Amazon Q&A for The Affairs of Others. Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins, interviews Amy Grace Loyd, author of The Affairs of Others.
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. Do you recall how she came to you?
Amy Grace Loyd: 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 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?
AGL: 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: 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: 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?
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.
The former literary editor of Playboy makes her fiction debut with an intimate portrayal of the walls erected by a woman after her husband's death, and how impulsive encounters with others break them down. Widowed five years earlier, Celia Cassill now clings to her isolation, allowing herself happiness only in memories of her marriage—books read, movies watched, bodies shared. She chose the tenants in her Brooklyn brownstone for their discretion and respect for separateness. When one of them moves to France, she reluctantly allows him to sublet his apartment to Hope, a beautiful, newly divorced, middle-aged woman recovering from her husband's infidelity. Not long after Hope moves in, another of Celia's tenants—a retired ferryboat captain—disappears, and his daughter holds Celia responsible. That messiness, as well as Hope's spinning-out-of-control life, prove intolerable to Celia, who wanders the city in search of her missing tenant, listening in on the tawdry goings-on in Hope's apartment, and recounting some of her actions during and after the death of her husband. Celia witnesses and participates in small acts of violence and sexual exploration, and her past and Hope's present force down Celia's walls. Lloyd's character study is narrow in scope but long on intensity and emotion. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins and Associates. (Sept.)