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Interview with Vela’s Featured Writer: Amy Butcher

You and I met a little over a year ago at Colgate University, when I was the out-going Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Nonfiction and you were the incoming. I remember that when I was packing up I had this deep fear that I might never again have so much validation and support as a writer, given the odds and the academic job market and all of those factors. But what about you? How was your fellowship year in terms of productivity and networking and validation? And what next?

Well, before I comment, I just want to say how incredibly refreshing it is to hear a writer admit that, Molly, truly; I think self-consciousness and fear of failure—not necessarily in the public or even professional sphere, but failure of the self, by the self, knowing you’re capable of much stronger or more complicated, thoughtful work than what you’re currently producing—is something all writers feel but very rarely express. It remains a very grounding force for me. I will readily admit that the quality of my work very much depends on the way I feel about myself as a writer and professional, so while absolutely, that fellowship was an incredible honor, it wasn’t for the reasons most would expect.

It wasn’t about the CV line or the unlimited free K-Cup coffee or updating my Facebook occupation and feeling like some sort of prodigy. It was because of the time and the ability that time gave me to fail. I remind my students that Hemingway once claimed we are all, as writers, apprentices in a craft in which there are no masters; the goal is to cultivate a sense of dedication in regard to their revisions, but the larger goal is to manage their expectations as individuals and writers. Despite my recent publications or any traditional indicators of success (Colgate’s very lovely fellowship chief among them), I often feel as though I’m failing. I remain very self-conscious about my work and what I put out into the world. It’s a rare occurrence when I write and publish something and later think, That’s quality writing or even, That needed saying. I really am racked with anxiety about most everything I write, so while validating very briefly, it failed to keep me earnestly proud of myself for long. But I think that’s important.

The fellowship was an honor mostly because it provided me with such an incredible intellectual community and a very lovely, quiet town in which I could work obsessively, and most of what I mean here is fail: there was really quite a bit of failing. I have—I think most writers do—a Word file titled “SHIT,” and it’s just that. It contains, most recently, some two dozen pages I wrote in September and October that I’ve since cut from the manuscript altogether. Luckily, the longer I do this—write, I mean, and take myself seriously as a writer—the more it seems I make peace with that as simply a part of the process. Writing is an incredibly personal act in which I find it helpful to often feel like a failure. Without that fellowship, I never would’ve had so much time to fail and, on occasion, succeed. I am terrifically grateful to my colleagues and the University for that.

 Your writing about your friend Kevin—who is currently incarcerated for murdering his girlfriend—gets into some pretty rough territory, and your rendering of it is immensely powerful (I heard your essay “Sick” broke some visitor record over at The Rumpus when it ran there during the aftermath of the Newtown shootings). What sort of reactions do you get from the general public and, perhaps in contrast, from your peers at Gettysburg College who went through this horrible ordeal with you? It seems to me a lot of nonfiction writers run up against subject matter that is urgent and necessary for them to write—that will ultimately speak to and move readers in important and perhaps edifying ways—but has the potential, even if we don’t intend it to, to hurt the people for whom the story isn’t just on the page, people who are already hurting. I know I struggle with this, anyway, writing about political conflicts and even writing about my own family. Can you talk about this dilemma and how you deal with it?

That, quite honestly, has been the hardest part of writing for me. I knew when I began this project it would take a very real toll on my heart and mind—and it has, I assure you—but I worried mostly about what it might do to others, people I care very deeply about. There’s been a gradual coming to terms with the fact that others have very complicated, no-less-valid feelings about all of this—Kevin, and what he did, and the way I write and think about it—that are equally authentic and worth expressing. I once thought—very pompously, very naively—that I was a more authentic and compassionate person for being willing to negotiate and consider what Kevin did, however difficult.

This is sick, I know, but there was a time when I felt very proud that I dedicated so much of my life and emotional energy to thinking about Kevin, and I felt others were simpleminded for choosing instead to fall in love, or have a baby, or go to law school or go on vacation. I realize now how stupid and hateful that is. I understand now that human beings are far more complex than I ever could have guessed even a few months ago, and my thoughts will undoubtedly continue to change and develop, but what I want most is happiness and peace for everyone I know, most especially those who knew Emily. The public reaction—on the whole, I think—has been quite positive, which is incredibly reassuring. I think people respond to conversations about mental illness because it is so incredibly prevalent and takes from us the people we love most.

Shortly after the death of famous director Tony Scott, CNN ran an exceptional article (written by Dr. Charles Raison) that commented on the link between depression and violence—most often, violence of the self through suicide. He reported twenty percent of Americans admitted to suffering from some form of mental illness (to say nothing of those who did not want to admit it), and he writes, “Severe major depression is probably the most unbearable pain a human being can withstand for any protracted period of time; many people who died of cancer have written eloquently about how the crushing pain from their tumors paled in comparison to the pain they felt when depressed.” That line remains very, very important to me, and has since become incredibly pivotal to my book. It feels, most days, like my chief need: not necessarily to tiptoe around feelings, but to express the very pressing need I see for this country to do more for the mentally ill.

And I have to do this in a way that makes clear I grieve for Emily, that I grieve what happened to her and her friends and family by proxy. I’m all too aware of the very difficult situation I find myself in as someone who knew Kevin quite well and Emily not at all. I can’t help but feel that in recollecting who my friend once was—and attempting to negotiate what happened to him how I feel there were societal factors lacking that might have prevented it—I seem to betray Emily or minimize her death. This is a very long way of saying: I’m aware of these things, and I worry most about the reception of those who loved Emily, because I realize theirs is a pain far greater than my own. But thus far, the response I’ve received from fellow students has mostly been one of gratitude: for writing about this, for expressing something they themselves feel, and I never could have guessed that. There are also those who remain very concerned, and for good reason, and I think of them a lot, too.

 Your work has me thinking a lot about survivors’ guilt, about what it means to live through a tragedy when someone else does not, and the burden of conscience that comes with that. This burden seems especially severe because there is no meaningful lesson to be made out of what happened: Emily’s death was utterly senseless, even, by your descriptions, to the man who inflicted it. She didn’t die for a cause or a even any reason at all; there is no illusion of grace, no heroism or martyrdom, no greater good. Like so much of today’s trauma, i.e. the Newtown shootings, there is just pure, meaningless tragedy. Yet you are very careful not to appropriate what happened to Emily, as if contemplating her murder as your own not-murder would be overstepping. “Lessons of Grief” makes it clear that you feel profound regret, perhaps even guilt (for not treating Emily better, for not bothering to know her better), but I am supplying the word “survivor.” Can you talk about why you don’t and, by extension, how you situate yourself in relation to this disaster and what the boundaries are that you don’t feel you can cross both? For example, have you ever attempted to write the murder as you imagine it happening to you? Or is that over the line?

I had a mentor who once suggested I write a chapter in the book as Emily—if only to work through her experience and perception. Whether I wanted to include it or not in the book upon publication, he said, was ultimately my decision, but that just about made me sick to my stomach. It still does now, whenever I think of it. I could never do that. I understand the potential benefit, but that crosses a very distinct line that I have no intention of even skirting. I think the need to cultivate within this essay a sense of self-awareness comes chiefly from those who don’t think I should be writing this book at all, of which there are many.

A lot of people think it’s best to leave it alone, leave the past in the past, and I’ve even been accused—largely by strangers who read my work online and very rarely by those who know me—of attempting to profit, in some way, off of what happened. That’s so very far from my intent. This is not—and never has been—about profit. You mention the death as utterly and thoroughly senseless, and so it seems to me the best we can do is make something positive come, somehow, from what remains utterly tragic and pointless.

I think turning our attention to eliminating the societal stigmas of mental illness is key, here, as is realizing that it is as blameless and biological as cancer, say. I don’t mean Kevin’s actions—which I realize he is fully responsible for—but mental illness makes it very hard to decipher between right and wrong, to understand reality in the way healthy functioning people can. It’s so much more complex, I’m learning, and it remains wild to me how black-and-white people see crime perpetrated largely by mental illness. In no way is the person void of responsibility for their own actions, but it also seems to me there are very, very few people in this world who are true “monsters.” I think it’s important we begin to admit this.

You mentioned that you’re really interested in the phenomenon of male violence—and your essay up today on Salon.com deals with this. Can you say more about this?

I wish and feel I should be able to say, after all this time and research and reading, but I’m afraid I’m only more uncertain now than ever before. I read recently that 95% of all violent crime is perpetrated by males, and I’ve read a lot of very compelling arguments about why this might be—the way men withstand and experience shame, the lack of positive adult male role models in the lives of most young males, the unconscious understanding that men (especially white men, interestingly enough, for reasons scientists aren’t sure) feel entitled and privileged to success—be it financial, sexual, social, professional.

Though female, I feel very, very lucky to have had an exceptional father growing up; he remains a very key figure in my life now and I realized quickly in beginning this book that he’d have to have an established role. He’s part of my first chapter, actually, because I think it’s so important, what he did: love and nurture and discipline his children through unwavering love and dialogue. As a child, I was always very aware that my father would always love me, no matter how badly I might have acted, and that his sense of disappointment was never permanent. This is why I take such interest in men who did not have this support growing up; I realize its importance for me and I can only imagine how I’d think and feel and act without it. But why men move beyond anger and shame to inciting violence—I wish I knew.

 

Can you talk about the book as a whole yet? Does it have a shape? A title? Or is it still in the chrysalis phase?

It does, slowly but surely. I worked on this book for a full year—accumulating nearly 100 pages—before deleting all of them and beginning again. I’ve been working on the new draft since August and I’m very proud of it. I think it’s good. But it’s not done yet, and there’s a lot it must still do. But I’m far more aware of its shape and intent now than I have been in the past. Narratively, the book is framed with the visit I made last November to see Kevin: the first time I saw him in nearly three years, and the first time I saw him in what will likely remain his permanent home for the next twenty-seven to fifty years. It was a very complicated, emotional experience, because I wanted to see him—for him but also for me—but I was also very scared.

The whole idea of prison terrified me, and it terrified me that my body might betray me while there—that while happy to see him, while my intention was very pure, I feared my anxiety and all of these unanswered questions would get the best of me. Instead, it was a very lovely visit—surprisingly so. So that visit—preparing, arriving, and experiencing it—serves as the narrative frame, the beginning and middle and end, and between that will be everything else: my research, the evolution of my mental and emotional experience and processing of Kevin’s actions, negotiating the shift in perception to that of Emily, and really everything in-between. There’s a lot of material I don’t yet know how to work in, and I worry often about sounding narcissistic and self-indulgent, but this has been really the only thing I think about most days. It’s changed my identity, truly, and it’s the only project I feel capable of writing anymore. Survivors’ guilt is very, very real, and the most I can hope for is that it resonates with someone, anyone. Even one person, and I’d be satisfied.

The working title is “Where The Ghosts Go,” but I like, too, the idea of something simpler. “Haunter,” perhaps? I’m not sure. But the backdrop of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—46,000 soldiers lost in three short dates—and the way that town exists now as a sort of theme park, garishly dedicated to ghosts and violence, seems essential. I remain haunted, but never in the ways I thought Gettysburg stood for.

 

So, the other evening you mentioned Elissa Bassist and her rally call for women writers to promote one another. Since that’s pretty much our vision for Vela–not to be some apartheid women’s publication, but to join writers together to promote one another–I have to ask: who are your favorite women writers? 

That’s like asking what my favorite candy is, and what I want to say is: really all of them and each for a different reason.

The biggest inspiration for this project was Sarah Manguso, whose beautiful book The Guardians: An Elegy is frankly the most beautiful and thought-provoking thing I’ve read in years. I love her most for what she’s doing and how much I want my own work to do that, as well. Additional established writers include Jo Ann Beard, whose “Fourth State of Matter” single-handedly made the genre inviting to me. And Meghan Daum, who served as a reader for this project when it was in its very early stages, inspires me again and again with her essay “Variations on Grief,” in which she is unapologetic as a very honest and ultimately unlikable narrator. She doesn’t flinch or worry about the audience in that essay, and it remains one of the bravest essays I’ve ever written.

“The truth doesn’t change,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “according to our ability to stomach it,” and I think that’s so great and true. I also have exceptional respect and gratitude for so many emerging writers: Rachel Yoder chief among them. She’s really one of the most exceptional nonfiction and fiction writers I’ve met in a long, long time, and she’s so incredibly versatile it blows my mind a little bit. Nearly everything I’ve ever read of hers has been so moving that I’ve copy-and-pasted it and saved as a Word file, in fact, just incase I ever want to revisit it when I’m without WiFi. I think that speaks to her talent.

I’ve also felt incredibly moved and impressed lately with the work of Kristen Forbes, whose Rumpus piece “Dream Girl” moved me to tears, and Caryn Cardello, who has this truly amazing short story in the current issue of Sun. It moved me to write her, actually, which doesn’t happen often. Jen Percy is also an emerging writer you’re likely to hear much more about soon with the release of her book, Demon Camp, and what Mary Miller can do with a sentence blows my mind. Who else? Undoubtedly, I’m leaving out many writers I love and admire, and I’ll kick myself for it later, but I know with a very real certainty that you’ll hear those names often in the future, and it’s been such a pleasure to know their work from earlier stages.

 

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