December 2002

Jessa Crispin


An interview with Amy Fusselman

Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate originally came out with McSweeney's books as a hardback, and the paperback was recently released with Penguin. It's a tiny slip of a book, one afternoon of reading in your hands.

It tells the story of the death of Fusselman's father and her attempts to become pregnant during that time. Her story is interspersed with excerpts from her father's journal from 1945 as the Purser-Pharmacist's Mate on the Liberty Ship George E. Pickett. It's a lovely chronicle of a family without falling into sentimentality or cuteness and also without obvious censoring.

I talked to Amy Fusselman at her hotel during the Texas Book Festival in Austin.

So how did you come to the Texas Book Festival?

Well, I'm on tour right now for my paperback, and this was one of the stops. Plus I know Neal [Pollack], and he lives in Austin now, so it was like a fun thing to come see Neal. It's great. It's a Book Fest... it's really fun.

Have you ever been to the Texas Book Festival before?

No. I came to Austin when the hardcover of the book came out and read at BookPeople, and they were really great.

I know that the Texas Book Festival used to have really stringent policies about who was allowed to come speak, like you had to be born in Texas or something, and have had a book release in the past year. This year they made a big deal about how they were going to relax the rules. For a long time it was just like, the new biography of Lyndon B. Johnson or something.

Fannie Flagg again!

Yeah. So how has your family's reaction to such personal content been?

It's been really good. It's... I don't know. They've been... totally in my corner. I never think about that, but then people ask, and it must seem kinda shocking. I've always written personal stuff, so maybe they weren't surprised on that end.

What are you working on as a follow-up?

I hope it's not so much a follow-up as its own little... being. A new baby, not a limb of the old baby. I do believe in the mojo that you shouldn't talk about unfinished stuff, so I don't want to say too much about it.

Do you write fiction as well as non-fiction?

I have problems classifying my books. I think of it as a novel even though it's not really a novel. The Pharmacist's Mate, I mean. I don't think I'm capable of writing something purely fake. I just can't. I'm just not wired that way.

I read in a Dave Eggers interview recently where he said that fiction is a lot easier to write than non-fiction, because you don't have to ask permission. Did you go through that writing The Pharmacist's Mate, taking it to every individual person?

The only person I showed it to in that manner before publication was my brother, because I felt that what I written was about a family secret. If he had had a problem with it, that would have been a major problem with the book. But he was really like, "It's awesome and go for it and good luck." I think my family is really extraordinary, in the way all families are I guess. I mean, it's my blood, and my peeps are in my corner, absolutely.

How did you make the transition from McSweeney's to Penguin?

It wasn't really me making the transition so much as... well, we were talking about this on the panel today. Because it was successful as a McSweeney's book, it got the attention of people in the industry. Just like all my work, it has a life outside of me. I didn't have a lot to do with the transition. I suppose it helps that I went on tour.

You were touring when you were, what, six months pregnant?

I was. It was insane. Especially doing it now, because I am pregnant now. Really early, though... I'm only in my third month. But knowing what I went through before, I have total respect for myself now. I can't believe I did it.

How long is your current tour?

Five days. Five cities, five days. I mean, I did other gigs, like Boston and New York, but in terms of real traveling... I can't be away from home long. It's really difficult to be away even for short periods.

Is that going to affect future book tours, if you're going to have two children?

Well, I don't know. The morning I got up to leave for this tour, my husband was like, "next time, we're coming with you. We're family." And I was like, yeah. So next time, it'll be the whole road show.

How have the two different publishers treated you?

Everyone's been really nice. I have no complaints. Being part of the Penguin machine is certainly a different experience, though. You know, McSweeney's is like going to the mom and pop hardware store that's been there for 100 years. Penguin is like going to the registrar at Ohio State. The people I deal with at Penguin are really sweet and good, but I do have a sense of being a tiny cog in a giant machine, and that's definitely not something you get at McSweeney's.

What made you decide to add parts of your tour diary to the end of the paperback?

That was something that came from Penguin. They felt they wanted it to be longer. I liked what I wrote for the tour diary. Keeping the tour diary was really fun. But I definitely don't think of it as part of the book. Maybe they could have made the typeface bigger and solved the problem that way. (laughs)

I was beginning to wonder. Dave Eggers, Neal Pollack, and you, when your books went to paperback, all added new material.

That's just a marketing tool. We forgive big publishing for that.

So tell me about your website. I'm very curious.

Well, it's called Surgery of Modern Warfare, which is a stupidly clumsy name that I though was brilliant, but now I realize is just a giant nonsense word. I got this incredible book called Surgery of Modern Warfare that had all these incredible illustrations of surgery and war wounds. I have sort of a doctor thing, I guess. A doctor fetish. So I was thinking, if I ever run out of illustrations, I can always use the illustrations from this book. So that's basically where that came from.

I update it once a week. I write stuff on it sometimes, and other people also contribute. It's been an opportunity for me to be something of an editor, and that's been really fun. I love to write, but editing is really fun. To work with other people on their stuff, and find inages to go with it. I love that whole process.

Who else writes for the site?

I should be able to rattle off names, but I've been doing it for almost two years, and I have like a hundred writers. I have a friend who's a novelist, he's like friends of the house. And then John Hodgkin has a piece on there.

How was your panel today?

It was fun. Neal crashed it, so that was fun. Every panel is better with Neal. It was really touching to me how many young kids were there. Like, high school kids. I just love that people wanna write.