“Sometimes I feel estranged from my female gender, and a lot of that has to do with traditional gender performance and expectation. It is no news that there is an exhaustion inherent in being a femme-identified person within our society, and an exhaustion in living with the expectations of the gender binary.”
Amanda Goldblatt’s debut novel, Hard Mouth, follows Denny, a lab tech in the D.C. suburbs, as she deals with grief and her unwillingness to unravel. After receiving the news that her father is forgoing treatment for his terminal cancer, Denny quietly leaves her job, parents and close friend for solace in the mountains. Written from Denny’s point of view, the book follows her as she dismantles her life fueled by the fantasy of perfect detached via an isolated cabin in the woods.
Goldblatt’s take on grief is both refreshing and extremely human. While some have seen Denny as unemotional and detached, these traits are common when trying to live while death is staring you in the face. Goldblatt’s language throughout is indicative of this idea that grief is complicated to process–it’s bleak and messy and sometimes even humorous.
Amanda and I conversed over email about her new novel as well as some of the themes she explores within it, such as the gender expectations our society imposes, especially on females, nature as a relief and escape from modernity and the myth of natural-born talent.
Denny's lack of emotion has been pointed out in many reviews of Hard Mouth. I see it as her way to disassociate, as her way of dealing with the impending loss of her father. What prompted you to want to explore, through fiction, the complexities of grief?
For all of my thinking life, I’ve been problematically fixated on human mortality. “Problematically” because it causes in me a great anxiety. (I’m aware this isn’t uncommon, in artists and all sorts of people.) But I also respect the undeniability of death, its unarguable fact. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, all of this thinking and anxiety pointed toward something far less abstract, something far closer. And almost without thinking, as I myself was looking for a chance to disassociate from—or to less closely associate with—my own uncomfortable feelings, the novel began. The punchline is that I then dwelt in those feelings for the eight years I worked on the book. Long after my father had recovered.
Also, I wouldn’t say at all that Denny has a lack of emotion. But she does not embody typical cultural narratives of grief. It’s been a privilege to hear from readers who have lost someone, specifically from cancer, who see her bleakness and humor as familiar.
Denny's imaginary friend, Gene, is also a form of escape for her. I love that she knows he doesn't exist, yet she treats him as though he does, connecting to him more than the real people in her life. Can you speak about the creation of Gene and where the idea came from?
Gene is based on a character actor from the first half of the twentieth century, who I (re)encountered around the time I was starting the book, while feeling depressed and watching classic film in an effort to self-soothe. At the time I didn’t want to write about a lot of things—the suburbs, classic film, children and teenagers...I wanted a severe woman, pushing through psychic difficulty in the wilderness. I wanted this only. This was the initial dream of the novel. But the process revised things, complicated them.
This actor, Eugene Pallette, kept cropping up in films, in much the way he eventually crops up in my narrator’s life. I began to research him. He was too interesting to drop. A prolific career with an icky end that involved racism, Nazi sympathizing, Cold War paranoia, an escape to a remote home in northeastern Oregon, a return to Los Angeles after a cancer diagnosis. There was possibility in this character, and a capacity for real extremes. Ultimately, my narrator needed someone to spar with, all those times she was alone. He also counterbalances her stoicism, acting as a materialization of mood.
The struggle to caretake and nurture is at the forefront of this novel. I found it refreshing to read about a woman who fails in this area, who is constantly struggling through her attempts to help while things keep going wrong. (I personally love reading about flawed, complex women in fiction.)
I don’t have children, and likely will not. A large portion of my efforts of caretaking are directed to my partner, my friends, my family, my students. This may be wrong, but I think parents are naturally forced—through the speed and pressure of parenting—to confront the imperfection of their own caretaking, and, hopefully, to understand that perfection isn’t the point. Perhaps because I haven’t had that pressurized reckoning, I remain keenly aware and very nervous about my own imperfect care. In some respect, Denny’s efforts are a magnification of this. It is important, too, that women are allowed to fail at such things. Sometimes I think it is only through public failure, portrayed in culture, that anyone will understand that gendered expectations are not automatic or natural.
Was it important to you to create a female character who steered away from traditional gender performances?
See above! And yes of course. Or, it was important to me to create a character that portrayed a dimensional human. Sometimes I feel estranged from my female gender, and a lot of that has to do with traditional gender performance and expectation. It is no news that there is an exhaustion inherent in being a femme-identified person within our society, and an exhaustion in living with the expectations of the gender binary. I wanted Denny to be able to exist outside of that as much as possible, even though she doesn’t live within a community that works to degrade that divide. Some people are natural transgressors. I admire her, that way. I have an enculturated vanity that is attached to my femininity, which keeps me from fully expressing the possibilities of my gender. For all of her faults, Denny doesn’t have that.
I feel like escapism and the appeal of going off the grid is an attractive idea to most, even most don't follow through. Do you think social media and constantly being connected, virtually, has anything to do with that? Do you believe in the idea that being reconnected to nature is transformative?
These are big questions! I think humans have always wanted to escape, to remove themselves. An evolutionary scientist could probably tell you something about the natural impulse to flee in response to negative feelings like fear. Perhaps now negative feelings more often come from the internet, or the internet is where we most consistently see uncomfortable truths about humanity reflected and perpetuated and deepened. So the constancy of virtual connection exacerbates these things. This is not to say that in participating in internet life, I and other people do not also experience positive [connected, community] feelings.
I feel more entrenched in my digital life now than I did when I began the book. I have a lot of guilt around how much I look at my phone. It feels claustrophobic. My partner barely looks at his, except to read the news or check the time or listen to music. He hardly even texts. Meanwhile, I have entire internal psychodramas based on my experience of the internet. They rarely include anyone else. It just has to do with me, and all of the unnecessary information I’m receiving about the world and people around me. And in response I do feel a basic impulse to be near the water, or in the woods. I live in a city but there are opportunities for nature: Lake Michigan, good parks, and so on. It is not only that I am less likely to look at my phone in these places. It is also the beauty. It is also the quiet. I find temporary transformation in nature, or, I find a temporary relief from the guilt associated with being a contemporary person, and from all the ways we are perpetuating the suffering of others and degrading the planet. (How can nature be experienced outside our growing participation in and knowledge of its destruction? I don’t think it can! Does the scarcity make it more special? Is that sick but also true?) The presence and absence of that guilt are important reminders to me, reminders to act in accordance with my values and ethics.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about a profile The New York Times published in March 2018, about a retired Nike executive who created a life in rural Ohio in which he remained purposefully ignorant to news. The privilege, this forced moneyed ignorance, is monstrous to me. And there are less dramatic versions of this everywhere. Including in my own life. I am not a perfect force for good. I could do more to help and support others. But I also do some good. I often fuck up while doing so, or while doing nothing, and I think strenuously and often about how I can be better and do more good, and that struggle feels very much to me what it means to be a privilged and relatively safe human right now, in 2019. It’s true that people need breaks. But true prolonged escapism feels unethical to me. You didn’t ask me about that, but somehow I’ve ended up here—
Can you tell us about your writing journey? Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was little, my parents put masking tape labels on things all over the house to teach me words and vocabulary. The refrigerator had “refrigerator” on it, and so on. This may sound corny but I do think it made a secure, conscious connection between what I perceived experientially and the language I put to it, which seems like the most basic and true element of being a writer. Or at least this is my narrative of myself. I don’t think it’s true that a from-birth writerly identity is necessary to being a writer, but there are times I find myself cozying up to this myth. It’s pernicious, the idea of natural talent. Sometimes a student, coming to writing late, will ask me about it, wondering if they’ve already missed their chance. They haven’t. It is true for me, though, that I wrote poems and stories throughout childhood and was a maniac of a reader. I developed my understanding of myself in the context of both of these things.
For a while, in high school and college, I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, and then a video artist. But one fall in college my hard drive crashed and I lost a semester’s worth of work. I resolved that I wanted my work not to rely on technology. So I returned wholly to writing. This was 2002 or 2003, when that still seemed possible, to have a practice apart from technology. Now of course I write on a phone or computer almost exclusively.
How long did it take you to write Hard Mouth? What does your writing routine look like?
Beginning in 2011, I worked on the novel for about six and a half years on my own, after which I edited it for seven months with my agent, then four months with my editor. And I was still messing with the sentence-level language and minor inconsistencies five months before publication, submitting 49 corrections to the ARC. (I am thankful to the people at Counterpoint and Catapult for their patience and kindness and enthusiasm.) All told the book took me about 8 years, the whole process—maybe a little less. An era of my life, either way. During this time I was sometimes deliberate about my writing routine, but often just obsessed and so continuously working, in any pocket of time available.
In the book’s wake, I write when I want to, and when I can. As an adjunct instructor my schedule is different every semester. Typically I have been a morning writer, but I have become less precious about this. When I’m in a project, I’m much more disciplined, and wake early and read a little of something with exciting language, then get to work. But a lot of my writing life is taking notes/writing in the Notes app of my phone, while walking or on the bus or anywhere. (I do find myself inspired while moving through space, though that feels tiresome or overly romantic to say.) Periodically I transfer these notes to files. In these I find repetition, fixation, voice, new connections. Stories come out of that, often, and new ideas for longform stuff. These days, when it comes to my writing routine, I am a haphazard opportunist. For a long time I told myself I should have more discipline, should spend 1-2 hours a day at my desk, should complete whatever word count weekly. But I write better without these constraints, outside of these frames. I write better when writing is a continuous part of my life.
Amanda Goldblatt's work can lately be found at NOON, Fence, and Diagram. She was a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and teaches creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Her debut novel Hard Mouth, an adventure novel about grief, was published by Counterpointin 2019. Amanda lives in Chicago, with her architect partner, and no dog.