EVERYTHING WILL NOW BE DIFFERENT
A Conversation with Amy Rossi
by Christopher Wolford
Music can take you to new places, but it can also lead you back home. Had it not been for Kris Kristofferson’s Live from Austin TX, Amy Rossi may have never returned to writing. We would’ve never had the pleasure of publishing her work here at Split Lip Magazine or bringing her on as our extraordinary web editor. Fortunately, everything worked out for the best, and I recently had the opportunity to chat with Amy about her hair metal obsession, “bad sex” stories, and rediscovering the joys of writing.
Amy Rossi (left) geeking out at Hell House, where Guns N' Roses recorded Appetite for Desctruction
Christopher Wolford: Tell me a little about why you love hair metal so much.
Amy Rossi: You know, people ask me how I got into hair metal but I don't think I've been asked why, at least not recently.
It's the first music I truly discovered on my own, that I heard and thought, yes, that's for me without anyone's encouragement. And I was a teenager when I got into it, and I think I liked music that so blatantly celebrates desire, though I wouldn't have put it in those terms then. But there's so much wanting in it -- sex, success, love -- and if you're the kind of person who worries about wanting too much, there can be something really freeing in screaming along with someone who can put words to those feelings.
And then there's the joy of it. Is all of the music good? No. But it also doesn't take itself terribly seriously for the most part. It's fun and outrageous and decadent and over the top, and it's not trying to be anything else.
The thing is, whenever I hear a sleazy guitar riff and a relentless drum beat and a driving chorus, I feel like I'm home.
CW: There's certainly a swagger to that genre that can't be found anywhere else. When someone explicitly states their love for a specific genre, it's always interesting to find out how it came to pass. My knowledge of the 80's and early 90's hair metal scene is fairly limited but I've always been a big fan of glam rock like T-Rex, Bowie (obviously), Sweet.
My dad bought Sweet's Greatest Hits on vacation one year, back when I was a youngster, and despite having some initial reservations about the band, I remember taking to it pretty instantly. Quite an underrated group that one.
AR: My 70’s tastes skew more toward arena rock than glam rock, but there's nothing like driving with the windows down singing along to "Little Willy."
CW: How does your love for hair metal (and the characteristics of the genre itself) find its way into your writing?
AR: I'm not going to claim this is exclusive to hair metal, but from everything I've seen and read, it really seems like so many of the bands were extremely dependent on young women. Not just buying albums and going to shows, but supporting bands in their early stages by giving them food, money, drugs, a place to crash. And that's always been compelling to me. I don't know if it's the result of watching a lot of Behind the Music in my formative years and reading rock star autobiographies, but I'm really interested in women on the fringes, ones who get kind of lost in what's supposed to be the story.
In terms of subject matter, sex and desire come up a lot in my work. It's possible I've absorbed hair metal's lack of subtlety about these things... I'm less interested in whether or not casual sex is "okay," but how it's brokered, how a person can be honest about that if she’s lying to herself about everything else. I’m drawn to moments of empowerment stemming from taking ownership of one’s body and moments when the body can be a tool of betrayal, which sometimes ties back to those women on the fringes -- the women whose actions and choices may not make sense to outsiders.
Also, I love hair metal so much I wrote a novel about it.
CW: I was going to ask you about the novel! I read you were working on it so I wasn't sure where you were at in the process.
Also, now that I'm reading it again, I remember this story from Jellyfish Review back when it was first published. The title was what first drew me in and I think it's a great example of what you've just detailed. I know many authors look back on their earlier work with some discomfort, so I'm curious how you feel about this particular piece of writing nearly a year later.
AR: That story is one that sat in the metaphorical desk drawer for several years. Like many writers, I write a lot of things that will never see the light of day, and I thought this was one of them. But last summer Jellyfish Review put out a call for “Bad Sex” stories. I knew I wanted to subvert the idea of bad and explore whether or not weird circumstances always have to mean bad. So I thought about this story. I made a few edits and sent it off, a bit nervously. In looking at it again, there's an edit I had made that I don't know if I'd do the same way now, but overall, I do feel pretty good about this one. Letting it age before returning to it was the right call. And I can't pretend I'm not happy with the title.
I will also always have good associations with this story because Christopher James, editor of Jellyfish Review, is the first editor who talked about the "If You Need Me" stories as a series and asked if I planned on putting them together in a chapbook -- which is something I would very much like to do one day.
Regarding the novel, it's done! (As much as these things are ever done.) I'm in the process of querying agents now.
CW: Well I certainly look forward to reading it and congratulations on finishing it.
Those stories would work well together in a chapbook, which is an underrated form in my opinion. I've never been a big fan of long story collections so chapbooks are often a perfect sampling of an author's voice.
AR: Thank you the vote of confidence, in both the novel and the chapbook! I do think chapbooks are especially flash-friendly and let you take risks that might wear thin in a longer collection.
CW: You've mostly trafficked in the short/flash fiction area up until now. What made you decide to tackle something longer?
AR: Well, the practical answer is that I had to write a novel (or a short story collection, but full-length short stories are not what I would call my forte) for my master's thesis. The honest-yet-super-cliché answer is that I always intended to write a novel; novel-ish ideas were the first things I ever wrote. I didn't know what flash fiction was until six-ish years ago, when I returned to a creative writing class after a long time of not writing, and our instructor had us write one for our first assignment. I fell in love. And I worked on flash pieces the whole time I was writing the first draft of my book to give my brain a break. I think the patience flash requires to sit with a single sentence that might not be working and to cut ruthlessly anything that isn't serving the story is good practice for writing and re-writing (and re-writing) a book.
Here's a fun fact: the very first flash I ever wrote ending up serving as the inspiration for my novel. I had known for a very long time I wanted to write a book about this, but these characters made it concrete.
CW: What took you away from writing and what brought you back?
AR: I stopped writing for several years after college. It was a combination of a lot of things -- moving far away from home, wanting to start over, experiencing a life where I had literally no responsibilities outside of a 9-5 job, and being burned out. The longer I stayed away from writing, the harder it was to return. And when I did try, I always felt disappointed by it. I had taken myself perhaps overly seriously as a writer from a young age. I drafted a novel as a high school freshman, then promptly went out on bought a copy of The Writer's Market and started querying agents. It all sounds ridiculous now, but I signed with someone. It didn't work out, which is so utterly and unbelievably for the best, but I put a lot of pressure on myself for awhile afterwards thinking I should be accomplishing more.
What brought me back was a combination of 3 things:
1) My former boss, a wonderful and genuine human being, asking me what I wanted to do in life. I told him I wanted to be a writer, and I used to be good at it but wasn't any more. He said that I probably wasn't as good at it then as I thought I was and that I probably wasn't as bad now as I thought I was. He said, "If you want to be a writer, Rossi, then write."
2) Kris Kristofferson's Live From Austin TX album.
CW: Minus the acquiring an agent in high school part, you essentially just summarized my intermittent love affair with writing fiction. I'm still kind of in that rut but that's some of the best advice I've ever heard so thank you for passing it along. And I truly mean that.
AR: I am so glad that advice spoke to you! I hope it is as freeing for you as it was for me.
CW: I want to touch on several things you just mentioned (cause we can't not talk about Kris Kristofferson) but let's start with Cowboys Are My Weakness. Tell me a little more about what made you pick up that collection in the first place and why that particular story struck a chord with you.
AR: The cover of the edition of Cowboys Are My Weakness that I stumbled on had this pair of cowgirl legs and the title was in like...Giddyup font and it was just so bizarre, I had to pick it up and see what it was. And there was this blurb from a review: "These are the stories that might have emerged had an intelligent woman followed Hemingway around." I had no idea what that meant and I still don't, and I think it could go in some kind of hall of fame for god-awful reviews that simultaneously make and miss the author's point.
"How to Talk to a Hunter" is the first story, and it's funny, voice-driven, self-aware, sad, vulnerable, and peppered with references to old country songs. I hadn't yet read a lot of stories like that, that felt like a friend, the kind you could be your honest self instead of your most likable self around. It was my first big "oh my god, me too!" moment -- when you read something and are able to finally put words to a certain feeling. If I read it earlier or later, maybe my reaction would have been different, but it was the right story at the right time in my life.
CW: Blurbs are such a strange element of the writing world. They're rarely accurate, especially when they try comparing author's style to some literary giant's. Compiling all the terrible ones might be an interesting experiment though.
AR: Perhaps a tumblr entitled “Intelligent Woman Following Hemingway” where people can submit all the ridiculous blurbs they come across...
CW: It can take a lot of digging to find those types of stories, the ones that feel like friends. Sometimes when I read a collection or listen to an album that speaks to me at such a fundamental level like that, it can take awhile to discover something that has the same effect again. That piece of art sets the bar even higher for what comes along next. Do you find yourself doing the same thing or are you able to approach new writing/music/etc. with an open, clear mind most of the time?
AR: I think my answer to that question might be...yes. At least as a reader. On the one hand, absolutely, it does take a long time and good digging to find those writers whose work speaks to me on that deep level. But on the other, I am okay with that, so I do try to approach the next reading experience with an open mind. Those powerful moments of feeling understood would mean less if they came with every book. There's always something to be gained from reading, and there's the knowledge that another reader is having that “holy shit, it feels like this book has a direct address comma and my name after the title” moment.
With music, though, while I'd love to say I have an open, clear mind, I am absolutely terrible at seeking out new stuff. I've been listening to the same playlist on the way to work for weeks now. I sort of ease into phases, and even when I do take a chance on the unfamiliar, it's new old stuff, like oh, it's time for my very significant Faster Pussycat or Hanoi Rocks or Motorhead phase. I like the comfort of stuff I know I feel connected to, of knowing which bruise a song is going to press on or the kind of joy it will open up. Then again, I think about the moments I get wonderfully caught off-guard, like listening to Hayes Carll or catching The Struts open for Motley Crue. I had no expectations and ending up enjoying the hell out of their set. It wasn't that everything will now be different kind of transformation, but still so worth it.
CW: One of the radio stations around Bloomington was playing that band here and there. It wasn't this song but I do remember their name. I actually think they played up in Indianapolis during one of their latest tours.
I definitely relate to the "phases" habit though. I'm the same way. I think that type of obsessive listening allows you to find something new each time you come back to it. Songs and albums are such fluid pieces of art that change as the listener changes. I used to just latch onto one artist or band and listen to them for weeks at a time. Lately it's been driven more by a particular genre, and it starts somewhat broad but gets whittled down as the weeks pass until I have this playlist that's (in my mind) a perfect representation of that sound.
AR: It's true! Like with stories. Every obsessive "Breakdown" (my favorite Guns N' Roses song) phase has led to coming away with something new.
CW: So we can't end this without touching on Kris Kristofferson's Live From Austin TX. How did it help revive your writing career and what's your favorite song on the album?
AR: The Kristofferson story...well. I bought the album because I had convinced my boyfriend at the time to take me to Atlantic City to see him for my birthday. Except I only knew a handful of songs. What I knew was that you see people like that when you have the chance. I decided I needed to educate myself so I could get the most out of it and also, uh, it wasn't a short distance to drive for a concert. So I was walking to work, listening to the album and the song "Stranger" came on. And I just literally stopped short. (You could do that in my neighborhood, promise.) "Maybe some old lonesome song will take you by surprise, and leave you just a little more alone." I mean, damn. And I listened to it on repeat as I walked. Just the stuff he does with language...the lyrics aren't complicated but still beautiful and true and felt. He might not be the best technical singer, but he can tell create a scene and it was impossible not to be inspired. This sounds so cheesy but it's true: I could picture the story I wanted to write as he sang. And pretty soon after, I wrote it. And many more bar fling stories after. I'm not sorry!
My favorite song on the album is "Stranger," probably, with "Star-Crossed" a close second. The live version of "Stranger" begins with the opening line of a different song, which I think is a great lesson in not killing your darlings but in repurposing them and breathing new life into things you love. And with "Star-Crossed," I'm actually working on something inspired by that song. He quotes a woman: "I've got too much rock and roll to be a wife / I can't live without the lightening and I'm scared of growing older / So I'm bound to keep on running for my life." So if we're talking about things that you connect with on a fundamental level...yeah.