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Amy Bryant

by Susan Henderson on January 31, 2007

POLLY is one of those books you don’t mean to read in one weekend, but you can’t help it.

It’s the story of a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in with the bops or grits or jocks – and she doesn’t want to, either. Frustrated with her homelife and school, she searches for a sense of belonging in the boys she dates and in the local hardcore punk scene.

Now, POLLY’s author, Amy Bryant, grew up in northern Virginia – same as me – and much of what you won’t see from our interview went something like this:

Did you go to school with so-and-so?
Yes! And guess who’s at my place right now?
No way! He used to hold my hair away from the toilet when I threw up!

So back to the book. Much of the book centers around music. And while your LitPark host was listening to . . .

Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, Frankie Beverly,

and memorizing the lyrics to Teena Marie’s Playboy,

both Amy and fictional Polly listened to . . .

Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Dag Nasty, and The Replacements.

But don’t think this book is all about music. It’s about dads who’ve moved out . . .

I thought of Dad’s hands on the steering wheel of his Mustang. Dad had long fingers and thick palms, and dark hairs that grew just below his knuckles. Sometimes I had trouble picturing him, so I’d zero in on the parts of him that I remembered.
– from POLLY

and skating rinks . . .

At the end of the night the parents lined up in their cars out front, and Katie and I pretended they were limousines. Kids raced out in groups of two or three, piling inside the cars before the parents had a chance to get out. We all lived in fear of a parent coming inside the roller rink.
– from POLLY

and cynicism . . .

“That’s not much of a lunch,” the lady at the register said as I paid her.
“I have an eating disorder,” I muttered.
– from POLLY

and boyfriends . . .

I imagined Joey walking me down the hall in front of the bops and surf punks and grits and bamas. People would talk about the weird older guy and the girl they’d never noticed before for days.
– from POLLY

and so-so sex . . .

I put astericks in my schedule book for the times we had sex.
– from POLLY

and all the ways you can feel like a stranger, even in your own neighborhood . . .

Reston had a way of staying unfamiliar. You could make a wrong turn a mile from your own home and get hopelessly lost in a web of a new neighborhood that wasn’t there the last time you drove by. It wasn’t uncommon to spot a homeless deer bouncing across someone’s front yard, searching for the vanishing woods.
– from POLLY

Please welcome Amy Bryant!

*

How did you come up with this structure for your book – organizing Polly’s story by boyfriends? Was this the book’s initial structure?

Initially I wrote the book as a series of short stories…which I referred to as the Boy Stories…about different girls at different points in their life and the guys they were dating. So when I turned the stories into a novel with one protagonist, the format made sense.

POLLY

What did you learn about Polly and about yourself by looking at her life this way?

I wanted Polly’s relationships to reflect what was going on in the rest of her life: her age, her interests, her maturity level, her sexuality, and her relationships with her friends and her family. Like a lot of teenagers, Polly is testing her boundaries and fantasizing about being independent. She’s figuring out who she is and attempting to make lasting connections outside her family.

It’s hard to say what I learned about myself through writing about Polly. At first I was scared to write a novel because it seemed too hard. For a long time I felt much safer looking at the writing as a series of short stories. The book isn’t autobiographical but the setting is. The people I was writing about were familiar types.

Here’s a photo from high school. This is my friend Susan and me in 1988, posing next to some acid wash in the hallway of Herndon High School. I’m the blonde. I was 17 when this was taken.

Why do you think she picks boyfriends who aren’t her intellectual match and don’t give much emotionally?

Why does anyone pick these kinds of relationships? Polly is scared of sex when she’s younger, and she’s also not ready for a real emotional connection with a man, as much as she wants to find love. The boys she meets let her take risks but protect her from real emotional involvement. I’m not saying that Polly knows what she’s looking for on a conscious level. I don’t think anyone really does. That’s one reason why you feel so lucky when you find someone really great.

Book party at Arlene’s Grocery Jan 12, 2007

There’s a wonderful moment in the book where the mom defends Polly’s way of dressing to her stepfather, but Polly feels stripped of her individuality hearing her mother talk as if she has teenagers all figured out. I think you captured that tension so well, and the ways the different characters try to assert their needs and identities.

Thanks! That’s really nice to hear. It’s all an accident, of course.

Polly is a girl who feels she’s scrutinized for her flaws. Can you talk about that aspect of the book, and how music seems to rescue her?

Music is where Polly really finds a community outside of her family. Not only does she love the music on its own merits, but she becomes a part of something bigger than she is. I know I felt rescued by music when I was a teenager. Even now, music is a big part of my life.

Like Polly, you grew up with the D.C. hardcore punk movement. Talk to me about that and how music shaped you into the adult you’ve become. What do you listen to now?

I was so lucky to come of age in the 80s, when there was a hardcore music scene flourishing in DC. I saw so many great bands, and I met a lot of great people. For the most part it was a really creative, positive world to be a part of, and I’m grateful for that time in my life. I still love hardcore, punk rock, all that stuff, but my taste in music is broader now. I’m married to a terrific musician…his name is Bruno Blumenfeld, and you can find him on myspace.

Lesion ruled the book party!

One of the things I love about Harper Perennial, besides Carrie Kania’s fabulous taste, is the P.S. feature in back, where you can hear more from the author. And in the P.S., you say this about the book:

When Polly goes to her first hardcore show, she hears music she loves and, more important, lyrics she cares about, as opposed to the masculine satanic themes that metal bands sing about. All of the anger and rejection she’s feeling from her family and all of her dissatisfaction with the world around her, is suddenly being expressed right in front of her, with all the emotion she can’t reveal in her own life. My adolescent angst wasn’t exactly like Polly’s, but I remember what it was like to finally make a connection with something bigger than me or my friends, and it was important for me to get that sentiment into POLLY. The first time art feels personal is a profound moment in a person’s life, whether it happens with a book, a band, a painting, a movie, whatever. As an adult you learn to seek it out, but when you’re young you usually just stumble upon it, and it’s almost a religious experience.

I love that quote, and I wonder if you’d share your first “religious” experience of this sort.

It was pretty similar to Polly’s. It was 1987, I was 16, and I went to see Corrosion of Conformity at the 9:30 Club in DC. It happened with reading too, the first time I read the John Cheever short story “Goodbye my Brother.”

NYC reading – Three Lives Bookstore January 18, 2007

Do you have any advice for writers who are still writing their first books? Advice for writers who have finished but not sold their first books?

I don’t have any advice other than just keep writing and trying to get published. I’ve had countless short stories rejected. At least 60 agents rejected Polly. You just have to keep going.

And finally, would you name a few unknown writers you believe deserve some limelight?

This is a great question. Definitely Bryan Charles. [Bryan is also on MySpace.] I can’t believe my friend Stefan Marti hasn’t been published. I don’t know how unknown these writers are, but I love Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and Jim Carroll. I know there are more I should be listing here.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Slick January 31, 2007 at 2:53 pm

>i>When Polly goes to her first hardcore show, she hears music she loves and, more important, lyrics she cares about, as opposed to the masculine satanic themes that metal bands sing about. All of the anger and rejection she’s feeling from her family and all of her dissatisfaction with the world around her, is suddenly being expressed right in front of her, with all the emotion she can’t reveal in her own life. My adolescent angst wasn’t exactly like Polly’s, but I remember what it was like to finally make a connection with something bigger than me or my friends, and it was important for me to get that sentiment into POLLY. The first time art feels personal is a profound moment in a person’s life, whether it happens with a book, a band, a painting, a movie, whatever. As an adult you learn to seek it out, but when you’re young you usually just stumble upon it, and it’s almost a religious experience.

Oh, I can so relate to this, but of course for me it was listening to John Lennon and reading Catcher in the Rye (and then Fear of Flying but we won’t go there).

This book sounds wonderful, Amy, and Susan, you just keep pulling these incredible winners out of your hat. Good art still lives! Yeah!

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Robin Slick January 31, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Okay, I have to insist on that edit button. Gah! Susan, that first section was obviously supposed to be in italics as you can see by my backwards >i>.

I am truly pathetic at all things HTML though intellectually, I know how to execute the various codes perfectly. If only my fingers would cooperate!

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Lance Reynald January 31, 2007 at 3:13 pm

even before my coffee I’m smiling from ear to ear reading this one.

Bravo Amy!!!

I always get a kick out of the hometown crew and retelling of these kinds of tales. Seems that DC doesn’t always get the credit due in the hardcore department. But, there was that moment when some of the best acts out there seemed to come out of the DC punk scene.
sure, there were acts from other places, but some of the best…DC! Funny what lurks beneath in the land of Brooks Brothers.

Great interview Susan!! and BIG thanks to Amy for giving us a nice look at process and experience of the writing.

I’ve gotta get me a copy of this book.

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Lance Reynald January 31, 2007 at 3:20 pm

and I just got a flash of all the movies again… Diva, Liquid Sky, Metro…lol…those things we thought to be Punk.
Afternoons in Georgetown trying to alter ourselves at Commander Salamander…
Then I discovered the girls that looked like Siouxsie Sioux…

wow, it does just flood back in when ya let it.

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Susan Henderson January 31, 2007 at 3:52 pm

Guy, I’m going to move Amy’s comment over here because it got swallowed up by the marathon thread:

Amy Bryant
Posted January 31, 2007 at 2:48 pm | Permalink (Edit)
What about all the other 1980s movies? Does anyone remember the movie Reckless? Darker than John Hughes with a great soundtrack. I also loved this movie called River’s Edge with Crispin Glover and Keanu Reaves . . .

Robin – One of my favorite things every day is watching you panic about not having an edit button over here.

Lance – I had Siouxsie Sioux spray painted on my skateboard. And someone just privately reminded me that my favorite club, Tracks, had a volleyball court out back. How is possible I forgot about that???!

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*Joe* January 31, 2007 at 3:56 pm

Great interview with Amy. I could really identify with the sense of community notion that the music and culture provided. So many of us came from f’ed up backgrounds, the music allowed us, me, to submerge all that angst into a venue where it didn’t stick out so much. A nice multi-colored camouflage with razor sharp edges. The punk rockers with mohawks and platinum cards came later. I’m not familiar with the DC scene but I’d guess it was similar to the NYC underground. My hey day was around the late 70s and early 80s with arthouse bands like the Brian Eno era Talking Heads or more hardcore stuff like Richard Hell & the Voidoids, The NY Dolls, heck… even Blondie when they first hit the clubs. Going to see Patti Smith playing in a converted warehouse or Wendy O wrapped in cellophane splattering the crowd with all sorts of nasty effluence. Seeing the Clash at their disasterous Bonds appearance. Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch in a land John Hughes forgot. At least it was a refuge for us, the misfit toys.

I’m going to go check out Amy’s book.

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Carolyn Burns Bass January 31, 2007 at 4:26 pm

Thank you for this, Amy and Susan. My semi-autobiographical novel is a year-in-the-life of a precocious nine-year-old girl (1968–the assassination year) who finds herself through music. I’ve wondered if editors will think my MC is too young for the kind of devotion she has to pop music.

While growing up I related so much of my life to what song and band was on the charts that I thought it was normal. Weren’t all kids crazy about rock’n’roll?

Nope. While my husband can probably tell you who played in the Super Bowl when he was in fourth grade, he has no pop music memory. We were born in the same year, but he doesn’t remember “Jennifer Juniper” by Donovan, and “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwulf (both released in 1968) was already a rock anthem by the time he partied to it in college.

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Myfanwy Collins January 31, 2007 at 5:18 pm

I must read this book!

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amy January 31, 2007 at 6:32 pm

Thank you, Susan, for introducing me to yet another must-read… That’s at least three in the few short months I’ve been reading.

And Ms. Bryant, River’s Edge is one of my favorite movies. Good to find another fan!

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Susan Henderson January 31, 2007 at 6:42 pm

Okay, hold on a minute. This is all an unofficial survey, of course, but it seems that Tracks University, complete with its whistles and volleyball nets, has bred some of the best writers of this generation. Overstatement? I think not.

I’m going to pull Alex’s comments into this thread, too, because Monday’s thread has become something of a monster to mine through:

67. Alexander Chee
Posted January 31, 2007 at 5:58 pm | Permalink (Edit)
I started going to Poseurs, Tracks and the 9:30 Club when I was 16 going on 17, the summer of 1984. I had my gear from Commander Salamander, clove cigarettes and a buzz cut a la Kevin Bacon, from a salon called Bubbles.

By 1989 I was out of college, and living in San Francisco.

*Joe* – What a flashback of names. You were obviously much cooler than I was with my Dazz Band records!

Carolyn – Are you finished with your first draft yet? I know you were thisclose last I heard.

Myf – Hi and thanks for checking it out!

amy – That’s so great to hear. I try not to pick any duds.

Alex – I’m awfully glad you’re here. I have a feeling a whole bunch of us used to hang out together back in the day without even knowing it. And wait till you see the photos I’m posting on Friday!

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Robin Slick January 31, 2007 at 7:43 pm

Now you have me so crazy I’m typing my comments in Microsoft Word first and doing a spell check before posting here. Only I already know what’s going to happen — my cut and paste will malfunction and then I’ll post something which is missing a huge chunk and make me look like a complete idiot altogether.

But we’ll discuss your impending edit button later because that’s not why I’m back here now.

Oh my God, Susan. I just finished reading the manuscript of your new novel. I’m totally blown away. You’re like a female Dave Eggers…only better!

Holy freaking cow.

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Carolyn Burns Bass January 31, 2007 at 7:46 pm

Thanksfor asking, Susan. I’m still walking the tightrope with this one.

In the word of the John: Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

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Carolyn Burns Bass January 31, 2007 at 7:48 pm

Robin, I’m jealous.

But just to make you feel better, look at the boo-boo in my post above.

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Susan Henderson January 31, 2007 at 9:31 pm

Robin – You are the absolute coolest. Thank you for saying that, even if you’re lying. xxoo!

Carolyn – Take two hours tomorrow with the trickiest bit and you’ll feel better. I know you and Lance and Robin and some others here are so so close, and I want to cheer you across the finish line.

Kenny – Are you around? Did you get what I got in the mail? And am I allowed to blab about it here, or do I have to staple my lips shut?

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Susan Henderson January 31, 2007 at 10:07 pm

Okay, Kenny said I can blab but only cryptically. So, Kenny, tell me if I’m giving too much away and I’ll use my executive edit button that Robin and Carolyn don’t have access to – hee hee.

Right. Now the people Kenny and I will be working with this year include (only hints now): Not Garfunkle, but the shorter one; Not Whitney, but her cousin; DELETE, of course; can I keep going? Can I say the things you know who said while DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE? DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE? DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE DELETE, because in that case, I will be deleting like a little rabbit in reverse.

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Lance Reynald January 31, 2007 at 11:46 pm

I think we all need to get Tracks University Sweatshirts.
and as for the volleyball court, yup, and a few things just for the record, the salacious things done on the deck near the volleyball court was not the writer in question and I don’t care who claims to have photos…a young resemblance at best…and I have no knowledge of a locker-room or private lounge (thank god it has long been closed and redeveloped into condos)
And Susan, Just for the record, volleyball courts were off the front bar- and it was the room that was usually dedicated to that stuff that ended up on MTV 120 minutes.

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Amy Kiger-Williams February 1, 2007 at 6:37 pm

OMG, I used to live in southcentral PA and my friends and I used to take special DC roadtrips just to go to Tracks!!!

Thanks for the great interview — I really have to read Amy’s book!

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Susan Henderson February 2, 2007 at 1:38 am

Start printing those sweatshirts, Lance. And make sure both Amy’s get ’em.

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haily -_ May 30, 2007 at 12:45 pm

this book is one of the most amazing books i have ever read. i can telate to the first punk show. i lived mine. i related to the music i related to the people. this book reminds me of my life. all the sex and the drugs. i had a lot more dugs and violence in my life. i also lost my v-card a lot eirler. this book is the best. i am doing a report on it now. i am 16! and in love with the guys in this book!

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Vickery Eckhoff April 22, 2008 at 7:55 am

Hi Amy:

Congratulations! I just tried sending you an e-mail but your spam filter blocked it. The link I was redirected to didn’t allow me to send in a request to be added to your address book. Hope you guys are doing well. Would like to catch up. How can I get in touch with you?

Vickery

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