It’s Always a Surprise: A Conversation with Allison Amend and Others




CHICAGO-BORN ALLISON AMEND is the author of the novels A Nearly Perfect Copy, Stations West, and the story collection Things That Pass for Love. Her latest novel is Enchanted Islands. Based in New York, she teaches at Lehman College in the Bronx. Amend has been self-interviewed by The Beatles, James Lipton, and Marcel Proust, so not to be outdone, for this interview I have enlisted Hemingway, Woolf, Carver, and others.

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ERNEST HEMINGWAY: Many claim that I was very superstitious about my writing habits …

VIRGINIA WOOLF: He pretends he’s not superstitious, but he rather is.

HEMINGWAY: Hrmmphff … I enjoyed writing as soon as possible after first light in the morning and writing four or five hundred words. What are your writing habits? Your superstitions?

ALLISON AMEND: I think all we writers are rather superstitious beings. I don’t believe in it, but I’m afraid to offend whatever fortune might be smiling. Unfortunately, unlike you, Ernie, I’m not a morning person (or perhaps you were a really, really, really late-night person?).

HEMINGWAY: Dont call me Ernie.

I can respect that. I hate being called Allie. Some Allisons are Allies. I am not one of them.

Nor am I an evening person. I have a couple of good hours after breakfast and before lunch. Also, I am often overwhelmed by my teaching duties, so I write where I can. I try to write a little bit each day, like you. But a lot of days that doesn’t happen and I try not to get mad at myself. When I do write, I have a 500-word quota. When I reach the quota, I stop. If I fall short, I keep going. I also write standing up. During school breaks I up the quota to 1,000 words. Then, if I have extra time, I can spend it editing.

HEMINGWAY: The ending of Enchanted Islands seems very good — it reminds me of the end of Scott’s great story. I wrote one of my endings 47 times. How many times did you revise the end of Enchanted Islands? Do you do a lot revisions?

I actually flushed with pride before I remembered this is not really Hemingway talking to me. But thanks just the same for the kind words. I love your response to the interviewer asking why you had to revise so many times. When asked what was it that had stumped you, you replied, “Getting the words right.”

HEMINGWAY: “Flushed with pride …”

Enchanted Islands has a “frame,” which is to say that it begins and ends in the same place and the meat of the novel is an extended flashback. So that end was written in the beginning before I realized it would be a frame. As far as the ending of the flashback goes, it, like the entire novel, was rewritten so many times that I lost count. At one point, it lay in strips of paper on the floor and I had to tiptoe around them like between mats in a crowded yoga studio (oh, in the future, everyone does yoga).

Every time I write a novel, I’m aware that I’m close to the end, but then I write a sentence and end it with a period and think, “Oh, that was the last sentence.” It’s always a surprise.

HEMINGWAY: “Flushed with pride …”

WOOLF: Before Mr. Hemingway gets too full of himself and his influence upon you, could you tell us a bit about your new novel?

So glad you asked. Enchanted Islands is the life story of Frances Frankowski, who was born a poor Jewish immigrant in Duluth, Minnesota, and who ended up a spy for the US Navy in the Galápagos Islands just before the Second World War. It is based very loosely on the memoirs of the real-life Frances Conway, who lived in the nearly unpopulated Galápagos Islands during that time. The novel is also the story of Frances’s relationship with her best friend Rosalie, her unconventional marriage, and the ways in which the secrets we keep can affect us more than the ones we tell.

E. L. DOCTOROW: You once claimed that you had a great idea for a novel, but I beat you to it. Were you bullshitting? Tell us about that idea?

Eddie, you did steal my novel. I was going to write about the Collyer brothers a couple of years before you had to go and write it out from under me. But I’ll forgive you because you once gave me excellent advice. You said, when writing a historical novel, that instead of doing painstaking research I should just make it up. You claimed that authors have seen enough costume movies and read enough period fiction that we had a pretty good idea of what life was like, and if we were wrong about anything, we could just change it later. You gave Ragtime as an example: you decided the characters were going to take streetcars from New York to Boston, and then you went back afterward to see if it was possible. This advice freed me from the debilitating research I was doing (and this was before the internet, so I was living in the library looking up the history of barbed wire usage in the West), which is, of course, what separates fiction from history.

Later I learned you had the advantage of paid research assistants to look things up for you, which made the advice a little less convincing.

DOCTOROW: Did you go to the Galápagos Islands to do your research? (You do know I was mostly kidding when I told you, “Just make it up, right?”)

Really? Now you tell me? I did go to the Galápagos, once as a teenager with my parents, and then again last year on a research trip. I think the book would have been fine if I hadn’t gone and had relied on memory and photos and others’ accounts. But I think it is a much better book for my having gone.

Interestingly, I didn’t glean many details from my trip, which surprised me. I assumed I was going to look for specificity and accuracy. But I knew from Google Images what everything looked like, and I’ve lived in New York for so long I’ve lost my sense of smell (that’s proof of evolution for you) (Yes, I know that’s not how it works.). What did affect me was the heat and island fever. The heat is a sort of equatorial gamma ray that bores into the back of your skull turning your brain to mush. I began to shut down nonessential functions like thinking. Wandering the same short dead-end island paths all day made me existentially dizzy. My protagonist Frances lived for six years on Floreana. I was supposed to stay five days, but after three I went back to the “big city” on Santa Cruz. In short, I couldn’t hack it. And unlike Frances, I had electricity, food, and shelter. Fortunately, I was able to transfer that frustration, isolation, and sense of confinement to her, and I think her characterization is richer because of it.

Also, I had a really good time.

GEORGE PLIMPTON: A follow-up to Edgar’s question … How disappointing — your stay in the Galápagos. I’d hoped you had roughed it for quite a while, built your own hut, that sort of thing. Ever do any spying? Tell me you went to France for the cloning novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy.

Hey, for me, that was roughing it! Of course I went to France. I realized that you end up visiting (or in the case of Stations West, spending lots of time in) places you write about. So I will make sure from now on to write novels set in desirable locales.

I do not spy. I have a heavy tread, and I’m a terrible secret-keeper.

WOOLF: Mr. Hemingway is not modernist and it would appear from his first novel that this rumor of modernity must have sprung from his subject matter and from his treatment of it rather than any fundamental novelty in his conception of the art of fiction. He is modern in manner but not in vision. What sort of novelist do you consider yourself — historical, realist, New York School? Something else?

I’m a member of the New New York School. I just made that up; I don’t think that’s a thing. I believe the proper way to deflect this question is to say that I don’t “do” labels, but I’ll attempt to answer it.

I try to write the sorts of novels I like to read: character-driven, page-turning explorations of contemporary social and societal anxieties. I’ve written two novels (Stations West and Enchanted Islands) that take place in the past, so I suppose that makes me a historical writer. But I’ve also written a novel about art forgery and human cloning (A Nearly Perfect Copy), so I’ve been called a speculative writer.

I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I think the wheel is the best circular object to affix to an axle for motion. But I do think there’s so much about the wheel that we can still explore, just to beat that extended metaphor to death.

That said, if you want to call me a literary fiction writer, or a Jewish writer, or a female writer, or a historical fiction author, or a realist, go ahead. I contain multitudes.

RAYMOND CARVER: It’s been a while since your first story collection, Things That Pass for Love, came out. Have you written many stories since then? Do you have another collection coming?

You know, I miss writing stories. I haven’t done so in a while for very banal reasons. First, I find that teaching (at least, the way I do it and the place I do it in) takes up a great deal of my time. So what little writing time I do have I need to focus on one main project rather than detour into shorter pieces. But I like teaching, and I have health insurance, so that seems to me to be a good trade-off.

Second, while I love the short story form, it demands a wealth of ideas. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I don’t have a lot of ideas. Part of this is because I’m not writing stories often, so I’m not trying to look for story ideas. Part of this is because I’ve never been a prolific generator of ideas. Sometimes, to be a smart-ass when people ask me where I get my ideas, I say there is a store on Lexington and 47th where they sell them five for a dollar. I really wish that store existed.

CARVER: How did you like the Iowa workshop?

Well, Ray, I think “like/dislike” is the wrong dichotomy. I feel as though I learned so much from my time there. What’s more, I met, became friends with, and developed alongside some of the best writers of this generation. I think much of what is said about the Writers’ Workshop is unfair. If it was competitive, well, then, so is the “real” writing world. I didn’t think there was an “Iowa” story that I was supposed to write, though I went as a very young person (it had only been a year since I finished undergrad) and my style was definitely unformed (it’s still evolving four books later). I think there is a certain regression toward the mean with people who are still developing their voice, and I might have been molded in that image, but I hope I’ve grown since then.

The workshop at that time was still very much the Frank Conroy show. Because I like people yelling at me (I come from a family of yellers; yelling means you care), I responded well to his method of delivery, and to his message, which boiled down to rigor, which, though its form of pedagogy is different (read: quieter, gentler), is Marilynne Robinson’s message as well.

WOOLF: Who do you consider your biggest influences?

This is a question you’d think I’d be prepared for … My influences change frequently, depending on what I’m reading, what I’ve read, and what I’m struggling with in my own writing life. I’m constantly amazed and influenced by what my contemporaries are doing with their work. Some authors I return to again and again are Jennifer Egan, Annie Proulx, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood, Wallace Stegner, and Michael Ondaatje. Oh, and you, Ms. Woolf, of course.

EDGAR ALLAN POE: If you could answer any one question from any one literary ghost, who would it be? What would be the question and the answer?

Why would a literary ghost ask me a question? Aren’t they all-knowing? Otherwise, what’s the point of being dead? What if the ghost asked me where I got my ideas and I gave him my smart-ass “at the idea store” answer and then he haunted me for the rest of my life? I can’t risk that.

POE: If you could ask any one question of any literary ghost, who and what would you ask? What do you suppose the ghost would reply?

I am rather an originalist in that I believe that the book is only what’s on the page. The couple of times I’ve asked authors interpretation questions I’ve been disappointed by the answers. I’ll just go back to the text, thank you.

If I’m not excited to meet the author as a person, I’m even less interested in meeting him/her as a ghost because I’m terrified of the supernatural even though I don’t believe in it (see question one).

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Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/



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