My friend Amanda Stern, the writer, would like to step outside to smoke a cigarette before this all gets going. She feels fairly confident, on the verge of getting up in front of a room full of strangers—but then, she tells me, she’s coming down with a cold, so you never know, something dramatic might happen.
It’s a recent Monday evening. I’m attending Amanda’s reading in the back room of The Half King, a restaurant and bar on 23rd Street west of 10th Avenue. Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, is a part owner of the place. Mr. Junger looks impossibly large in author photographs, Schwarzeneggerish, but in person he is (I’ve heard) more Bloombergian in scale. Amanda Stern, on the other hand, not only appears small in photographs, but is in fact very, very little. She steps up to the podium. “This is all very tenuous,” she says, as the lights dim to a seedy darkness that makes me nostalgic for smoking in restaurants. She lowers the microphone, down from the height it had been at for the introduction given by the normal-sized reading series curator. “Do I look like a midget?” she asks the crowd. “Do I need an apple box?”
She begins with a bit she says she’s done before. She calls it “raffling off the contents of the care package my stalker sent me while I was on my book tour.” She says she plans to continue opening her readings with this segment until the care package is exhausted. Her cross-country book tour was this past November—it kicked off just a few weeks after her book, The Long Haul, was published by Soft Skull Press, where I used to be Associate Publisher. Just a few days before leaving town, Amanda, at the age of 33 and a lifelong New Yorker, managed to finally get her very first driver’s license. (A few days into the trip, her brother’s borrowed car got totaled by a nasty combination of patch ice and guardrails, while her tour companion was at the wheel—but other than that, she says, the trip went pretty smoothly.)
The raffle is made up of trivia questions about certain difficulties Amanda had getting through school. Unlike all the smart people she knows in New York City, she says, she did not go to one college, but many. Exactly how many colleges did she attend, she asks? Likewise, unlike these same smart people, she did not ever skip a grade, but in fact was held back for one; which grade was it? Amanda’s older sister, who’s in the audience, looks ready to burst with the answers, but she keeps quiet. (The first answer is “three,” and the correct guesser wins a small collection of “creepy stalker poems;” the second answer is “the sixth,” which is rewarded with a “creepy stalker Jack Kerouac tribute tape.”)
As she’s the only reader for the evening, Amanda has the odd luxury of time, and is able to read five sections from her novel. “Although it’s not really a novel,” she says parenthetically. “It’s more like interlinked short stories.” She pauses, considering this, then corrects herself. “But call it a novel. It makes me sound more professional.” She reads from the beginning, when the unnamed narrator and her somewhat older boyfriend, who is only ever known as The Alcoholic, leave their college town upstate and head for the narrator’s hometown, New York City; through various troubles with acid and pot and alcohol and addiction and codependency; to the book’s conclusion, with her sending him to AA, and him promptly dumping her. She sketches out the trajectory of the whole book.
After the reading, there is time for a brief question-and-answer session. “You can ask me anything,” she tells her audience. “I don’t care.” At first, there are no takers. “You know, when I’m getting my period—whatever!”
Someone asks a question about what it’s been like, having her first book published. “My entrance into this world has been really pleasant,” she says. “Although I didn’t get a ‘line edit.’ I’d heard about ‘line edits,’ from other writers.” The smile on her face makes it sound like she’s describing something dirty and therapeutic at the same time. “And I really wanted one.”
Someone asks about writing from personal experience—about the differences between memoir, autobiographical fiction, and straight-up fiction—or in other words, which parts of the novel are true?
“You know, people always ask me that, to point out all the things that actually happened,” she says. “And really, it’s very little.”
What is true, she says, are the themes—codependency, drug addiction. “The trajectory is autobiographical,” she says. “Two people meet, they fall in love, he goes to AA, they break up. But she, the narrator, she isn’t me. That didn’t happen to me. The stuff that I invented to happen to her, the narrator,” she says, “is much more interesting than anything that happened to me.
“You get to this point in your own life,” she says, “where it’s like, wow, what a horrible thing I’ve just been through. And then you create this distance, this displacement, and it’s like you have this epiphany: what if this had happened? What about this? And so on. I think that’s what writers do. I think writers take those moments, where they see things that they think are really poignant in their own lives,” she says, “and then they explode them.”
But, someone asks, are certain characters in the book based on real people the author knows?
“Well, sure,” she says. “But they’ve been stripped and remodeled. That’s the only way I know how to work. I mean, memoir is fine, but I’m just not a memoirist,” she says. “That’s not my bag.”
But even if this first book is not technically autobiographical, would the author ever be interested in writing memoir?
“Well, maybe if something interesting ever happened to me,” she replies. “Yeah, sure. I’m in awe of people who can write non-fiction,” she says, “but I don’t think I could ever have that kind of clarity.”
Someone asks about the timeline, in relation to the sections Amanda read. Her sister jumps in to help clarify exactly what the question is, and what events happened when, and in what order—when she herself is jumped on.
“You!” interrupts an aggressive audience member, like she’s caught out a liar. “You were talking to Amanda about the character of the narrator,” she says, “and you said ‘you’!”
“I did?” Amanda’s sister replies—but the crowd murmurs agreement, and she relents. “It’s funny, though,” she says, furrowing her brow. “I don’t normally collapse Amanda and the narrator. But,” she says to her younger sister, “my ‘you’ would have been the author ‘you.'”
“Okay, whatever you say,” the aggressive woman replies, skeptically.
“You know, believe whatever you want,” says Amanda.
“I’m just kidding!” says the skeptic.
“Really, no seriously, it can be a straight-up roman à clef to you for all I care,” she says, shrugging her shoulders and smiling. “Just so long as you buy it!”
There are no more questions. “Thank you all for coming,” Amanda says, still smiling, undaunted. “I hope this wasn’t too long, and boring, and annoying, and painful, and that you’re not, like, ‘let’s go get a cab right now,’ and that you’ll stick around, and have a drink, and smoke cigarettes,” she tells the audience. She lets her anti-Bloombergian challenge hang in the air. “C’mon,” she says. “Let’s smoke cigarettes in here, and see what happens.” Still no takers. “C’mon!” she tries again. “It’ll be fun.”