Amy Koppelman, A MOUTHFUL OF AIR

Amy Koppelman, A MOUTHFUL OF AIR

“No one tells you how scary it is to become a mom. You’re responsible for a whole other life.” Amy Koppelman joined Zibby for an IG Live to talk about her book, A Mouthful of Air, which is being re-released to celebrate the premiere of its film adaptation, which Amy wrote the screenplay for and directed. They talk about why so many women suffer during the postpartum period in silence, how Amy wanted the book to help start a conversation about maternal mental health eighteen years ago, and the experience of adapting a very personal book for the screen with Amanda Seyfried.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” also on Instagram Live today, to discuss A Mouthful of Air, your beautiful, haunting and dark but thought-provoking novel.

Amy Koppelman: Thank you. You’re my first interview.

Zibby: Really?

Amy: Yes. The novel originally came out eighteen years ago or almost eighteen years ago. I’m really lucky because Two Dollar Radio is republishing it. I think people understand it more now and understand that it’s a real thing. At the time, people never used the word postpartum depression. I didn’t even know that it existed until after I wrote the novel. There was one scene, and I was like, , could a mother even do this? I didn’t google it. I went to Ask Jeeves because there wasn’t even Google.

Zibby: I remember Ask Jeeves.

Amy: I didn’t know if it was physically even possible to — obviously, I don’t want to ruin the novel — to hurt your child in any way. I was trying to figure that out. I didn’t even know. If you think about the Bible, of course, it is. At the time, I didn’t know. I’m glad I think people understand now, the things I was trying to talk more about, the mixed feelings that you can have at different times, the confusion, the fears, and how so much of your own childhood trauma comes up when you have children, how you’re kind of forced to recognize it. You’re my first interview after eighteen years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m honored. Thank you so much. Wait, so then how did this become a movie now? Tell me about the movie. How is this all happening now?

Amy: I just keep doing my own thing. I never know what I’m setting out to write. I just write about an emotion that I’m feeling. In A Mouthful of Air, I knew I was writing about shame and the actual shame that we have for the things that we did wrong and the shame that people put on us and then what we allow for ourselves within the confines of that shame, if that makes sense. Speaking English is not my strong suit.

Zibby: Stop it.

Amy: That’s why I sit alone and write, because I can retype the sentences for clarity. In retrospect of twenty years being a writer, I think in this book, I was writing through the pain of, what if I didn’t get the help that I needed? My second book, which was also published by the great Two Dollar Radio, I Smile Back, I wrote the screenplay for that. It stars Sarah Silverman. That was about, what if I worked so hard to build this happy little family and inside of me were demons that were going to that I was going to destroy it all? In my last book, Hesitation Wounds, it was about giving myself permission to be happy, that I’m not such a bad person. It all circled back to the shame. I never thought, out of any of the balls that I have in the air — you always have to keep a lot of balls in the air because it’s just rejection after rejection after rejection, so it’s short story, novel, screenplay — that this would be the thing because this is such a hard subject. I wrote Amanda Seyfried. I met with her. I said, “Would you read this book?” She read the book. Then I wrote the screenplay for it. That all sounds very easy, but all these things took so much time. Of course now in retrospect, it all just happened. We had a really hard time, Amanda and I, raising the money. We lost the money a couple times. Then we were really lucky. Maven Pictures financed the film. There were two things Amanda asked for. One was that Julie has a career. She’s a children’s book author in the film. The other is that I direct the film. Then ultimately, I got to direct it.

Zibby: No way. So you directed it and wrote the screenplay?

Amy: Yes, and I drew the illustrations. This novel was the hardest for me because I didn’t know what I was doing. I think I was doing it more for myself to find a place to put the sadness inside of me. I didn’t understand, when I loved my little baby so much and I love my kid so much, how I could also be so sad. I thought it was important even though it’s not an autobiographical book.

Zibby: When is the movie — what are the dates? Where is it?

Amy: The movie comes out at the end of October. Sony Pictures is releasing it. I learned the term autofiction this week. I guess it’s a debate now. Can fiction be autofiction? This book isn’t an autobiography or autofiction, but the feelings in it are my own. I think a lot of women feel those feelings. I’m glad that the book is there because the book is more internal, so you can understand her in a different way than in the movie.

Zibby: That’s why I was sort of wondering as I read it, knowing that it’s going to be a movie, how this — I can see all the scenes unfolding, but so much of it is what’s going on with her and those moments and the thoughts and her instincts and her questioning herself, all of which are so common with mothers. I’m really curious to see how you tackled that on the screen.

Amy: It’s all Amanda’s performance. She does it all with her eyes. It’s incredible. When you watch her, it’s like she understands the collective fear and joy that all of us have and is able to project that onto the screen. There are moments where the baby’s crying. We all understand that fear of the baby crying. You’re looking at the baby. You just don’t know what to do. You have another kid. The other kid’s running. What happens if something happens to that — no one tells you how scary it is to become a mom and how ill-equipped you are in many ways. You’re responsible for a whole other life. That can be very scary. It plays out all on her face. I’m very excited for people to see her performance. It’s a heartbreaking performance. It’s really good.

Zibby: I can’t wait. I’m so excited to see it. I thought maybe I could read a couple passages that really caught my attention if that’s okay. First, there’s this whole, how Julie is sort of doubting herself and how she won’t feel attractive anymore, which is also, of course, so common. This is in the beginning, though. I’ll read a better passage later. Not better. Your writing is beautiful. She’s in the elevator with Philip Roth. By the way, I was just chatting with somebody who was like, “Philip Roth grew up around my parents.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, have you read A Mouthful of Air? There’s a whole scene with Philip Roth in the elevator.” You say, “But he won’t find me attractive, not now, not as a mother. Julie feels herself begin to sweat and loosens her scarf. This scrap of herself, so vain and ugly, is what wraps itself around her shoulders at night. Here it is again waving a finger. Its foreboding voice warns, you are going to fail. You can’t help but fail.” This poor girl. Then let me read this other passage. This one was so moving, oh, my gosh. This is when Teddy is born and is nursing and everything. “Julie’s forefinger traces the lines of his lips. He was so beautiful, her boy. She moved her finger into his mouth. He bit down, his gums hard. How they ached for teeth. What do you want, little guy? The boy reached for his mother’s face, and she responded curling toward him pressing her lips against his. They were so soft, so minute, so easy to swallow. She slid her tongue into his milky tasting mouth just for a second or two, just long enough to know that she liked it. She couldn’t deny it. She was in love with her own son. She was a pervert.” Tell me about that passage. Do you even remember writing all this?

Amy: Yeah, I remember writing it. I think that when we all have kids, we come to terms with different — Julie’s coming to terms with feelings and emotions that she subjugated from her own childhood. She’s confused about the innocent thing of kissing her son versus her fear of what that means. Is she going to be a person who steals innocence? I think that that’s a breaking point for her because the fear of that, of hurting him in any way, she can’t let that exist in her head.

Zibby: Wow, that’s super powerful. A whole theme in this book is, what’s okay? Is medication for depression okay? Can you do it as a mom? Can you do it when you’re nursing? Can you do it when you’re pregnant? What are the effects of medication? What does it mean? Should you take it? Should you not? Then there’s this one scene where you say, “There are two doctors, Dr. Saltzman, the gynecologist, who says it’s okay, the medicine, that he’s had many patients who took antidepressants throughout their pregnancy. Their babies were normal, normal birthweight, normal development. ‘I have at least eight expectant women on antidepressants as we speak.’ Dr. Saltzman talks to Ethan man to man. ‘One out of every seven women experience some degree of depression after they give birth.’ These kinds of statistics are mixed in with, ‘How about those Knicks?’ But then there’s Dr. Edelman who says she’s not sure, that there haven’t been long enough studies on the newer antidepressants, that they are still not even sure what Zoloft does to the brain tissue of the person taking the medication, let alone a fetus. It is possible the antidepressants can mess with a fetus’s synapses and the baby can — ‘What does this mean?’ Ethan interrupts.” It keeps going on and on about the doctors debating. Still, I feel like people are not even so sure. I had my first kids fourteen years ago. People were like, I don’t know.

Amy: There’s a lot of conclusive evidence now that you can take certain antidepressants when pregnant and that there is actually ramifications if you don’t on the baby’s development in the fetus. I am a very strong proponent of medication. I think it saves lives. There’s a lot of New York Magazine articles about how things are overprescribed. I think for most people in most of the country, most women are suffering in silence and don’t really talk about it. They’re too scared of what their parents might think, what their husband might think, what their church or temple, what the people there might think. There’s nowhere to go to say, I’m home alone with my child or I’m at the park with my child, and I’m scared all the time. It’s like, get a grip. This is your job. You can’t go work at a bank and be like, I have to leave, I’m anxious. Go to the park and stop worrying that he’s going to fall off the slide and die. When you get very depressed, and especially if you have bad postpartum depression, those fears become as real to you as what’s real. It’s just very hard to decipher between those two things. I think taking medication and being able to be in the present and being able to be there for your children is much more important than not taking it because you’re worried that a tiny bit is going to pass through the brain tissues. We do have more conclusive evidence. Eighteen years ago or twenty years ago, I had never been on antidepressants. Then I had my son.

I had bad depression, but I thought it was just more or less a version of the same theme. Then I went on antidepressants, and everything changed. All the clichés happened. Everything went from black and white to color. I could feel feelings without being crippled by them. I could cry without being scared that if I started to cry, I would never be able to stop. Then I got my pregnant with my daughter. I went off the antidepressant medication. It was excruciatingly hard because I was able to see the difference. I felt so sick. I remember — she has crossed eyes. She doesn’t anymore. She had surgery to fix them. My brother has crossed eyes. She would’ve had crossed eyes. It wouldn’t have been from the antidepressants. I remember thinking, thank god I didn’t take the antidepressants. I would’ve thought that it was true that I crossed her eyes. We all want to protect our kids. We do so many things to try to protect them. I think the thing that’s most important is for the kid to have their mother. I do think there’s still a debate about medication. I think overall, there’s enough statistics to say, this is better. I’ve worked for a long time with Dr. Lee Cohen who runs maternal mental health at Mass General. There’s a lot of places, Postpartum Support International, that you can call. They’ll help you. They’ll find you somebody to talk to so you don’t have to be alone. I remember writing those scenes thinking, if I can somehow figure out how to put this all together into a book, if I can somehow figure out how to get the sentences to link so there’s some kind of narrative, maybe it could be a cautionary tale and help people. That was my goal. Nothing ruins fiction than having an agenda, but that was my goal.

Zibby: I think it’s a great goal. I feel like wanting to help other people and connecting and using your experience and your emotions to make other people feel less alone, isn’t that why so many people write and why we talk and why we help each other? That’s the basis of our connections anyway, so I don’t think that’s going to ruin fiction.

Amy: I’m saying then you become very didactic in the writing. You’re being prescriptive. That’s all I meant by that. You’re not supposed to have a bigger agenda. My agenda, always in the writing, is to try to get as close to the truth as possible, even if it’s ugly, so that somebody else knows that other people are having those feelings. For me, when you read and you’re able to read a sentence where somebody wrote something that you’ve been feeling or thinking or wondering about but never even knew to put into a question and they solve it for you on the page and you have that connection, it changes everything. It makes you know that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.

Zibby: I just wrote this piece. My kids just left for two weeks to spend with their dad. I’m divorced and remarried. It literally knocked me off my feet. I had to spend the whole day in bed crying. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I was so depressed and upset. I couldn’t get it together again. Now it’s two days later. I’m back doing work. I’m okay. I felt like nobody really understood that pain quite enough. Oh, nobody’s sick. Your kids are fine. They’ll be home soon. I just wrote this very painful essay about it. I was like, let’s just name it. Let’s name divorce pain. Let’s just get it out there. Help your friends who are going through it. Maybe they don’t understand.

Amy: That’s a really brilliant thing. That is a specific kind of pain. I have a close friend who went through a terrible divorce. You’re getting punished. It just feels like a giant punishment and that time that should be your time is getting stolen from you. It’s devastating. I’m sorry that that happened to you.

Zibby: No, no, it’s been almost six years, I can’t believe. It’s okay. After all this time and talking to so many people, I’ve decided there’s nothing I can feel that other people out there aren’t going through. If I’m feeling it, it just means that hundreds of other people are feeling the same thing. My task is just to get it down on paper so that people who might not know what they’re feeling have it in front of them and can be like, oh, right. I feel like that’s what you’re doing with this book, and obviously much better than my one little article. It doesn’t have to be memoir or essay. Fiction is the most powerful. You immerse yourself in this poor woman, Julie. Even, by the way, I felt so bad for her husband, Ethan. I feel like he was trying.

Amy: The collateral damage, I did think a lot about that. I tried to make it where money wasn’t an issue for her because I wanted to give her every resource possible and not have her have a mean husband, and she still couldn’t figure it out. For people who are living with depressed people or people who have tried to kill themselves, you are put in kind of an emotional jail. I actually have that more in the movie. I really think about that. I try to show that, how he’s kind of trapped because he doesn’t know what to do. Not to be gender specific, I do think that men do have a hard time anyway when a newborn comes along, a lot of times, figuring out where their place is, what their role is. Maybe not the young men now. My son’s age, or daughter’s, millennial men seem very comfortable with the idea of — for me, I think that, at least in my generation, it was hard for men to figure out what their place was. For Ethan in particular, he has no idea where he fits into any of it. There’s nothing he can do to help her.

Zibby: It’s a really hard feeling to manage, being with anybody who’s depressed for any reason. It’s tough to know how to handle it the best way and to support the people you love.

Amy: They’re also not allowed to get angry. That’s not fair. You have to subjugate all your own emotions and desires. I do try to show that more in the movie. It’s not fair to do that to another person. I think that Julie feels guilty about it both in the book and the movie. Nevertheless, the collateral damage that you create by staying depressed or by trying to kill yourself or by killing yourself, it trickles down for generations.

Zibby: I have four kids. My eight-year-old, I don’t even know where she heard about suicide. She must have heard it on YouTube or something. She thinks it’s called commit to suicide. She’s like, “Do you think that’s going to make that woman commit to suicide?” It’s the sweetest, most heartbreaking way to say it because you are actually committing to it and you’re committing it. It just made me think about the whole thing. Are you committing to the idea of it?

Amy: That’s a very profound, tiny change of — words are fascinating.

Zibby: Words are fascinating. Amy, are you working on anything new now? I’m loving your writing style. Now I’m such a fan. What are you doing next?

Amy: I’m working on a new novel called Sex with Kings. It’s about a family in the South Bronx. It’s a different kind of novel for me. I’m trying to do a novel where I know certain things that are happening and it’s not all internal. It’ll take me around eight to ten years to write. I’ll think I’m writing about this family moving from the South Bronx and moving back. It’ll end up being about menopause. Then I’m going to have to go to Eric and Eliza at Two Dollar Radio and be like, look, I know that I said I was writing this amazing sweeping saga about a family. It’s really a lot about menopause. Hopefully, they’ll publish it. That’s what I’m working on, and figuring out how to get my last novel made into a movie. I’m banging on doors, knocking on doors.

Zibby: It’s like the door in your — this door . Maybe it’s a sign. It’s perfect. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Amy: I’m happy to answer questions. Yes, I have lots of advice. I think that there’s this big misnomer that there are writers and not writers. I think if you can speak and you can tell a story as you do with your friends on the phone or when you go to Starbucks and you’re having coffee — you’re telling a story. That’s what writing is. It’s just telling a story. I don’t like this idea of, you have to be schooled in it or you have to read books about it. I think the best thing to do if you want to write is just write. Write for yourself, especially because — are you allowed to curse on Instagram?

Zibby: Let’s not.

Amy: Okay. No one reads fiction, really, anyway. It’s a small amount of people that are looking to read literary fiction, so you have time. You only have your first book once. Just write the story you want to tell as truthfully as you can. It will find its readers. Write it first and foremost for yourself. If you’re able to write it for yourself, this sounds weird, but write it for the characters so that you can make their truth real. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. It makes you be able to feel more whole. It makes you be able to withstand the rejection after rejection. This book was rejected by every single agent. I finally got an agent in San Francisco at the time. There was no email. Everything was a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Every time, they would just come back. You know that the non-rejection isn’t going to come back in an envelope. They’re going to call you. The rejections don’t matter. All that matters is that there will be somebody out there that will understand and will publish it. Now you can self-publish things. That’s an amazing thing. I read a book that blew me away that was a self-published book. I was going through Amazon looking for a subject. I saw this book. I ordered it. I was like, wow, that’s incredible. She had been rejected by everybody. You can’t be dissuaded by the gatekeepers.

Zibby: Last question came in from the chat. Then I’ll let you go. Someone is wondering if you could describe the space in which you wrote this book, the physical space. Was it a desk? Where were you?

Amy: I wrote this book mostly in a closet because I lived in an apartment. I had kids. There was a closet right by the front door when you walked in. If I went into the closet, it was easy because there was no distraction. I could hear if a baby was crying. I could hear if somebody was trying to get in through the front door. That’s where I wrote it. I wrote a lot of it by hand. Then I got a laptop. I had a typewriter first.

Zibby: Sorry, last question. What’s the name of the book that you just said blew you away that was self-published? Do you remember?

Amy: It was called The Dragon’s Daughter. It’s about a girl who grows up with a father who’s a leader of the KKK. It’s a great book. She’s a great writer. Sharon Honeycutt is her name.

Zibby: Excellent. Julie is asking, what are your favorite books? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Amy: My favorite author is Per Petterson. He’s a Norwegian author. He has this book called I Curse the River of Time. That stupid book made it impossible for me finish my last novel because I was like, if I could just write a book one-twentieth as good as Per Petterson’s book. I kept starting over because I couldn’t touch Per Petterson as a writer. I actually got to meet him at the public library. He came and he spoke. My husband took a picture of it. I told him, “At a certain point, I thought maybe if I just started eating the pages of the book one by one, I’d be able to somehow, by osmosis, be able to write like you.” My husband said his whole body just went like that, like, what a freak. I was crying. I thanked him. He writes a lot about death and losing the people that we love. He is my favorite writer, favorite living writer. His books aren’t hard either. He doesn’t have a lot of affect or pretense. He doesn’t make you feel inferior. He just writes very simply, the truth. Then it’s like you get to make a friend. I love Per Petterson.

Zibby: Amy, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on to discuss A Mouthful of Air. We’ll all be looking to watch your movie in October. I can’t wait for that. Thanks for coming on. I hope your first interview in eighteen years wasn’t too bad.

Amy: I hope I made sense. I was like, shoot, I did not answer that first question —

Zibby: — Yes, you did. You did it all great. There’s no right answer. This is your story. Someone’s saying, do you realize how many women you’re inspiring right now? There you go.

Amy: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Amy.

Amy: Thank you.

Amy Koppelman, A MOUTHFUL OF AIR

A MOUTHFUL OF AIR by Amy Koppelman

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