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Empathy in the Usual Way: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Amanda Goldblatt photo

Disclaimer: I've known Amanda Goldblatt a long time. I've been trying to remember how long, but the beginning parts are, at best, murky. I remember seeing the movie The Bling Ring (which I always misspeak as The Ring Bling, for which Amanda invariably teases me) in the theater with her and my daughter and my daughter's friends. I remember being 'broken up with' Claire Vaye Watkins when Amanda and I met, and subsequently becoming friends again with Claire, singing karaoke with Claire and Amanda (and Chloe Caldwell and Juliet Escoria and Chelsea Martin) one night after a long, leisurely, writerly dinner, and then breaking up with or being broken up fom Claire again a couple years later. (This is an easy way to mark time: with breakups and movies.) 

(Another way to mark time: there is a character not-so-loosely based on Amanda in my novel, Person/a). 

Amanda and I have a lot in common: our love of old films, particularly ones starring Cary Grant and/or Carole Lombard, our obsession with MTM (Mary Tyler Moore, both the 70s TV show and the woman herself), our fondness for dogs with 'pushed-in faces,' our devouring of novels by Patricia Highsmith. But Amanda is much smarter than I am. Or much more educated/widely-read. Probably both. Her writing is an example of this, of her intelligence. Her sentences are sharp and keen and precise and exemplify her vast knowledge of language, her seemingly limitless vocabulary. 

Bret Easton Ellis has said that when it comes to writing, style is everything. Or style is the most important thing. Amanda Goldblatt has style. Amanda has style galore. Her new novel, her debut novel, HARD MOUTH (Counterpoint Press), is so stylistic, so glamorous, I used up a brand new highlighter highlighting passages while reading it. As evidence, here is an early passage, page 16, I highlighted, writing in the margins, "feels very 60s French film'y, gorgeous, Sylvia Plath, Catherine Deneuve, LUSH!" 

On days of particular vulnerability or boredom, I wondered if in that empty house, I had become permanently split, striated--like a cooled, fat-topped broth. Or perhaps I had just learned to use it as an excuse. There would be many separations. Bifurcations, vivisections, vacays. Many more failures in being and telling. Many more empty houses. As much emptiness as anyone could beat, and I, rushing toward it, unstopping, hardly knowing my own face.

HARD MOUTH is, alternately, an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a claustrophobic, psychological stufy of womanhood, individualism, and the vulnerability of letting others 'in.' It's a pleasurably subtle novel, until it isn't; until it turns, quickly, dangerous, reckless, gripping. 



The first possible influence on your novel Hard Mouth that I was aware of was F. Scott Fitzgerald, specifically The Great Gatsby. In the opening chapter of Hard Mouth, the protagonist, Denny, is a child and gets in trouble for ruining a material object belonging to her mother, and rather than “punishing” her, Denny’s father takes her to another house and makes her lie down in another little girl’s bed in order to feel what it’s like to be someone else. Denny’s father says to Denny, “’It’s important that you try this now, because this will be something good to know for the rest of your life – to know what it feels like for others, in any dealings you’ll ever have with anybody.’”

Similarly, The Great Gatsby opens with the narrator Nick Carraway speaking:  

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. 

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments…”

Was The Great Gatsby ever a thought when you were writing your novel? Do you think either parenting tool is effective in attempting to teach empathy? Were you taught empathy in a similar manner to either Nick or Denny as a child?

That’s a convincing parallel! I never consciously thought about The Great Gatsby while working on this book. I remember re-reading it in grad school, sitting in the grass in a park behind a seminary and being, just, utterly convinced by it. It’s entirely possible that some part of my experience with the book made its way into this work; the work of the novel took so long that it’s not possible to remember everything that might’ve influenced it. That makes me feel a little out of control, just slightly uncomfortable. As if I can’t remember my own life. Which, you know, I can’t—not with any completion or accuracy. But neither can most people. 

I was taught empathy in the usual way, especially as a little kid: If I hurt someone—at three I had a hitting phase, for instance—it wasn’t only that it was wrong, but that pain was unpleasant for everyone, not just me. For me empathy is the understanding that you are not the only person in the world, despite only having access to that one perspective and experience. I was a sensitive child, so once I learned this lesson, I really took it and ran. 

You and I share a love of old films: movies from the 30s and 40s, especially/most notably. What are your top five movies from that time period and did any of them inspire parts of Hard Mouth? I’m thinking most obviously of Topper, for one… and I’m pretty certain My Man Godfrey, for two…

Other film influences I thought of, off the top of my head, given that Denny imagines or “materializes” this long dead character actor ‘Gene’ to sort of be her “life coach”: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Harvey, Play It Again, Sam…In fact, thinking of Play It Again, Sam, which is about a man imagining Humphrey Bogart giving him advice on romance, made me wonder why you chose Gene as opposed to, say, a Constance Bennett type, or a Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy type, to offer Denny wisecracks and life advice. 

I don’t know that I have a top five. I’m not very good at ranking things. But I regret I’ve never seen Play It Again, Sam. And Purple Rose was never exciting to me. As a kid I really liked Harvey. It always felt goofy and delicate and just a little dangerous. Just before I moved to St. Louis for grad school, a friend took me to stay in his brother’s cabin on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire line. There was running water and electricity, but outside of the cabin it felt very dark, like we were truly in the wilderness. (We weren’t.) We re-watched Harvey and I was so charmed by the accommodation the town provided to Harvey’s (non)existence, to taking seriously that which is not evidently true to them. I am not a religious person, but there is something of this in reading, in the artifice of something like a novel, that I think is a really lovely thing. The act of reading creates two parallel realities that feel equally true, for the duration of the book…Anyway, it’s possible that the ideas “cabin” and “classic film” knit themselves together for me on that night—

I’ve thought often over the past years about Gene’s maleness, though it never occurred to make him female. This is mostly because he’s in part based on the classic character actor Eugene Pallette, so Gene was very specific to me from the start. But couldn’t he have been a woman? Someone recently asked why the novel had so many men in it. Part of the reason is that Denny sees vulnerability to others (which she tries, often to reject) as feminine. But in retrospect a character like Gene, only female, seems pretty fun and fascinating to me, but that just isn’t what I wrote. Maybe next time. 

Denny, like you and like me, is an only child. I’ve noticed many of my closest writer friends—Scott McClanahan, Juliet Escoria, Elle Nash, you—are only children. What do you think it is about the experience of growing up the only child that separates us from others? How important is Denny’s experience as an only child to her journey? And how has being an only child informed you as a writer/artist?

A lot of people say this because it’s true: only kids get bored. Without siblings, they have more time to invest in their own internal narratives and psychodramas and idiosyncrasies. All of this of course trains a person for a life as a writer or other kind of artist. 

If Denny had a sibling, she wouldn’t lose so much in Pop’s impending death—or, she’d be able to share the loss and the grief with someone who had her same growing-up experiences, someone who would experience it all alongside her. (Probably I overestimate what a sibling can offer.) I needed her to be desperate, to feel as if the death was going to be a real personal apocalypse. I needed her to understand that losing one half of her family was going to be a large and probably intolerable thing. Her friend Ken is sometimes a fill-in brother, but she can’t see that because she’s fixated on her solo-ship. Like most only children. 

Part of me wondered—once the character Haw is introduced in the second half of the novel—if he, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, is another manifestation of Denny’s mind, like Gene. Could the novel be read this way? Did you ever consider this take on it yourself? Or is Haw very much a real person?

Haw’s real, in that he shares a collective reality with Denny, and with his mother and stepfather and so on. But Gene is basically real, too. Just not to anyone but Denny. As with Harvey, it’s funny to think about artifice and the imaginary when it comes to fiction: What part of the fiction is fiction? I don’t deny I was thinking about that doubling, writing. Denny is telling a story retrospectively. It’s her story, her [non]fiction, her subjective version of this part of her life. In some sense, we both made it up. 

I was very taken by this line from the Haw section of the book: “I wondered if I was supposed to fall in love with him and learn empathy at last.” 

Empathy is the main focus, I think, of the book, since it opens with the scene of Denny’s father trying to instill empathy in his daughter…Denny seems both hyperaware the concept of empathy throughout the novel, but also as though she is constantly failing to exhibit it or to “correctly” inhabit it. 

I was surprised to see empathy and falling in love mentioned together. Do you think we learn empathy through falling in love? I’ve always thought empathy through, say, childbirth, is not true empathy, as our children are merely extensions of ourselves, and so our interest in them is more self-interest. And I wonder about falling in love being similar. We are interested/have empathy for this other person only because they are (hopefully) in love with us also, so, again, a bit of self-interest. Whereas true empathy, as I see it, would come from feeling concern for someone it does not benefit us to feel concern for. Does that make sense?

(Actually, reading, now, several definitions of empathy, I wonder if it is even/ever possible to truly empathize with anyone else – as the definition is basically putting yourself in another person’s shoes, which we all know, you can’t really do. Maybe what most of us mean when we say empathy is sympathy or compassion. What do you think?)

For me falling in love and being in love with my partner has been an enormous lesson in empathy. Yes, like parenthood, there is the part of the intimacy where it feels like your partner is an extension of yourself. They may have a different job, different preferences, but you’re sharing the same meals, the same domestic space, the same air. There is sublimity to that, something that feels exciting and self-flattering and upsetting and pleasurable—a near-oneness like the couple in Hemingway’s Garden of Eden had for at least a little bit. (That’s a book I think about a lot.) But what’s also exciting and disturbing are the moments in which it becomes clear you’re not the same person, like when one of you gets sick and the other one remains healthy. And the care and kindness you extend as a result, so that your partner doesn’t experience pain or discomfort, reminds you, me, of the many divergences of existence and the many disturbances and upsets others feel and experience. Starting with the person who is closest, the capacity for empathy moves outward. I understand that experience must happen for parents, often, to see the vulnerability of children. But for me it’s come from romantic love. That love gives me instruction regarding the realness of other people, their needs and conditions. 

I think Hard Mouth is as much about language, the language with which you wrote it, as it is about the plot and characters. The language is almost a character itself. Bret Easton Ellis always says, for him, writing is all about style. A writer either has it or she doesn’t, and if she doesn’t, he’s uninterested in the novel. What is your personal relationship to style regarding your own writing and the writing of others? Who are your style idols? When did your writing take on this consciousness with regard to language, and do you read dictionaries and thesauruses for pleasure? Is there a line one can cross where style or language overtakes a novel and is too much a distraction for the reader, do you think? Have you ever had that experience when reading fiction—that the language usurped the story?

Honestly I don’t care if language overtakes story. As a reader, I like that. It feels enveloping, which is part of what I want from art. I understand other people might not like that. But I, too, am often bored with a book if its language isn’t clearly attended to. Bret Easton Ellis and I and thousands of other writers, reading, have that in common, I’m sure. 

An interviewer, Michael Workman at Newcity, talked about my style as a “materialization” of language. That’s exactly what I want. I care too much about words and sound to make them unnoticeable, catchless. English is interesting and strange and idiosyncratic and you can do all sorts of things with it, so why not try? Especially when you are using it to embody a first-person narrator. 

When I was younger (perhaps in middle school, high school, college) I was always hypnotized by the lyric, by liquid language, by adjectives, by rhythm, by a certain stylistic maximalism and breathlessness. By grad school I was interested in what an unexpected verb could do, in how I could make a sentence surprising. A lot of that had to do with Gary Lutz’s lecture, later published in The Believer, “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place.” For the first time I read Christine Schutt and William Gass and Gertrude Stein. (What a noisy revelation Tender Buttons was.) Also lots of contemporary poetry. I was friends with poets for the first time. I took a prosody class with the poet Kerri Webster, in which I was the only fiction grad student. I learned how to speak about language more technically, so I could name my intuitions. I do keep track of words, of the way people say things. Right now sitting at my desk I can see a Post-it that has two words on it: “congruent” and “colloidal.” 

Now I teach a class called “Elements of Style for Creative Writers” in which we look at punctuation and grammar and mechanics with regard to potential in writing. In it I offer the possibility of fixating on language as much as I do, in the ways that I do, and in many other ways. It’s useful for all of the writers to learn about style, but only some of them have a real interest in fixation—I don’t attach a value to that. But for me, teaching this class has only intensified and clarified my relationship to language, made me more of a maniac in this regard. (“Regard” is a word I have knowingly borrowed from your writing, and gratefully. I think of you when I use it.) 

Denny speaks of going away to the cabin as an escape or a “removal.” She also refers to herself as “a monster.” Something “Elizabeth Ellen” in Person/a refers to herself as, also. And maybe Scott McClanahan in The Sarah Book. Why do you think it is so popular right now for characters in novels to refer to themselves this way, as monsters? Do you think they really mean it? Or is it just a showy/entertaining way to be a narcissist? What examples would you—or Denny herself—give for her being a monster? 

Denny is not a monster. But to her, the magnitude of her departure, her “removal,” feels monstrous. But so does her father’s cancer. When she says “monster” it is maybe more about self-alienation, being unable to recognize yourself in an action or decision. 

Is referring to oneself as a monster newly popular? I’m not sure. It feels like it comes from a concept of shame, of self-othering, and that feels like a habit of modern life. It’s the internalizing of perceived societal expectations. It’s finding yourself wanting, deviant. That deviance is, by definition, monstrous. 

Was Into the Wild—the book or the filmever on your radar when writing Hard Mouth? Was it an influence? I saw some parallels between Denny and Christopher McCandless’s journeys.

I saw the movie, about ten years ago. But I didn’t think about it specifically while writing the novel. As far as I can tell or remember, McCandless left his life for philosophical reasons, for adventure reasons. Denny is propelled by fear, an intolerance of her own fear, most chiefly. That feels important to me. 

Into the Wild, and adventure novels—which were more influential to me—move in a similar way: a person (usually a man) is dropped or ventures into a wilderness they are unprepared or underprepared for. Those books are a lot about what is uncontrollable about the wilderness, and what happens to a person as a result. I was interested in using this trope to write a very interior story, one so interior that one of the main characters is imaginary. 

Do you think you could survive out in the wild like Denny? Have you ever had a similar experience or did you do any “field research” so to speak? I can definitely relate to “removing” oneself from modern life, particularly modern electronic life, having driven by myself to Key West sans any sort of phone or laptop, for a few weeks earlier this year. 

You’re more adventurous than I am, in this regard. I adore what my phone can do. I write on it, for one. I use it as a notebook. I do fantasize about disconnection. It helps that my partner is not particularly into his phone or social media. I’m the digital addict in the family. 

I do go on temporary escapes, as you know, to write—usually motels or cabins depending on the resources available and my inclination. I like camping but I don’t have a car or camping equipment so I don’t do it often. I do like to be in the woods, and I often put my body in the woods for this book, though never overnight. I think I could survive in the wild like Denny, but the way Denny survives is often through chance and risk aversion, and that’s probably not the most reasonable or exciting or ultimately safe way to go about things. 

Some early reviews commented on Denny’s lack of emotion, lack of empathy, and alleged sociopathic behavior…I saw Hard Mouth/Denny more in keeping with Camus’s/The Stranger’s Meursault, whom I doubt anyone would compare to a sociopath. It made me wonder if this was a sexist comment on the reviewers’ behalves, as though a woman must be practically hysterical with emotion to be considered “normal,” whereas a man can be quite reserved, emotionally speaking, to the point of seeming almost emotionless, and have no such mental health assessments made regarding him. (I’m thinking, too, of the criticism of Didion’s Play It As It Lays, another favorite novel of mine.) I think when speaking of Camus’s Meursault back in the 40s, he was described as objective, rather than sociopathic. How do you view Denny?

Denny isn’t objective, but neither is Meursault. Both are damaged by grief and by the expectations of human emotion and the customary expression of same. The Stranger is an important book to both of us. I thought about it a lot (though mostly in terms of structure) as I began the novel. 

Denny has regret, shame, and only some charm, which probably disqualifies her from being a diagnosable sociopath. Sociopathy, or antisocial personality disorder, is a very specific diagnosis; it doesn’t just mean “doesn’t express/experience feelings the way others do.” I think terming her “sociopathic” may have more to do with the tendency of our current culture to diagnose. It happens in classrooms, in reviews. But lately—and this is something that came from discussions in therapy and more recently reading Juliet Escoria’s novel Juliet the Maniac—I’ve been thinking about the gradations of human behavior, how it’s only extremity that makes a behavior pathology. An obvious but important thing that I think troubles the line between the “normal” and the “diseased.” Because of course that line is fictional. 

For me, and in part because of the double standard you note, it’s important that Denny is a woman, behaving the way she does. The social norms for behavior, especially around emotional labor and family, feel more oppressively prescriptive for women than for anyone else. Or traditionally that’s been true. Women with any volume to their emotions are hysterical, and those who keep quiet are cold. There is no way to win. Whatever winning means. But there is a traditional expectation that men be invulnerable, and that can be oppressive, too. Denny’s relationship to her own gender is conflicted because she sees the binary as strict, and the expectations for women are alienating to her own understanding of herself and how she operates. 

What is the significance of the title Hard Mouth? I know when I read the novel in an earlier version it had a different title. How did you decide on this one?

It’s been called a lot of things, in the past 8 years. The first title was How to Live in a World Slowly Dying, which I loved at the time but which makes me shudder now. It was also, at one point, called Blow Up, because Eugene Pallette was paranoid the Russians would bomb L.A., referring to it as “the big blow-up.” But that was difficult because of the film and because of the Cortazar book. 

When I submitted it to my agent, it was Get Away, and she suggested I might want to keep thinking. Fair. I made a big list. I brainstormed with friends. Some outtakes: Next Trick; Water, Air, & Land; Hightail; the regrettable/funny My Two Deaths.  

I ended up with “hard mouth,” a term for a hunting dog with a relentless bite, a dog who won’t let go. 

Lastly, why do you think Denny doesn’t think to bring alcohol with her to the cabin? Only painkillers. Whiskey, in centuries past, was often used medicinally, as well as for pleasure. It seems like something one might want when out in a cabin in the middle of the wilderness. And Denny does tipple earlier in the novel, so it’s not as though she is opposed… 

I don’t think it occurs to her!