I met Amanda Stern in November of 2003 when she was on the road promoting her first novel from Soft Skull Press, The Long Haul. She was on a cross-country tour via automobile. But the title of her book doesn’t have anything to do with all-night drives. It’s a painful, excruciating, and sometimes even funny chronicle of a dysfunctional relationship going south. Like the works of A.M. Homes and Mary Gaitskill, it’s a refreshingly realistic and discordant look into a less-than-perfect female character.
With a background in the worlds of comedy and independent film, Stern has always kept busy in a variety of ways. These days, besides more writing, Stern has made her reading series at the Happy Ending Bar one of the great literary happenings in New York. I got to see her in action when I read there in March. Her enthusiasm, quirky charm, and no-bullshit command of the event had obviously earned her the respect of a seasoned host.
KS: Let’s talk about books first. You got anything new in the works?
AS: I’m working on novel number two. Not that my first was so experimental but this one is much more traditional in structure and tone and it’s kicking my ass.
I’ve also got some short stories I’m working on and an essay or two. I’ve learned that the way I work best is if I have more than one unfinished thing hanging over me at all times. That way, there’s always a next thing. I don’t like to leave too much room for panic.
KS: When we met in Portland a couple of years ago on your tour there was a guy who was sort of stalking you. Whatever happened with that?
AS: I believe if you’re going to stalk someone, you need to be fully devoted or find another hobby. In other words, I’m almost certain that a person cannot “sort of” stalk.
What happened was that I was keeping a book tour diary on my website, which he followed, fairly religiously. He started to recognize himself as the stalker and freaked out and upped the amount of calls, packages and emails in order to explain that he wasn’t actually stalking me.
Someone intervened and he finally called to apologize and I told him never to call me or get in touch with me again and thankfully, he has obliged.
KS: You seem like a girl who can handle herself pretty well. Ever get in any fights?
AS: When I was 7 Nicole Naftali and I really went at it. I also had my way with Tracy Rosenfeld when I was around 12. As far as handling myself well, I think that’s all persona. I despise fighting. Mainly because I’m bad at it. I get all shaky-voiced and queasy if I have an argument with a friend. I can handle myself well, I think, with people I don’t care about, with strangers or with assholes in general, but when it comes to arguments with loved ones, I’m a mess and I’d prefer to cower and hide than face them and the issue at hand.
KS: That seems like a trait that the narrator in The Long Haul has. Perhaps to a different degree. How much of that novel is from your own life. Have you been in long painful relationships before?
AS: The Long Haul was based on a relationship I had with an alcoholic, but the book, in a very real sense, is less about that specific relationship than it is about a certain prototype.
What I tend to do in my work is rely on actual lived moments of my past and explode them. So, in each chapter in The Long Haul I can point to at least one or two things that actually happened to me, or to us, but more often than not, the thing that occurred was a premise and the story I end up writing is a false realization of that premise or a fictional interpretation of what might have happened if say, we DID find a young girl when driving in an ice storm, or if I did stalk a patient of the free therapist I was seeing. So, I suppose the skin of the novel is real but what holds the skin in place is fiction.
And yes, I have been in long painful relationships before. Hasn’t everyone? And if the answer is no, then I don’t want to hear it.
KS: There seems to be a fine line with female writers who write about relationships. Some of it is really strong, honest, and realistic, and some of it is very self-helpy and cheesy. What do you think about this term “chick-lit”?
AS: This is a tough one. The books I like are not of our mainstream culture. I prefer books that don’t sell well, ones that quickly go out of print or ones that big publishing houses wouldn’t buy for fear they’d never recoup their losses. I write because books like these exist. I write because of language, because I like to create rhythmic structure out of a string of words. I like to be challenged both by the foundation a story is built upon and the structure of language used to tell it. Does chick-lit do that? I don’t know. But, I doubt it.
KS: When you read fiction do you find yourself wondering how much of it is really true? I’m not sure, but it seems like when I was reading more memoirs a few years ago I started to detect those kind of non-fiction elements in the fiction I read.
AS: Quite honestly, no. I never ever question what’s true and what’s not true in the fiction I read. It doesn’t matter to me and I don’t care. It doesn’t change the book I’m reading or my relationship to it. If anything, it would change my relationship to the author and I’m not with the author, I’m with the book. So no. I don’t care about that element. If anything, when I read memoirs I wonder how much of that is actually true. What part of life has been fictionalized in order to tell a better story? That interests me more, I suppose. The line can be thin, I know, in both cases. But, for some reason, I’m more interested in the ways in which people fictionalize their reality in non-fiction then I am in separating the truth from reality in fiction.
KS: How has your work in film inspired your writing?
AS: It wasn’t necessarily working in film or on certain films that inspired my writing, but rather, working with certain people that drove me forward. I can think of two people in particular who were enormous influences on me: the producer, Ted Hope and the filmmaker, Hal Hartley. Ted wanted me to be a producer, he and I were real pals and he tried hard to dissuade me from becoming a director. When I was working for him, I was often his go-to person for the daily rehashing of what happened on set. At first, he just wanted information, but often, there was nothing to tell him and not wanting to lose his attention, I found myself concocting little anecdotes, or entire stories with narrative arcs, things that began as truth and then exploded into something else, something fictional. Soon, he just wanted to be entertained, and I wanted to remain his go-to gal, so in an effort to entertain Ted Hope, I learned how to tell stories.
I ran the rehearsals for Hal Hartley’s actors for one of his films. He and I became friendly and he started showing me how he storyboarded his shots in his script. They were simple drawings that translated his words perfectly. I began to understand and see how to literally draw scenes. His apartment walls had the same color scheme as his films and I began to witness the way in which Hal lived his images. Everything about Hal was true to his work, the music he composed, the colors he wore, the drawings he made. Something about that stuck with me and I suppose in some ways, I am conscious of truth not so much as reality but as texture, and somehow, that found its way into my work.
KS: When you host readings, do you ever have to deal with hecklers?
AS: I flipped someone off once at a reading. And I yelled at someone from stage who was calling things out during the evening’s introduction. The strangest part was who was involved. The person I flipped off was a friend of one of the evening’s readers and the person I told off was a person who had read in the past at one of my events. I suppose any time you mix alcohol with entertainment, you’re open to some kind of drama.
I’ve also gotten into some catty arguments with people who email me offering unsolicited advice about what I should do differently as host at my events or to tell me why I’m a bitch for not booking them. These exchanges can get seriously fun. People can be staggeringly selfish and utterly disrespectful and when they earn it, I adore the chance to tell them as much.
KS: What are some of the best readings you’ve seen at the Happy Ending?
AS: Well, yours was up there.
The best readings are the ones where the participants have a good enough grasp and feel for the venue and the type of audience we attract that they cater their reading of choice and the risk they take to the event. Readers who don’t apologize for being nervous or for being new, or stodgy, or brash are the readers who do best at these events. People who are able to make fun of themselves rather than of others do well at my events and onstage in general. They also do better in life, I might add.