Loathsome and Lovable: Amy Gustine Doesn't Want Pity
Article by annalia
Surprise to no one: my favorite type of writing is that in which the author is right there with you, or seemingly so. Hence, my love for Amy Hempel, Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, Linda Gregg—writers whose work depends upon, or at least investigates, the I/you relationship. That is the type of writing I know.
In Amy Gustine’s debut short story collection, YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD, the I’s and you’s are only in the dialogue. Sure, in many stories, the narrator aligns with a particular character, but it is always with a docent’s distance. And these characters—Gustine herself is clearly not a 19th-century doctor on Ellis Island checking for bumps on the eyelids of potential immigrants.
No, Gustine is a woman who lives in Ohio and has a landline.
Working at an independent bookstore, I learn new things about publishing every day. When I ask Gustine what moved her to publish a collection now, since she’s been writing for years, she explains that it’s more complicated than simply saying, “Here’s everything I’ve published. Let’s make it into a book.” Most publishers, she tells me, will not consider submissions for short story collections from unknown writers unless a significant number of pieces in the collection have been published elsewhere first. This makes sense to me—every poetry and short story collection has a list in the front or the back that thanks the many literary journals and anthologies that published earlier versions over the years—but it’s not something that totally synthesized until Gustine said it.
Short stories, however, were not her only focus. While trying to place her short fiction, she was also working on a novel. Bouncing between projects, the goal was “trying to find a project that was working,” either a novel that was materializing or “a subset of [short stories] that made a good, coherent group.” At first, she tried writing about her family, immigrants from Hungary and Poland, but discovered that focus was too narrow. “Some stories were really working and some were not,” she says. “At one point, I kind of lost track of what I was doing.” The stories that would become YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD began to emerge when she “started giving [herself] more free reign.”
Early on, Kenyon Review fiction editor and THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY author Caitlin Horrocks read one of Gustine’s stories and suggested she start pitching a collection to publishers, but Gustine wanted to place her story “All The Sons Of Cain” first. In fact, it wasn’t until “All The Sons Of Cain” placed that Gustine even considered wrangling her various publications into a collection.
Centered around a mother going to find her missing son, “All The Sons Of Cain” opens with the mother “in bed, yearning for coffee and the bathroom, but fearful of nearing the window.” Protesters are outside, as they’ve been since “Hamas...released a videotape of R in which he claims to be converting to Islam.” Tired of the country projecting their hopes and fears onto the idea of her son, R’s mother flies to the Cairo International Airport, then to Rafah, where she is blindfolded and put into a car. To get to Gaza, she must climb through a hole in a cabinet, into a tunnel “twice the width of her shoulders” where “every six feed a wooden brace supports the roof.”
When Gustine placed “All The Sons Of Cain,” she had officially published seven of the eleven stories that make up YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD. By the time the collection was released, she had also placed the remaining four. When I asked her whether she thought this would affect the life of the book—whether people would already be familiar with all the stories—she laughs and says “No one can possibly read all the literary magazines.”
“I don’t write first person, generally,” Gustine says. “It’s definitely been a distant second choice in terms for narrator.” She tells me that voices often present themselves to her, rather than bloom from a voice she hopes to create. Gustine, too, is incredibly curious. Inspiration for “Half-Life,” a story about a “foster child that ages out of the system and is sort of trying to put her life together on her own,” comes from her fascination with the term “aging out”: “We use phrases like that—‘aging out’— and I like to think about that, what it feels like to ‘age out,’ having no family, no money, nothing.” While “most of us are so gradually matured into a true, independent adulthood,” Gustine wonders about people like Sarah, who have no experience and no one to ask.
However, Gustine also examines the difficulties that arise with the opposite familial experience. The title story, “You Should Pity Us Instead,” illustrates two families with opposing religious beliefs. One family is Christian; the other family, atheists. In this scenario, the parents support their daughters but cannot answer their questions with any objectivity. When it comes to picking her daughter up from school, Molly, the mother in the atheist family, has created this catchphrase to both acknowledge and avoid the discussion: “You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious.”
In all her stories, Gustine focuses on situations where advice cannot be given, when all someone can do is answer the phone when it rings and offer witness instead of a solution. When I ask her about this, she says, “Most literature, in my opinion, is made of up difficult situations, right? What are you going to write about?” She also adds that she has “never felt that a character needs to be likeable, has to be likeable.”
Conjuring LOLITA, and more recently, SCRAPPER by Matt Bell, Gustine begins gushing about loathsome characters and devastating books we love. She describes how “there are some books that it’s absolutely the height of an unlikeable character,” but that other factors in a book can “manipulate our point of view on the situation” so that whether or not the character is likeable becomes irrelevant. “The degree to which it feels difficult is the tone,” she says. “We all have the attention to act badly, but I like to try to avoid that potential. And the way we avoid it is to deny ourselves that we have that potential.”
One such character that denies his desire for destruction is Dr. Spencer in “Goldene Medene.” Checking the eyelids of potential immigrants at a harbor on Ellis Island, Dr. Spencer becomes entranced when a young redheaded girl in line to be examined reminds him of his recent ex-lover. He tries to force her to open her blouse to see if the young woman, too, has the same birth mark. In his mind, the fantasy is already there: “He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the characters on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him….She’d be indebted.” It’s insane, and yet Gustine insists she never thought of any of her characters as unlikable.
“No matter what book you pick up, there’s going to be strong emotions where people relate to some things and some people relate to other things,” she says. “We can’t find a reason why something strikes someone as affecting and sympathetic” while another person might see the same character, the same event, as “navel gazing.”
It is here that I remember what Gustine said earlier, that voices tend to funnel through rather than come from her. It is here I have to recognize that Gustine is not whom I mean to address, but her character who is otherwise inaccessible. I have the “I.” I lack the “you.”