas wedding, yours or your husband's?

Ha! That's a really funny question. I don't think either one was appalled. We had a family wedding first to appease everyone. That one, our "normal" one, involved an accordionist, a pirate-themed band and other shenanigans. I think both of our mothers know us well enough by now to expect strange things from us.

Thank you for your piece "The Terrors of Tinytown," because it encapsulates a lot of what I hate about concerts - but do you still go to them?
I don't know what you're talking about - I've met you and you are quite tall. But yes, it is tiresome to be smashed in between strangers' shoulder blades at general admission concerts. I do still go to shows, in part because my husband's really into them, but we tend to frequent smaller ones at bars or lofts. It's easier to not feel close to a trampling death at these events, I find.

How does it feel to be the 215th person interviewed for

It feels warm and buzzy and tingly. Like falling in love. Or chlamydia.