Modern queer sexuality with Amy Feltman, author of ‘Willa & Hesper’

Queer intimacy and family history are at the center of Willa & Hesper, Amy Feltman‘s non-romantic love story. In the debut, the two titular characters meet, fall for each other, and fall away from one another. The story doesn’t rest in their relationship but in the hidden parts of their lives.

The book opens with Willa surviving a sexual assault and learning how to navigate life after the event she keeps secret from her family. Hesper struggles with her sexuality and views on intimacy. The two aren’t perfect for one another and move on with their lives in different, but similar ways.

Willa goes on tours of concentration camps in Germany while Hesper explores her familial roots in Georgia. As the two move further apart from their relationship, we learn more about who these two women are as Feltman comments on female sexuality in the Trump era.

I spoke with the author about writing a queer love story that wasn’t a typical coming out or being rejected by a family plot.

Were you much of a reader and writer growing up?

I’ve always had a straight path to becoming a writer growing up. From the time I was old enough to read, I always imagined being a writer. I would make little books out of construction paper, introducing eight or nine characters, and on the last page, something would happen. I was always excited about a lot of characters inhabiting a space and reacting to each other. Those were always my favorite stories. 

I read a lot of books when I was younger that I didn’t understand. I had to go back and read them over. I remember reading Phillip Roth and William Faulkner when I was in high school. I realized I didn’t understand what they were doing.

Who were some influential writers that did stick with you?

I would say Faulkner really rocked my world. Even though I didn’t understand what was happening in those books, I would be reading them and flipping pages back and forth to try to figure out how this literature I felt strongly about happened. After I read As I Lay Dying, I wrote this very intense, multiple-narrative story about a person buying egos in the grocery store. Which is now embarrassing to think about, but the idea was this person was buying eggs, but the eggs would remind them of their dead father.  There was the idea that an interaction could mean so much to a person but not the rest of the world. Those are ideas I am still interested in that I can see in my writing.

Was an MFA always part of your plan?

I think so. I always knew I wanted to do it. I was given the advice to wait a few years after undergrad to do it. I really appreciated it then after missing that feeling you only get in college.

What were you working on during that time?

I worked on the same novel my entire time during my MFA. It was another multiple-narrative story about two teenagers who have a very turbulent love affair. But there would be a question mark after love affair. It was a very intense, codependent, sometimes romantic affair that took over their lives. I really got into that duel narrative while I was working on it. I got into thinking about how voice could add to it. 

That MFA thesis and Willa & Hesper both use duel narratives. What draws you to these stories with multiple voices?

It’s my way of figuring out the world and thinking about how an event can be very different from one side to another. Both Willa and Hesper have different paths to self-discovery. Yet both are shaped by trauma. It was interesting for me to see how two people can have this lineage of traumatic experiences in the past and interact with each other in the present. I knew from the beginning they weren’t going to end up together and it wasn’t going to be a traditional love story. Having that framework was fun to work on because most of the time when you are introduced to a couple you are rooting for them to be together. I really liked the idea that you were rooting for them to be okay separately. 

So much romance in media, not just in novels, is… I guess romanticized. Two people will get together and no matter how awful they are together, or more importantly how better they are off apart, we’re conditioned to root for them.

It reminds me of that Netflix series Love. When I was watching that, I thought it was an interesting project to introduce us to characters who were obviously not right for each other at all and show us how not right they are. I was really surprised, maybe naively, that the show wants you to be rooting for them to be together. It was interesting to see the difference of my perspective of the show against what the showrunners were thinking of.

That idea of what the creator envisions versus what the audience takes away is interesting. The show You, which is based on a Caroline Kepnes novel, is clearly meant to show why Penn Bagdley’s character is not a guy you’d want to be with. However, there are women – and men – professing their love for the character. Like… did they miss the point?

Oh god. Exactly.

But with Willa & Hesper, you kept them apart and did a clear job of exploring why you did. Did you start this after your MFA then?

I started it pretty much after I started working at Poets and Writers. I started in 2014. The book appeared in a much easier fashion than anything I have ever written before. That first opening in the novel is the first thing I wrote for this and it’s pretty much unchanged from how I wrote it in the first draft. Previously, I have been a laborious writer. This book was so much easier to write than my MFA novel.

What about that MFA thesis didn’t work?

It was a difficult story to tell. I think it was a publishing industry situation more than anything. The characters were teenagers, but it was a Young Adult novel. A character had an autoimmune disorder and there aren’t a lot of books that handle young female health and sexuality [in the way I wrote it]. Usually, it’s told a very specific way.

Ultimately, I am glad Willa & Hesper was my first novel because it is more representative about what I am and what I want to grow into.

Sexuality is a very evident theme in this novel. Have all of your works touched on body and queerness?

I would have written about it more than I have not written about it. It’s present in a lot of things I have worked on. I’m queer and in a same-sex relationship. I do notice that there are stories that aren’t told very often. Coming out and being rejected by your family has been told. It’s been told very well. I haven’t seen queer heartbreak and there is a lot of queer heartbreak in the world.

Exactly. I feel there are the same queer stories being told. But there are multiple sides to queer love and relationships just like heterosexual love and relationships. Obviously. What part did you want to explore for these two?

Right. I wanted to explore Willa and Hesper exploring themselves. Their relationship was a transformative experience even though they don’t end up together. I don’t think that is shown a lot in a break-up story. The tragedy is usually that they’re not together anymore. I think the tragedy in this story is that they kept running from themselves.

I think the story ends on a hopeful note even though they both are in a dark place. We see Hesper looking outward for the first time. We see her realize what she is meant to be doing and not just for herself. With Willa, she is figuring out the next steps. She is letting go for the first time.

Structurally, we learn so much about them as well. They each have star billing, which is hard to pull off. The opening was largely unchanged. What about the rest of the book?

I always wanted the duel narrative. It was originally alternating but in much longer sections. When I first finished it was six sections. When I started working with my editor, Maddie Caldwell at Grand Central Publishing, she had the idea of breaking into smaller parts. It allowed for a lot more momentum. You also see the parallels in their stories a lot more clearly when they are pushed up against each other.

For instance, there is a moment where Willa has a terrible time in a club in Germany and Hesper also has a terrible time at a club in Tbilisi. Their journeys are parallel and putting that at the forefront was important.

A lot of time with two different narrators, their voices tend to bleed. Yours didn’t. How did you manage tapping into these two individuals so uniquely?

A lot of it had to do with music. I am very particular about the music I am listening to while writing. The music I listened to for Willa is very different than the music I listened to for Hesper. Some of that came out in the literal writing.

Willa’s section were usually accompanied by female singer-songwriters with this wilting fragility. Hesper’s sections had a lot of pounding music. Usually, male singers who were tortured with heavy percussion.

Willa is also dealing with PTSD throughout the book and things are more fragmented in her sentence structure as a result. There is also more repetition. Hesper is very detached at a lot of points. She has more of a camera eye looking around her rather than looking at herself.

Now that these two characters are out in the world, are you crafting a new project already?

I am. I had to restart it three times. So this is my fourth time starting it. It’s a family drama about a teenager whose mother is an alcoholic. The mother left the family when the teen was a baby. When the mother returns, it’s about what it does to the family and what relationships can form. It also explores unlikely relationships on the internet as well.

That’s interesting because I feel that aspect of life hasn’t been covered so much in literature yet.

There is a dark side of internet friendships, but it could also be very beautiful. In the book, I have one side of the internet friendship being a really fulfilling and excepting place where two people who aren’t like each other can connect. The other side you see what happens when you assume everyone you’re talking to is well-intentioned but in the end, they’re still strangers.

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