I would explain why I love Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, but David Shields’s new book How Literature Saved My Life beat me to it: “The book fluctuates wildly and unpredictably from Fusselman’s attempt to get pregnant through artificial means, her conversations with her dying father and his WWII diary entries. I don’t know what the next paragraph will be, where Fusselman is going, until—in the final few paragraphs—she lands on the gossamer-thin difference between life and death, which is where she’s been focused all along, if I could only have seen it.”
Her next book, 8, featured the same brand of literary legerdemain, but this time with her burgeoning family at its center—with detours into Amy’s own childhood, monster trucks, motorcycles, and alternative healers. McSweeney’s is now publishing both of these books as one reversible paperback. I asked Amy a few questions about her books and about parenthood—I’m a new father, and Amy happens to be a pseudo-doctor of parenting.
— Adam Krefman
AK: I’ve always considered The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 linked, or part of a series. Did you write them with that kind of broader project in mind?
AF: I didn’t make a conscious effort to link the books but I do feel that they are a pair. It was more like, when I finished PM, which I view as a “father” book, I knew I needed to address my mother. 8 is the result of that.
AK: The childhood/motherhood thread is so great, even for us non-mothers. Somehow you work scooter-riding lessons and monster-truck-videos into it—it’s almost sleight-of-hand, the way you bring all these disparate elements together. So my question is: do you still ride a scooter? If so, what kind?
AF: My third pregnancy took me out of scooter-riding. My husband traded our Honda Passport for a gas grill. If I get one again I want to get a Honda Ruckus. I love the look of them, they’re like mini bikes from the ‘70s.
AK: Oh yeah, those are the ones with the exposed frame? Very tough, robotic looking. Great segue: It seems like robots, or at least all things mechanical, factor heavily into 8—parenting as robotic, the monster truck Grave Digger as a loose metaphor for childhood, and then the trials of getting your motorcycle license (which sort of reduced you to child-like learning).
AF: Yes, with the exposed frame. And they also sit low so big people look a little like circus bears on them, which I like.
I do like the way that robotics and robot images have worked their way into the book, both as a counterpoint for what we are supposed to be doing as parents and as a way to address the notion of consciousness, which is something I am always interested in.
AK: Can you expound?
AF: Sometimes in my mothering life it feels like robots and moms are in an army together in a way that would have been undreamt of in my mother’s day. For instance, here in NYC, I order a lot of my groceries through Fresh Direct, an internet food shopping site, and there’s often a discrepancy between what I order and what actually arrives. It’s become sort of a standing joke as to what “the robots” will add to my order. I once read an interview with Yuka Honda (I think it was Yuka Honda) where she thanked her Casio keyboard for its weird temperament and temporary breakdowns because those things led her in a different direction, musically. I like applying her openness to her musical robot to my mothering robot experiences. I mean, this is about grocery-getting, which is a sort of holy grail activity for mothers (and fathers) that’s supposed to be this ballet of fruit-squeezing and bread-sniffing, and it’s funny to have this dicey element in it of gee, what am I going to get? I like to try to be open to that experience—to say, well, we have a case of Smartfood here that we weren’t anticipating, how can we use it? That kind of interplay with machines is challenging in a way that intrigues me.
I am also really taken with the idea that some form of robotic detachment is actually a great model for parents. I don’t mean this as a slam to the attachment-parenting proponents—I like a lot of those ideas—but it seems that many problems could be solved by parents and even educators offering children a greater space to be very different from how we may want or expect them to be. I wonder if one day humans will evolve out of this need we have for kids to do things as we have done them, if one day we will be able to have a looser approach to it all, kind of like my internet groceries in a hey, what kind of kid did they send us? A green one? Great! kind of way. This feels Margaret Atwood-y, but I wonder if we will have to let go of much of our current way of parenting to survive, if we are going to have to get to the point where we realize that even though X has been very important to our people for a long time, and we always, always, always do X, it’s just not that important that our kid does X anymore. I imagine that there may be a come-to-Robot moment where we finally say, hey, these ways in which we have defined ourselves need to change. We need to live together in peace, we need to think in the biggest-picture way possible, and that means cultivating a detachment from some things that may have seemed life-threatening to detach from before.
AK: I feel a lot better, now, about my robot-soothing at night. I’ll stay away from the attachment-parenting wormhole and instead ask: to what extent does writing inform or change your parenting? Specifically, did this robot idea come fully formed to the page, or did it evolve in the process of writing?
AF: The robot image was one I was playing with in 8. I usually don’t come to the page with ideas already formed—I generally enjoy the process of exploring ideas through writing. In the best-case scenario, I find that images emerge and then re-emerge later in ways that surprise me. So it’s all clear to me now: writing well is like ordering internet groceries and then discovering a bonus case of Smartfood in the delivery. Thanks, Adam!
AK: That’s what I’m here for—unexpected grocery metaphors. Let’s try and work leafy greens into this next question: What was it like to revisit and revise these two books? Did seeing them side-by-side change how you read them?
AF: It was fun to read them again with the understanding that they would be placed in one volume. I love that they are inverted so that they meet in the middle. I think the edits to 8 make it a better match for Pharmacist’s Mate as well. Both books are at fighting weight but they’re not fighting each other. They’re strong and they come in peace. Like spinach and kale.
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