Chicago-Based Novelist Amanda Goldblatt Introduces a New Anti-Heroine for the Ages
Our fear of losing the ones we love can make us do some strange things. But for the narrator of Amanda Goldblatt’s stunning new novel, “Hard Mouth,” Denny, that terror threatens to fully unravel a self that’s already half-unstitched. After learning that her father has decided to refuse treatment for a fatal cancer diagnosis, Denny spirals, sabotaging her own livelihood by releasing the subjects of a laboratory experiment from their cages (they’re just flies, but still), then absconding to an off-the-grid cabin on the side of a mountain where she irrationally hopes she can wait out the greatest tragedy of her young life. But what she finds waiting for her there—not to mention the ghosts that follow her into the woods—forces her to grapple with her problems in ways she could never have expected.
A Chicago resident and former St. Louisan, Goldblatt’s book is an astonishingly fresh take on the kind of universal human anxiety that can avalanche down on a life without warning, and Denny is an iconic new voice among our current cultural surge of anti-heroines. We spoke with her about writing mouthy women, how an old Hollywood phantom ended up in her book and why sometimes, if you want to finish a novel, you need to turn off your computer screen.
ALIVE: Tell me a little about the genesis of the novel.
I had never tried writing a novel when I started working on “Hard Mouth.” I’d written stories only, and it just felt like I needed to find a big enough idea before I could really go for it. Then my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, actually right as I was packing up to move away from St. Louis, and I didn’t know where to put all this intense fear I suddenly had. So I started writing.
I was lucky in that my father’s cancer eventually went into remission about nine months after his diagnosis, and it’s remained in remission. But with an experience like that, you still lose some amount of naivete—naivete that I was lucky to still have in my late twenties, by the way—about the fact of your loved ones’ mortality. I’ve always been a little obsessed with death and dying; that’s been something that’s been part of my thinking and my understanding of the world since I was really small. But it somehow never occurred to me that parents die, too. That’s probably an egotistical positioning, right? But when I really sank into that perspective, I found that I was able to figure out what this novel was.
ALIVE: How did you arrive at the title, “Hard Mouth”? It’s a reference to a term for hunting dogs that bite too hard, which serves as a loose metaphor for Denny’s way of maneuvering through disaster. But out of context, it reminds me a little of the show “Fleabag,” like it might be a nickname for Denny herself.
It’s funny, people have said to me, like, oh, Denny’s like Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the side of a mountain. I’m not convinced, but I’ll take it. [Laughs.]
But yeah, the book had a lot of titles. I think the one that stuck around for longest was “How to Live in a World Slowly Dying,” which is … very baroque, and wasn’t tonally correct for the book it came to be. Then it was called “Getaway,” which is a little too generic, and that’s what it was when my agent took the book on. She was like, y’know, this title, it’s not right; why don’t you get back to the drawing board?
So I was thinking about all of the experiences that I had drawn from on Denny’s time in the wilderness. I’m not a big camper; I haven’t spent time alone in the wilderness, ever. But I have spent some time out-out there; when I was in undergrad I had an ersatz “semester abroad” in Maine, at a documentary studies institute called Salt, where I was trying to learn to write in a documentary fashion. The photographer who I was working with and I were trying to learn about hunting dogs in Maine, and it took us way downstate and we met all these incredible people who kept hounds. That’s where I found the term “hard mouth.”
So when I was looking for a title, I was thinking about Denny, how stubborn she is, in some ways. It seemed to me that she would be a very bad hunting dog because she would bite through the kill, and make the carcass unfit for taxidermy or maybe even eating. So that became an eventually obvious title to the book.
ALIVE: There’s another extraordinary character in this book called Gene, who’s sort of a sly-talking old Hollywood ghost who Denny concocts to serve as her imaginary friend and ghostly sounding board in this difficult time. He’s such a strange and gratifying part of the book; how did you come up with him?
When I was working on the first draft and I realized that Denny was going to end up alone on a mountain, I was worried about how I was going to sustain a character who was alone for a very long time and keep the book moving. There’s a reason that adventure novels are extremely brief, and it’s basically because they’re all forward-moving action, no flashbacks, very little dialogue, if any.
And so I was thinking about that problem, and meanwhile, I had been watching a lot of classic films as a way to comfort myself while reckoning with my father’s cancer diagnosis. I had grown up watching classic films; my mom is really attached to that era of Hollywood and had introduced them to me as a kid. So I was using these films as a kind of security blanket, and I noticed this one actor who kept showing up in different movies and in different roles almost as if he was haunting me.
So I looked him up and did a little research, and he turned out to be this man named Eugene Pallette who was in over 200 films in his career, starting as leading man in silent films and ending as a character actor. He was not always a great guy: he was fired by Otto Preminger for refusing to sit next to Clarence Muse, a black actor. Later he became pretty obsessed with the idea that the Russians were going to bomb the major cities of the United States and felt like he couldn’t stay in Los Angeles where he was based, so he bought a piece of land in Oregon in the middle of nowhere and built a house and planted crops and had livestock and basically planned to live there for the duration of the apocalypse. But four years after that, he got sick and had throat cancer and had to return to Beverly Hills where he eventually died.
So in some manner, his story already resonated with this impulse to escape that I wanted to explore in this book. Using him as a model for an imaginary friend who Denny could talk to anytime she’s alone, both in the suburbs and on the mountain, seemed to address a lot of what I wanted to do and also allowed me to take advantage of a lot of the language I wanted to play with; that classic film slang, some of that rhythm that I wanted to import into her voice.
ALIVE: You’ve talked to other journalists about employing milder forms of avoidance in your writing process—you wrote a lot of the first draft of this novel on a wireless keyboard pointed away from your laptop screen, so you couldn’t see the words you were writing. Why do you think that sense of remove is generative to your practice?
I think it’s more about mediation for me; I guess that’s the word I would use. And I think the reason I need it is simply that I don’t get fixated on much–I’m not a very good fan of things—but where all of my most intense emotions run to, I guess, is to my writing. I do get fixated on language, on the way things look on the page and the way words sound, so much so that I’m unable to move forward. Writing on a wireless keyboard and not being able to see what I’m writing is just a workaround; it’s about knowing how much time I’ve spent staring at a screen and often at a single sentence. Which has its own sublimity, but when you’re trying to get a whole novel written, it’s not productive.
Sometimes I’ll go to noise shows and write or go to a museum and write or go to a beautiful natural space and write. And when I do that, that’s more about unloading myself of my everyday weight. Like many writers, I have a certain amount of anxiety—and I’m thankful for that anxiety, because I think sometimes it makes me be a more exacting and thoughtful writer and a more conscientious person. But it’s not always good as a generative space. And so when I’m somewhere really loud or really beautiful or both, I’m able to decontextualize myself and write on the terms of my surroundings as opposed to writing on the terms of my anxiety.
ALIVE: Nearly everyone on Earth experiences the death of a parent at some point in their life, as well the blinding fear that comes before it. How did you find such a fresh take on such a familiar story? Did you ever run away to the woods?
I think that I often feel an impulse to escape, but have a deep pragmatic streak, so I don’t. If I escape, it’s in very controlled circumstances and at least one person knows where I am and I intend to come back.
But when my father got diagnosed with cancer, that escape-impulse was something I felt really keenly; I felt like I physically wanted to get away from my own fear. So it made sense to me that Denny would behave in a way that I could never, which is to completely remove herself. It’s funny; I think there’s this whole series of books and narratives about people trying for a new start, or going for an adventure and leaving their lives. But I think for Denny, it’s more nihilistic than that. I think that’s purely about her character; that doesn’t come from me. I’m much more rooted in my life and to my people. But she needed escape in order to breathe, and see if she wanted to keep breathing, I guess.
Featured image courtesy of Amanda Goldblatt.