In Hard Mouth, the dizzying debut from Amanda Goldblatt, the main character Denny retreats from her every day life into the woods to escape the news that her father’s battle with cancer is finally coming to an end. Once she arrives, Goldblatt offers a Phoebe Waller-Bridge twist on Thoreau. Denny deals with death by diving into her own head to be accompanied by an imaginary friend.
The psychological approach to this story – family dealing with cancer – made Goldblatt’s novel wholly original and one I couldn’t put down. The writer has such a grasp on her language and nuanced beats that the book is completely bingeable and so good you’ll want to go back for seconds to see just how she pulled it off.
I corresponded with Goldblatt to get inside her head and wrap my own around how she created Hard Mouth.
Before Hard Mouth, what were you writing? Were there attempted novels? Short stories piled up and sent to literary magazine?
I never tried to write a novel before Hard Mouth. I really love stories, so that’s what I was writing and publishing, along with essays. I continued to do that while working on the novel, between drafts, or sometimes just compulsively alongside the process. They felt like relief valves with which I could find air outside of the novel, which, after years of work on it, I needed.
Thematically, what did your earlier work have in common with your debut novel?
I remember saying in my thesis defense that I was interested in “bodies moving through space,” and the way that could reveal interior life. I’m not sure I knew quite what I meant then, but it did eventually develop into a motif. You can see some of that in my stories, and in the novel, where my narrator Denny must move her body away from everything she knows in order to [attempt to] disconnect from grief. But really, the language is the thing. My obsession with language, and first-person voice specifically, has been lifelong.
One thing I loved was your grasp on your style and structure of the writing itself. Can you give insight into your writing process. Not necessarily the when and where, but what you’re looking for or thinking about when you finally get a word, sentence, or paragraph right.
To be honest the generation of my language is almost purely intuitive; something feels correct or it doesn’t. But the intuition comes from an intense fixation on language—overheard, read, seen, etc.—which occupies me daily. The other day, I was talking to my mother on the phone, and when she wanted to express pride—a very nice thing—she said, “I feel proudness. Pridefulness. Pride. I’m a mama lion.” Ellen Bryant Voigt writes that a sentence “resolves the brain’s search for fundament.” And that’s true. But the search for fundament itself has so many exciting potentials for language along the way. I hew close to that, in writing. It’s the discovery of those moments that often feel most satisfying, most correct.
Your book is the second one I’ve read coming out in August to use cancer as a propellant. You and Karen Raney’s All the Water in the World tackle the nuances of it differently. Why use her father’s cancer in Denny’s story?
The thing about cancer is that, pretty much, if you live past a certain age, you’ll get it. Most elderly people die with some form of it, though often it moves so slowly that the cause of death is something else entirely. Cancer feels very much to me like an omnipresent force upon all of our bodies, like the sun, like gravity. Not to be macabre. Just to note why. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, which is what drove me to begin the novel. I wanted to materialize my fear in fiction. I was looking for some control or demystification or space to think.
Denny’s seclusion allows for a lot of internal movement in her thinking. Her stream of consciousness drives the novel. Did you always intend for this story to be told that way?
Yes. First, I think past training and work in nonfiction has made me fairly obsessed with the qualities of subjectivity. I’m not interested in pretending that objectivity exists. My work is governed by that, to some extent. But meanwhile, I’m interested in how “stream of consciousness” is deployed here. You can read the book one way, and experience that stream of consciousness as Denny’s present, her real in-the-moment thinking. But you can also read it as a performance of her past consciousness, a retrospectively organized and/or revised version of it, since Denny is telling the story from some point in the future. I was interested in making both experiences available.
Even though Denny is going through a very low moment in her life, the book still finds time to have some humor (which can be dark at times). How did you balance her humor with the rest of the tone?
During a hard moment, there’s often a lack of control over the terms of one’s life. What emerges from that is a shocking, rebellious buoyancy, which is to say: jokes. There was no effort to balance the tone. The tone of the book is perhaps the least edited and revised part of it. Some of the humor was purposeful, but some of it was a surprise to me. I’m a bit of a mimic—it comes with my attention to language and sensory detail. So I think that spending a lot of time with the work of truly funny people has infected my writing. The first epigraph of the novel is from Abbott & Costello, and I grew up listening to classic radio shows, a lot of which rely on wordplay. We got basic cable when I was in middle school and I—pubescent and impressionable—watched a lot of Kids in the Hall, and standup by people like Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofolo. I had a boyfriend in my early twenties who introduced me to Mr. Show and Mitch Hedberg. I love Maria Bamford and Kate Berlant. I admire the craft of comedy, admire following its rhythm and abbertations and absurdities. I admire my funny friends. The admiration turns into a nearly subconscious mimicry. But also: I tell bad jokes and enjoy telling bad jokes. Denny shares some of that.
While Denny escapes to the woods, literarily and symbolically, her place in the real world – in the suburbs – also fascinates me. How important is place to you in your writing?
I think it’s important to me to see that body in space; I sometimes regard place as a form of composition along with a character—like a set, I suppose. In writing you can control everything, represent/invent anything, so why not attend to that element of bodily experience? Until the singularity, part of being human is having a body, and that body has a context, and that context is meaningful.
Often being in a place incites me to write. Almost every time I travel I start a new story. There’s an element of fieldwork in that. Part of it, also, is that it creates for me a function or job—something handy for anyone who has anxiety. But either way, I am inspired by new information, by the terms of existence and how they’re governed by the natural and built environments. And all that ends up on the page.
What was preparing and researching like to get down what Denny’s existence and situation would be like in the woods?
I did not do formal fieldwork for the book; I didn’t go and stay in a remote mountain cabin. But I did spend time consciously noticing trees and other plants, bugs. That sounds ludicrous, maybe, but it’s true. I put myself in various wooded areas, and in lakes, and took the time to put those experiences into language. I did a lot of recall, times I had camped or, earlier, been at camp. Like Denny, I’m not exceptionally outdoorsy. Though I know more than she does about flora and fauna and so on. I can build a fire.
For Denny’s own preparations, I spent a lot of time on old internet forums for survivalists, and reading through outdated wilderness manuals. I wanted her information to be blurry, only sometimes accurate. She doesn’t care enough to get it right, and that’s important. I did go shoot a gun at an outdoor shooting range. I didn’t have firsthand experience with guns and it seemed important that I write Denny’s in a way that was specific to her, and not strictly correlating to the preexisting cultural narratives of shooting. I also spent a lot of time on YouTube, watching videos of skunks, and people shimmying up trees. YouTube, with its nearly uncurated collection of person-on-the-street video dispatches, is an amazing source of primary documents.
Moving forward, where else would you want to take your writing? What challenges do you want to give yourself? What topics and themes would you like to explore?
I’m working on a novel right now about women and swimming and gentrification. It’s set in Chicago. I’m challenging myself to write about whiteness in doing so. Some days it feels impossible, shaming even. As it should.