Summer arrived suddenly the day I met Amanda Goldblatt on Northerly Island in Chicago to discuss her bold and impressive first novel, Hard Mouth. I arrived to find Amanda standing on a concrete embankment in Lake Michigan, with waves rolling over her feet. We chose this spot because of its intentional remoteness—it’s a caesura to downtown Chicago’s bustle. The peninsula that once housed the private airstrip, Meigs Field, has been re-envisioned, with fields of wild grasses and hills sculpted to hide the city’s skyline behind us.
We are unprepared for the sun and oppressive heat in a way that befits a discussion of a novel whose narrator, Denny, drops the trappings of her isolated suburban life to live in the wilderness, wildly unprepared and accompanied by what I imagine must have been a suitcase of snack bars, a handgun, and not much else.
We found refuge under a tree, outside a yacht club, with Canada geese and their goslings feeding noisily nearby, coming up to inspect us every so often. As you read, imagine a conversation interspersed by bird calls and caterpillars.
The Millions: Hard Mouth is not a nice book, but it’s a humane book.
Amanda Goldblatt: I think I agree with that.
TM: And its main character, Denny, is not nice but ultimately she’s humane. I’m wondering what you were drawn to in writing about her not-niceness and alienation. I mean, it’s a cancer story but it’s not a cancer story, it’s a story about family, and yet it’s completely unsentimental. I really love that about the book.
AG: I was interested in thinking about a character who cared but wasn’t nice. In some ways it’s a book about empathy as a fact of existence as opposed to a positive character trait. I was interested in how empathy and closeness could be written about without kindness. Although Denny does have a certain amount of kindness, like she does with The Thing, the cat. I think there’s a begrudging kindness for her there, but it’s easier because the cat is not a person.
TM: It seems like Denny’s kindness comes out of her accidentally having injured the cat. But that is a sense of responsibility for the cat.
AG: Whereas she is taking no responsibility for her father, anymore. She’s meaningfully shirking it. I think you could make an argument that she’s projecting the care that she might’ve given to her father to the cat. But actually, I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing. It’s more about being humane. It’s more about, you break it, you buy it. It’s a logical thing. It’s not about guilt and it’s not about kindness.
TM: Denny is a good citizen, and she’s not a bad daughter. She’s not a good daughter either, but she has cared for her father in the past, and now he’s giving up. I saw her escape as an inability to process that.
AG: On the surface that’s absolutely what it is.
TM: She speaks at the beginning of “the compounding of bad behavior.” In some way I could read the whole book as kind of compounding of Denny’s bad behavior, and yet, she’s not so bad.
AG: You mean in the sense that she’s leaving?
TM: She’s labeled herself as “bad.” She generally isn’t harming people. She’s just neglecting to demonstrate care. It seems she doesn’t know how to and isn’t equipped to care.
AG: She’s not equipped to grieve. That’s a key thing. If anything, the bad behavior that she is compounding is her inability to behave appropriately in response to the oncoming death of a loved one. Even by telling the story, and telling the story within the story when she talks about ruining an heirloom as a kid—she’s not unproud. She’s not unproud of doing that, and she’s not unproud of leaving town, going to the mountain, and not wanting to stay and watch her father die. If anything could be compounding of her bad acting, that is. In some ways she is luxuriating in these stories as part of her identity and enjoying the exhibition of that.
TM: Does Denny need to transgress in order to feel?
AG: It seems like it, right? There’s a scene later in the book, where for no reason she pours a full bag of candy on the floor. I think that’s an example of her inability to not only process but behave in the way that she might be expected to behave, socioculturally. She just has to disrupt it. The book is a series of transgressions for her whether or not they’re larger societal transgressions.
She’s an extraordinarily passive person. Most of the scenes of the book are her transgressing that passivity. I’m really interested in the idea of passivity. I think we all live lives with a lot of passivity. Many of us, most of us do. Just by the trick of what contemporary life entails. You spend time in transit, you spend time waiting, you spend time waiting for information. And so I think we all have a degree of passivity or, not to globalize it, I feel that I have a certain amount of passivity that gets knit into my life no matter how much I am doing in a given day. And part of that is being beholden to larger institutional systems. And part of that is for me just needing small breaks from processing the world.
Denny has taken an almost lifelong break from processing the world. She’s made her life small enough that she doesn’t have to figure these things out. And so transgression is almost equal to action, is equal to emotion for her.
TM: I was wondering how much the suburban setting contributes to her sense of aimlessness or formlessness. There’s an isolation inherent to her character, in her nuclear family unit. But there’s also something so suburban about her alienation. I identified with the depiction of her coming of age in the suburbs and her sense of wanting to take agency but not knowing necessarily how to. Denny’s decision to go out to the mountain—is that an attempt to give herself agency, or is it an attempt to kill herself?
AG: I think it’s both. She’s not sophisticated enough, or self aware enough, to know which is true. She thinks about the move to the mountain as, if not an annihilation of the self, then an annihilation of the self that she knows. It’s hard for her to conceive of herself outside of the structure of the family and outside of the structure of her passive life.
In writing the book, I thought a lot about how the suburbs are constantly built. I’m talking about a really specific inner-ring suburb outside of D.C. that is racially diverse, that is middle class to working class. That’s where Denny exists and that’s the kind of place where I grew up. But obviously the suburbs have a very large spectrum of possibility.
TM: It’s specifically suburban Maryland, between Prince George’s County, where I grew up, and Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
AG: But like, not Bethesda.
TM: And not Potomac.
AG: And not Potomac. It is a hyper-specific place, but also it happens to, for whatever reason, in some ways mimic a lot of representations of white suburban life that we’ve had in the media and in culture. Although, have you ever watched the film SubUrbia?
TM: I haven’t, no.
AG: It’s with Steve Zahn and a lot of other people. It’s directed by Richard Linklater. The thing I remember most about it is that it had a really good soundtrack. It had Sonic Youth on it, which was maybe not the first time I heard Sonic Youth in high school, but like one of the first times I remember really getting into them. It’s about a bunch of suburban kids waiting for an old friend, who’s a rock star now, to come back to town. There’s something very classic about it in that way—it has a Godot quality to it. That I can recall. There’s a lot of driving and strip malls, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take place on the East Coast at all, maybe Texas, yet the quality of it felt familiar to me.
The constantly self-revising suburbs manage to always feel stagnant because the components are changing shape, but they’re not changing themselves. You still have the strip malls and the churches and the temples and the schools and of course the single family houses and the townhomes and usually low-rise apartment buildings. And maybe there’s a mall nearby and then maybe there’s a fancier mall if you go further.
I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole here.
TM: The suburbs are important to the book.
AG: Yeah, they are. Denny in some way has always used the suburbs and how she feels about them to be one of her self-defining characteristics. And the fact that she tolerates her environment as a fact of her life says a lot about the way that she tolerates herself as a fact of her life. And so, when she’s ready to go to the mountain, even if she is not interested in a direct kind of suicide, she is interested in partial self-annihilation.
TM: One thing that struck me is how compartmentalized she is. Which isn’t just a way of life limited to the suburbs. In some ways it’s inherent to our everyday lives, our ability to remain isolated while in touch, using technology.
AG: Can you talk a little bit more about the compartmentalization?
TM: I was very surprised when Denny got rid of all of her belongings. She got fired from her job and gave up the lease on her apartment. It’s empty for a few weeks at least. And nobody knows. Nobody is coming over. She goes to her parents’ house, she goes over to her friend Ken’s place, but there’s no intersection. I mean, other than what she allows others to know, and she allows them very little.
AG: On the mountain she’s in search of complete solitude and she was in search of that in the suburbs. But when emotion encroached on that she had to remove herself from the situation.
TM: The irony is that she runs away to not complete solitude.
AG: In an early review, someone mentioned that things sure happen to her a lot. It was being said critically, which is fine, I’m open to criticism, but also that’s kind of the point. Things can only happen to her because her transgressions are discrete and designed to make her further hermetic. And so in order for anything to happen, things have to happen to her. Otherwise it’s just a story about someone with complete control over their life, which seems entirely incredible to me.
TM: When she wants to put herself in the position of making something happen, she does this.
AG: That’s true.
TM: She’s active in a passive way. Like when she decides she wants to live life and she puts herself in the position to meet Hill.
AG: She’s a very good backseat driver.
She frees the flies, she gets fired, she sells all of her shit. She buys the things that she’ll need for the cabin and so on. She goes to the mountain. That’s pretty much all the gas in her tank. That’s her agency. The action is her agency.
TM: I do wonder where she’s telling the story from. She does bring some sense of wisdom, or or at least a sense of distance—”this is who I was then.”
AG: At some point there was a specific vantage—she was telling the story to a particular particular person. But ultimately—this was in early edits with my agent—it became clear that that apparatus wasn’t necessary, that it could be disassembled. I actually like that a lot better. Any future Denny would have perspective.
And the ending is so specific. It’s so specific and much more final than I ever thought I’d write in a novel or a story. I prefer stories with abrupt endings and no resolution. I think that having the mystery of where she is telling this story from allows for some give from the relentless resolution of the actual ending of the book. Which alleviates me a bit, as a writer.
TM: It’s a very precise end, but there’s ambiguity that allows you to read into what has happened since.
AG: Often, I talk to my students about killing off characters. My students are always killing off their characters. I have a lot of ideas why. Main characters, sometimes narrators—they just die and that’s the end of the story. I don’t always disagree with the impulse but I tell them, in an overly fatigued and jaded voice, Sometimes if you want the story to be sad, the sadder thing is that the character has to keep living.
With Denny, there’s an element of that. She has this narrative of her life, but she remains unreckoned with as a person. And she’s perhaps trying to tell this story to understand who she wants to be or who she thinks she is. But there’s not any resolution of that. And so she has to continue, like all of us, to grasp in search of some kind of self fundament.
TM: There is a lack of catharsis.
AG: How often do we get catharsis in everyday life?
TM: Even when you think you get it, you realize later…
AG: It doesn’t last. You can have something that you experience as catharsis and then it can reverse itself a week later, and then you’re not where you were but somewhere even further away because you no longer have the hope of catharsis.
I’m much more interested in stories that don’t offer catharsis, as pleasurable as reading catharsis can be because it gives us some kind of hope. I’m interested in stories that are merely accounts of people and their understanding of their lives and their understanding of themselves in relation to narrative. So even though a retrospective narrator classically offers catharsis: “And that’s when I learned…” Denny can’t offer that. It doesn’t happen.
I was flabbergasted that this book had as long a duration as it does. I mean, it’s short relative to what happens in it but I fantasize about writing a novel that happens in a day or a week or even a month and the kind of temporal urgency you get just from that.
I’m interested in talking about the language.
TM: It’s something I thought about frequently while reading Hard Mouth.
AG: I’m really interested in using language to make concrete or materialize a narrator. I spent a lot of time on Denny’s diction and her word bank, how she used sounds, and what words would she not use? I had to delete a lot of grad-school words that were my words but not her words. I really spent time with the fine grain, like word choice, diction, and references. That’s what I’ve been most obsessed with as a writer—the idea of creating the performance of the narrator and understanding that language materializes the narrator.
I’m interested in first person and I’m most often only interested in first person. Because I think of stories just like essays as a discourse of a single mind, it becomes necessary to configure the narrator, a character, as someone who is offering the story that is happening or has happened to them. And so having Denny’s retrospective narration became really important. I was thinking about where she might be and what kind of perspective she might have at the point of telling the story, and what perspective she would still not have. That all started with language and order of information and sentences and thinking about the tone, and tone as created by things like the length of sentences.
TM: I love that you build a character from language up.
AG: Always. It starts with this, a sentence. Or multiple sentences. I mean, with Hard Mouth, I started writing because I was scared that my father was going to die. He was diagnosed with cancer. And my running away to the mountain was starting a novel for the first time. It became important for me, in order for the trick to work, to understand a vocalized character separate from me and to really set about understanding her presence.
TM: There are so many sentences that I am in awe of In this book. I came away with a sense that you are a stylist at the sentence level and care deeply about words. And so all of that makes sense.
AG: I’m interested in potent, not nice characters, characters that are specific or angular, in some way, emotionally—because I can imagine more extreme language in accordance with a character like that. There is a certain relief in writing the voice of a character who is not so nice. I have, I feel, a whole capability of communication that I don’t generally use because of the kind of person I am socially. It’s fun to use that language in a character.
TM: I was also thinking about Hard Mouth in relation to wilderness narratives. It’s even said by Monica, when she talks of traveling to Cyprus, and Denny is like, I would never, that isn’t my style. And Monica urges her to travel because she has time because it’s what people do these days. And ever since Cheryl Strayed’s Wild…
AG: And Eat, Pray, Love.
TM: Yes, and Eat, Pray, Love —
AG: Monica is more Eat, Pray, Love. And Denny, if she has to be part of the binary, is definitely more Wild, even though it’s a very different narrative.
TM: Does Denny offer a counter narrative to Wild? I have not read Wild. And I don’t know if you have either…
AG: I haven’t.
TM: I do know that the narrator follows a similar trajectory, like, I’m going out into the woods, I’m totally ill equipped, but I can’t deal with the loss in my life. But with Wild, at least, she found herself, she wrote the book, and connected with an entire community of people. Denny does not have that experience. I was wondering if you consider Denny’s escape as a counternarrative to the that of a young woman going out into the wild and finding herself. Or a resistance to that.
AG: Ultimately, yes. In the seven or eight years I was writing this book, there were a lot of books coming out, and not just Wild, that had a woman’s escape transfigured in completely different ways. I’m thinking about Catherine Lacey’s novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. And Laura Van den Berg’s novel Find Me. You have all of these female characters putting themselves in new contexts.
I’m interested in art that reflects flaws as opposed to resolving flaws, or seeking to resolve flaws. Whatever deepens flaws is generally more what I’m into. I was much more informed by survival novels like Hatchet, by Gary Paulson. It’s a young adult novel about a young man whose plane goes down and he has a hatchet and basically just has to survive.
Or, a movie I had watched, called Mara of the Wilderness, which is about a young girl whose parents are killed during a wilderness excursion, and, left there, she becomes this feral human.
TM: If Denny were part of the Donner party, she would have been totally fine. It would have met her expectations of life, of excitement.
AG: And of desperation. That’s the thing. She’s not someone who has had desperation. And yet there is a certain amount of desperation that helps to drive her to the mountain.
I was talking with some writers recently about why mean or antisocial or misanthropic female narrators or main characters have been so popular lately. Of course, no one would ever say that about a male narrator, main character. There’s been a lot of discourse about that. But we were talking about why it felt so empowering to write characters like that. I think it’s a real shucking of social expectation, female social expectation. Having a character who is humane but not nice, and having a story that is humane but not nice, is a way of claiming a less gendered-weighted representation of humanity in art, with a narrator who happens to be female.
TM: She doesn’t conform. She doesn’t make herself digestible.
AG: No. Pathologically so.
TM: I’m curious about the end where Denny puts out the flame of the candle with her palm.
AG: It’s a lot.
TM: The action sums up her character, of being able to take action, but only when she’s able to extinguish something. She comes down from the mountain and there is no epiphany. Her realization is that life just keeps going on whether or not she cares. It’s just going to keep moving forward. But something has changed in her—she recognizes new capacities within herself.
AG: Perhaps it’s not a story of a self evolution, but perhaps it is one of self recognition. She’s not necessarily changing. She’s just expanding. It’s variations on a theme.
TM: Which does seem empowering in this context.
AG: Absolutely. It’s funny because the idea of extinguishing a candle that’s been lit in your parent’s memory—if her mother had really truly cared about it, that could be a very hurtful gesture. But in this household it’s just a matter of fact. The candle would go out anyway. And in many ways I think that this is an existential novel that’s predicated on the idea that everyone dies and there’s no afterlife. Therefore, there will always only be death at the end.
Art credit: Amanda Goldblatt.