I first met Amy Shearn at a book reading in 2015, and was instantly smitten with her dress and with her because she is just the coolest, funniest person around.Want proof? Here you go:
Amy is also extraordinarily talented. She is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is the Ocean From Here. Her third novel, Unseen City, is, truthfully, extraordinary. Want proof of that? Look at some of this praise:
"Luminous...The presence of ghosts is easily believable, helped along by the characters’ shared sense of grief. Shearn’s nimble storytelling unearths a fascinating and fraught history."—Publishers Weekly
"Like the ghosts who inhabit its pages, the novel lingers long after you’ve put it down."—Kirkus Reviews
"Amy Shearn’s modern fable Unseen City is anchored by smart, sly humor. It delves into the layered social, psychological, and historical architecture of New York City, a place that’s paved over the bones of its dead, who are transmuted by needs of the living or clarified by their own unmet demands. Somewhere between the two poles lies the finite present, a co-constructed mythology that’s revealed to be volatile, and as susceptible to emotional anesthesia as it is to radical hope."—Foreword Reviews
Amy has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and currently lives in Brooklyn. You can find her at amyshearnwrites.com or @amyshearn.
And here is a fantastic video Amy made with her daughter Harper, which was also shot and edited by her son Alton! And wait, there's more! Harper was interviewed for her writing on this blog when she was in first grade! Read it here!
And here is the interview! Thank you Amy!
I always ask, what was haunting you when you wrote this book? And do you now feel unhaunted? Did the writing give you an answer you were looking for?
What a great question! When I was writing this book, I was haunted by many questions: How does one shape a meaningful life? Who can really manage to live in New York City and to whom does the city belong (a sub-question there being: How is gentrification a kind of ghost story)? And of course the old favorite: How do we go on with this life knowing we will experience tremendous loss and eventually die ourselves?
Also. When I first started shaping this book, I knew I wanted a historical storyline to intertwine with the present-day. But as soon as I started researching the history of various neighborhoods in Brooklyn I realized that (of course! inevitably!) any story about the history of this country is in some way a story about racism and racist violence. This was back in 2013, 2014, the years when the Black Lives Matter movement was really getting going, and I felt very aware of and haunted by the news and the anti-Black violence that is so woven into the story of this country. These two things combined in my head in a way I couldn’t stop thinking about -- how life in America haunted by the legacy of racism and violence; how white people often feel like it’s not “our” issue but how it needs to be everyone’s issue and everyone’s problem to focus on and try to work out. My book is just a novel of course, and only tells a pretend story about pretend people, and is inevitably from a white writer’s perspective, and I’ve certainly not answered any questions or solved any problems. I do not feel unhaunted by this one, as is appropriate. But I feel like I did strengthen my “radical empathy” muscles and stretched myself as a writer in this project of trying to create a story that engaged with important issues of social justice. I had never felt confident enough in my writing before to try to tackle anything on that scale before.
As for the other preoccupations, I think they might also just be evergreen questions for me. But I definitely have other things in mind, haunting me if you will, as I begin work on something new!
I love anything that has to do with NYC, and this wonderful novel feels like the best sort of Valentine. Is it? How and how not?
Ah, thank you! It’s funny you say that because I truly have a complicated relationship with NYC – I think maybe everyone does? I’ve never lived anywhere else where it feels like everyone who lives there is constantly going “Wait, do I really want to be here? Is it worth it? Should I move? I should move. Wait, no. I’ll never leave! Wait, actully I think I need to leave. Wait-” But I feel like that’s what it’s like to live here – because it’s, you know, objectively speaking, terrible in so many ways, you’re always having to choose it again and again. Then again, maybe I say that because I’m a transplant from the Midwest, and came here 15 – almost 16! – years ago without much of a plan and not totally expecting to stay. I’m perpetually surprised to find that my entire adult life is rooted here, that my children are New Yorkers.
So anyway, I wrote this in a time when I really did need to fall back in love with the city – my kids were small, life felt particularly hard and unaffordable, it often seemed (as it does for my book’s character Meg) that the city was trying to expel me, like a splinter or something, because I wasn’t rich enough or connected enough or high-powered enough. Learning more about the city’s history actually did help, in the same way that you feel more kindly or understanding towards a person once you learn more about their backstory.
I also wrote a lot in the book about weird spaces, hidden stories, and long walks, which truly are my favorite things about the city. I was definitely writing a valentine to taking long walks throughout the city, which is the one thing New York is absolutely the best for.
I also admit that I love librarians, and you’ve made this one even more enchanting because she has to live with her sister’s ghost in her apartment. Can you talk about where that character came from?
Ha! I love librarians too! I am often confused to find that I am not actually a librarian, like, how did that happen? How did I forget to become a librarian?
My second book, which came out while I was starting to write this one, was about a Brooklyn mother of two, and I was frustrated by how many people (totally understandably! but still) assumed the character was essentially really me. I wanted to create more distance with my next protagonist, and to imagine a very different life. Meg is single, has always been single, never wants to get married or have children, doesn’t work in media like I do, and is a very pure reader. I know that doesn’t sound that different from me, but weirdly because I’m a writer I feel like I can never really read in that same pure way as I did as kid, when I wasn’t also trying to figure out how the writer did this or that – I’m sure you know what I mean. So to me, it’s fun to imagine that. And because I felt overwhelmed by my children in those years, and (I now realize) unhappy in my marriage, the life of someone who kind of gets to be self-focused seemed quite seductive.
Now, IRONICALLY ENOUGH, I’m divorced, and I’m the same age that Meg is in the book (we’re 40, TYVM), and so sometimes, when my kids are at their dad’s, I do live alone, so… that’s just… really weird. I’m still not a librarian though. But stay tuned I guess.
As for her ghost! Some years ago I had a revelation about my parents. When they met, they were in their 20s, and they had both just undergone huge, traumatic, unexpected losses in their immediate families – the sudden death of both my mother’s brother and my father’s father. I’d always clocked this as nothing more than an odd coincidence until it occurred to me that (duh!) this must have been a large part of what bonded them together. When I asked them about this my mother said, “Yes, it was like we were two lost souls who found each other.” Gross right? Just kidding. Anyway, so this also sort of obsessed me, this idea that loss can bring people together. So I wanted to create two characters, Meg and Ellis, who are in a unique position to understand each other’s pain, and who are drawn together because of it.
There’s a lot about the things that haunt us in the book, and not just the sibling ghost or the library guy who is dedicated to excavating the mysteries of a haunted house.
I also deeply loved that the house, as well as NYC, was sort of a character in itself, something I admit I always feel drawn to. This house has had an upbringing, starting with growing up (so to speak) in Brooklyn before gentrification turned it from joke to a must destination. And so does the city, with vestiges of draft riots, poverty, love. Can you talk about this please?
Oh, thank you! Another thing that was going on in my life when I first started writing this book was that my then-husband and I were trying to buy a house. Our budget put us into the “Would you like a burnt-out shell or just a pile of rubble?” price range of Brooklyn real estate. So needless to say we were not looking at beautifully staged spaces; we were looking strictly at houses where it seemed like something terrible had happened immediately before we entered them. One we literally called “the murder house” because it just… had that vibe to it. I was fascinated by how you could feel the imprint of the people who had lived in these spaces – the tread of their feet on worn carpet, the misalignment of a door that was maybe slammed too many times. It made me think a lot about the spaces we live our lives in, and how those spaces shape our selves. And it also made me think a lot about gentrification and what role I did or did not want to play in it. Like, if we bought a foreclosed home in a neighborhood where we would be the only white people, was that profiting off institutionalized injustice, benefiting from the pain of whoever had lost their home?
We didn’t end up buying a house. But I did, obviously, retain an interest in the way houses and buildings tell narratives about the people who live in them and the cities around them. I love the wisdom and world-weariness of buildings that obviously used to live different lives – and there are so many of these in New York City. (Maybe because I’m from the Midwest, I’m perpetually impressed and surprised by how OLD everything here is.) The war munitions factory that eventually houses artists and lovers in lofts. The mogul’s stately mansion that gets sliced and diced into quirky little apartments. The farmhouse (as in the book) that finds Brooklyn has sprouted up all around it. I love them!
How do you think people find the persons that should be theirs? I sometimes think we have radar that guides us.
Oh wow, I really don’t know. I like this radar idea. I do find that we somehow draw in the people we need in any given moment.
Lately I have had so much love and gratitude for my friends – I am lucky to have these incredible, supportive, brilliant, generous women in my life who have lifted me up and held space for me as I navigated my divorce (and EVERYTHING else, you know, this year has been so many years!), and maybe this person-radar is to thank for that. I mean when I think about it, there are in this friend roster a few representatives from each stage in my life, which is pretty incredible – like a high school friend, a college friend, a grad school friend, new motherhood friends, current neighborhood friends – you know? Maybe my past self knew that I would someday need deep friendships with incredible women to lean on. I find that more and more my female friendships are the most important and nurturing relationships in my life -- they are truly my people, my kindred spirits. So, I’m glad my radar found and collected them over the years.
Tell us what kind of writer you are, and what the process was for this particular book.
What an interesting thing to think about! I hope it doesn’t sound too precious when I say that for me being a writer feels like as much a part of me as being a woman or a mother or something like that – like, it’s just there, it’s always going to be there. I’ve had such a, hm, checkered publication history that every time I’m writing a book I have no idea if it will be published or by whom or how, and yet I keep doing it anyway and I know that I always will no matter what; writing is just how I process life, and I feel weird and cranky when I’m not writing. Of course in addition to writing books, which feels like my art and my vocation, if you will, I write various essays and articles for work – though that feels like such a different thing!
So, anyway, this book. This was the first book I’ve ever written where I did a ton of research before even beginning, and then created a very detailed outline, including a sort of map for myself. I did a lot of work before writing any pages. I had Pinterest boards for all of my characters – I wanted to see and know everyone very clearly before I began. Then I divided up the storylines/narrators – there are now only two, but in the first draft I think I had 5 or 6 different narrators! And then I wrote each narrator’s storyline on its own, in these disparate narrative chunks. This worked well for the shape of time I had in those days, if that makes sense. My kids were little and I had very scant childcare, so I couldn’t reliably write every day. But I would find these sorts of islands of time. A couple times my mother came into town for a week or so at a time and watched the children and I spent all day every day writing one of these storylines. One summer I scraped together enough dollars to send the kids to day camp for the first time ever, it was so exciting, and then I had two weeks of half-days during which I wrote one of the storylines. That kind of thing.
But I wasn’t able to really braid all these storylines together until the kids were both in school fulltime. My daughter was in 1st grade, and my son was in full-day pre-k (I know it’s not very cool to say this nowadays, but I have a soft spot for DiBlasio -- entirely because he made universal pre-k a thing in NYC and this allowed me to finish my book), and after being home with them for nearly 8 years I decided I could gift myself a few months before looking for more renumerative work. I spent every school day working on the book. I have never before or since had anything like this, really – a fairly reliable six hours or so to write, day after day. The level of concentration and flow you can achieve is truly remarkable! This was the time and space I needed to combine all the bits of novel I’d written over the years. By that winter I had gone back to work fulltime, but that was a really great fall for me creatively!
THEN there was a whole series of sagas re: publication, and at one point my brilliant agent Julie Stevenson guided me through a pretty significant revision, etc, etc. So there were still a good many years between my “finishing” it, and now. To wit, my daughter is now in middle school. But hey, what is time anyway?
That was probably a lot more detail than you needed! But the point is: there’s always a way. It’s not the same way with each book, or at least it definitely isn’t for me. In fact, the next book, which my agent is currently reading, was an entirely different process! That book, a quick, epistolary comedy called Dear Edna Sloane, was written in one year, mostly during my lunch breaks from my day job. Each book totally is shaped by the process – like, of course a lunch break novel is in letters! You know?
And do you yourself believe in ghosts? (I do.)
I think I convinced myself, over the course of writing this book, that ghosts
are totally real. I started off liking a ghost as a metaphor. But – I just
think there has to be a lot about the way the world works that we can’t
prove or fully understand. And – this is going to sound so dumb – but a few
years ago my dog, a terrible mutt named Quimby, died. And afterwards I could
have sworn I felt her presence, sometimes even seemed to see her out of the
corner of my eye. It was so strange, and felt so physical – like there
was some imprint of her left there. It faded after a while. And maybe that’s
where we get mythologies/ideas like purgatory or the Bardo – trying to
explain why we have that weird sense that someone who’s dead is still hanging around.
What’s obsessing you now and why (besides the pandemic and politics.)
gosh, well, given the way my own life has changed in the past year, and
watching what’s happening to other nuclear families during the pandemic (my own
split was pre-pandemic! strange coincidence of timing, there) -- I have been thinking a lot about the inadequacy
of our contemporary American iterations of marriage and childrearing and family.
My friends and I frequently joke about starting an all-female artists commune
in the country where we would share childcare responsibilities and support each
other’s creative work… and sometimes I’m not sure we’re totally joking! I mean,
communal living feels like an utter science-fiction fantasy in Covid times. But
I do think that we’re all set up to fail right now. Heterosexual marriage, in
so many cases, ends up producing a kind of mini-society that’s fueled by the
free (and totally overlooked) labor of wives and mothers. Our country’s totally
backwards attitude towards childcare and education and whose responsibility they
are – it’s all been laid bare by the pandemic. So I’ve been thinking a lot
about that, and about how we ask women and especially mothers to shape their
lives and selves in order to make everything work a certain way. I’m in the
very very wispy first stages of writing something new, but I know this
obsession is going to work its way in…
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
No, you are perfect, obviously! You are the world’s best literary citizen in addition to being an awe-inspiring writer, Caroline. I’m so grateful to you for everything you do!