As a lower-level employee in the publishing industry, I regularly took home four to five manuscripts a week—which meant that I inevitably skimmed the ones that didn’t immediately draw me in or strike some promising commercial chord. I had never heard of Amy Fusselman, though her first two books, memoirs/philosophical musings called The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, had become cult favorites, garnered blurbs by Zadie Smith and Rosie O’Donnell, and were re-released in a two-for-one edition by McSweeney’s in 2013. But I had only gotten as far as the title for her latest book, Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die, when I knew I wanted to be the one to take it home. I read the 144-page manuscript in a few hours, came to work the next morning raving about it to my coworkers, immediately bought Fusselman’s first two books, and read all of her work I could find online.
Savage Park, which will be released in paperback in January 2016, is part memoir, part manifesto, part philosophical treatise, part poem, and part immersion journalism, with photos. This kind of literary cross-pollination, which makes our contemporary concept of categories look narrow and antiquated, is typical of Fusselman’s work. The risks of writing a book like Savage Park, a book whose formal decisions mean it won’t fit comfortably in any one bookstore section or a publisher’s list, are considerable, and they, conveniently, echo one of the book’s main concerns: how do we learn to take risks in space?
Fusselman tackles the question from a number of angles: she takes a tightrope-walking class with Philippe Petit, shadows a supervisor at a Tokyo playground where kids literally play with fire, nails, hammers, tires, and paint, watches her friend turn a department store into her own daycare center/art-making space, and attempts to renegotiate with space in her daily life in New York.
The Rumpus: Let’s set the scene: where and on what are you typing? What objects surround you? What do you hear and smell?
Amy Fusselman: I am in London, where I just arrived with my family for a vacation. I rented a house for us via the Internet and it is strange to be sitting in the room I scrutinized on the screen for so long. I am reading the house notes. I love house notes. In this house we are not supposed to use the coffee grinder, which has been left, plugged in, with an enticing, glossy handful of beans in it, right next to the kitchen sink. I think this may be a theme among homeowners who rent their places out: they like to leave little traps for you. I once rented a home at the beach that had a basement stocked like a 7-11—bottled water, beer, soft drinks, snacks, candy—and it was all ours for the taking, at a nicely inflated price. It was a basement-sized minibar, which was really a brilliant maneuver. In answer to your question, I am taking big sips of coffee (not made with the grinder) and listening to Gumball [an animated television series], which my kids are watching as we deal with jet lag.
Rumpus: Thanks, Amy. Now walk us through your day: where did go, how did you get there, and what were those movements like? Did you play today?
Fusselman: Last night we flew here from NYC. We arrived in the morning, found a place to eat breakfast, came over here, and crashed. I would call today more playwork than play. But it was fun.
Fusselman: A playworker is the person in an adventure playground who is there to facilitate children’s play but not to direct it. So “playworking” is doing the activities that help make play possible.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about everything you’ve read today, from the banal to the Proustian?
Fusselman: I am reading a handful of books in order to be a nonfiction judge for Bookslut’s Daphne Awards, which revisit the literary awards of 50 years ago with the idea that it often takes time for a transformative work to be recognized. I am working my way through V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness for that. I am also looking at edits for Jon-Michael Frank’s book of comics, How’s Everything Going? Not Good, which I am co-publishing later this year through my journal, Ohio Edit, with Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press. Other than that, I am looking at maps of London. I have some sort of map-reading issue so all maps look like piles of sticks to me. But I try.
Rumpus: Okay, are we warmed up? I think we’re warmed up. Give us the elevator pitch for your memoir/manifesto Savage Park.
Fusselman: Hi, my name’s Amy and I wrote a book you might like about a playground in Tokyo where children play with fire.
Rumpus: How do you perceive your work (especially Savage Park) in relation to traditional ideas of genre? How many times have you been asked that question?
Fusselman: My writing straddles genres. I don’t think about that part of it much. It’s fine that people ask about it.
Rumpus: Can you speak a bit about your ideas of writing nonfiction—and specifically memoir—as opposed to fiction or poetry?
Fusselman: I studied poetry in graduate school and I still tend to think of myself as a poet. I know my books are often shelved in memoir but my hope is that they are operating there in a different way. The writing isn’t about my heroic experience or that I have some expertise to share. It’s a voice—a particular voice in a particular composition. I haven’t yet written fiction but I am starting to see the appeal.
Rumpus: At AWP 2015, Graywolf brought together nonfiction writers Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, and Leslie Jamison, all of whom have written in other genres, to discuss the new nonfiction. This latest incarnation of the genre tend to take the form of slim volumes written in short sections with a first person narrator who moves fluidly between the personal and the general/historical/philosophical, all in precise and lyrical prose. You have been writing in this manner at least since the publication of The Pharmacist’s Mate in 2001. When did you become aware that you were part of this trend? What cultural energy do you think might have given rise to this form at this particular time?
Fusselman: I don’t think I’m the best person to make a pronouncement about why this is happening but I can say for myself that the idea of writing a traditional nonfiction book is not something I have so far wanted to do. I want to make work that asks questions rather than gives answers. I like art that discombobulates you and makes you scream. If it also manages to be funny, then that is the pinnacle for me.
Rumpus: “Art that discombobulates you and makes you scream”—what a great characterization! It reminds me of Dickinson’s famous description of poetry (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”). What work—in any medium—reaches your pinnacle?
Fusselman: Off the top of my head over the last few years I would say: Lil Buck and Yo-Yo Ma at Le Poisson Rouge; The Book of Mormon with Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells in the leads; the McCollough Sons of Thunder at the United House of Prayer in Harlem; Maurizio Cattelan’s “All” at the Guggenheim; Nancy Rubins’s “Our Friend Fluid Metal” at Gagosian; Christian Marclay’s The Clock at MoMA; Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut at BAM; the Comme des Garcons sample sale at the Moravian Church on West 41st; Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Poetics: A Ballet Brut. Plus, Jerry Saltz, the art critic at New York magazine, is a total hero of mine. The stuff he posted on Instagram during Art Basel was insane in the best possible way. The art world is so lucky to have him.
Rumpus: Wow, that list presents an incredible range of artistic mediums—and not a single book on it! Would you say you gravitate more toward visual or performance art for inspiration?
Fusselman: There are a lot of books that I love and that are important to me but lately the stuff that undoes me most is live or visual, yes.
Rumpus: In all three of your books, you, like Nelson, Biss, and Sarah Manguso, write about, or perhaps more accurately, around motherhood. Reading these books has shown me that motherhood can force one to radically reimagine one’s ideas of time and space—which causes me to think it might also influence the way one writes. For you, was trying to conceive and then becoming a mother somehow intrinsically connected to the creation of this new type of nonfiction?
Fusselman: It’s possible. As a parent, especially a new parent, one’s relationship to time and space changes dramatically— maybe that alone pushes those concepts to the fore as subjects for writing. I’d say that with 8 and Savage Park, I have been further exploring the form I found with The Pharmacist’s Mate. The issues that Savage Park addresses are in some ways the same as those of The Pharmacist’s Mate, only seen from an opposing angle. In The Pharmacist’s Mate I am writing as a woman losing a parent as she is trying to become a parent. In Savage Park I am writing as a parent of two, and then three, kids. Both books deal with death/time/space.
Rumpus: I can’t think of any men writing this way. Can you?
Fusselman: Not offhand.
Rumpus: How did you initially envision the relationship between the photographs and the text in Savage Park? At what stage did you add them in?
Fusselman: I always envisioned Savage Park as having photos. I took pics when I was at the playground and also worked with a photographer. For a while I was composing a children’s book from the photos. The idea was that it was going to be a companion book to Savage Park. The book would come out in one form for adults and one for kids. You could have a book club with your kid about it! I still love that idea. If someone wants to do that, call me.
Rumpus: In all of your books, you strive to reveal space as a “beautiful and powerful medium,” which “can, and should, be felt,” while simultaneously trying to come to terms with specific and general anxieties surrounding trauma, death, and quotidian danger. The combination of these two elements makes me feel as if you are trying to create your own personal religion with space as its “god.” Am I totally off?
Fusselman: That’s an interesting characterization. My writing definitely has some spiritual concerns and I am drawn to work that has that kind of enlargement in it. As for space being my religion’s god, I would say that it is a god among others. I recently finished a new manuscript and it is blasphemous. So maybe that’s where I am going with my religion.
Rumpus: Ha! Can you tell us more about the new manuscript? What makes it “blasphemous”?
Fusselman: Well, it’s ornery, it’s in a weirdo form, and I think it’s funny. We’ll see what happens.
Rumpus: How does your apparent reverence for space influence your writing?
Fusselman: I am not sure I know how it influences my writing beyond the fact that I have taken it as a subject. I can say that my writing process, at least, is not very space-conscious. I am not someone with a sacred writing chamber that I return to every day. I will take notes anywhere.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear you don’t have a strict writing routine, because I have a theory a lot of the new nonfiction we’re seeing about motherhood takes its fragmentary form simply as a result of how it’s written: in stolen time, on small pieces of paper, in doctors’ offices, public transport, or playgrounds, throughout the day. But you were writing in that way before you had kids.
Can you speak about how you came upon space as a subject—that is, was there ever a conscious choosing, or it did it just kind of dawn on you like “oh, I’m writing about space”?
Fusselman: I’d say my interest in space is at least partly related to my being a figure skater as a kid. For many years an empty ice rink was a thrilling thing for me. Figure skating is also an unusual sport in its relationship to music. So for a lot of my growing up that combo—music and space—was a field that I aimed to place myself in relation to.
Rumpus: Your children feature as characters in Savage Park and 8, and your quest to conceive is central to Pharmacist’s Mate. How would you describe the role your kids play in your creative process? Do you ever worry about using them as “material”?
Fusselman: It felt right to have them in Savage Park as much as they were, given that it’s a book about play and playgrounds, but I can’t envision doing a piece quite like that again.
Creatively, they do play an important role for me. They are interesting artists, as most kids are, and I enjoy observing what they do and talking about ideas with them.
Rumpus: Toward the end of Savage Park, you describe your sons’ favorite game at the time: cage matches between spinning tops made out of old Lego parts. How old are they now and what’s their current obsession? In what way has their play has evolved?
Fusselman: My oldest is a teenager now so those Lego days are mostly behind us. My kids are into the usual stuff—magic cards, sports, jokes, nonsense. And of course, the computer is always sitting there beckoning with its alternate universe—for them as well as me. That’s partly how we got here today.
Rumpus: Have you and your family been able to return to Hanegi Park since the visits described in the book?
Fusselman: Not yet, but we are looking forward to it.