Heartbreak and Hair Dye: Talking with Amy Feltman
Amy Feltman and I met in graduate school, when we were both aspiring writers studying fiction writing at Columbia University. Even then, I admired Amy’s writing, particularly in the ways her characters seemed so precisely attuned to the world around them.
Fast forward a few years, and I was thrilled to receive an early copy of Amy’s debut novel, Willa & Hesper. I read most of this beautiful book outside on a lawn chair this past summer, beneath the sun’s searing heat. In between teaching classes, I escaped into Willa and Hesper’s intense world of love and eventual heartbreak. In this novel, Willa seeks solace from her breakup by delving further into her Jewish faith, eventually signing up for a trip to Holocaust sites in Germany. Hesper desires release as well, as she is running away not only from the hurt she has caused Willa, but also from her larger fears of intimacy and vulnerability. On a family trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, Hesper is forced to examine her own identity when she discovers a fracture in her family’s history.
Willa & Hesper, is a luscious, lyrical story about love, heartbreak, queerness, religion, and what it means to move through the world in a female body today. Over the course of an hour, Amy and I talked at Housing Works Bookstore Café, where Amy told me about her interest in post-Soviet societies, how her own family history inspired this novel, what music she listens to while writing, and more.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the upcoming publication of Willa & Hesper. I loved alternating between these two young women’s perspectives as they fall in and then out of love, and as they cope with heartbreak in two very different ways. What inspired Willa & Hesper?
Amy Feltman: Some parts of the novel are based on personal experience, especially the Willa sections. It was a patchwork quilt of my life, particularly in thinking about how different kinds of trauma shape a person’s life. Hesper’s side was a lot more fictional. I had always been interested in post-Soviet societies, so I knew that I wanted to work that into my fiction. In my undergrad, I almost designed my own major on post-Soviet studies but then decided that that would ultimately be really impractical. I was super interested in it, though, so I took all the classes they had at Vassar that were related to rebuilding communist societies after the Soviet empire fell.
Rumpus: What drew you to post-Soviet societies?
Feltman: Some of it was my family history. I’m not entirely sure where my maternal grandmother’s side of the family is from. There have been conflicting reports, and some people say that we’re from what is now Romania, but it’s ultimately remained a mystery to me. I think some of my interest came from wanting to know where I came from, which is a point where Hesper and I connect. But otherwise, I just found post-Soviet societies interesting. I remember this one factoid that everybody in post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, I believe, had the same hair color because there was only one option of boxed hair dye you could have. I thought that was fascinating and found myself hunting for more details like that.
Rumpus: You said that Willa is more similar to your personal history and Hesper is more fabricated. What was the writing process like in balancing those two perspectives if you felt like you knew one character perhaps better than the other in the beginning?
Feltman: I definitely felt a lot freer in writing Hesper’s section. Once I had settled into her insecurities and her fixations, her part gained a lot of momentum for me. Willa’s section was a lot harder to write because when you base a character strongly on yourself, it can be really hard to gain the distance to get that character to come across the way you want her to. In editing, Willa took a lot more work and soul-searching to think of what of myself was useful to this character and to the story I wanted to tell. I was super lucky to have a great agent and editor who gave me feedback and helped me sculpt a more constructive Willa out of myself.
Rumpus: Intuitively, I’d think that it’d be harder to write Hesper’s section because she’s so new, but I guess that gave you more freedom?
Feltman: Definitely. It was a way to explore a life that I hadn’t imagined, a sort of more combative and vivacious family and all of the baggage but also beauty that comes with having a sibling, whereas I’m an only child. As a reader, I love a big family story. I’m always drawn to sibling relationships and how that outlook can affect your life and the world.
Rumpus: Did you consciously decide to write a queer love story or was that a natural part of your process?
Feltman: It was pretty natural. It occurred to me that I knew a lot of strong, traditional heterosexual breakup stories and journeys of self-discovery. I couldn’t think of a contemporary literary novel where there was a breakup story about two female characters that wasn’t fetishized. I felt strongly about giving a voice to a story that I knew existed because it happened to me and my friends, but I didn’t see represented.
Rumpus: The novel switches back between these two characters, which I loved. Did you always know you were going to have that structure and that you’d write in first person?
Feltman: Basically, but it was originally told in gigantic episodes. It was actually my editor who spliced them together. Originally, it was going to be Part 1: Willa, Part 2: Hesper, Part 3: Willa, Part 4: Hesper. But this didn’t have a lot of movement. I think that you can see their parallel lives a lot more effectively when it’s cut up this way—you know, Willa has a terrible time in this nightclub and then Hesper has a terrible time in a nightclub, too. Now, these sections are right next to each other. I wasn’t even 100% conscious of some of those parallels until we got into editing. Then, I realized how much that was part of the story—that even though they were no longer in each other’s orbits, their lives were floating along similar lines, which is something that I think is fascinating and happens in real life.
Rumpus: That added an immediacy to the story because you’re switching back and forth between their two perspectives, so you can see the repercussions of their heartbreak.
Feltman: Yeah, I love a multiple-narrator book. I remember in high school reading As I Lay Dying and having that completely blow my mind. It’s still one of the things that made me want to be a writer and I think about it all the time. I think there’s something so powerful about the perceptions of different people juxtaposed against each other. It creates so much empathy for the characters and what they’re going through.
Rumpus: Willa and Hesper are both aspiring writers attending graduate school at Columbia. You and I met at Columbia, where we were graduate students, so I loved the specific details about the campus, the local bars, and the tensions in workshop. This is a very specific environment, though, which may not be familiar with all readers. Why did you decide to have your two main characters be writers?
Feltman: First, I think, if you’re a writer you’re used to observing things very closely and somewhat pulling apart the way people talk and looking for meaning in everyday things very obsessively, and that’s useful in fiction.
Rumpus: You mean because both Willa and Hesper are very attuned to the world around them?
Feltman: Yeah, and when they’re not attuned to the world around them, they’re very attuned to themselves and the way that their emotions are peeling off into their perceptions. But I think also that workshop is very intimate, so it created a way to bolt past the small talk because when you read someone’s work you can see their innermost interests, tics, and obsessions. You already know a lot about a person already before you’ve ever spoken to them. So the night Willa and Hesper meet, it’s charged for a lot of reasons, but they’re also able to start off on a different foot than if they both were, say, accountants, and there were more emotional barriers between them.
Rumpus: Speaking of the emotions in this book, you referenced heartbreak earlier. This novel is about two very different characters that are coping with a loss of a relationship. What is it about heartbreak that interests you as a writer?
Feltman: I think that it goes along with what I was saying about the heightened emotions, that when you’re going through a loss of a relationship you’re mourning something that you will no longer have in your life, and all of the lost potential. That your emotional response to anything—even your emotional response to buying asparagus—is heightened. I also think people do a lot of unpredictable things when they’re blindsided by devastation. Especially for Hesper, who is trying really hard not to be blindsided by devastation. It leads towards a path where things aren’t going to get resolved because she keeps running to different distractions.
Rumpus: In addition to Willa & Hesper being about heartbreak, it’s also about religion. Willa in particular struggles with the fact that her strong Jewish faith seems to be misaligned with the atheism of those around her. Did these questions about faith in a secular community come up purposefully as you wrote? Or did they emerge out of the exploratory writing process?
Feltman: It came from my own experiences, and I hadn’t ever really had an avenue to think through them before. What does it mean to have a really strong connection to a faith that your parents don’t have a strong connection to? Willa always feels alone in her faith even though historically, faith is something that you teach your children to bring them closer to you and their roots. But she has this connection and her parents don’t feel it.
Then, to be in the workshopping community [in grad school] where my own personal experience was that any time faith came up in workshop, people didn’t know what to do with it. They were either dismissive or uncomfortable.
Rumpus: They were dismissive and weren’t interested in reading about it?
Feltman: Yeah, it was kind of like, ‘Oh this is such an old-fashioned topic to write about,’ as though faith went out of fashion with the horse and buggy, which really stood out to me because we have such a strong rise of evangelical culture right now in this country, but to have it not permeate the workshop was really interesting.
Even on a trip that’s meant supposed to connect Willa with other Jewish twenty-somethings, even there, she’s the person that has the faith. She’s the token believer. So what does that mean for her in thinking about what Judaism is, if in every situation she’s the only one who feels it strongly?
Rumpus: I thought that was fascinating because I’d never thought about what that struggle would look like for someone who is trying to hold onto their faith when everyone else, including their parents, seems to dismiss that faith.
Feltman: I remember my best friend was studying psychology and in class, the professor asked, “Raise your hand if you know anyone who has a stronger religious conviction than their parents.” She was the only one who raised her hand in this whole lecture hall. She was thinking about me. That stayed with me; I thought this could be an important thing to explore in fiction because like you said, you don’t see it that often.
Rumpus: Willa & Hesper also touches upon themes of the female body. The novel begins with an incident of sexual assault, which haunts Willa. The question of what it means to live in a female body in our current society comes up again and again. Can you tell me more about this theme?
Feltman: I think it’s hard to be plugged into the news today and not be thinking about that as a woman. Willa tries to diminish the experience by saying, “It’s an assault-junior. It’s not a big deal.” But she never stops thinking about it, and she never feels safe in her own skin again. The idea that this seemingly small incident, which I don’t know that everyone would even call it a sexual assault, that that could still cast a shadow over your whole experience, was something I felt was worth exploring, in conjunction with the other traumas that Willa has both inherited and goes through on her own path.
Rumpus: Was this your first project? Can you tell us more about the whole process? Did you start this in grad school?
Feltman: In grad school, I worked on my thesis from the minute I got there and worked on it for five years concurrently with this project. That project was a laborious journey, so it’s funny to me how different this book was. I started writing Willa & Hesper in 2014, and it was a time when a lot of these ideas felt less prescient, less topical. Then, because of politics and society changing, this book suddenly became super relevant a few years after I started writing it. It’s difficult to think about. It felt ominous also, this project that I started back before some of these topics were as much on my mind.
I wrote the part that takes place after the 2016 election right after that happened. That was a whirlwind of emotion. It was a really raw time. Going back to it now, that’s the part of it that I almost can’t read. Even though I tried to edit it so that it felt more constructive—Willa’s saying, “There’s things we can do. You have to take care of yourself but then you can devote yourself to a cause and make a difference.” I didn’t want it to be like, ‘there is no hope here,’ but when I wrote it originally, it definitely felt super mournful and depressed.
Rumpus: I cried the whole day after the election.
Going back to Germany and Georgia, the characters go to these countries. Did you do research while writing the novel? Or did you rely on the undergrad work you had done previously?
Feltman: For Georgia, I did a lot of research. Some of the research I wanted to do was looking into what people who were not familiar with where they were would be looking at, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews. I read a ton of scattered blogs and pictures of people posing on the bridge and all this stuff that I hoped would add a dimension of Hesper’s experience there. I wanted to capture the unfamiliarity. So the nightclub she goes to is a real night club that I read about. I did historical research as well because I wanted to respect the place I hadn’t been and a culture that isn’t mine. I went to a lot of Georgian restaurants to write about the food and the actual Georgian restaurant that Willa and Hesper goes to is in Gravesend and it’s real, so I did go there.
Rumpus: Research is fun in that way.
Feltman: Yeah, I mean, I loved that weird lemonade. It was great.
With Willa, I didn’t need to research it because I had been to Germany and gone to that concentration camp and spent some time in Berlin. I did talk to someone who had done a trip that was for twenty-somethings because when I went, I was in my early twenties and studying abroad and it was a different phase of my life. I wanted to hear about what it was like for an older person in a group setting. But a lot of Willa’s memories in the concentration camp and the pithy, desperately irrelevant conversations she’s surrounded by afterwards are based on my own experience.
Rumpus: Do you have any rituals that you follow during the writing process?
Feltman: I have a lot of specifications for the music I listen to. I can’t start working on a scene unless I have the right song playing on repeat. The thing that actually takes me the longest to get started writing is finding the song that sounds like the scene and how I want the scene to feel. Once I find the song, I will listen to that song a thousand times until I finish the scene.
Rumpus: What are some of the songs that you listen to while you were writing this book?
Feltman: I listened to “Dirtywhirl” by TV on the Radio for Hesper a lot. For Willa’s section I listened to “Grown Unknown” by Lia Ices. It has a tap dancey beat but it also sounds like she’s unfurling in this really striking, percussive way. I can’t even imagine how many times I listened to those songs while working on this book.
Rumpus: Well, the readers will have to listen to those songs while they read your book. That’ll add another layer to the reading experience. It sounds like you work on multiple projects at a time. What’s next for you?
Feltman: I’m working on a new novel that I hope is about halfway done. It’s different from this book in a lot of ways, although it does have multiple narrators and one of the characters also has PTSD and is dealing with trauma from current events. But there’s a lot of different stuff, too. There’s a lot of gender identity, and I engage more with class issues. It’s been fun but it’s been a lot harder in some ways to kind of start without the framework of my own life holding it in place.
Rumpus: Who are some of your literary inspirations?
Feltman: I love Ali Smith. She’s my favorite living writer. Faulkner was a big player for me in terms of constructing sentences that surprise you and move in unexpected ways. I love Miranda July, Leslie Jamison, and Virginia Woolf. I’m inspired by a lot of contemporary poets, too—Ocean Vuong and Chen Chen are some of my favorites this year. As always, Mary Oliver is a classic for dark days.