One cool fog-laced November day in 2013, I perched on a rickety porch and talked with my friend Amanda Goldblatt about an exciting early draft of a novel she was writing, a book that would become Hard Mouth, published in August by Counterpoint. As we talked on the phone a train raced by on the tracks behind the house where I was spending a month trying to revise some stories that I hoped would be in a book someday. The house was an old farmhouse in a sleepy hamlet upstate in the country. A serene campus I shared with a group of lovely visual artists. I had my own room. My own studio. It was, it seemed, a perfect place to do work.
Except, that train was really fucking loud and ran by every hour on the hour and like a baby I couldn’t sleep through the night. And the studios didn’t have full walls and it turned out I was the only one who favored quiet. Everyone else made and relished noise. I was spending money I didn’t have to be there and getting nothing done. And while everyone was super nice, I was certain they all hated me. Which made sense, because I kind of hated who I was in that sleepy hamlet upstate. Because let’s be honest—while I was there to do “work,” I was mostly trying to get away from my life and whatever was unsatisfactory about it at the time, to restart from some less mired place. I’ve done this sort of thing countless times in my life. Tried to escape to collect myself, clean myself, to be alone, only to realize, I was still surrounded by me, and all the things I bring with me everywhere I go.
I offer you this glimpse into my occasional sour consciousness to illustrate the folly of romantic notions of escape, a major theme of Goldblatt’s knockout debut, Hard Mouth. Denny, reeling from the return of her father’s cancer, plans an escape to a cabin on a mountain in a wilderness. She is not a wilderness type. She isn’t even particularly fond, it seems, of nature. She’s basically never even made a fire. But she’s going to live up there alone, off the grid, using an outhouse even, for a whole year. Winter and all. She must get away. Escape. Blow up her life before it blows her up. It’s a last gasping grasp for control. But as the book progresses, Denny finds there are many things in the world that are impossible to escape. Life’s random terribleness, and yourself, to name but two. As a reader, the experience of moving through this self-imposed sad and searching, dangerous and scary, and strangely funny exile with Denny is astonishing.
Hard Mouth is absolutely singular in how it accomplishes this. It is careful as well as wild. Its precise language opens up murky spaces for the reader to excavate. The interview below might skew nerdily toward talking about parts of a book you, book lover of the Internet, may not even have read yet. But I urge you to. Because this book asks to be studied. To have its pieces and parts pinned insanely on a wall with colored strings going every which way trying to connect all the feelings and ideas to discover the extraordinary heart beating at its core.
The Rumpus: I loved Hard Mouth. I kept getting the wind knocked out of me by it. It’s so wise. It says such profound but simple things about life and death and grief. And so my first question to you is how did the book start for you? Where did the wellspring come from?
Amanda Goldblatt: Well, it came from my father being diagnosed with cancer, and I felt like I needed to get out of my own skin. I was so scared, and I couldn’t figure out how to handle it. So I started writing, and I started writing in a manner that was dislocated because I knew I wouldn’t be ready—and also didn’t want to—write nonfiction about this particular thing. I hadn’t started a novel, ever, before I started this one. It was maybe superstitious of me, but I was waiting for something that felt enveloping, and the fear that I felt when my father got sick was enveloping. Thankfully, he got better, and I feel extraordinarily lucky about that. But in its wake was this novel. It had started with such a huge fear, a fear that doesn’t go away, about the mortality of parents specifically and, I know you know this, once that wound gets opened it doesn’t heal.
Rumpus: Yeah, you can’t think about it in the same way anymore.
Goldblatt: There’s an incredible constant prickling awareness of mortality in a new way. I imagine it’s the same with losing a partner or a child or someone who is very close to you. This was something that I wanted to continue to work with, because it continued to take up residency within my body. Meanwhile, even though my father had completely recovered, both of my grandmothers were quite elderly and were dying. And so grief was back and very present in my life. I kept thinking about a lot of the novels that I cared about. I like big novels, but I gravitate most often to interior, short novels like The Stranger, like Good Morning, Midnight; things like that. So I kept pulling the plot, the scenario, closer to Denny, and it continued from there, and until it became very much its own animal, and it was no longer just residing in me. The relief of writing a novel is that you can reckon with things and externalize things and they have somewhere to go, even if it’s only for the duration of working on the novel. You can think about the things that obsess you on the terms of the art as opposed to your own private, claustrophobic terms.
Rumpus: I love Denny because she thinks she’s a monster, though she isn’t, but because she thinks she’s a monster, she then does things that are kind of monstrous. It’s like the belief that she’s a monster allows her to be a monster as opposed to the other way around. I so related to her with this inner chastising monologue. And I kept thinking if, as you’re writing her, you want her to be easier on herself or punish her? Are you trying to give her a way out? Are you trying to save her?
Goldblatt: No. I was never looking to give her a way out. I mean, that’s the whole thing about the book is that there’s no saving anyone. I’ve said this in other interviews, but it’s worth repeating. “Everyone dies, so no one can be saved.”
Rumpus: That’s one of my favorite lines in the book. “The secret was that no matter what I did, I was alive, and one day I’d die.” It’s just so beautiful and matter of fact.
Goldblatt: Yeah. It’s a part of my life philosophy. My understanding of existence does not accommodate for anything after death, which makes it very scary but also very clear. And there is some comfort in that clarity, I think. And so there’s never any question of wanting Denny to be saved or of her saving herself. Her telling the story is the closest that she gets. The novel is on her terms within the performance of the book. It’s her story. But, because of the person she is, I don’t think that she sees an option other than reporting her subjective experience and just being what she thinks of as candid. She’s not strategic in that way; she’s not emotionally strategic.
Rumpus: No, she’s totally reliable, right? You believe that everything that she’s saying is true to the world.
Goldblatt: My students and I talk about this a lot, about the impossibility of a reliable narrator if you’re thinking in terms of a narrator that presents a fully clear objective account of reality, or the fictive reality. And if there’s a person, if there’s an ego attached to the narrator, that narrator’s subjectivity will bow things, right? In the early stages of writing this book, I thought I was going to write an unreliable narrator. But that’s not who the book demanded Denny to be.
Rumpus: I don’t think it would work.
Rumpus: When you’re writing about grief or someone who is absenting their life in order to discover something or avoid something, that person cannot tell anything slant. You have to be on that person’s shoulder, in their ear almost, for it to have meaning.
Goldblatt: She’s offering a report from the field; she’s not pretending. She’s not embellishing. I think she also has a particular degree—I think you’re right—of self-loathing and self-chastising. And so to not portray that would feel dishonest to her.
Rumpus: Yeah, and that’s the part that made me feel like what she had to tell me about life was worthwhile and important, because you figured out a way to lay bare that way of being where you think that you’re the only monster in the entire world because of the secret things that go on in your head.
I thought I’ve never seen it so cleanly placed on the page. I thought it was really remarkable, and it made me feel less alone. Even as I’m reading this book about someone who is experiencing this cosmic loneliness because she’s grappling with this idea of mortality. She was the person I could lean on as we did it together. This part of her personality also makes Hard Mouth a weirdly funny book.
For example, right after Pops’s first cancer diagnosis the family is sitting at the table squeezing oranges for juice, and she tells the reader, “I, already a monster, let him rise and wash the juice implements himself.” And that’s an incredibly sad moment in the book, but I laughed out loud because I know that secret hole in our hearts and bodies and minds where that little monster lives, or we think that monster lives but doesn’t. And so it was an intimacy like I knew this person in her humor.
Goldblatt: And there’s innocence in that, too, I think. I think that maybe some of the comedy comes from her innocence, that earnestness. Which is funny because I don’t think that she would think of herself as earnest, but maybe she is.
Rumpus: Well, it’s like she can’t imagine a worse thing in the world than herself.
Rumpus: And she comes to discover worse things in the world than herself. And I didn’t think about it until now, but I’d want to read the end again and see if that falls away. I think it does, right? That artifice with reader falls away as she grapples with things that are really awful. And not even just the death, but just like bad people.
Goldblatt: Yeah. That’s the thing: life circumstances supersede your own shit occasionally.
Rumpus: Occasionally. So then that makes me want to ask about Haw. He is a rangy man who shows up at Denny’s cabin where she is supposed to be alone and kind of grieving. They have a fascinating relationship that I won’t get into too much, but I want to know, was Haw a villain in your eyes?
Goldblatt: Yeah. I mean, he’s not a perfect monolithic villain, but he’s a shitty guy.
Rumpus: He is a shitty guy, but you write him in these small moments with so much empathy.
Goldblatt: Haw is a whole person as far as I’m concerned. I think of villains as flat, as necessarily mechanical. A bad-acting whole person is worse; you can see around their evil to their empathetic lived experience. In the distance between the two, there’s a shock or betrayal that someone you feel you might be able to understand is behaving this way. But yes, in Denny’s life, Haw’s a villain, ultimately. I don’t know that Denny would think that however. Even in retrospect. I don’t think that she would necessarily regard him as a villain in her life, but I do.
Rumpus: I thought it was so brilliant the way you put her on the mountain to be alone and she’s almost never alone.
Goldblatt: Yeah, it’s true.
Rumpus: Denny also ends up being beholden to a feral cat she names the Thing. I love the Thing so much, and I have to say that I’m not a fan of cats. But you write it so well.
Goldblatt: I’m not particularly partial to cats either, but I do have an intense empathy for all animals. And so, I was able to write the Thing. I really liked the idea of there being this nearly domestic feral cat.
Rumpus: Yeah, she needs it. When she sees it peaking through the cave in one scene toward the end of the novel, it’s transcendent. She says, “The Thing was now wriggling through the cave mouth, its whole lissome brown furred body, and I thought… that I had never seen a more beautiful creature than this little cat.” And you, the reader, feel that, too. That it is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. It’s not hyperbole. You believe her.
Goldblatt: Yeah. Yeah. She’s never cared about an animal before. There are a limited amount of people—three of them—she cares about at all.
Rumpus: It’s just so wonderful to think about. One of the most interesting parts of the novel to me is that before Denny flees to the mountain, she kind of blows up her life in a series of ways. She ramps up a kind of self-sabotage. She fucks up her job and gets fired for starters.
Goldblatt: She gets drunk and sleeps with someone. She sells all her stuff.
Rumpus: She withdraws from her one important friendship. She even hits the road, as if to say, Here I go! But then she stops, turns around and comes back and stays for, what, almost a whole other month. It’s so interesting.
Goldblatt: Yeah, she’s not a courageous person and so what she’s doing—her escape, her getaway—really comes from desperation, from need. I think she has to make her own life uninhabitable in order to make herself go. So much of her life is about passivity. So much of her life is about being in a holding pattern that she has to shock herself out of that pattern. She tries it multiple times. She wants to see if getting fired will be enough, and it’s not enough. She wants to see if sleeping with a stranger will be enough, and it’s not even close. She gets rid of her stuff. She tells her landlord that she’s leaving. She gives herself a deadline. In this way she eases her way out. So it’s this very dramatic action that she does in the most incremental and non-confrontational way that one could, I think.
Rumpus: And you say she’s not courageous and the ramp-up shows that, but heading to the wilderness to live for a year alone without knowing much about how to do it… I mean, that’s a very big move.
Goldblatt: Yeah, absolutely.
Rumpus: She let everything fall to pieces—or rather, she knocks everything down, in her own passive way—which is very hard to do. I feel like it’s a lot easier to carry on. But she just won’t let herself carry on. So it’s like running away is physically what she’s doing, but it’s like the last thing she’s doing. You know what I mean?
Goldblatt: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s funny, another interviewer was like, “She’s only on the mountain for like half the book. How did you decide that she was going to stay in Maryland for so long?” Well, that’s the thing. I pitched it as a kind of adventure novel of grief. And you know, generally in adventure novels, something happens and then the adventure begins. But Denny has to reckon with herself before that can happen. And that takes a while because as we all know, as people who hopefully reckon with themselves in some manner know: humans and egos and normalcy are all really powerful forces.
Rumpus: The book is about surviving in lots of different ways. Like surviving physically, surviving emotionally, surviving something. And because you know Denny, you know that she’s going to be fine, too, and most people are fine eventually when something like this happens. It’s a beautiful idea.
Goldblatt: Which can be horrifying to think when you’re in the thick of things. That everything will be fine, when it feels like it never will be. As if “fine” means “unmarked.” The notion that you might be, finally, unmarked by something profoundly awful. That seems monstrous in and of itself.
Photograph of Amanda Goldblatt by Jordan Hicks.