A Conversation with Amy Grace Loyd

Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others is about the impossibility of control, but it is a debut novel of remarkable control. This is obvious in its sentences, which are rich and sensuous while always remaining sly and elusive. (“She extended her hand, not to shake, but to introduce me game-show style to the food forming a battalion around the teapot, a pile of enormous scones, fruit, Camembert, a quiche.”) As the novel’s narrator, the recently widowed Celia, grows more entangled with her new tenant, a charismatic, recently divorced woman named Hope who appears to be in a violent sexual relationship, it becomes clear that the novel’s structure is just as impressively controlled as its sentences. The slow shifts in Celia’s character, and as a result in the tone of the book, lend the novel considerable propulsive force.

It is surprising that such an assured book is the work of a first-time novelist, but less surprising that it is the work of an accomplished editor, one who has worked with writers including Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, and Joyce Carol Oates. As the literary editor of Playboy, Loyd published Nabokov’s The Original of Laura and serialized Denis Johnson’s novel Nobody Move. She has since moved to Byliner, where she is at the forefront of digital publishing. We talked about how she juggles editing and writing, the ways in which working at Playboy spurred her novel, and the future of fiction.

—David Burr Gerrard

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INTERVIEWER

You’re a very well-established editor. Why did you write this book? Why did you write it now?

LOYD

I’ve been writing for a while. I just didn’t advertise it to a lot of people. I wanted my writers to feel that I was putting their work first. I think this book came to me at the right time and the right place, because I was an editor at Playboy at the time, and I was trying to help remind people of Playboy’s literary tradition and all that it’s done for short fiction. When I took on that mission, I was pretty ambitious about it; it meant a lot of phone calls and a lot of emailing, a lot of pitching woo in a lot of different places, confronting a lot of calcified perceptions. The lovely thing about Celia, the narrator of my book, is that she’s living outside of convention, she’s living in a world dictated to by her own rules. Rules that don’t make sense to everyone, but certainly make sense to her. There was her voice, her desire to maintain a certain kind of privacy, a certain kind of quiet that in New York City is pretty hard to get, and certainly was pretty hard to have in my life at the time.

INTERVIEWER

How did you fit writing into your day?

LOYD

It was hard. It was consuming, working for Playboy. I wrote a lot on the subway, I wrote on the weekends. If I was inspired, sometimes I’d sneak away at lunch. My workday was fairly long back then, so I did it when I could. If I couldn’t write, I would try to scratch out some notes, just to stay in the rhythm of it and keep in contact with Celia’s voice, which was what eased me into the book in the first place.

INTERVIEWER

The book has a very lush prose style. Did you always write that way, or did your style evolve?

LOYD

I think my prose has always been fairly lush, fairly detailed. I’ve always liked a long sentence; I’m a big fan of Proust. But I also love a spare sentence, and as an editor I would never ask anyone to write in any way but the style that was most natural to them.

For this book, I wanted it to be lush for a few reasons. It fit Celia’s voice, it fit the sensuality of a lot of the story. Once I knew her voice could accommodate it, it sort of scratched an itch for me. A lot of American writers increasingly go for a sparer and sparer style, and I think that’s beautiful, and I think it works for them. I would meet writers, especially young writers, who would tell me you can’t use adverbs, and I would think: “Really? I didn’t know that.” But I would keep my mouth shut.  As an editor, you come to understand the style of the work that’s before you, and you make sure that that style fulfills the expectations or the intentions of a given piece, and you go with that. If there are adverbs in it, you make sure they’re used well and consistently.

But American domestic realism has become very spare. Being a fan of Proust and James Salter, it was quite relieving and exciting for me to write in this way.

INTERVIEWER

The tension between restraint and violence is a big theme in the book.

LOYD

For me, it’s about the tension between good and bad behavior: the impulses that we have, when we can control them and when we fail to. We’re all, as I think I’ve said elsewhere, unreliable narrators of our lives. We go into certain situations and think we’re going to behave a certain way, but because of changing contexts and situations, we behave in quite another way. In this story in particular, there’s a lot of violence happening on an emotional level. There are a lot of hard losses. Hope’s marriage breaks up because her husband falls in love with a much younger woman very suddenly. It’s fitting that Hope’s relationship with lust has a certain violence to it; it’s a current that she’s suddenly in.

INTERVIEWER

Jumping off this theme of violence, there are a lot of 9/11 references in the book.

LOYD

That’s a way of getting into that problem that Celia has between will and surrender. How much we can control in life and how much we can’t. In an urban setting, so much feels out of your control. There are so many bodies, there’s so much machinery. This makes it all the more compelling for terrorists, because there’s that much more to disrupt. When something like that happens, it really tests your ability to surrender and accept how little control we have. It’s not a 9/11 novel, but I thought it was appropriate to bring up how a post-9/11 environment tests your ability to surrender and say: “Sure, I’m going to get on the subway, but who the hell knows if I’m going to get where I’m going?”

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about space in the novel?

LOYD

Urban living forces you to live with other people. You’re in your own apartment, you think that you’re engaging in a little bit of solitude, but their noises and their lives are intruding. You’re hearing things about them that you wouldn’t know otherwise. I grew up in the suburbs, and I wouldn’t know necessarily what was going on with the people next door unless somehow gossip made it our way. In a Brooklyn apartment, you learn so much about other people, with just a wall between you and whatever’s going on in their lives and their love lives.

A lot of people feel that that’s the best kind of aloneness, that sense of being in a collective as you interestingly are in an apartment building. You know each other’s schedules. You know when you’re showering. You hear that water through the pipes.

But in other ways it can be even lonelier to be alone when you hear the laughter and the parties of others. I think that’s why Celia was so careful with who she picked to live in the building. She wanted to try to control the terms of that involvement. Then, like all of us, she found out that she can’t. You might want to move back to the suburbs, or you might want to get a thicker wall. I always lived in pretty shitty buildings where the walls were really thin. But it worked out well for storytelling.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a lot about shape-shifting in this book.

LOYD

I’m a very different Amy depending on whom I’m interacting with because they’re bringing out different things in me. I’m a very different person, as I imagine you are, in different relationships, and where you are in those relationships.  There are things—anything from 9/11 to divorce to just waking up on the wrong side of the bed—that cause you to have to adapt, to be light on your feet, and even to feel to yourself like a stranger. Both Celia and Hope go through these moments where they feel quite estranged from themselves and estranged from what they thought their lives were going to be. You wake up one morning, and your whole life, maybe even your own face in the mirror, is unrecognizable.

INTERVIEWER

So you wrote a lot of this book while working at Playboy. The first sentence of the book is “The body of a woman aging.” There are a lot of women’s bodies in Playboy, but not so many aging women’s bodies. Is that something you were thinking about?

LOYD

More than I was even aware of when I was writing, I was reacting to stuff that was going on in Playboy. The ways in which the bodies in the magazine—some aficionados might disagree, but I think I would say that they were all of a certain age group, a certain type. I wanted to make sure that this narrative included bodies of women of older ages, different ages, and that these bodies were still as inviting, and as sexual, and as full of desire—even dark desire—as a youthful body, an objectified body, and these women were doing some of the objectifying of themselves and others as well. Even though these women might be falling apart, they’re also empowered, and they’re complex, and appealing to each other and others in real and important ways.

The book was a foil to my life at Playboy in more ways than I realized. I like that the book is quiet at first, though it picks up. I like that she’s at a remove from things. I also like that when it comes to sex—Playboy is sex as commerce, sex as adventure, sex as youth. In the novel, you get sex as estrangement, sex as darkness, but you also get sex as tenderness, and you also get sex with partners whom you might not expect, having sex for reasons that are about tenderness and about feeling, rather than for purely physical reasons.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the difference been between working at Playboy and working at Byliner?

LOYD

At Byliner, I can work with writers at any length, between 5,000 and 30,000 words, which is a joy—the writer can work at the length he or she feels the piece needs to be, rather than to fit. I have at my disposal a slightly broader range of topics. Certainly Playboy let me stretch a lot, but it was a men’s magazine and we had to be mindful of our demographic. There are no naked women at Byliner, no other content that I have to overcome or distract people from. I kind of miss it in some ways, because it was a wonderful challenge. It made for a lot of good humor. And sometimes Playboy was a great boon to me, since a lot of people understood its literary tradition and loved it for that.

Byliner is new, and improvisational, and exciting. People were declaring Playboy dead every year, every few months, and yet it survived, and had to evolve itself with its own kind of invention to make sure it was keeping apace. So there were surprising things that they had in common. My job is very similar in both, which is that I’m there for good, smart work.

INTERVIEWER

You did a great interview with Margaret Atwood on the future of publishing in the digital era. Could you talk about your thoughts on that?

LOYD

I think there’s a lot to be gained for new writers because while models are changing, it means that platforms are opening up, and there are a lot of different, immediate ways to get to a reader. Even this opportunity with a platform like Byliner or The Atavist—being able to write at new and different lengths and still reach a lot of people. The danger of course is the immediacy of that, and I think that while it’s great to experiment with these new platforms and to engage social media—you can be your own best friend through social media, creating PR and marketing platforms for yourself—I still think we can take some cues from traditional publishing. It’s really important to have an editor, it’s important to have another set of eyes, that can take you out of the implicitness you might have with your own work.

Even if you choose to self-publish, which I actually think is a fine idea, and has much less stigma than it used to—I would still try to find a professional editor, I would still try to work a publicist if possible. If it’s not possible to pay them, maybe there’s some bartering or other ways you can go about it. Or find a small press. And be really open to new payment models and business models. Because the gatekeepers are being tested. And that’s good in some ways. It’s bad in others, because work should be processed before it gets to your reader. It should be looked at, it should be copyedited. These are important things to make sure that your work is putting its best foot forward.

Though it’s the Wild West, there are a lot of marvelous possibilities if you’re simply willing to be adaptive. And I have to be honest: I wonder if I wouldn’t have self-published this if Picador hadn’t liked it as much as they did. I liked Celia enough and I liked the story enough that I might have done it. I didn’t have to.

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