Like many people in the publishing world, Amy Grace Loyd always wanted to be a writer. But unlike most of her colleagues, Loyd has managed to make her ultimate goal — publishing her own fiction, rather than someone else’s — a reality. After six years as fiction editor at Playboy and, more recently, as an executive editor at the e-publisher Byliner, Loyd is making an impressive debut as a novelist with “The Affairs of Others.”
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In the novel, Loyd gives us Celia Cassill, a middle-aged widow still struggling with grief after her husband’s death several years earlier. Her instinct is to withdraw from the world and keep herself separate from her neighbors, but this proves impossible when she becomes the owner of a small apartment building in Brooklyn. One tenant, an elderly man, goes missing, and Celia finds herself going in search of him. She also becomes embroiled in the exotic goings-on of another tenant, a woman named Hope, with whom she ultimately becomes intimate in surprising ways.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Loyd, 44, at her parents' home near Portsmouth, N.H., where she was visiting from Brooklyn. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: What's it been like to go from editing fiction to writing it? Did you have any apprehension about doing that which previously you were critiquing and editing?
A: When I started in publishing, I worked at Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books briefly, and then I went to Norton as an editorial assistant. And I think I got into publishing because I liked to write, and I liked to read. I think I always thought I'd write fiction, although I wasn't terribly open about it. Especially when I got older, it was more of a secret — not a terribly well-kept secret, but I wouldn't share it with my writers. I was raised by a very smart investment banker who would, when I would speak of being a writer, get a little worried.
But being close to writers and writing seemed a natural thing for me to do. And as I grew in my career and started editing the likes of Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, I think it was more and more important for me to keep the two things separate, to keep my writing private. And it became more and more of a refuge from doing the things I was doing, whether at Playboy or the New York Review of Books or The New Yorker, where I also worked briefly. Those places are very compatible with my writing in that they were a great way for me to learn about what is a good story, the things you can do to help your reader live in the experience. I don't know if you've ever interviewed any of the writers I've worked with —
Q: Actually I have, including Atwood and Oates.
A: Well, if you asked them about working with me, they'd tell you I'm a bit of a pain in the neck. (Laughs.)
Q: How are you a pain in the neck?
A: Well, for example, if you're going to be inconsistent, I like you to be consistent in your inconsistency. If you introduce a question, I like you to answer it, or at least acknowledge that you've not answered it in some way. I'm very mindful on the writers' behalf of the readers' expectations, the expectations they're setting up in the piece. If you're writing a realistic piece, I'm a stickler about verisimilitude. It's like, "This is here, but why isn't it over there?" So the question is, "Have your intentions been fulfilled?" So I'm a pain in the neck as an editor, and I'm always saying to writers, "It's so important to get another set of eyes" — someone for whom the intention of the work is not implicit. I take writers out of their implicitness so that they can see the work as a reader — a reader new to the work — might see it.
Q: How does that work in terms of your own writing?
A: I'd say it's both a boon and a big disservice. I have to keep myself from editing myself, or I won't get any work done. It's a real act of self-management. I think I was helped, in "The Affairs of Others," by the fact (that) Celia has a really distinctive voice, and once I was in the rhythm of her voice, I could keep the editor in me at bay.
But it does slow my progress down a good deal. If I sit down to write, to invent, to move the plot, and I'm in too much of an editor mindset, it's very hard for me to get words on the page. I'll look at it too granularly. I like language, as you can probably tell; sometimes my sentences are pretty short, but other times they're kind of a meal. And I'm aware as a reader and editor that I want to control that; I want to make sure I'm picking my spots, so to speak. So there was me coming in and saying, "Why don't you put a period in here somewhere?" (Laughs.) I would have those kinds of conversations with myself. Which I think are very useful, but I don't think I'm ever going to be the fastest writer in the world. Alas.
Q: You've been quoted as saying you wrote the novel "partly out of rebellion." In your job at Playboy, you were very busy and constantly in contact with other people, and in some way Celia is the opposite of that.
A: You know, I really drank the Kool-Aid at Playboy. I really believed I could remind people of the magazine's great literary tradition in its heyday, and I stepped in with both feet. But I didn't always know what I was up against in terms of people's perceptions. There was a lot of phone calling, a lot of emailing, a lot of following people on Twitter, a lot of lunches and drinks.
What was so delicious about Celia is that she's at such a remove from all of that kind of busyness. The narrative she's creating is for her. The narrative I was creating was to make people see Playboy for its entire landscape, and not just the obvious parts of its landscape. (Laughs.) There's a lot of sex in this book, of course, and when I was working at Playboy, it was hard not to think about sex, and that impacted the book, too. I wanted to portray sex that's about healing, whereas Playboy is about sex as play, sex as adventure, sex as commerce. So the novel was for me a wonderful way of balancing myself, cleansing my palate.
Q: I get the feeling you felt you weren't successful in changing perceptions about Playboy.
A: Well, we did some terrific things. We got Stephen King into the magazine. Denis Johnson wrote a novel, "Nobody Move," in four parts on deadline for us. I also got some great women writers in there, including Jennifer duBois, Michelle Richmond, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Nadine Gordimer, A.S. Byatt. So I think we were successful in getting the material into the magazine, but what we weren't as successful at was having folks notice it. And I think it's because people's perception of Playboy are pretty calcified at this point. I knew which cliches were coming at me before they did. "I read it for the articles." "Can you get me into the Mansion?" "You going to the Grotto?" "Oh, you're the fiction editor — you must write erotic fiction." And I was like, "No, not at all. Just published a story by John Updike." (Laughs.) I couldn't take it so seriously that I didn't have a sense of humor about it, but there were times when I'd go to a party and I'd get the full complement of jokes, and I'd be like, "I gotta get the hell out of this party!"
Q: So what was the genesis of "The Affairs of Others"?
A: I decided I wanted to do a book in the first person, which owed a little bit to Marilynne Robinson's books. I wanted a voice with a real undertow. And I knew I wanted to talk about privacy, public versus private. And I was really interested in whether two women could have a moment, a sexual moment, that wasn't about the considerations that sex is often about — "I'm attracted to you," "I want to eat you like a meal" — but about something else, about sharing a dark experience and moving from that experience through tenderness together.
It's also true that I was in and out of relationships myself. I was mourning a relationship that I'd really loved; I'd wanted it to work and it didn't. And I'd lost a close friend in a car accident. So I wanted to get at the quality of grieving in life. All of those things kind of came together.
Q: It's a handy device, I'm thinking, to have Celia own an apartment building. If you're an introvert like her, you wouldn't have much occasion to get involved in people's lives, but when you're their landlord, it becomes unavoidable.
A: Right. Urban living is very useful in terms of thinking about the ways you want to be alone, and can't be, because you're part of a collective. Sometimes that's comforting, sometimes not. I lived in a building on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights for almost 15 years, and a lot of crazy stuff went on in that building. I remember hearing things through the walls that I wished I hadn't heard! I'd come home from a long day at work and all I'd want was some peace, but I couldn't really guarantee myself that I was going to get it.
And one of my neighbors had a kind of psychotic break, and she changed completely. She got really paranoid and assumed I was trying to steal from her. (Laughs.) I picked up a wallet that she'd dropped one time and returned it to her, and she thought that I'd pickpocketed her. And I said, "Oh, I wouldn't know the first thing about pickpocketing someone, darling." But it's a wonderful thing about living so proximate to someone else that you know things about them that they would also wish you didn't know. But yet you know. And you have a weird fondness, a closeness to them, even if that hasn't been established through normal social interaction. It's like living in a hive.
Q: You end up in the novel, I think, with the idea that it really is better to live as part of a community — a hive, if you will — than to be completely isolated.
A: I'm glad you said that. I was really stupid and went on Goodreads, where somebody said they didn't feel like Celia changed much in the novel. I do think she changes quite a bit, from being very isolated to being part of a group. She still has her discomforts, because she's still her, but she and the others are all there hunkered down together. And I think that's what we have to do, whether we like it or not. We need to be hunkered down together, eating and drinking together, and hoping for the best.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Affairs of Others"
By Amy Grace Loyd, Picador, 291 pages, $24