Amy Long is an award winning author whose non-fiction book of essays, “Codependence,” of which noted author David Shields raved, “Against all the easy recovery narratives, against all the Opioid Crisis Hand-Wringing, stands this heart-stopping book–ferociously written, powerfully felt, absolutely persuasive in its extraordinary nakedness, bravery, and gallows humor. Brilliant.” Her writing has appeared in the Best American Experimental Writing 2015 anthology, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. She was kind enough to talk to me about her work, her process, just generally wax winningly in general.
When did you know you when you were, like it or not, bound to be a writer?
I don’t know about “bound,” but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I’ve written fiction and poems and stuff since I was, like, six. Since I could write. But I veered off course a little in college, and I really thought I was going to be a feminist media studies professor (I have a Master’s in Women’s Studies that I got right out of college and had planned to do a PhD). Then I was working for nonprofits, which I liked, but something felt missing. So, I took a night class at NYU with Amy Shearn, who is wonderful (she just put out a really gorgeous novel, Unseen City with Red Hen Press, which makes such good editorial decisions), and she encouraged me to take classes at Sackett Street, which is this great program run by Julia Fierro in New York and, I think, LA now, too. Emma Straub, who is a great workshop instructor, said “If you apply to 20 MFA programs, you’ll definitely get into one,” so I applied to 21, and she was right. I got into a couple, and I ended up at Virginia Tech, which was a perfect program for me. I’d have these lovely conversations that I call “serenity talks” with my advisor, Matthew Vollmer (he’s the best, and his work is amazing), and I think the way he talked to me about my work and my life made me realize, like, “Oh, I can actually do this. Wait, I am doing it. I am a writer.” So, forever and then when I was maybe 27.
Tell us about your award-winning book, Codependence?
Codependence started out as an installation sort of project thing I made in Matthew’s creative nonfiction workshop. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. Like, I made detailed pill-bottle labels and rolled up stories inside them or designed motel keys and used the instructions on the back to tell a story—those ended up in the book almost unchanged—and then the medicine cabinet became an outline (I can’t work from outlines; right now, I’m writing an album that is the outline for Book Two), so a lot of the book is me trying to figure out how to get all this 3D stuff onto a 2D page. I alternated between the more experimental essays (the book includes an essay in the form of a glossary, one that’s shaped like a map and has this amazing actual map that goes with it that my friend Silas Breaux made for it—basically hermit-crab essays) and more traditional braided essays that let me flesh out and ruminate on things and kind of wander around my life and my subjects.
I had the manuscript written and revised around the beginning of 2017, and I’d started sending it out to agents and small presses at the same time. I kind of knew it would be a small-press book. It’s formally weird, the subject is so specific, it doesn’t have that redemptive memoir arc that’s common to drug and illness narratives, it’s not hopeful, and I wouldn’t have changed that. So, I saw that Brian Blanchfield, whose essay collection Proxies I’d just read and loved, was judging Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s annual Essay Collection Competition, and I had this weird moment when I thought “I bet Brian would like this book. I really feel like I can win this.” And I entered, and I waited, and I’d come up to New York to see your play about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and I got the email telling me that I did win! It was weird. Like, I had a good feeling about it, and I was right! I remember we were walking around near Central Park after I’d called Matthew to go “What do I need to ask this press?”and I made you sit at an intersection on the sidewalk while I talked to my editors, Caryl Pagel and Hilary Plum, who were really wonderful and really got the book in a way I hadn’t expected anyone to get it. Their cover designer, Sevy Perez, did a beautiful job with the cover (and I did not make it easy!), and the book is just, like, this gorgeous object that sometimes I look at and can’t believe is really mine, you know?
I remember. It was exciting to see you as you were finding out the news. What are the some of the technical challenges specific to writing autobiographical essays? What drew you to the form?
What drew me to the form was how easily the story came out when I used it. I’d written a glossary essay in Matthew’s workshop, and it was maybe the first personal essay I’d ever really written, but all this story just fit so easily into it. Often, the form felt as if it generated the content, or the constraints inherent to a form were generative for me. I’d been trying to write it as a novel, and it was so boring. It was boring to write. I’m pretty sure it was boring to read! But the essays felt so natural. Like I wasn’t even really trying. And I find myself inherently interesting, so there’s that.
A lot of the challenges come in part from other people—like, how much of this person’s story is okay to use? Or will my sister be mad if I write about that? Does using this story that involves someone else serve my story? But I think I’m missing a privacy filter that other people have. I don’t have trouble revealing things. In talking to other essayists and memoirists, I’ve found that the privacy aspect, questions about memory, and revisiting trauma give most of us the majority of our troubles. But, for me, writing the book was fun and like a puzzle, and at a certain point, I did become a kind of character to myself, and it got easier when I thought of myself that way. I think Matthew kind of instilled that in me.
Like, it’s all fiction once it’s on a page. When I write, I watch the scenes like a movie in my head. It’s not like dissociating or anything. It’s just how I remember. So, a lot of it was, like, “I see this in my head, and I’m missing this…,” but one of the really freeing things about nonfiction for me is that I can say “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I love that. I value honesty a lot, which is I think what allows me to bypass that “I don’t want people to know this” filter, so the ability to admit that I’m not sure if X happened in Y way or Z way is really more about honesty than my stoner memory. I have a great long-term memory, but if I watch a movie tonight, I won’t be able to tell you the plot tomorrow (but I will be able to tell you who played what character on The Americans, The Wire, or Grey’s Anatomy).
When do you know you’ve got something to write about? Or are you one of those lucky writers who has a notebook full of ideas?
I think in books. So, it’s usually a “big” idea, and then I have to figure out what goes in the idea. I do have a notebook of ideas, but I rarely use them. I just know. It’s intuitive, I guess. But I kind of can’t go further than, like, “chronic pain drugs and fun drugs” or “loneliness and relationships.” Like, I need an idea that can contain a lot of experiences and doesn’t dictate to me, if that makes sense.
What kind of writing really gets you excited?
Any form used in a cool way. Noor Hindi wrote these poems that were published in Hobart a few months ago in the form of a multiple choice quiz, which I’ve been trying to do forever, and it always ends up, like, an actual quiz! I was so impressed, and then we figured out we met each other when I read at CSU in Cleveland last year! I’m also always up for a good drug story.
Are you a redrafter? Let me rephrase: How much do you revise.And when do you know it’s time to let it go?
I do a lot of revising as I go, so it’s hard to say. Like, usually when I sit down to write, I go over what I wrote the day before and spend an hour “fixing” it. My drafts end up pretty clean. But sometimes it takes longer to get there.
I know you’re working on a few different pieces at the moment, including a novel. Tell me about the differences in doing that? What’s easier and/or more challenging for you about the form?
I don’t know if I’m still working on the novel! Every couple years, I decide I want to write a novel, and I love it for the first couple months, and then I want to write about myself again! I think fiction is way harder. It’s the getting from one place to another without feeling like you’re just going from one place to another, I think. But I love the description and the character planning and the way that anything can change with a sentence. It’s just not really my form.
What writers would you say have influenced you most? And who are some of your favorite writers (I’m assuming there may be an overlap, but not necessarily)
Joyce Carol Oates is a forever favorite. For Codependence, my main influences were Maggie Nelson, Elissa Washuta, Leslie Jamison, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But no book had a bigger influence than Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points. It was the first book I’d read in which the pained narrator does not get better, and it’s a huge touchstone for me. She’s a friend, and she’s incredible at community building, and I’m so stoked for the novel she’s writing. Rob Roberge’s Liar was an influence, too; it’s all in the second person, and I use the second person kind of a lot, so I went back to it to look under its hood a good bit. And Joshua Mohr’s Sirens got me interested in drug narratives again when I thought I was sick of them. I also always go back to Matthew Vollmer’s inscriptions for headstones. It’s such a good mixture of the mundane and the profound, and that’s hard to do.
Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater, which all center on chronic pain, were important to me when I was revising prepublication, and I’m really looking forward to finally starting Sarah Ramey’s The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. There’s been a kind of pain-book boom lately, which is exciting.
I’ve been reading a lot of friends’ books lately. I’m loving Nick Jaina’s novel Hitomi. I just finished Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, and I was struck by how perfect it was for my pandemic attention span but also just how much it has to say about bodies and love and the state of the world. Lee Klein’s Neutral Evil0))) is a lot like that, too. I love my friend Tatiana Ryckman’s novella I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) and her novel The Ancestry of Objects (I tweeted about how much I loved the former, which is how we met, and now we write songs together!). Reachel Anne Jolie put out an amazing book last year, Rust Belt Femme, that I love in part because we’re the same age, and she references a lot of the bands I also loved in high school, but it’s also just so well done. I loved Jeannie Vanasco’s latest, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, and Sejal Shah’s essay collection This is One Way to Dance. I also really loved David Shields’ The Trouble with Men. I know this wasn’t the question, but if I had to go back through my whole reading life, we’d be here all week!
Alexandra Naughton’s a place a feeling something he said to you has been important to my writing and thinking lately. I did a reading with her a while back, and I bought it and fell in love with it. I’ve been gravitating toward relationship books because that’s kind of where my writing head has been. Tatiana’s books are huge resources for that, and Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, an Outline of a Man and Melissa Mathewson’s Tracing the Desire Line are calling to me from my TBR pile.
Do you have a set regimen for your writing?
Kind of. It depends on how my pain is that day. With ideal pain management, I start writing around 11am and stop at 5pm or 6pm. With the actual pain management I have now, I have three specific hours during which I might feel good enough to write, so I have to use those. But, if I can, I like to write all day. Maybe take some breaks.
What was the best piece of advice about writing you ever got?
From Trysh Travis, my advisor in Women’s Studies grad school: “There is no such thing as writing. Only editing.”
What advice would you give to other writers?
Write about what obsesses you. Don’t worry about whether it will obsess anyone else. If it obsesses you, readers will feel it. And don’t let your book tour depend on anyone else!
Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (2019), chosen by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. She holds a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida and an MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing Program. She is a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. She is on Twitter and Instagram @amylorrainelong
Get Codependence from CSUPC (http://www.csupoetrycenter.com/books/codependence) or Bookshop (https://bookshop.org/books/codependence/9781880834121), or patronize her favorite indies, Bookpeople (https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9781880834121) in Austin, TX, where she worked as a bookseller, and Sundog Books (https://www.sundogbooks.com/book/9781880834121) in Seaside, FL, the porch above which adjoins Central Square Records, where Long worked on Codependence during her MFA summer breaks.