“Mediating the area between inspiration and audience.” A conversation with Amy Fusselman
We were sitting on a log about halfway down the slope, facing the way we had come. It was then that I realized that at the top of the slope, I had been so busy looking down—at the fires, the smoke, the tricky ground, and where I was stepping—that I hadn’t looked anywhere else. It was only now, when we were sitting , nodding, saying our words, and eating marshmallows, that I thought to look up and around.
I looked up at the trees. I was astonished to see that there were children in them.
The more I looked, the more children I saw. There were children fifteen feet high in the air. There were children perched on tiny homemade wooden platforms, like circus ladies dressed in glittery clothes about to swan-dive into little buckets. There were children sitting up there, relaxed, in their navy blue sailor-type school uniforms, chatting and eating candy on bitty rectangles of rickety wood as if they were lounging on the Lido deck of the Love Boat.
There were children in creaky homemade structures like this in the trees all over the park. There were children, pre-teens, crouching fifteen feet up on the roof of the playpark hut and then—I gasped to see this—leaping off it into a pile of ancient mattresses.
–Excerpt from Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid To Die. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
KATE SCHWAB: The title of your new book, Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid To Die, collects most of the themes inside its pages. The main title comes from the nickname you gave to the Hanegi Playpark in Tokyo, Japan, an adventure playground where children can freely build, destroy, and play with fire. What was the genesis of Savage Park? Did your visits to Hanegi Playpark inspire the book or were the ideas in the book already taking shape when you visited? Was this similar to your previous books?
AMY FUSSELMAN: Savage Park was completely inspired by my visit to Tokyo. When I first went to the playpark, I felt confronted by it. It was like seeing a staggering work of art. I knew when I left Japan that I wanted to write about it but I didn’t know what shape it would take. I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know if that would be possible.
This was not at all like my previous two pieces. My first book was in some ways about solving a creative problem. My second book did not require any research.
KS: Savage Park has many short, numbered pieces, some almost like micro chapters within its separate sections. Something about this structure made the ideas and images almost tangible, like they were things I wanted to pick up and play with. I found myself reading very slowly so I could absorb each section on its own. Do you consciously define this structure or does it flow from the work itself? How do you keep track of the whole of the work while crafting each tiny part?
AF: That is such a lovely compliment, thank you. I do think of the pieces as sculptural and when the form feels strong to me, I find that very satisfying.
In terms of process, I shape the work as I go along. The form of each piece contributes to the whole. Maybe it’s like making a meal; you are focused on the teaspoon you are measuring for the main dish you are making at the same time that you are also in the process of making soup, salad, and dessert.
KS: One of the reasons I read memoirs and personal essays is for the revelations I encounter, revelations both in the sense of to surprise and to reveal. Reading these revelations, big or small, can create a moment of connection, and in some sense they are almost like shared secrets. When writing about your own life, how do you decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden?
AF: I try to make sure that what I am writing about is useful to the whole. That’s the main thing. I try to edit well that way.
KS: Does your vision of the whole of a book come to you first or does it develop as you work?
AF: I develop it as I go. It’s intuitive. The big pleasure for me, and how I know that I’m on the right track, is if the work surprises me.
KS: You have a healthy list of sources and further reading at the end of your book. I’m a librarian so it made me curious about your research process. How did you discover the books you cited? Google? Luck? Following citations? Library research? How did the research you did for this book affect the writing process?
AF: It was definitely an organic process. One book would lead to another or I would have a question I wanted to answer that would lead me to another book.
The interplay between the research and the writing was probably the hardest part for me to navigate. I did not have a model for the kind of book I was making. I had to keep going back to my original intention to confirm that I was operating according to that.
KS: Though we probably didn’t have an adventure playground like Hanegi Playpark as children, most of us had some place or some means to play with complete abandon. Mine was a few acres of woods at the edge of the neighborhood, inhabited only by other kids, the occasional bobcat, and once, a cougar. We never told our parents about the big cats because the danger and the secrecy was essential to our fun. What was your childhood version of an adventure playground? What would your children say is theirs?
AF: That sounds like an incredible place. I’m not sure I had an adventure playground as a kid. When I was young, I was a figure skater, and I spent many, many hours at the ice rink. The rink itself had some elements of an adventure playground, but not all. I remember one summer, some friends and I explored the boiler room below the rink. I never told my parents about that.
I am not sure if my kids have an adventure playground, either. I do think it is harder for them to have access to those types of spaces, living in New York City as we do. I tend to think that their secret play is more verbal. Both my sons have been very involved at points in making up codes, and one of my sons loves parody and satire. We have a lot of wordplay in our house and I am sure I am only privy to some of it.
I want to point out, though, that neither of these scenarios is quite like an adventure playground. In an adventure playground, you do have the presence of a playworker who is there to facilitate play but not to direct it.
KS: Figure skating! I can only imagine how disciplined you had to be to compete. Do you bring the same discipline to your writing practice? Do you view those many childhood hours at the rink differently now that you have your own children?
AF: My experience as a figure skater was complicated and very much wrapped up in my relationship with my mother. Figure skating is also unusual in that I think its closest sibling is actually musical theater rather than any other sport. I look back at that period in my life and it seems sort of surreal, frankly. As far as discipline, I am a very tenacious person. I will say that about myself.
KS: Tenacity seems an essential characteristic for a writer! The two activities seem so different. Does any of the performance aspect of figure skating carry through to your work as a writer? Does it influence your relationship to the reader as audience?
AF: I think so. Carrying on with the musical theater idea, I would say that what a figure skater does is similar to a solo in a piece of musical theater. In this regard skating was excellent training because I grew up using my body as my voice.
A skater is actually operating in a middle ground between the music itself and the audience. She is trying to articulate the music—the music is always perfect in a way that the skater almost never is— and the degree to which she is successful in that articulation is a measure of her achievement. This is very similar, of course, to the position a writer is in, mediating the area between inspiration and audience.
I am grateful, looking back, that I did skating as a sport and not, say, swimming, or something else where my aptitude would be viewed as coming from my physical prowess alone. My skating performances were always in relation to this greater force: music. I think that is an excellent position for a writer.
KS: This book crosses continents and gives the reader the opportunity to meditate on ideas both big and small and ranges over emotional and intellectual territory. These eclectic ideas come easily together over the book, but they seem to be drawing from many different sources, from a master tightrope walker to a playful table design to our relation to space. How do you feed your intellectual curiosity in your daily life? What’s inspiring you now for your next project?
AF: I am lucky to live in NYC so if I hear about something I really want to see I can generally get there. I also edit an online journal called Ohio Edit and I get a lot of satisfaction out of communicating with other writers and artists as part of that. I have several ideas in the hopper for new projects but nothing I am ready to unveil yet.
KS: If you were going to suggest a book pairing to read with Savage Park, what would you suggest, aside from your first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8?
AF: Sitting beside me now is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. I am about halfway through this book and I have been underlining a lot. I think Savage Park and this book overlap quite a bit thematically.
Another book which would make a good companion is one I have treasured for years: Start the Conversation by Ganga Stone. I love this powerful little book and hope that Savage Park operates in a similar way.
Link to Ohio Edit
Find a copy of Savage Park on IndieBound
Amy Fusselman is the author of Savage Park, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8. As “Dr.” Fusselman, she writes the “Family Practice” parenting column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ms. magazine, Hairpin, and ARTnews.
Kate Schwab questions having to describe herself differently for different contexts, even as she acknowledges that identity is fluid. She is a librarian in Portland, Oregon, a feminist, a comics lover, and she will talk to you about books for as long as you can take it. She’s been known to teach people to download library ebooks at parties. After nearly four decades on earth, she finally discovered that gardening is the best thing ever.