An Interview with Amelia Gray
Words By Dani Hedlund
What was it like to transition from doing heavy research about Isadora Duncan to actually constructing your own narrative and determining how those characters would evolve?
Well, I didn’t know how she lived. I didn’t know that she wrote a strange book about herself. I didn’t know the particulars of her life and her lovers and her family, and her book felt like no other kind of story I’d read. The more I read about her, and thought about her, and moved through her wonky autobiography, the more I was fascinated by the character. I wanted to write historical fiction for a long project. And so it came together.
But I didn’t start with heavy research. Once I found out that Isadora’s children drowned, I was floored by that idea that there was a sudden death in the middle of her life that preceded her own sudden death, and I kind of stopped right there. I wrote the scene of the last lunch that they would have had together as a family.
That scene of them at lunch, which was the last time that Isadora saw her children, the last time that she and Paris and the children were kind of a family, and the last moment of the old way—that’s how the book ended up opening. Then I went back to research, because I didn’t know anything about World War I, I didn’t know much about the Balkans, and I didn’t know a ton about what 1913 looked like. There was a lot of catch up to do after that.
Isadora certainly focuses on dance, the history of dance, and this huge creative movement that Isadora pioneered. Was that something you’d always been interested in, or did you fall in love with it during the research period? Or, conversely, are you not actually fond of the dance element at all?
I had very little knowledge of dance, I will say, other than the jealous wish that I had some control over my body that I don’t have. I really enjoyed writing about dance in Colum McCann’s book, Dancer, which is also about a similar era. It was a big challenge to understand the true nature of Isadora’s idea of dance, which doesn’t have the same rigid sense as ballet. Her form is much more bodily, very much rooted in her own body. She liked to think of herself as very singular, to the exclusion of other narratives, which was hugely problematic for her as a person, but as a character, that single-mindedness served me well. That character was my way in to examine the natural way she wrote about dance as if she had invented her own body.
I was really taken with this novel’s multiple narrative forms. You have letters, you have first person, you have third person, and you have a prologue that is steeped in elegant, visceral language. What was it like to balance those different voices, and how did you make the decision to do so?
I wrote the prologue, which is like a ghostly third person, and then I got really close to Isadora, and initially kept it in Isadora’s point of view for maybe the first twenty-five or thirty thousand words of the draft. I thought: this is a book in first-person; it’s going to be wild. It was completely from the POV of this unrepentant, narcissistic, singular-minded artist, and that became very oppressive after a while. People reading the book will find—if I did my job right—that there’s a claustrophobic or bizarre sense to how Isadora looks at the world. But this sense began to necessitate a foil, a different point of view. Her siblings were all around her for much of her life, and they were managing her very closely during the grieving process. Her lover Paris Singer was there during that time, and they were fighting constantly. So there arose these natural counterpoints. I quickly found that it didn’t work to present them in first-person, and it didn’t work to present Isadora in third. It was the first time that I’d ever screwed around with POV like this in my work. I thought, “First-person present and third past? Okay, well, let’s try it.” I hoped the result for the reader is a sense of immediacy with Isadora and a hearty narrative sense from the others.
Talk to me about the timeline. From when you first had the idea to when you finally saw the beautiful galley proof, how long did the entire process take?
The writing took two years, and then the editing took two and a half more years. The galleys came, and there was a little bit more editing, and then my editor went insane, and then the finals arrived a couple weeks ago. It was December of 2012 that I started the book. I was working in advertising at the time.
How does this novel compare to the short story writing you’ve done in the past?
There’s a similar snapshot sense. The ideas are small. There’s just a bunch more of them than in a standard short story. Chapters are kind of slim, as they were in Threats. I feel like, as a person, I have developed more empathy with Isadora than I had when I wrote Threats. I have a lot more patience, just as a quality of living a little more. That really helped me out, and it’s helped out for short stories too. More attention to detail, more patience to stick out a scene.
I think that “tight” is one of the best words to describe your narrative. When I read it, there’s never a word out of place, and it has a poetic feel to it. Your verb choices, particularly, are just startling. Are you the kind of writer who can’t put anything on the page until it’s perfect, or can you do a rough draft and go back to sculpt?
My goal here was to write in the way Isadora danced, that the lines would appear poetic and natural and even spontaneous, but that the reality of perfecting each line would be much more controlled. I know that’s a common experience among writers, but it was nice to have it have some resonance with my subject. Generally speaking I like to create the draft and then go back to edit, though whenever I would look back a paragraph or two to reorient myself at the beginning of the writing day I would have something to add or take away, a little editing in the middle of writing. But I’ve found writing is like building a bridge over quicksand in this way; better to keep working rather than spending too much time thinking conceptually about bridges while you sink in.
You’ve published other books and collections. How does it feel now, especially as a seasoned writer, for this book to be getting a ton of press? Every human being in the industry is like, “Have you reviewed this yet?” And I’m like, “I’m getting to it! I don’t even have the galley yet, calm down!” So how does that feel?
It feels pretty good, I must say, really fun. It’s crazy to spend a lot of time on a book and then see people enjoy it or just pick up what I’m putting down. I’ve put a lot of time into all my work, but something about this one has really resonated. It’s gratifying. I mean, toiling in obscurity is 95% of what we do as writers. But in these moments, I see myself and the work and the span of time, and it’s a little overwhelming but pretty great.
Are you still balancing writing with advertising and sneaking your own personal computer in, or do you get to live the very coveted life of being left alone to write?
Well lately, I’m writing on a television show, and my friend Pat Somerville is the showrunner. He wrote on The Leftovers, and he’s also a wonderful novelist and short story writer. He’s really thoughtful and a great boss. Having a novelist as a boss is something I’ve never gotten to experience before. I love my coworkers, I’m learning so much. And the work feels like writing a novel in fast motion. There are a lot of ideas that go into making a ten-episode TV show. You all sit around and come up with the ideas together, and then you go to corners and write.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to go from the super isolated world we live in as writers to a more collaborative creative setting. What is it like to actually bounce ideas back and forth with a team, and then see a shared product come to fruition?
When you write a novel or short story, or you’re doing that kind of solo work, all the criticism is self-directed. Or it’s in the avatar of other people, but ultimately it’s self-mediated. With screenwriting, particularly in a writer’s room, it’s like you’ve become an organism, everything happens externally. Somebody else is doing the work of determining if the superstructure is right.
This work has been like taking a load off, really. You can just say, “Okay, here’s a series of ideas I have; they’re either right or not,” and ultimately my name’s on it, but it’s so far down on the screen it plays during the small credits portion. It’s weird to be really proud and happy and excited about something your name is not really on. Emma Stone is the big name on it, not me. I always liked that feeling in advertising, though, as well. Advertising fascinated me, and still does. That’s really a career with no ownership.
That sounds both frustrating and utterly blissful.
That’s accurate. It’s a real exercise in the things that you can’t control or change, which for a novelist—I will say, it hit me at a good time, because I had just finished editing the novel, and I wanted desperately for somebody else to just take control of my life and my eating schedule.
What’s the next stage after this? You talked a little bit about going back to short stories after this contract’s up. What is the great move you’ll make after this amazing novel?
My goal has always been to just do whatever crazy thing I want to do. Often that doesn’t involve a lot of visibility or cash, but I’m going to continue doing that, whatever the heck that is. I think it’s important to let my own interest dictate the work, rather than trying to force interest based on some outside sense like a marketable demand. Without my own interest it feels like homework, and I’ve never been great at homework.