By Leslie Lindsay
Stunning and elegant portrayal of the rawness of postpartum depression, told in elegant and authentic, sparse prose
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK
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Leslie Lindsay & Amy Koppelman in conversation
Amy Koppelman is a writer, director, and producer and is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA program. Her writing has appeared in The New York Observer and Lilith. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children, and is the author of the novels, A Mouthful of Air, I Smile Back, and Hesitation Wounds.
ABOUT A MOUTHFUL OF AIR:
It seems strange to give A MOUTHFUL OF AIR (Two Dollar Radio, August 17 2021) such lavish praise, because the subject matter is really quite dark, but the execution of this near-autofiction is just so gorgeously rendered, I felt truly amazed and almost tremulous in its company.
Compared to classic feminist works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, A MOUTHFUL OF AIR is a powerful, tragic, and haunting examination of one woman’s love for her family but also her interior struggles.
Julie Davis is a young wife and mother torn between the love she feels for her 1-year old son, her husband and the life she feels she ‘ought’ to have: upper middle class Jewish housewife. We meet Julie just several weeks after her suicide attempt, which her husband calls ‘an accident.’ She has been hospitalized, but we never ‘see’ this, it’s all alluded to. She’s home now and it’s the eve of her son’s first birthday. She has plans to bake a cake and chicken dish (for her husband), as well as puree peaches for her son. She goes about her day–and their life collecting groceries, going outside, attempting to be grateful, but she’s plagued with a nagging voice inside telling her that maybe the world would just be better off without her.
Told in elegant, sparse prose that is both gorgeous and accessible, A MOUTHFUL OF AIR is a very interior read, and I loved it. The words dance on the page like poetry, but with such an emotional resonance that took my breath away.
The timeline here is a little wonky–and I think that speaks to Julie’s fragmented state of mind–there’s the eve of the birthday, the errands outing, some jags to the past, future, and backstory involving Julie’s mother and father, inviting the reader to weave the details together. Julie and her husband, Ethan, leave NYC for the suburbs and so we get a glimpse into their new home, which I loved. Still, Julie is not happy here.
Buried within A MOUTHFUL OF AIR is a bit of a discussion of what depression IS–it’s causes, cures, and what it draws from its victims, none of which is told in a didactic or prescriptive manner, which, yay! Koppelman does a fabulous job of taking a very real, very serious illness and weaving it into a haunting and blisteringly sublime narrative I won’t soon shake.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Amy Koppelman to the author interview series:
Amy! I am blown away by A MOUTHFUL OF AIR! It’s simply stunning. I understand postpartum depression holds a near and dear place for you. Can you talk about your intentions and inspirations, please?
Thank you so much for your kind words, Leslie, and for taking the time to interview me. I’m so glad the novel resonated with you.
I didn’t have any intention when I began to write A Mouthful of Air. I just sat down whenever I could find alone time and wrote down the words I heard inside my head. Quite literally. Without censorship. I didn’t try to shape them or judge them. I just tried to hear them.
Somehow, I had this faith that if I stayed true to the voice inside my head, I’d find what I was looking for. I didn’t have any idea what it was, but I knew that I would find it. And I knew whatever it was – whatever I was meant to find – would help me understand the sadness inside of me.
Sometimes what I wrote scared me. But that was okay. Because what I quickly realized is that once I had the ugly thought or dark fear on the page it couldn’t hurt me anymore. Well, that’s not true. It just couldn’t hurt me as much as it used to.
While A MOUTHFUL OF AIR is fiction, it’s based on some of your own feelings, thoughts, emotions during a trying time for you. Lately, I’ve been talking with others about this nebulous concept of ‘auto-fiction,’ which A MOUTHFUL OF AIR feels it could be (but is fiction). What is your understanding of the autofiction genre? It’s a mash of memoir and fiction? Something else? Why use the term ‘autofiction’ when one can write memoir?
I had to google “autofiction”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term before. (What rock have I been living under?!). The internet defines it as “an autobiographical novel” which I guess it tantamount to historical fiction in a way, the author’s life being the history. In other words, autofiction is a retelling of one’s past, with an embellished narrative the weaves the story together so it reads (functions) like a novel.
If this is what you mean by autofiction, then A Mouthful of Air while deeply personal is not autofiction. Julie (the novel’s protagonist’s) overwhelming sense shame, her self-loathing and doubt are mine. I lived on the West Side, had strawberry wallpaper and a lunchbox collection so “place” is familiar to me. But the story itself –the beats of the story – the scenes in the story are almost entirely fictional. I wanted to die, but I never actually tried to take my own life.
You ask “why use the term ‘autofiction’ when one can write memoir?” I’ve thought about this question for a couple days now and I think the answer is dependent on how you define “truth” in memoir. Memory is both selective and subjective, so theoretically all memoirs have “lies or mistruths” if told from another person’s perspective. Ask any family what their last Christmas was like and while everyone might remember the ham, rarely will two family members have the same emotional experience of the day. So maybe, if you really want to play games, [you might conclude] that all memoir is autofiction.
But that’s intellectual mumble jumble.
Memoirists don’t introduce characters who weren’t there, create scenes or conflict that didn’t happen in order to make the story more titillating or propel the action. Autofiction does. Which makes them entirely different in my mind.
“This is the story so convincing that never again will you pass a new other in the street without wondering what’s behind her mouthful of smiles.”
-The New York Observer
You’re a fierce women’s mental health advocate—and we need more people like you! What can you tell us about postpartum depression/pyschosis and what services and organizations exist to support mothers?
In 1995 — when I gave birth to my son — postpartum depression was rarely talked about and remained largely undiagnosed. Today we know that one out of every five new moms suffers from it — and more and more women are willing to talk about it. But most are still too ashamed to share their feelings, so they suffer in silence. I was one of those women.
But then I got the help I needed. I began to see a psychiatrist and eventually went on Zoloft, which was life changing. Not a day goes by – and I really mean this – that I’m not grateful to be alive.
I think what most people still don’t understand is that clinical depression is an illness. My husband loved me so much and I loved him so much but love doesn’t cure diabetes. Or Asthma. Or cancer.
I want Julie’s story to serve as a cautionary tale. If you see yourself in her or in someone you love please get help. Depression is treatable. People get better.
I have to ask about Ethan and Julie’s suburban home, because I love homes. They move from a city apartment to the suburbs. What more can you tell us? Do you feel our environment can shape our feelings and behaviors?
I think environment very much shapes our feelings and behaviors. And as powerful as literature is – as much of a bridge as it can be insofar as understanding what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes– it’s very hard to portray (if not impossible) the visceral reaction one has upon returning home (Jeez, that’s a mouthful).
If you had a happy childhood, home represents safety. A tumultuous childhood and home becomes associated with danger. It’s always fascinating how siblings can have a completely different recollection of what their home was like growing up. Who your parents were when they had you, what their marriage was like, their finances, their health. All of these variables are deeply impactful on our experience of home.
In many ways, home has very little to do with the structure. The walls are constructed of memory, the foundation perception. The roof? Well, I guess the roof is time. Because time is often what protects us – what shields us from the threatening parts of home that linger. So internalized is our sense of home that even when we are removed from the specific place – we carry it within us. Does that make sense? This is especially true for Julie.
Home – the idea of home – of what makes a happy home is almost a preoccupation for Julie. She wants her house to feel like a whimsical dollhouse. On the surface this is an aesthetic choice. She is drawn to color and pattern. But I think there’s more to it. The pattern prohibits Julie from resting her eyes. There is nowhere she can look that will allow her mind to roam. And if her mind is engaged – it’s easier to tune out the voice of doubt and fear that insists the world is better off without her in it. And color – it’s almost as if all the color she surrounds herself with serves to reaffirm that she is in fact, here. She is, in fact, alive.
Having a child forces Julie to reckon with memories that she’s been – more or less —successfully repressing. Moving to a house in suburbia – a similar house to the one she grew up in – amplifies those memories. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that being in a house triggers those memories.
Depression is most often portrayed as an emotional state that’s tinted grey. But for Julie – and for me for that matter – the sadder I was the more I turned to color. Blue sky. Yellow crocus. White ice. In the film, Julie is a children’s book author. So this idea of color is manifested in every frame.
And a movie! A MOUTHFUL OF AIR will be out this fall and Amanda Seyfried is starring in it. Tell us more?! I am so thrilled for you.
A Mouthful of Air is my first undertaking as a director. It’s told, like my books, in a simple, straightforward, naturalistic manner. Before each scene, I didn’t only ask myself what images I wanted to show but also what I was trying to say in each frame about being human—and about being a mom. I believed if I stayed true to that truth, I could bring the story I had written in my book to the screen in a way that would reveal Julie’s inner thoughts — through her eyes, through her smiles, through the pain behind them — Amanda’s performance does just that, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful.
[Leslie’s note: you may like this piece, from Deadline, reporting Hollywood news].
For more information, to connect with Amy Koppelman, or to purchase a copy of A MOUTHFUL OF AIR, please visit:
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
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I was reminded, of the work of Michael Cunningham’s THE HOURS meets the prose of Helen Phillps (particularly in THE NEED), with a bit of Elizabeth Brundage‘s work, and Anna Solomon’s THE BOOK OF V, but also maybe the tone and style of Lily King. Also, look to Julia Fine’s THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE. While these books are not exactly the same, they offer some overlap.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
AMY KOPPELMAN is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: A Mouthful of Air, I Smile Back, and Hesitation Wounds. She produced and co-adapted the film adaptation of I Smile Back, starring Sarah Silverman, who received a SAG award nomination for the role. The film premiered at the Sundance, Toronto, and Deauville film festivals. Her latest film, A Mouthful of Air (based on this novel), is her first undertaking as a screenwriter, director, producer, and illustrator. Amy lives in New York City with her family. She is an outspoken advocate for women’s mental health.
Author’s Note: I’ve been writing about motherhood and women’s mental health for twenty-five years. Driving me—always—is a desire to reach through the page and connect to the reader. And to try—in some small way—to remove the stigma of mental illness from motherhood. A Mouthful of Air was my first novel. Though there are aspects of the novel I would write differently if I were writing it now, I would never change the novel’s honesty.
In 1995, when I gave birth to my son, postpartum depression was rarely discussed and remained largely undiagnosed. Today, we know that one out of every five new moms suffers from the illness—and more and more women are willing to talk about it. But many still suffer in silence. I was one of those women.
While the book’s plot is not autobiographical, the feelings of shame, self-loathing, and fear are my own. At the same time, I also saw life’s heartbreaking beauty—cherished it—so why did I believe that the only way for my children to be safe was to live in the world without me? In A Mouthful of Air, I tried to explore this dichotomy: how can you love life, love your family, and still want to slip away?
My son turned twenty-five this past December, and my daughter is twenty-one. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop and appreciate how fortunate I am to be alive. How grateful I am that I got the help I needed, that I didn’t die. I was lucky.
I hope that what is in my heart resonates in this book. I hope that the story it tells brings to light the darkness of postpartum depression and women’s mental health, but also the ineffable joy and wonder of motherhood. Because it’s not the sadness that Julie feels, but the happiness she denies herself, that is the tragedy of her story.
Thank you for taking the time to read this novel. It’s not an easy one.
Stay safe out there. Never be scared to ask for help.
Amy, June 2021
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.