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Jess Walter Interviews Amy Grace Lloyd, Debut Author of "The Affairs of Others"



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Amy Grace Lloyd's novel The Affairs of Others, which Entertainment Weekly described as a "mesmerizing debut," is the story of a woman who buys a small Brooklyn apartment building following the death of her husband. As the tale unfolds, she is drawn further into her tenants' lives, but that's just the start of it. Jess Walter, author of the acclaimed novel Beautiful Ruins, got together with Amy Grace Lloyd to ask her some questions:

Jess Walter: Your protagonist, Celia, has been a widow for five years. She is a character of such conflicted desires—the profound need to grieve alone vs. the impulse to care for her tenants. Her voice, her sense of self, is so immediate (“The body of a woman aging …”) Do you recall how she came to you?

Amy Grace Lloyd:  The novel’s first sentence came as an invitation to me (and I hope it will to readers) to be inside a story in which an older woman, like Hope, compels for her complexity, her resilient beauty, her desires, even the dark ones. Yes, my narrator Celia’s voice, her way of seeing the world, was a welcome counter to all I was living at the time as the fiction editor at Playboy in New York.  My job required a lot of outreach, persuading writers and literary agents to the magazine’s literary merits despite its other content.  Celia’s stated need to be separate, her resignation about life and love, and her defiance of convention and celebration of boundaries was a refuge and a sort of wish fulfillment. I’ve lived in New York City and in Brooklyn in particular for a long time, longer than I imagined or hoped, and I’ve spent much of it trying to find a healthy balance between solitude and engagement with others, between quiet and the noise of city life, always streaming, beating on the walls.  I’ve not always succeeded – neither does Celia. She’s walking a tightrope between control and surrender, good behavior and sometimes very bad behavior.  She’s a lot hungrier than she’ll admit and that longing in her, both to preserve what’s hers and to touch and be touched, physically and emotionally, disrupts her plans and drives a lot of the story.

JW:  You’ve lived in Brooklyn for years. Does Celia’s brownstone in The Affairs of Others—on one floor, an old ferryboat captain, on another, a “modern couple, teeming with plans”—reflect your feelings about the place?

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AGL:  Because she’s a landlady and has chosen her tenants, Celia has had a lot more say over who lives  next-door or over her head than I’ve ever had, but even with that greater latitude, she can’t keep her tenants’ lives from impacting her, from setting off her longing.  She’s drawn to each of her tenants in different ways – a voyeur of their lives and histories. She wants to observe it all from safe remove, but try as she may, she can’t keep the chaos out. My urban life has been full of all sorts of detours – garbage trucks heaving outside my window, neighbors making noisy love or having a quarrel or a party to all hours, keeping me up all night, another neighbor who exercises at dawn above my head, yet another who needs his spare set of keys or complains because I vacuum my floors too early on Saturday.  Living in the city is a collaboration with the unexpected a lot of the times, and it works on the imagination in exciting and dark ways.

JW:  When Hope arrives in the building, she tests Celia’s careful boundaries. What is it about her character that wakes Celia from her long sleep?

AGL:  Hope has just left her husband of twenty plus years because he’s fallen in love with someone else. Celia recognizes in her the startled sorrow, the impulse toward self-destruction, that longing, longing, longing for something lost and probably unrecoverable. Hope starts an affair with an old friend just as she moves into Celia’s building and Celia is privy to so much of the gymnastics and utterances, to encounters that become every day more violent. Celia knows the violence of sudden loss, of dislocation, even about violence she herself invited, to her own flesh, when her husband first died; she knows all this better than most, and she can’t help but be drawn in, insinuate herself in events and eventually try to save Hope.

JW:  You’ve worked as an editor for years (as fiction editor for Playboy, and most recently, for Byliner.) Did your knowledge of the publishing world help in writing The Affairs of Others? How did the editor Amy treat the writer Amy?

Jess-photoAGL:  I think being an editor helps me to be a better judge of what constitutes a fully realized fictional world and what you need to give your reader in terms of pace, verisimilitude, and consistency of language and character. Editor Amy is, frankly, a pain in the neck. Some of my writers, including Margaret Atwood, James Ellroy, and Jonathan Ames, will tell you that.  I’m pretty exacting as an editor, dog with a bone – I want to make sure my writers make good on the intentions they set up.  I ask the same of me when I write and then I’m hard on my sentences word for word. It slows me down a good deal.  When I want to get pages done, I sometimes have to shout the editor side of me out of my head, out of the room.

JW:  Your writing is both lush and precise. Are there writers you like to read for those qualities? Are there books about Brooklyn you especially love?

AGL:  James Salter, Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, Proust, William Maxwell. I can read and re-read their books: Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow; Salter’s Light Years or A Sport and a Pastime; any of Paley’s immediate, lavishly feeling but spare short stories or poems; and then Proust and his Swann in In Search of Lost Time  – that’s some beautiful, intricate life there, minutely observed, musical, and epic; one can get lost, should.

JW:  You write about grief in a way that American writers rarely seem to do. How did you go about imagining Celia’s powerful relationship with a man who had been dead for five years?

AGL:  Americans aren’t always on such good terms with mourning and remembering. We move faster and faster all the time or so it seems in this city of commerce and jackhammers. We grieved after 9/11 and that grief, even as it became a kind of siren song for tourists and politicians, lingers here in unexpected ways and can stop time, even briefly.  I wanted to write in the voice of someone who is in effect trying to stop or slow time; I wanted to find out if that was possible.  Celia does not apologize for loving a ghost – she’s made a promise to her husband.  He died when he was young, when their love was young and it hadn’t been tested by long years of familiarity or the demands of children or work.  As real as it was, it was yet an ideal.  That she had such a love, even interrupted, is a life raft for her as a widow, an oasis, in a city that moves at such ruthless speed. Not everyone can say they’ve known love, the kind you’d fight for, and whether her partner is dead or alive, she means to honor that love, as a form of defiance and dignity. Losing someone is not the end of loving them.

JW:  In the novel sex is both intimate and dangerous, debasing and liberating? Do you think this is due to the characters, or is there something you’re trying to say about our erotic lives? What novelists do you read for great, serious writing about sex?

AGL:  Yes, sex can be about connection, tenderness, about feeling at home in one’s skin and inside someone else’s, but it can also be about, is often about, estrangement, to escape oneself, any connection at all, save one’s connection to physical sensation, pleasure, and its allures, dangers.  The novel shows both sides, sex as homecoming and sex as expulsion from home, and since both Celia and Hope are stranded, outside of what made them feel safe, it was fitting to explore both extremes of how sex can act on us.  James Salter does this incredibly well in his A Sport and a Pastime – he writes about sex as intimacy and as a way to blunt it. The prose is charged, in turns spare and densely sensual. 

JW:  You are a novelist, have worked for a publishing house and for great magazines and now, with Byliner, are involved in a premier online site for readers and writers. If you had to bet, where would you see literary fiction going in the next decade?

AGL:  I left magazine publishing in part because space for literary work had diminished or disappeared. What’s welcoming and frankly relieving about publishers like Byliner is that a writer need not write to fit but can write at the length his or her piece needs to be. Byliner and other outlets like it welcome the long nonfiction piece or long short story, even novellas – forms that have been marginalized for too long in the publishing landscape. As models shift, it can feel like the wild West out there, but it also means there are also so many more opportunities and innovative ways to reach readers. It’s pretty thrilling. I have only one caution: in whatever form you publish, make sure your work’s been looked over by a good editor. Another pair of eyes can only improve and deepen your work.

>See all of Jess Walter's books

>See Amy Grace Lloyd's author page

(Credit for Amy Grace Lloyd's photo: Rex Bonomelli)



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