Amy Fusselman, THE MEAN$: A Novel

Amy Fusselman, THE MEAN$: A Novel

Zibby speaks to author Amy Fusselman about The Mean$, a breezy and hysterical new novel about a stay-at-home Manhattan mom who is hell-bent on purchasing a Hamptons house (or shipping container, if necessary!). Amy talks about the inspiration behind the story, her fascinating protagonist (Shelly Means–disgruntled, enraged, and deep in capitalist delusion), and the themes she enjoyed exploring–wealth, desire, and the value of a mom’s unpaid labor. She also describes her journey to becoming an author and shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Means, your novel.

Amy Fusselman: Yay! Thanks for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: Your book was so funny and smart and just hilarious. I chuckled out loud over and over and over again. It’s just so funny. Your sense of humor is so great. I totally enjoyed it. It was super enjoyable.

Amy: Awesome.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners what The Means is about?

Amy: The Means is a tragic comic novel about a woman named Shelly Means. She’s a stay-at-home mom in Manhattan. She has two kids. She’s managing all her household stuff. She gets this bee in her bonnet, this obsession that she really wants respite from her life. She wants to chill. For her, that means lying next to her pool at a beach house in the Hamptons. She’s married to a guy named George, who’s a voiceover artist whose career is kind of on the downswing because he can’t properly voice the Chicken Bacon Detonator. Shelly, she finds someone who can build a beach house for her inexpensively on this little plot of land they manage to buy in The Springs. The beach house is going to be out of shipping containers. The housing association is up in arms about it. The whole book is basically the shenanigans of this woman who’s trying, in a really pretty subversive and intelligent way, to get what she wants. Thematically, it’s very comic, it goes down easy, but it’s also about the suffering inherent in desire, capitalist delusion, misogyny. It’s comic. It goes wide. It goes fast, but it goes wide.

Zibby: Yes, comedy with a purpose, with a message. There were just so many funny lines about how she feels about her own life. She is always referring to her life as things she does and how she’s — wait, let me just find this one passage. Hold on one second. I want to read this out loud. No, I can’t find it right now. Anyway, basically, Shelly is always referring to all of the things on her plate with this aggrieved nature. I have all these things. I have to add to my workload. I am a stay-at-home, but I also make lunch for Clementine. I do this too. I also have to walk Twix. Her diminished time that she spends with Darby, the dog walker, means that she has to take this on more and more. Everything she adds to her plate just seems so hard to overcome. She’s so aggrieved. I loved how you did that. Her childhood and her own relationship with money and how she views herself now, it was so interesting. Tell me about crafting her as a character. She’s so multilayered. The conversations she has with the dog — how did you come up with her?

Amy: I like that you are picking up on that thread because I did want to — I feel like Shelly was an interesting character to make because I knew from the get-go that she’s someone who’s not generally portrayed as sympathetic. I wanted to take a view into money through a portal that I hadn’t seen or read about. Her kids are in private school in Manhattan. Although they’re on financial aid, they’re in private school. She lives near FIT in the down-market part of Chelsea. She’s a stay-at-home mom. She has a ponytail and these kids. Generally, the way to write about that kind of wealth in Manhattan is disdainfully. I really wanted a way into her that was about mothering and about caregiving and about that work. I feel like the title of your podcast really is pushing against a similar thing. Moms don’t have time to do anything but their mom work. Moms have don’t have time for leisure. Moms don’t have time for pleasure. The fact that this podcast exists is your response to that. For Shelly Means, in some ways, it’s a similar thing. She gets this beach — spoiler alert. She gets this thing built by hook or by crook. It happens for her because she’s determined. She’s smart. I think she’s just really interesting. She was an interesting way in for me to write about these elements of money that I was interested in exploring.

Zibby: It seemed many times that this house was not going to be made in any way. One of the themes is you have to have money to make money. I think that’s where it all comes. Then there’s this whole other thread towards the end where they’re like, have you ever been in serious debt? Once you are, then you can’t get out of that. If your family was like that as a child — then here she is taking the land and then finding other opportunities, which also were so funny, to make money that way too. It just all seemed so unlikely. It seemed like it was not going to work out. Yet once she did it, then it could lead to better things. Whereas her poor husband is driving in the car, and he’s like, “Oh, no, they didn’t choose me for this ad,” when he hears the voiceover. I feel like it is some sort of commentary on, where do you start? Do you start in a place where you have the opportunity to really rise up, or do you not? Are you doomed from the beginning? It feels like that’s being examined, in part, as well.

Amy: I really was interested in writing every scene to locate where the money is in the scene. Where are the resources? I think that happens in real life. Who has what? Who’s offering what? Who’s preying on who? It’s not a rose-tinted view. It’s interesting to me, especially because I feel like money in that sense isn’t often explored, especially for women, in fiction. Shelly, in some ways, is operating in a shadow economy because it’s still — I cringe even saying this. Is a woman entitled to her partner’s income? is still a question. On the idea of, is stay-at-home mom real work? caregivers in this country are notoriously — it was just in The Times yesterday, another feature on this — underpaid and undervalued. That’s all part of what I wanted to examine in a system that I feel needs reevaluation, stat, because it involves women’s lives. Caregiving is huge. It’s how we treat each other. It’s how we live. It needs to be acknowledged and supported, in my view.

Zibby: Yes, absolutely. If you hire a caregiver to do — let’s say you go to work, and you have to hire someone to do the caregiving. That does have value. That’s an actual job. If you decide to stay home, it’s not like you’re not doing a job. That would be your job. You’re just not getting paid for it.

Amy: I added these elements to Shelly’s character because I knew that that would be part of why she’s contemptible in some ways. She has a dog walker. She has a cleaning lady. Oh, how dare she. Yet I feel like she’s a sympathetic character. She’s an underdog. She’s an underdog through the whole book. To play with those expectations was part of the pleasure in the writing of this for me.

Zibby: You even have the time where she gets a party planner. She’s like, if that’s not the height of wealth, what is? I have somebody to help me plan my parties in my house.

Amy: I think that’s it too. She has a lot of people who are preying on her at the same time. She has a therapist who’s also — then becomes her real estate broker, which is highly unethical. Everybody is sort of out for a take. That’s part of the landscape.

Zibby: You have that one moment when George has just lost his next gig. He thinks, any opportunity to make more money. She’s like, we’re going to have to sell this land. There’s just this silence between them as they realize, how am I going to keep paying for this CBT? Then she’s like, but wait…

Amy: There’s always a “But wait…” Exactly.

Zibby: Where did you come up with the idea for the whole book in general? I know we talked about Shelly. I was researching your other books, and this seems like a pretty big departure from some of the other ones. I didn’t read them. Now I’m like, I have to go back because I love the way you write. Where did this come from?

Amy: I wanted to try writing a novel. That was step one. I knew I wanted to write something comic. I also knew I wanted to write about money. That was the three things I was trying to hit. I do have a shipping container beach house in the Hamptons.

Zibby: No way.

Amy: I can tell you that my experience was not like Shelly’s, but I could see that through a different lens, it could become comic. I took what I knew about the landscape and about that process and made it a completely different thing. It’s grounded in my experience in that landscape, for sure.

Zibby: Is your house in The Springs?

Amy: Yes, it is in The Springs with the shitty cell phone service. Shout-out.

Zibby: Cell phone service is pretty bad everywhere out there. That’s great. What was it like, then, tackling this project? Maybe go back and tell me, how did you even get started as an author? How did all your projects build? Maybe a quick thing about each of your books.

Amy: I went to college. I got a degree in poetry. That was my first love, was that sort of exploration of consciousness, sensory experience. The “I” of experience has always been interesting to me. I wrote these nonfiction books that are not nonfiction in the sense of, my name’s Amy, and I scaled Mount Everest. They’re not really heroic about my life. They’re more like a poet’s perspective. Here’s what I see. Here’s what I experience. I’ve tackled different topics, a lot about motherhood because I have three kids. I’m sober. I was sexually abused as a kid. I’ve written about all that stuff. My third book is called Savage Park. It’s about a playground in Tokyo that I got pretty involved in. It’s an adventure playground, which we now have on Governors Island. We have one of those. I’m really interested in mothering and artmaking and creativity, women’s issues, children, all of that. That’s my wheelhouse, and now fiction and money.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Amy: My oldest is a junior in college. My second kid just started college this fall. My youngest is a freshman in high school. It’s weird. I think your kids need you in a different way when they are teens. They need you so intensely when they’re small in a way that’s so physical. You have to be present. You have to watch that they don’t scoot into the intersection. They need you in high school and college also. They need your presence in a different way.

Zibby: I have two fifteen-year-olds.

Amy: Oh, man. You’re in the thick of it.

Zibby: I also have a nine-year-old and an almost-eight-year-old. We run the gamut of emotions and needs.

Amy: We do. Look at that. Awesome.

Zibby: I also loved your portrayal of Jack and Clementine. Jack, right? Not Jake? Jack.

Amy: Yeah.

Zibby: My son is applying out to boarding schools for high school now. We’re deep in the test prep with all of that with his applications and wanting your kids to be motivated and all of that. Ultimately, their behavior is not anything you can control, and their preferences, like Clementine and the black room or whatever. You just don’t know what’s going to come out of their mouths.

Amy: I’m lucky to write. I learn from my writing. This book that I wrote about Japan really informed a lot of how I deal with my kids because they have this thing at the adventure playground called the play worker. This is a playground in Japan where the children play with open fires. That’s not a hyperbole. The play worker’s job is to witness and facilitate but not to interfere. I grew up in the Midwest. There’s a lot of pressure in this town to have high-achieving children and to be high-achieving yourself, of course. I learned so much about just watching and responding to what is rather than bulldozing in and directing from that work. I feel like parenting is so humbling anyway. You can’t control other people. It’s just the bottom line. It’s a painful lesson to learn.

Zibby: Yes, very true. Lots to fight against there. Always trying. I will not give up.

Amy: You have to row the boat. It’s your job.

Zibby: When you think about The Means and the message about money or wealth that you’re trying to put out into the world, if there’s a thesis statement behind it or what you really want people to know or believe or see because of this book, what would that be?

Amy: Shelly, she’s someone who’s deep in capitalist delusion. She believes that she can make this happen, but in the — again, spoiler alert. In the end, what happens is that she’s taken out of the shadow economy of being a stay-at-home mom, and she gets a “real job.” That’s her prize. You don’t actually get your beach house because you’re having to rent it out for porn films, and you get a job. Yay! It’s not a book that I wanted to — it doesn’t tell you how to feel. It doesn’t spoon-feed you in that sense. I wanted it to raise questions about mothering as legit work, about wanting, about materialism. There’s a lot about — the landscape of the Hamptons is insane. The land itself is stolen. That’s where we’re at. That should just be a naked fact that we’re dealing with all the time all over.

Zibby: I appreciated that bit of history, too, on the Shinnecock Reservation and where Montauk and all of that came from. You’re like, it’s like that place where they say it’s ocean view, but it’s really not ocean view.

Amy: It’s partial ocean.

Zibby: There’s so much anti-wealth sentiment right now. Literally, on my way to drop my kids at school this morning, this car had a huge bumper sticker from the marines that said, “Fight the rich, not their wars,” or something. I’m like, okay, so that’s where we are. Is that fair? What do you think? What would Shelly think about that? What do you think about that?

Amy: That was part of why this book isn’t set in the projects or whatever. I wanted it to be really a liminal space. I wanted it to raise questions. Wow, I’m not sure about this. This is seemingly someone I would hate, but she seems to be beset with some of the struggles that are relatable to me. What does that mean? It’s not clear-cut. We’re all working within a system that I think most people acknowledge needs some powerful change. How does that affect everyday interactions of invisible people who aren’t heroic, who are kind of invisible, moms being one? What’s that actually look like? How do I contribute to this? What are the things I can do?

Zibby: It’s a lot.

Amy: The joy of the book is it goes down funny.

Zibby: It does. It’s so great.

Amy: I feel happy about that.

Zibby: The book is great. I loved the book. It’s fast-paced and entertaining. Some of the scenes where she’s throwing things and she’s like, “Oh, no, I did it again,” I’m like, what is going on with her? Why is she always ? She seems like she has it all together. Yet you show all of her cracks, which are so obvious, but you don’t even see them coming.

Amy: She’s in a rage. Shelly’s in a rage. Rightly so. She’s contemptible. She feels it. She’s trying to negotiate these systems that are bananas. God bless her. She’s throwing shit. She got kicked off the PTA.

Zibby: What kind of feedback are you getting since this book has been out? Tell me about that.

Amy: I’m not somebody who’s googling my reviews all the time.

Zibby: Or on tour.

Amy: I feel like it became increasingly clear that I didn’t need to talk more about that it’s more than a funny book, that there’s more going on there. I’m grateful that people are finding it funny. Again, it’s not easy to write funny. That was one of my primary goals. That people find it funny is a super win. I’m very happy about that. I also wanted to start talking about the fact that it goes a little deeper than that. Again, with the not being able to control people, people will take from the book what they will. There’s really not a lot I can do about that. I did want to start just talking about, these are other elements, other facets of it that I crafted. It’s important.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Amy: I’m about to leave tomorrow for the fabulous Texas Book Fest. Then I have a reading in Chicago and a couple college things. That will be fun, I hope. Yeehaw. I’m working on another novel because why not? Keep going. Moms don’t have time to write novels.

Zibby: How long did this one take? How long does a book typically take you? I know they’re all different.

Amy: It probably took the longest just because I didn’t know what I was — I worked pretty closely with my agent, Monika Woods, whose input I’m grateful for and who I really enjoy working with. To prepare the book and to — some of my previous stuff has been pretty experimental. I wasn’t interested in playing with form in this at all. It had a big enough burden to just be comic and to be about money. I didn’t want to throw anything else at a reader. Oh, it’s going to have weird line breaks. No. Just to give it a solid structure, to give it a beginning, middle, and an end, all that stuff was enough of a challenge for me. It took about three years, really.

Zibby: I hope I can introduce you at some point — I started a publishing company, also, called Zibby Books.

Amy: Yes, congratulations. That’s so amazing. Shelly and I bow down. That is awesome.

Zibby: Thank you. One of the books we acquired that’s coming out in 2024 is also set in East Hampton. It has something kind of similar in the observational nature of the craziness there. It’s called I Want You More. It ends up being a little bit of a thriller. The author is Swan Huntley. She’s amazing. I feel like you guys would have some really interesting conversations.

Amy: Good. We’ll meet on the beach.

Zibby: Meet on the beach for a walk or something. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Amy: Ooh, that’s so good. I teach at NYU. That’s about crafting more than about — I could talk to you for a long time about your publishing company. I think it’s always good to have more venues and more women. It’s good. The thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is that there’s so many different ways to be a writer. I don’t participate — I’m going to the Texas Book Fest. Really, this is the only book fest I’ve been to. This is the second time I’ll be going there. A lot of writers who’ve written five books, as I have, participate in what I think of as the writing economy. They go to book fests. They teach at colleges. They speak at colleges. All those things are their income. That’s how they make it work. They’re a little bit like traveling salesmen. I don’t say that in a derogatory way. It’s just, they have their product, and they go out there with it. It’s awesome. That’s never been a way that was open to me because of my kids and my choices. For a long time, I felt like there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t do that. I feel like there’s so many ways to be a writer if you just write. You don’t have to be at every festival or teaching or doing anything except writing and trying to find a way to be published. Louise Bourgeois lived sixteen blocks from me and raised three kids, so I think about her a lot. She was also, in technical terms, a stay-at-home mom. I think about her a lot. She would say she was grateful for the critics that really gave her a decade or two of basically ignoring her. To just write, that’s what makes you a writer. There’s a zillion ways to dance with the industry. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not doing the primary way.

Zibby: I like that. I know. Any events I have, I have to schedule around my custody schedule. I’m like, hold on, I have to check. I can’t switch this day.

Amy: Of course. You’re spinning the plates. I love that you make time for it all, Zibby. I think that’s awesome.

Zibby: You too.

Amy: I didn’t start a publishing company or a podcast, but I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. I do it all from home.

Amy: I know. I love that.

Zibby: I was literally just saying that to my kids before. I was a stay-at-home mom for eleven years where I did other things. I’m like, “Don’t you think it’s great that I figured out a way to do all this in our house?”

Amy: What did they say?

Zibby: They’re like, “Yeah, it’s so cool.” My daughter comes home from school and sits and does her homework with my team at the dining room table. I think it’s really cute.

Amy: That’s the best.

Zibby: We just all have to find ways to make it work, right?

Amy: Exactly, yes.

Zibby: I hear your Twix in the background, or whoever that might be. Thanks so much for chatting. I really, really enjoyed your book and liked hearing all the extra layers. I hope we can connect.

Amy: Cool. I would love that. Thank you. I appreciate it. Have a great day.

Zibby: Thanks so much. You too. Buh-bye.

Amy Fusselman, THE MEAN$: A Novel

THE MEAN$: A Novel by Amy Fusselman

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