Novelist Amy Koppelman is not afraid to make her audience uncomfortable. With unflinching honesty, she writes of depression, infidelity, addiction, self-destruction, and the claustrophobia of domestic life. Given the tough subject matter, her work can be polarizing, yet a devoted readership devours her tales of hopeless heartbreak. Take it from fangirl like me. I promise that if you hang in that thorny place long enough, you will find catharsis in Koppelman’s uncompromising truths. Her rendering of the bleakness is so complete it becomes a celebration.
(The Overlook Press, 2015)
Like her previous two novels, Koppelman’s most recent work, Hesitation Wounds, is as starless as it is stunning. In it, Susa, a psychiatrist specializing in treatment-resistant depression, grapples with her own unresolved grief surrounding her brother’s untimely death. Koppelman’s portrait of Susa is like a high-resolution photograph, revealing every flaw. But in such unforgiving light, her hero somehow becomes lovely again, fallible, human.
I recently spoke with the novelist and mother of two, who lives on the Upper West Side with her screenwriter husband Brian Koppelman. We talked about sad-girl-stuff, unhappy endings, and how she personally convinced Sarah Silverman to play the troubled protagonist in the film adaptation of her second book, I Smile Back.
Lux Sommers (Rail): I know that you didn’t start writing until you’d been out of college for four years. That’s relatively late in life. What finally drove you to the page?
Amy Koppelman: I had been a bad bulimic all through high school and college, when I was functional. I was good at it, no one knew and I wasn’t satisfied unless I threw up blood. But when I moved in with my husband, I realized he loved me, and I couldn’t do that to him.
When I stopped, I fell really hard into depression. I had no place to put all the stuff. Writing became a healthier receptacle for my sadness. I’d write letters to my friend’s older brother whose parents were holocaust survivors. I just projected onto him that he was sad too. We would write about sad things, like how Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Then I just started writing more on this blue typewriter I kept on the table.
Rail: How do you turn all that raw emotion into a narrative?
Koppelman: For years I just write in a stream of conscious. I have no idea what I’m writing. I write and write until I hit a scene. It might take me years to be like, Oh that’s what I’m writing about. Then I look back and in the hundreds of thousands of words I can see how it all fits with that scene.
Rail: Susa, the hero of Hesitation Wounds, is a therapist. Did your own personal history of depression inspire you to write about someone who works in mental health?
Koppelman: It’s true—I do have shrink envy. I wish I were a psychiatrist. The different prisms through which people view the world fascinate me. But it wasn’t something I was consciously aware of. It took me nine years to write this book; I don’t know when or how Susa became a therapist. She felt like someone that was a good listener.
Rail: What made you title it Hesitation Wounds?
Koppelman: I first heard the term on the radio. I guess if you’re trying to kill yourself they’re scars. It’s different than cutting. I thought you could have real hesitation wounds, and then you could have metaphorical hesitation wounds, things you do to yourself to stop yourself from really living life.
Rail: In your previous novel, I Smile Back, the protagonist, Laney, was torn apart by critics for being unsympathetic, and people complained there wasn’t redemption. Do you ever think of changing a character to reach a larger audience?
Koppelman: For my first book, A Mouthful of Air, I got a phone call and I almost sold it to Doubleday if I would have changed the ending, so the woman calls 911 before her daughter dies. I remember, at the time, they said they’d pay me $10,000, and it would have been a real book deal. But I was like, “That’s not what happens.” I do freelance editing to make money, but I don’t compromise with these books. I don’t even think about my audience when I’m writing. For me, that would make the prose feel calculated and lead to changes, large and small. There’s freedom in the idea that I’m only doing it for me.
Rail: Do you think any of the criticism of your characters comes from a place of gender bias? Is it easier to hate on women who act out due to mental illness?
Koppelman: It’s surprising how many women get angry at the character, because you’d think women would understand. But you know, it’s weird. A guy goes to Vegas and he has an affair or fucks his secretary—we kind of understand that’s something that happens. But a woman who fucks to escape, who does that to keep her anxiety at bay, people don’t like that person, women don’t like that person.
Rail: Speaking of lady-kind, I’ve heard you described as an advocate for women’s mental health.
Koppelman: We’re still kind of in the Dinosaur Age of understanding what goes on with women hormonally. I guess for myself, because of my own issues with depression, I just think it’s important to understand what happens to try to demystify it for other women. It’s not an anti-man thing.
Rail: Your second novel, I Smile Back, deals with similar themes. The protagonist, Laney, is a manic-depressive housewife who suffers from addiction and sleeps around. The plot moves slowly, as if to mirror the ways she is stuck in her self-destructive ways. A conventional film would end with some resolution, but the storyline here seems almost to unravel as Laney does. How did you get Sarah Silverman to star in the film?
Koppelman: I heard Sarah Silverman talking on Howard Stern’s show about her memoir, The Bedwetter. She was talking about depression. It was just something about the tone of her voice. I thought, “She’s gonna understand what I was trying to do with this Laney character.” So I called my manager and asked her, “Can you figure out how to get Sarah Silverman this book?” The miracle was Silverman opened it and read it. Then we had coffee and I was just like, “Would you think, like ever think, you’d want to be in a movie, if I ever adapted this?” She said, “Yeah, if it doesn’t suck.” I thought, “That’s a bar I can reach.” It took a long time to raise the money because of the subject matter and the ending, but we ended up making a movie for around $300,000.
Rail: Your husband Brian Koppelman is a screenwriter too, though he’s known for more commercial stuff like Ocean’s Thirteen.
Koppelman: He writes the happy endings so I don’t have to.
Rail: How much of your personal experience has filtered into your characters?
Koppelman: Everything in everything I write is personal. Any feelings of self-loathing, doubt, fear, insecurity—I can own all of those.
Rail: Have you ever considered writing memoir?
Koppelman: I have a title but that’s about it. Whenever I’ve tried to write memoir the voice in my head—the insecure voice that tells me everything I have to say is meaningless—is especially loud. I need to trick myself. I’m too much of a coward to stand behind my thoughts, to directly own them. It’s easier to have characters say them for me.
Rail: Do you gravitate towards other novelists who write in the style of literary realism or who seem to borrow from their own lives for material?
Koppelman: I’m drawn to writers who are exacting and unapologetic, who use words to cut and then stitch: Joan Didion, J.D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Per Petterson. These authors remind me why I love to read—because you read something that you’re thinking or feeling that you might not even know you’re thinking. But the writer can put it into words, and then you just feel so much less lonely.