Amy Monticello is the author of Close Quarters, a chapbook memoir about unconventional divorce (Sweet Publications), and the essay collection How to Euthanize a Horse, which won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction. She also won the 2013 S.I. Newhouse School prize in nonfiction from Stone Canoe. Her work has been published in journals such as Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Iron Horse Literary Review, Hotel Amerika, Salon, The Rumpus, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, anthologized in Going Om: Real-Life Stories On and Off the Yoga Mat, and listed as notable in Best American Essays. Amy is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Suffolk University, where she also directs the First-Year Seminar program. She lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter.
1. What writer do you want to be when you grow up?
This answer changes as I keep growing up, but I’d sure like to grow in the direction of Mary Karr. Not only did I learn so much about writing memoir from her Liars’ Club series—its masterful scenes, its ascerbic wit, its eccentric, yet accessible characters (I grew up in the bar my father owned), and sometimes-unlikable narrator—but have you seen her clothes? She kills in classic black. Also, she took an abusive David Foster Wallace to task twice after he died and the Sicilian in me respects those who don’t play nice with the dead just because they’re dead. Also, she once called herself a “lefty ho.” Like, how do you not want to be her?
2. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
I’m probably at my most unlikable in my essay “Shame,” which was published at Brevity years ago (still my dream journal). Why this obsession with unlikability? Because I’m a people-pleaser in my regular life—a punctual, polite, smiling type. The essay begins with me stealing another woman’s boyfriend and allowed me to claim imperfection—something a perfectionist loathes, but needs to do (and on that note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to run and order Gina Frangello’s debut memoir, Blow Your House Down). I’m also partial to a weird little essay I published last year in CALYX called “My Only Daughter Scatters My Ashes.” It’s an act of imagination—I am not yet dead!—about what my daughter will do with my remains in relation to what sort of mother I am to her.
3. Who do you trust with your drafts and why?
I met my husband, Jason Tucker, in our MFA program at Ohio State, so he has first dibs. No, that’s not accurate. He does read my drafts first, but that’s because I’m compulsive about reading drafts aloud (as in, I read my day’s work aloud before I go to bed) and make him be my audience. He says he knows when I’m looking for critique vs. figuring it out myself with him as a witness. Regardless, he’s immensely important to everything I write, whatever the process. After Jason, I have a few trusted readers. Heather Kirn Lanier, Sonya Huber, Brooke Champagne, and Sarah Einstein have all been incredible readers. They’re all wildly talented writers in their own right, but what they share is a knack for helping me discern what I think a piece is about vs. what it is actually about. As nonfiction writers, too, they get the challenges of working with the facts of what really happened to uncover messy, real-life meaning. I should ask more fiction writers and poets to read drafts, though. I once asked the poet Ruth Awad to read a draft of a prose poem I’d written, and she effortlessly led me to the piece’s final image with her poet genius about language and patterns.
4. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I once heard Lacy Johnson speak at the NonfictioNow Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, and she said—I’m badly paraphrasing—that she no longer cared about writing work meant for everyone. It landed as advice to people-pleasing me.
5. What’s your go to recommendation to read when somebody says “I’m not sure about this whole nonfiction thing?” Why? What do you hope it shows them? What about it excites you?
I recommend different things to different people, depending on who they are and what their hesitancy about nonfiction might be. For writers who worry that their lives aren’t interesting enough to make art from, I’ll recommend Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls, Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You in Person, or Ira Sukrungruang’s Talk Thai: These are books that show how the ordinary can be—often must be—the path to the sublime. For writers who see themselves primarily as scholars, I’ll recommend Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, or Eula Biss’ On Immunity, or Emily Rapp Black’s The Still Point of the Turning World to show how the personal necessarily intersects with other subjects and disciplines—medicine, literature, pop culture, theology. If I want to open the Pandora’s Box of the essay for a poet or fiction writer, I’ll recommend Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, Sarah Manugso’s Ongoingness, Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, or Liz Scheid-Blau’s The Shape of Blue. B.J. Hollars also taught me this trick: Go to your local thrift store or library sale and buy copies of books you’ve loved to give away to just the right person—you’ll know who and when. I keep a stack in my office for students.