A Conversation with Amy Koppelman
Author of A MOUTHFUL OF AIR
Two Dollar Radio
Interview by Michael McCarthy
I spoke with Amy Koppelman as she was finishing making her first book, A Mouthful of Air, into a feature film. Though she wrote the novel eighteen years ago, it still seemed fresh in Koppelman’s mind. As I spoke with her over Zoom, she searched for the right words to describe her first novel. In this work, Koppelman engaged the experience of postpartum depression when conversation about the topic was rare. The book was first published in 2003 by MacAdam/Cage (a small press that has closed) and is now being reissued by Two Dollar Radio.
In this interview, which Koppelman and I have edited for clarity, Koppelman discusses how she began writing, the encouragement she received from Joan Didion, and whether writing is a world in which she feels safe. —MM
Michael McCarthy: There are a lot of words that could describe this book: masterfully written, engaging, suspenseful. But one word that also describes it is important. In it, you talk about an issue that has still not received much attention: postpartum depression. When was the moment when you knew you simply had to write this book?
Amy Koppelman: I didn’t know that I was writing this book. I don’t think that anybody sets out to write this book. When I wrote the second-to-last scene in the book, my fingers jumped off the keyboard because I just couldn’t believe that was what I wrote. I knew I wanted to write about shame, how we perceive shame within ourselves, and what we allow for ourselves within the confines of that shame, but I had no idea what the story was.
I started writing the day Kurt Cobain died. My husband called me about the news while I was lying in bed in a dark room. He didn’t know about my depression because I was really good at acting. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to be like Kurt Cobain. I don’t want to die, even though I really want to die.” So I had to figure out how to get better. I called a therapist that day—a name I’d been carrying around on a card in my wallet—and I also started writing around then. So I think originally, to answer your question, I was putting my emotions on paper. It’s not an autobiographical book, but the feelings of shame and self-loathing and all those feelings that one feels when they’re depressed—those were all mine.
MM: The main character Julie Davis is a character who, in modern lingo, really “goes through it.” She endures a depression that could register on the Richter scale. As a writer, you chose to go deep into her thought processes on a day-to-day level. Was it ever emotionally difficult or personally strenuous to spend so much time with a character who was going through that kind of depression?
AK: I had two little kids, who I loved spending time with, so I would drop them off at school, then go home and work. Being able to put all that sorrow and ugliness into the computer gave me the ability to be the most present, happy mom. There was always this huge disconnect between the shit I was writing about and how I was feeling with them, which was very happy. And very grateful.
There was nothing—is nothing—I like more than being a mom. I wasn’t writing about that pain at the same time I was feeling it. I was remembering it, so the emotional whiplash wasn’t as bad.
MM: What kept you going through the writing of this book? What was your routine?
AK: I have no writing routine. My kids and my husband always came first. If somebody was sick or needed me, a couple weeks could go by before I got back to it. But if no one needed me I would just do my “housewife” stuff—my chores—and sit down and work for a couple hours until I picked up the kids from school.
MM: The protagonist of the book leads a rather privileged life. She lives in a nice apartment in Manhattan. She has a supportive family and a nanny. She has access to mental healthcare as well as more conventional healthcare. As an author, was there a conscious decision to choose a character who led a life with such privileges as a way of talking about depression?
AK: Yes, that was an intention. Eighteen years ago people were just beginning to talk about depression as an illness. It was important to me that people understand that depression was no different than asthma or diabetes. You need to go to the doctor. I didn’t want the reader to find an “excuse” for Julie’s behavior so I removed every obstacle.
Julie had the time, support, and means to get any help she needed and she still couldn’t figure it out. She was trapped in a loop of self-hatred. “You’re not a good mother. You’re going to fail. You can’t help but fail.” So imagine a single mom, raising kids, working two jobs. How is she going to find the time and/or seek out the resources—especially when the very nature of depression makes everything feel futile?
MM: Were you ever frustrated that she couldn’t get better, or perhaps made decisions that made getting better unnecessarily difficult?
AK: She’s extraordinarily selfish, right? There’s nothing more selfish than killing yourself. Julie leaves her husband, her son and her baby girl. Even if they get better and are able to move on, the collateral damage of suicide is so vast and awesome. It’s nearly impossible to recover. It has a ripple effect on every subsequent generation. Of course, I was frustrated with her. But in a way that was the point. I wanted Julie’s story to serve as a cautionary tale. Don’t be like Julie. Make different choices.
MM: If my research serves me well, this book had a difficult publication history. It was difficult to find someone who would be willing to publish a story that was so dark and relentless in its depiction of depression. I believe there was even an interaction with Joan Didion. Could you take me to that moment?
AK: Sure. No one wanted to publish this book. I didn’t even take it personally. I was frustrated, though, because I knew there were so many women who were pushing strollers down the street and were in so much pain behind their smiles. At the end of the day, all you can really do is write the truth as you see it, as you hear it.
That said, after several hundred rejections you start to wonder: what if the reason I’m being rejected is because I’m not a good writer. Maybe the book just sucks. I had seen some article that said where Joan Didion lived, so as a gift to myself, I dropped off the manuscript for A Mouthful of Air and a note. I told her how much she meant to me, and then I asked her, “Am I a real writer?” Because if I’m not a real writer, I should start doing something else.
Everyone I knew was like “Joan Didion’s not gonna write you back.” But she wrote me back! She said that she had read the manuscript and, “Yes Amy, you are a real writer.” When you’re a writer you face a lot of rejection, that’s okay. Don’t pay attention to the rejections. Just collect the positive things people say—hold onto those words. (Amy waits a beat, smiles.) Most of the time they’re not from Joan Didion. That was super special.
MM: And after that bit of encouragement, how was the publication process?
AK: After getting rejected by virtually every agent in New York City, I finally found an agent in San Francisco. Randi Glass took my query out of the slush pile and gave it to Amy Rennert. Both women believed in me, they weren’t scared of the story. And they even found a mainstream publisher. This was my first novel. I was offered something like $10,000 from Doubleday (I think it was Doubleday)—a really nice advance—all I had to do was change the ending. But Julie has a psychotic break. She couldn’t pick up the phone and call 911. It just wasn’t true.
And that’s always been my “north star” as it were. To tell my characters’ truth. To depict the inner pain of someone with a mood disorder. No matter how ugly it is. So, I didn’t change the ending.
At that moment, I basically chose the trajectory of my career. Indie presses didn’t (and still don’t) get the same shelf-space or table-space in bookstores, which was everything back then. But Amy didn’t pressure me. She continued to hunt for a publisher and ultimately Pat Walsh, the editor at MacAdam/Cage said yes and published the novel in its purest form. And now Eric and Eliza Obenauff, the publishers of Two Dollar Radio are giving the novel a new life. I feel so proud to be part of the Two Dollar Radio family and part of the indie community. Independent presses are vital and I think very underappreciated.
MM: Depression seems like a near-impossible illness to write about because at its core, it makes day-to-day life seem nearly undoable. It seems that it would be almost impossible to get a book out of a character for whom daily life is so trying. What obstacles did you face in dramatizing depression, and how did you overcome them?
AK: The stories I tell are very small. They’re like a photograph—an image of a woman in a specific place in time. Writing something with any kind of through-line is always the hardest obstacle for me. I write freehand for many years—with little idea where I’m going. I know the feelings I want to convey, the mental illness I want to portray but I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish it—translate those ideas into a novel. Eventually, I write a scene that reveals the answer: “Oh, that’s what this novel is about.” Then I go back and piece together the story. Your subconscious is smarter than you. If you keep writing, you will find the answer.
MM: What challenges did you face moving A Mouthful of Air from the page to the screen?
AK: As I was adapting the novel I’d ask myself the following questions:
- What’s the action of this scene, the physical action? —for example, Julie crosses the room.
- What is happening in the scene emotionally? What are you conveying about her mental state? — Julie starts the scene self-assured and happy but ends the scene insecure and anxious.
- Is this emotional beat necessary to convey? —Yes, because now we know that when she’s in a group of people, Julie gets anxious.
- Why does the emotional beat matter? —Because we see that Julie is disproportionally fearful. Depending on where the scene is placed in the novel, this bit of information tells us something important about her character. About her POV. And about what’s at stake.
- After the first draft I went back and asked myself how many times was I making the same point? — There might be four scenes that show Julie anxious. Do they build? Are they all the same? If so, how many should I keep?
Amanda (Seyfried) said she wanted Julie to have a career, so I made her a children’s book author and illustrator. When my daughter Anna was little she had crossed eyes and wore an eye patch. Kids would make fun of her relentlessly, so at night before she went to bed I’d tell her about this little girl named Pinky Tinker ink who was born with an ugly, wrangled finger. And just like Anna, kids made fun of Pinky. It turns out, though, that Pinky’s finger is actually a key that helped her unlock doors no one else could see—this helped Pinky solve mysteries—find the answers. The idea was that the very thing that Pinky was ashamed of is what made her special.
I thought Pinky was a good—alter ego? Is that the right word?—for Julie. In the film Julie is well known for her books about a little girl named Pinky Tinkerbink. Through Pinky, Julie helps kids unlock their fears but can’t figure out how to unlock her own. And I think somewhere in there is the tragedy of Julie’s story.
MM: It’s interesting to see this book being made into a film nearly twenty years after its publication. Do you notice any change in the conversation surrounding postpartum depression?
AK: When I wrote this book, I had no idea that this category of depression existed. I remember when the book was published I was invited to attend a conference on postpartum depression in Jersey City, and there were like twenty people there. Today there are hundreds. So, yes. There have been huge strides. People are aware of it, “postpartum depression” is a term that people are familiar with.
In 1998 when I was a new mom, people rarely talked about postpartum depression and it remained largely undiagnosed. Today we know that one out of every five women suffers from postpartum depression. In a bunch of states now, there are laws that require gynecologists to screen new mothers to see how they’re doing. But there is still no national protocol—no system in place to check on a new mom’s mental health. That’s very upsetting.
People take antidepressants much more regularly now but I still think most people are undermedicated—no matter what the hip magazines say. Most moms—most people struggling from depression are still profoundly ashamed to ask for help. My biggest hope for the movie is that someone will see themselves—or someone they love—in Julie’s character. And they will get help. Postpartum depression is very treatable.
MM: I have one more question that involves a quote from the book. Julie goes to see her brother perform his music. You write, “Gently, forcefully, he manipulates his world. This, the only world in which he feels safe.” The question I want to ask you is this: is writing a world in which you feel safe?
AK: No one can hurt you when you’re in a room by yourself with your computer. The characters in your head certainly can’t hurt you. The keyboard can’t hurt you. Not being able to string two sentences together is frustrating—you may want to bang your head against the wall, but even that can’t hurt you. And if your thoughts and feelings get to be too much you can simply shut your computer. There is no judgment.
Writing for me started as a safe place to put all of my sadness and I think in many ways that’s still what it is for me—a safe space to process grief and trauma. I learn through my characters’ choices. The good choices and the bad ones. So yes, to answer your question writing is a safe place for me—for everyone actually.
Because everyone is a writer—all you have to do is allow yourself to write. If you can tell a story to your friend at the coffee shop, you are a writer. You don’t need permission. Writing is a safe place to put your thoughts. But that doesn’t mean your writing needs to be safe.
Michael McCarthy is an aspiring writer of prose, poetry, and nonfiction from Braintree, Massachusetts who attends Haverford College, where he intends to major in English. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner.