Guest Post by Chelsea Kowalski
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ami Sands Brodoff, the author of a Re-Lit Award finalist, Bloodknots, and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Can You See Me? We spoke about her newest book, The Sleep of Apples (to be released on September 30, 2021). Ami’s novel-in-stories focuses on nine closely linked characters who face challenges around mental illness, mortality, and gender identity. Ami talks about where her writing inspiration comes from, her ties to the Montreal literary community, and how she’s adapting her writing process to the pandemic.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CHELSEA: The Sleep of Apples covers a lot, from family relationships to gender and sexual orientation to mental health. What inspired you to explore such complicated, but important topics?
AMI: I’m drawn back again and again to writing about these themes. I come from a family where my great-great grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents were all doctors, but we’ve also struggled in our family. Certain loved ones of mine have had severe mental illness. My older brother developed schizophrenia as a teenager, and he was the person I was closest to as a child. We had a secret place and a private language. He was really a genius. He was beautiful. It’s such a devastating illness. I’m really hoping that researchers will find better treatments and that there will be better social supports. In The Sleep of Apples, there’s a character; a very talented young woman. She’s an artist, who is just becoming schizophrenic. In “Will the World Pause for Me?” we hear her perspective in her own voice. There is a character, JF, who’s suffering from very severe survivor guilt. Other characters grapple with depression. Mental illness is quite common, and stigma is really, really painful. I’m hoping through my stories, and through this book, as people become really engaged and fall in love with the characters, that experience will help to reduce stigma.
Before the pandemic hit, I lost my mother, my father, and my beloved other mother. Mortality and impermanence were really on my mind. And then the pandemic hit after that. One afternoon, when we were chatting over tea in winter, my terminally ill mother told me that she had formed a very close bond with the man that delivered food to her apartment from a little local grocery store. She said he was handsome and intelligent. He’d been a pilot and was about 25 years her junior. It really got my fiction antenna buzzing. I was so intrigued that my mom had this secret life. I was fascinated. That was kind of the seed of the title story. All of my fiction is fiction. It’s transformed through empathy and imagination.
CHELSEA: With plenty of novels and collections already under your belt, you chose to write The Sleep of Apples as separate but connected stories. What made you want to explore the short story form instead of writing another novel?
AMI: I was really interested in trying a new form in which I could dispense with a lot of the exposition and heavy backstory. I didn’t want to do just a grab bag of disparate stories. I got really attached to these characters who are all unified by living in Saint-Henri, a sort of gritty neighborhood in Montreal, that’s been slowly gentrifying. I think the reader has to be more active. The meaning comes from the relationship between the stories and the echoes between them. The connections are much stronger [than in my other short story collections] because you follow these characters through their whole lives. A character is the main character and the narrator in one story, and then you get to see them in a different light.
CHELSEA: What was interesting to me about The Sleep of Apples was that you managed to intersperse lots of big, central issues, like gender identity. What brought on a desire to explore the topic of gender and the LGBTQ+ spectrum?
AMI: I have a character, Collier, in the story, “Aurora”, who’s one of the main characters and is a non-binary teenager. I’m also a mom, and my younger son is a transgender man. And my older son is gay, so I’m a bit connected with what LGBTQ+ people might be grappling with when growing up, from the standpoint of a mother. I was able to create Collier with a certain amount of confidence. I think it’s so important as fiction writers to be able to turn to our obsessions. A lot of fiction writing is empathy and imagination, as well as experiences, in a complex mesh. Also, now that non-binary and trans people are more visible, it calls into question the whole notion of a binary that I grew up with. That’s a good thing.
CHELSEA: Speaking of mortality, in “What’s Mine is Yours”, a story that eerily mimics the fears of the last 18 months, a young girl loses her Bubbe to the flu and fears that she is to blame. Was there an intention to explore the feelings mimicked by the pandemic or was that just a coincidence?
AMI: Yeah, I think I write a lot from the unconscious at first. It’s a yes and a no. All these things were kind of playing on my imagination and simmering in my mind. I did start writing this book before the pandemic. So, I think the same way that I was intrigued with that story about my mother and the man from the grocery store, I was really affected by learning a family secret that my poor father had dealt with his whole life. He had a second little sister. When he was five, he caught measles, and his little sister contracted it and died. I never knew this, but I had always wondered why there was an 11-year gap between my father and his other younger sister, Bobbie. This event was the seed of so much of his personality. He was also a doctor. I was intrigued by this family secret and it blossomed into the first story in the book. Just having this survivor guilt and the effect that family secrets can have on subsequent generations. Even if they don’t come to light, they can produce a stealthy intergenerational trauma. I really wanted to get deep into the character of Miri, as an eight-year-old. It is uncannily relevant to COVID-19, there’s no question. I guess it was partly coincidence.
CHELSEA: What was your pathway to getting published?
AMI: Well, what’s kind of interesting is that I had some early success, which was lucky. But I wasn’t aware of how hard it could be later on. I had written a story and it was accepted by one of the best magazines at the time; a print magazine called TriQuarterly. They loved it, put it first in the issue, and it received a Pushcart Prize. This was huge for me. That became my first novel, which dealt with schizophrenia. But I’ve certainly had a lot of rejection as a writer during my career. Writers get rejected in all phases and stages. I think you really have to want to be a writer. You really have to love the process and want to do it because a lot of the time is going to be spent alone, writing. And then you’re going to have to do that for the next book. You have to love that journey of finding the story.
CHELSEA: After writing for so many years, is there a process you stand by, or has it changed over the years?
AMI: My process is that I’m very, very free in my early drafts. I get everything out on the page and try to put the critic in the outhouse, and I just write, write, write. I end up with a pretty disheveled draft, but there are always parts that really glow. Then I have a kind of sculptural process, where I figure out the shape of the story and what I need to carve away. That’s very much been my process for everything that I’ve written.
CHELSEA: Along the same vein, what would you say to budding writers who are getting their start and hoping to achieve the same success?
AMI: Well, I would say, and this is something I tell my students, whatever phase they’re at, “I want you to block out at least three to four days this week. I want you to report back to me when you’re going to do your writing”. And depending on what their lifestyle is, that block of time has to be at least two hours. Put it in your book the way you would your dentist’s appointment. Take it seriously. I really believe writing is a practice. I remember when I was younger, and I had full-time office jobs and I’d have this glimmering idea for a story. But then days and weeks and months would go by, and I couldn’t address it. It’s just going to die like a flower without water. But if you sit down at your desk, even if it doesn’t seem like anything’s happening, you’re going to get an idea while you’re swimming or walking. It’s going to build if you carve out some time around your writing where you won’t be interrupted. That’s my biggest advice.
CHELSEA: I love that. That’s a really determined process along with what sounds a lot like writer self-care. Has that form of self-care worked for you all this time, or has it changed in the pandemic?
AMI: Well, I’m pretty physical. I am a big swimmer and swim a mile a few times a week. I love the water. I find being in the water is just heaven for me. I need to move, so I ride my bike. I walk. I get a lot of my ideas in motion. I’ve also been fortunate in having “a room of one’s own” to quote Virginia Woolf, where I can close the door. That’s my space for my writing.
CHELSEA: That’s wonderful. How do your ties to the local writing community impact you as an established writer?
AMI: I think we have a really vibrant community here in Quebec and Montreal. It is really nice having a writing community to talk to at certain points when you’re going through different things with your projects. The Quebec Writers’ Federation supports Anglophone writers in Quebec through all sorts of initiatives and programs. I was a part of StoryScaping, a program created for writing, spoken word, and storytelling workshops for seniors and teens in underserved areas of Quebec.
CHELSEA: That’s awesome! Is there a moment that sticks out in your mind from appearing at a book club meeting that has remained with you through the years?
AMI: I’ve really loved doing panels and book groups. The questions that people have to ask about the books are really interesting. I think the moment that sometimes comes up with each book group is a real sense that each reader has gotten something unique from the book that you’ve written. And it’s a really individual response, like falling in love. I love to see the different kinds of responses because I have five books now. I have done book groups and panels for all of them. But it’s always so interesting what the individual person brings to and gets out of work that I create. I love that.
CHELSEA: You mentioned that you are working on a new book called Treasures That Prevail. Are you able to tell me a little bit about it?
AMI: Sure. It’s about a young, Hasidic girl from the Lubavitch community, who has a kind of a breakdown, and develops a bond with her secular Jewish therapist. My ancestors were Hasidic so it’s kind of interesting to explore the culture. I’m trying to not only see what’s difficult about being Hasidic, but also the beautiful elements to it as well.
If you would like to read more about Ami, her works, or invite her to attend a book club meeting, you can do that here.
Chelsea Kowalski is a recent graduate from Ryerson University’s Publishing program and an alumna from the University of Toronto. She is passionate about all things literary (especially female-driven books) and loves interviewing new authors about their unique stories. Chelsea is happiest when given the chance to write, edit, and help support someone’s dream of reaching readers. Follow her on Twitter.