The Rumpus Book Club chats with Amy Fusselman about her new book, Idiophone (Coffee House Press, July 2018), exploring consciousness in writing, and, of course, The Nutcracker.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Amy Fusselman about her newest book, Idiophone!
Amy Fusselman: Hi, I’m here!
Marisa: Thank you so much for joining us!
Amy Fusselman: Thanks Marisa! Really happy to be here!
Eva Woods: I have so many questions about this one! It was really interesting and more challenging than anything I’ve read in a while.
Amy Fusselman: Thanks, I appreciate that!
Marisa: I’m really curious about how the book is shaped around The Nutcracker. Many threads run through the book, but The Nutcracker seemed to me to be the maypole around which those threads danced.
Amy Fusselman: I love that image, yes.
Eva Woods: You covered a lot of ground and subjects in a really slim space. Can you tell me about how you balanced The Nutcracker, the drinking stuff, and the mom stuff all together?
Amy Fusselman: Hmm… well, I guess the balancing happens just in the act of writing. I am glad you found it balanced. When I was writing the piece I had a slightly different approach than I have with things I’ve done in the past and I think it showed. I was very focused on the flow of it.
Marisa: How did the writing process for this project differ from past projects? Your work is very distinct, but each book also feels distinct from another.
Amy Fusselman: Thank you. I do try to tackle something new with every project. With this one I always sat down to the entire piece from the beginning. I never let myself play on/with or edit parts of it. I think that helped build the gestalt of it.
Marisa: WOW. Really, no editing from start to finish? I can’t even imagine. I can’t type a sentence without editing it seventeen times. Even a tweet, I edit.
Amy Fusselman: Haha! Oh no—what I mean is that I had to start from the beginning every time i sat down. I couldn’t spend a day on page 82. I had to start at the beginning. I think that focus helped me take some of the pressure off the words, if that makes sense.
I was thinking today about how I like writers who make consciousness an element of their work. And I think that was part of how I tried to get at the notion of consciousness in this piece, by focusing on that flow.
Eva Woods: That is such an interesting concept! Who are some of those artists for you?
Marisa: Can you share some writers whose work guided you in that?
Marisa: Eva, jinx!
Amy Fusselman: Haha! Well, today I was thinking about Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I love how he used the main character’s work as a translator to underscore the place in the brain that is going between the two languages—and that is wordless. There is also a lot of drug taking on the part of that character, and the sum to me was just a really delightful underscoring of the conscious mind rather than the attentive mind.
Amy Fusselman: I enjoyed that novel tremendously for its use of that. It was also very funny.
Marisa: Yes, that book is a great example of exploring the conscious mind (and had a big impact on me as a reader who is a writer, too). I’m a big fan of Lerner’s writing.
Amy Fusselman: Yes! Agreed.
Marisa: How did you come to be thinking about idiophones?
Amy Fusselman: Eva is right in that The Nutcracker was really the starting point. The Nutcracker as an absurd, repeating, ritual. And one I participate in every year, not reluctantly.
The tree in the Lincoln Center production is a shadow or twin to this sculpture—this idiophone—I had long admired at The Met.
Eva Woods: I *loved* thinking about The Nutcracker as art rather than as a tradition I just get roped into.
Marisa: The Nutcracker was a part of my winter holiday season ritual for many years, too, so I connected with that very much.
Eva Woods: It was such a new idea but at the same time it felt nuts that it hadn’t been done before.
Amy Fusselman: Nuts! I should have worked that in there somewhere! You are good, Eva!
Eva Woods: I did NOT intend that pun!
Marisa: Can you tell us a little about the interview that’s woven through the book?
Amy Fusselman: The Interview with Annie-B Parson happened separately but I think she is such a ferocious artist—and her comments about the role of dance in relation to the primacy of the word literally gave me chills. When it became clear to me that I was going to write about dance I thought her words were very appropriate to the piece and I used them.
Eva Woods: Amy, can you talk about the more fantastic elements in the book? The mice and the VW bug?
Amy Fusselman: Yes, that segment came out of a desire to just go somewhere else—to sort of imitate The Nutcracker itself and its wild journey in my own writing. I do love that part of the piece though I realize it’s not conventional fiction.
Amy Fusselman: The mice, and my mother, also became a way to playing with size, as The Nutcracker does as well.
Marisa: What about the inclusion of your mother? You’ve often written about or around the subject of motherhood. I’m interested in the shape that took here.
Amy Fusselman: Well, I wanted to write about our relationship, which has been fraught. But my mother is also ferocious. There are a lot of mothers in Idiophone. I view The Nutcracker itself as a type of mother. Because we use it and shape it to our own ends. And we deride it as being fluffy and not substantial and we return to it every year.
Eva Woods: The Giving Tree of acid trip music plays.
Amy Fusselman: OMG, can you write my flap copy for my next book?
Eva Woods: LOL sure!
Eva Woods: I didn’t know that Tchaikovsky was maybe gay until this book! Can you talk a little about including that in the book? Did the lack of confirmation about it influence how you treated it?
Amy Fusselman: Yes, of course, in that I am not a scholar—this isn’t about presenting any new research to the public. I had read that this was a widely disputed fact about his life, though, and given how the book was shaping up around themes of blindness, overcoming blindness, and seeing and being seen—I thought it was tremendously relevant. His two pieces—The Nutcracker and Iolanta—really are both about seeing and being seen. And that was an issue that felt very close to me regarding my mother.
Marisa: I had no idea about The Nutcracker’s “twin” ballet, Iolanta. That was also fascinating to read about.
Eva Woods: I loved the line about imagining being a rabbit in a hat, re: the gay-ness. Because coming out sort of does feel like that. It’s something *you* feel like is really cool but also other people knowing is really scary.
Amy Fusselman: I felt a lot of tenderness for him if that were in fact the case—because Tchaikovsky’s music is just overwhelmingly filled with longing. It’s just achingly beautiful.
Amy Fusselman: I can imagine that. The fear and the longing.
Marisa: How much do you think about audience/readers when you are writing?
Eva Woods: I second Marisa’s question and would add: were you nervous about giving readers such an unusual form? I love the prose/poetry blending, but I imagine I’d be really nervous publishing something so outside the usual.
Amy Fusselman: I always think about the reader. I tend to like things that are like, jaw-dropping, like how did that get here. That is what turns me on. I love it when I think an artist has really had to go out of the zone to come back with something. I recognize that maybe not everyone likes that. It doesn’t make me nervous to offer an unusual form—it’s more like, is anyone going to publish this? I am grateful I found an excellent home for the book.
Marisa: Coffee House Press is wonderful. What was the editing process like here, once the book was completed?
Amy Fusselman: Really easy. Really thoughtful. They are just wonderful to work with.
Eva Woods: The theme of art and artists being suppressed and oppressed runs through the book. I know this question is kind of omnipresent right now, so I apologize, but did the current state of politics affect you in regards to this?
Amy Fusselman: Of course. It wasn’t as bad as it is now when I was writing. It’s just gotten worse. I hope the book resonates with and can encourage people who are fighting and working to get work done now.
Eva Woods: I was recently reminded by a concert how much art matters to me as an activist. It keeps me going for sure.
Amy Fusselman: I hear you. It’s everything.
Eva Woods: What does your daughter think of being in the book?
Amy Fusselman: She thinks it’s okay. We’ll see what happens. Her appearance is very small.
Eva Woods: It is, but I really liked it. There’s something about that look into the future that made me feel better about the challenging relationship with your mother.
Amy Fusselman: Oh, that’s very sweet.
Marisa: Yes, that scene with the three of you together is very moving.
Amy Fusselman: Thank you so much.
Eva Woods: How has the reception of this book been compared to your others? (Also writing one book seems crazy impossible to me, I don’t know how you’ve done this so many times!)
Amy Fusselman: It’s funny because so far this piece seems to have more wind than the other books and I never, ever thought that would happen.
Eva Woods: I think people are really thirsty for new forms and less rigid structures right now!
Amy Fusselman: But the book comes out on Tuesday so I guess we’ll see! Anything can happen! That’s a very Nutcracker idea!
Eva Woods: Let’s talk about influences! Who are your faves?
Amy Fusselman: Ooh! Well, I honestly haven’t been reading that much fiction in the last few years. Although I love Joy Williams’s short stories.
Eva Woods: Nonfiction and poetry totally counts, too. I lean much heavier on that side of things in my reading.
Amy Fusselman: And I love Lerner, as I said. And recently, I also liked Red Clocks [by Leni Zumas] a lot.
Eva Woods: Red Clocks is on my list; it looks so good!
Amy Fusselman: Honestly, I have been spending time with comedy. I am trying to observe how it works and to find out what I find funny. I have also been seeing a lot of theater. I just saw Book of Mormon for the third time! Lol.
Eva Woods: Amy, have you watched the comedy special Nanette by Hannah Gadsby? If not, I highly recommend it. It’s incredible.
Amy Fusselman: I haven’t but I need to. I read the Times review of it and they just raved.
Marisa: Amy, are you working on anything new? (You totally don’t have to answer if you prefer not to discuss in-progress projects.)
Amy Fusselman: Yes but not this week! That’s probably as much as I should say about it.
Marisa: Can’t wait to see what it is!
Eva Woods: This is such a tiny detail, but for you, what makes this work an essay rather than a poem?
Amy Fusselman: That’s a great question. I did talk about that with Coffee House. I think the essay form, at this point in time, is more expansive than it’s ever been, and given the prose-style of the piece, it seemed the best fit.
Eva Woods: What was the pre-writing process for this like? I can’t imagine an outline for it looked anything like a more traditional form.
Amy Fusselman: I really don’t work off outlines. I couldn’t for this. It had to happen in the doing. And I had been thinking about The Nutcracker for a long time. And going every year.
Marisa: We’re just about out of time. Amy, thank you for this really terrific conversation, and for sharing this book with us ahead of publication. I’m so thrilled to have been able to feature it as a Book Club selection!
Marisa: And Eva, thank you for the thoughtful questions!
Eva Woods: Thank you so much Amy for this and for your book!
Amy Fusselman: Thank you all so much, I really enjoyed it. Eva, it was nice to “meet” you! Best of luck in your work!! And thank you so much, Marisa!
Marisa: Have a wonderful night!
Featured photograph of Amy Fusselman © Frank Snider.