Street Talk

Allison Amend

Allison Amend is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love.  Her novel Stations West was a finalist for both the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her new novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, was released this Spring. Allison lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College and at the Red Earth MFA. Visit her on the web at: http://www.allisonamend.com or http://www.facebook.com/AllisonAmendAuthor

Double Take: An interview with Allison Amend

08/07/2013

Braddock Avenue Books: A Nearly Perfect Copy tackles questions of authenticity: the authenticity of art, the authenticity of being human. The latter question is guided by the protagonist’s interest in cloning her deceased son. What made you interested in approaching this subject, and how did you go about incorporating such an ethically charged issue into your novel?

Allison Amend: I was doing my mandatory liberal reading in 1999, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair… Dolly the sheep had been cloned recently; I was surprised the clone was a lamb. But of course it is not an exact duplicate—rather it is a baby version of its original. The ways a clone experiences the world would be necessarily different. At the same time, I read an article about master art forger Eric Hebborn. He succeeded not by copying paintings, but by creating work surrounding those paintings: sketches, studies etc. The two ideas seemed similar. What would make otherwise moral people want to violate these common ethics?

But then I jettisoned thinking about theme while I created characters and wrote the book. Writing with theme in mind is almost always a bad idea—it creates thin allegory rather than rich character study.

BAB: In his review for NPR, Alan Cheuse described your novel as unfolding “against a backdrop filled with the particulars of middle-class family life and the art world here and abroad.” This combination of the extraordinary and the quotidian is part of the fascination of your novel. Do you feel like this was a hard balance to strike, or did you see those two facets as necessary counterparts?

Amend: Thank you for your kind words. This was not, actually, a juxtaposition I thought much about. I suppose I wanted to explore all aspects of the art world. I also feel as though extraordinary things happen every day; that’s what makes life interesting. As someone with no science background, I’m equally amazed by boiling water as I am by the pictures from Mars’ surface. When I first began writing the book, cloning seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Now it appears to be an eventuality.

BAB: It strikes me that your novel is one that, like all good novels, is interested in making readers question their assumptions. In your novel, the assumptions that are up for debate are often wrapped up in issues of morality—a subject that has become taboo for many contemporary writers (Ian McEwan’s fiction comes to mind as a notable exception to this rule). Augustus Klinman is one character that resists categorization. His peripheral presence throughout the novel provokes many questions without allowing the reader to settle in to comfortable judgments.

Amend: Thanks for the Ian McEwan comparison! No one told me I wasn’t supposed to write about morality’s relativism. Glad I missed that memo! Klinman is in some ways a Robin Hood figure. He’s immediately sympathetic because of his backstory, but he’s obviously not exactly motivated by philanthropy or justice, even if that is a byproduct of his activities. Similarly, Elm justifies her actions by focusing on the result, not the process (trying to avoid spoilers!). Gabriel uses the same argument in the least justifiable way.

I believe the best writers are not interested in passing judgments on their characters (though some do indulge in this practice); rather they encourage the reader to identify with the characters and then examine those impulses in themselves. That’s why the good guys always win in action films, and why people often find literary novels’ conclusions unsatisfying.

BAB: Your look at the world of art forgery is intricately conceived; the wealth of detail in the novel itself, as well as the brief glimpse of famous forgeries in histories provided in the Author’s Note, testify to the extensive research that must have gone into creating your story. Could you share a beguiling discovery about this world that didn’t make it into the book?

Amend: I could share a thousand stories—would you like to read the 400 pages that I cut from the novel? I found most fascinating how important a commodity art was and is. People who said nothing while millions were annihilated during World War II risked their lives to save art from destruction. I ultimately decided not to include the wealth of information on art during the Second World War because there have been several recent works (fiction and non) on the topic. There’s even a Matt Damon/ George Clooney film soon to be released about it. I could also tell you a great deal about how to forge an oil painting, and the mechanisms (though not the chemistry) behind cloning.

BAB: Would you describe writers whom you feel may have influenced A Nearly Perfect Copy?

Amend: I’ve been deeply influenced by Jennifer Egan, and how she takes on contemporary social issues in ways that are both compelling and original. Other speculative writers such as Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, were also inspirations, though my novel ultimately strayed only very briefly into speculation. Also, literary writers who manage to write page-turners that are also character studies, such as Anne Patchett, Michael Cunningham, and Barbara Kingsolver, are my literary models.

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