Amy Lin, HERE AFTER: A Memoir

Amy Lin, HERE AFTER: A Memoir

Zibby Books author alert!! Zibby speaks with debut Canadian author Amy Lin about HERE AFTER, a beautifully visceral and emotionally intimate memoir in vignettes about the sudden loss of her husband and the two grief-filled years that followed. Amy describes the unconventional method of using tiny text boxes in Word to distill her raw emotions into concise, essential fragments. She also talks about the challenges of navigating her grief amid personal health struggles and a global pandemic, the importance of asking for help, and the transformative nature of connecting with others through writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. I am so thrilled that you're coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss Here After, your absolutely beautiful memoir, or as you call it in the trailer, a memoir in vignettes, which we, honestly, probably should've called it.

Amy Lin: Thank you for having me. This is incredibly exciting.

Zibby: We had the unique experience of being early, early readers of this beautiful manuscript. I feel incredibly privileged. Tell listeners what your book is about and how you ended up even coming to our publishing house. Then I want to dig into the grief and your own experience and the poetry that makes up this book and everything else.

Amy: Thank you. I wrote Here After in the very first few years after my husband Kurtis died in August of 2020. It came out of a Substack that I started a month after Kurtis died called At the Bottom of Everything. I wrote in that for pretty much two years before I started thinking about if it was a book. It really wasn't a book in the Substack, which is more of a personal notation or diary of some kind, of grief as it happened to me. I knew when I came to the book that it needed to be the essential parts of grief. I started making these very small text boxes in Word to help me narrow down what had been the really essential parts of my grief experience in that moment. As I was doing that, it allowed me to process, okay, what is the narrative that I'm going to offer? When I first sent it to my agent and said, "I think I now do have a book," it was very lean. I only wanted things on the page that I knew were going to be there. I think just about everything that I sent her then is in the book as it exists now. My agent, who's Katherine Fawcett, is just amazing. Before she’d read it, she said, "This is not that long." Literally, on the page, it's not that long. She said, "It could be hard to talk to editors about why this project is so lean and why it's so concise." I said, "But that is the project." That's what grief is like. It is this presses everything into it. I came to Zibby Books because of all of the editors that we spoke with, you, Zibby, because it was you and I who spoke, I heard in you that you understood the project, the heart of the project and what it was trying to do. It's really thanks to your vision and the team's vision now, who have advocated for the book as it's about to come out, that have introduced this book to the world in the way that was in my heart and that it was designed to be. I've ended up in the absolute right place for it because you were the person who saw it as clearly as myself and my agent did.

Zibby: That makes me want to cry. I'm so honored because what there is to see is just pure beauty, honestly. It's really, really beautiful. Just to clarify what you said before -- the first time you said it, not in this conversation, but in another context to me, I didn't totally understand what you were saying. In Microsoft Word, in the program, you can make little text boxes where it looks like a little square. Then you have to shove all the words inside. You literally took those boxes and filled them with words and took everything else away except for what fit in the little box in the middle of the page. That's a wild way to write.

Amy: It's insane. I don't recommend it. I would copy an entire page of text into this tiny box, as big as an Instagram caption, though they're very long now, but the classic, short Instagram caption. I would just keep deleting sentence by sentence until I got to something that felt like the essential part of my grief experience. Then I would keep that. Then I would keep going. Slowly, these very condensed paragraphs began to emerge. That was when I thought, okay, here's the book. It has announced itself.

Zibby: Tell a little more about how you lost Kurtis and what happened and which period of time in particular you really document in the book.

Amy: Kurtis died very suddenly when he was running a half marathon because his heart stopped for no known reason. One of the uncomfortable moments of that was not just that ten days later I would be hospitalized with life-threatening blood clots in my lungs and in my leg and in my upper vena cava, which is kind of in my stomach, but it was also the middle, or maybe not the middle, but the start of global lockdown. It was August of 2020. Everybody had been locked down for four months, essentially. We were also navigating my personal health failing, Kurtis's death and all of the logistics that go with that as well as, on top of that, they could only let one person into the hospital with me. At the funeral home, there was only so many people that could be in a room. These were just other layers added onto this already really polarizing experience of grief. That was partially why I needed to come to the page and clear white space around it, because there actually was, due to the coronavirus, a lot of space around me, six feet of space. Grief was isolating me. Then my personal health was isolating me. Then the pandemic was also creating isolation for all of us. I was plunged in this macro and micro experience of being alone. The very small paragraphs on the page, the way that they flowed suspended on the page I think allows the reader to feel some of that physical experience for myself.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Can I read just a couple of the pages from the beginning or something?

Amy: I would love to hear it.

Zibby: This is all that is on the first page, just as one. "The first time I see Kurtis, I do not know who he is. I am in my car paused by a pedestrian crosswalk. He passes in front of my vehicle. He is on his way to a blind date. I am on my way to a blind date. He wears a dark blue blazer. His legs are long. His body, live and graceful. Why can't I ever meet a man like that? I think. He's gorgeous." That's the entire page. Then the next page -- I'm not doing this justice because you can't see it. It looks so beautiful. "Online, a post asks followers, what is one thing you wish other people knew about grief? I read the first twelve of over several hundred responses. It doesn't end. It won't stop. You think about it all the time. It never ends. It is always with you. It doesn't quit. It never goes away. It is exhausting. It is ever-present. It is always there. No amount of time lessens the grief. It is forever." Then I'll just read the third little page, chapter, whatever. "On our first date, June is melting into July. I do not wear a bra. Kurtis tells me he is an architect. I tell him I am a substitute teacher. We both have unusually long hair, his grazing his shoulders, mine grazing my hipbones. His father is Japanese; his mother, Ukrainian. My father is Chinese; my mother, British. We walk through the city. He shows me how the soaring glass panels of the court building make it a gleaming part of the sky. He presses his face to the glass, gazes upward. I have been to court before contesting a speeding ticket, but I thought nothing of the building. Seeing him love it is how I start to love it myself."

Amy: Thank you. What a beautiful reading.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you're so good. It's immediately intriguing. You want to know your whole story. You want to know what happens. Where is the grief? Who are these people? How did they get together? You can't not want to keep reading and discovering and learning. Already, you feel. You're setting the rhythm. We're feeling it. It's very cool.

Amy: I think in a book like this that moves between past and present -- it's entirely written in the present tense, which was a very specific choice because when you're in grief, everything is present tense. Your past life, which passes in an instant -- the minute he died on the bridge, my life ceased to exist as it had. I had no way of catching up to that. In grief, and the reason the book is in present tense, is because my life as a wife, as Kurtis's partner, as living with Kurtis felt as real, if not more real to me, than my actual life. The life that was really my present didn't feel real to me. That's why it's in present tense. I've lost track of why I brought us here, what you were saying.

Zibby: That's okay.

Amy: It's so short because it's switching back and forth. You were saying you immediately understand the rhythm. That's such a generous and beautiful thing to say because I think this is a book that does have to teach you how to read it. You have to be taught a little bit. This is how the rhythm is. This is, quickly, who these people are. Grief is kind of like that. You're immediately in it. You have to catch up to grief's rhythms. Again, I wanted that present for readers because it was so much a part of my own experience.

Zibby: Interestingly, so much of the book that I would not have known had I not been the publisher, but I'll just share it because I do, because I am -- you have a very clear vision of how things should look, should be presented, the cover, the fonts, everything. It's so funny because people would say -- we were talking about a social media post. "Amy really feels like it should look like this." I was like, "Great. Go with that, then." "Amy would really like this like this." "Great. Okay." You had such an instinct. Not that the rest of us don't, but your vision is so specific. It always ends up working so well. I don't know where it comes from. You're an English teacher. You're not a graphic artist. You could be. Your brain just works in such a visual way, in an artistic way that even this book becomes an art project.

Amy: Thank you. I think the credit, truthfully, is to Zibby Books for allowing me a seat at the table in a way that traditional publishing would never allow me to speak into different aspects of the book. One of the joys of my life -- there's this myth that writing and publishing is this very solo journey. That really hasn’t been my experience. That's not my experience of grief either. Both practices, writing and grief, are best served when you are connected with community. That has been my experience at Zibby Books and my experience of being allowed to share my vision for how the book would look or how it will move through the world visually or creatively. My writing and my publishing experience has only been enriched by working with other people who are just as willing to hear me as I am to hear them. That's something I think that's really special about Zibby Books and, again, just reiterated to me that this book is in the right place. I feel continually lucky that I'm allowed to even say, I think this typeface would be amazing, and you really heard me.

Zibby: Totally right. Maybe we should keep you on as some sort of artistic consultant. You can evaluate.

Amy: I would love to.

Zibby: As you know, designs love our covers. You never know what pull you up. No, I'm kidding. Back to the events in the book. When you lose Kurtis, you mentioned already, your own crazily timed health issue getting stents and dealing with clots and having to go through all that and your mother -- by the way, then your mom -- there was one point where you were talking about how you're so good in a crisis. Your mom fell or something. She was bleeding everywhere. You're like, okay, I'm good in a crisis. This is good to know. Tuck that in my back pocket. Then you just present us with crisis after crisis. Talk a little bit about that and that fight or flight, stepping up to the plate, but then having it all kind of fall apart later.

Amy: That's exactly what grief taught me. When my mom was struck by a cyclist while we were running and sustained very serious injuries, I was extremely calm and processed it almost too well in the moment because nobody then wondered if I was doing all right. Then I had to work through that later. When my own health failed and when Kurtis died, my instinct was to do the same thing, was to process it by myself, out of sight, without really asking anyone for help. My therapist, who plays a very large role in the book but an equally larger, if not role in my own life, just said, "That's not going to serve you here." He said, "You're not going to make this one alone. You have to connect to community. You have to find a way to ask for help." There's a lot of language around grieving that asks grievers only to perform resilience or strength. People get asked, are you doing well? Was the sunshine in LA beautiful? which was something I was asked a year after Kurtis died when I went to LA to cry by the ocean because I couldn't cope with my own emotions. People kept wanting me to perform this resilience and this strength, which is why I was good in a crisis, because that's all I'd ever been asked for, was to show strength.

When Kurtis died, with the writing and with my therapist's encouragement, I began to show people that I was, in so many ways, helpless. After my clot-clearing surgeries, I literally couldn't walk without support. I had to have a walker. I had to rent one from one of those medical supply centers because I couldn't walk unassisted. That opened up for me, just as this book has and as I hope the book will for other people, a place where people helped me. I realized, oh, my gosh, there's something really vulnerable and tender about allowing people to help you, and something that really moved me deeply and cracked me open in a lot of ways. That is a direct legacy of Kurtis, who helped me day to day. I sincerely hope the book is a place where people are able to meet with their own pain and actually show people what it is because people will help them. That has been my experience. I think it's really humbling and really hard to ask for help. This book, in a lot of ways, is a way, hopefully, for other people to ask for help and to receive just a fraction, maybe, even, of the help that I received after Kurtis died and that Kurtis gave me daily.

Zibby: There's also something about getting help -- if you deny people the ability to help you in some way, you're actually taking away part of their joy as well. People really like to feel needed. When they help you, they feel like they are doing something. Otherwise, they feel like they can't do anything. They feel helpless as well. Our natural instinct is like -- I agree. I'm always like, no, no, no, I'm fine. I can do this. I'll just do this. I'll just do this. As soon as someone does something, they feel so good about it. It doesn't actually help the other person if you say, don't help me.

Amy: It doesn't. In so many ways, it doesn't. That was my experience. My friend Katie, who's in the book, who walked with me every week for a year despite having two small children and being a full-time educator, she said to me on one of our walks after Kurtis died, "This is the first time in our fifteen-year friendship where I've ever felt really close to you." She's one of my best friends. I said, "How can you not feel that way?" She's like, "You never needed my help before." She felt it, a bond that already existed, but she really felt it because she's such a natural caregiver. I needed her to take care of me. It was really beautiful. I think we got even closer because of that. I'm so aware of how lucky that is because there are lots of people who, even in my own life, have been unable to help me because of pain in their own lives. You do have people who say, I can't show up for you in that way. That's really scary. Again, the more connected you are, the more you find people who surprise you and who show up in ways that you didn't expect. One of my friends called me every single day for a year. Sometimes I would answer it. Sometimes I didn't. I would never have expected that. It was just something she did. It was beautiful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that also makes me want to cry. There are a lot of books about grief and loss out there. Why should someone read your book?

Amy: I would read my own book if you want to read something that's in pain and not about pain. I tried to read a lot of books after Kurtis died looking for some kind of mirror for the pain that I was in. I couldn't find it. I could find a lot of books about grief or about how to process grief or about the biological impact of grief on the brain. All those are beautiful resources, but I didn't want any of that. I wanted somebody to tell me that they had also been in this much pain, and that was all. I didn't want anything else. I just wanted someone to say, yes, I also had to hold this much pain. Yes, this also felt like it was going to destroy me. I could find very little like that. I also could find very little like that that I could actually read. Here After is in these very short, fragmented paragraphs for the aforementioned reasons, but also because grieving people's ability to focus is basically zero. At least, mine was. I needed something that I could come in and out of and carry with me. That, I couldn't find. Even something as beautiful as Joan Didion's work on grief, I would just stare at a page and be completely lost in her beautiful prose. I couldn't process it. That was why I wrote the book the way that I did. Also, it's so frankly about grief because those were the things that helped me, was hearing people say, yeah, I'm in that much pain too. I think there is something really healing for grievers who are so often, as I've said before, asked to hide how much pain they're in. To just hear somebody say, yeah, part of being a human being is having to hold this much pain, and I understand that you're doing that, that was what I brought to Here After. That was the guiding principle of it.

Zibby: There is a whole industry now around grief, people who help people through grief. My husband Kyle and I were talking about it one night. What would their lives have been? They wouldn't be grief counselors. They wouldn't be dedicating their lives. They've sort of stayed in these moments. This has become their life's work, these moments. Do you feel like this has become your life's work? I know this is a book that we are talking about. When you fast-forward or you think about what you want the rest of your life to become -- I know you're this wonderful educator. You're obviously not myopic in your focus. How much do you want this to define you for the rest of your life?

Amy: It's a really thoughtful question. I think that writing is my life's work in a lot of ways. I also feel, whether I would like to accept it or not, part of my journey with grief is that being somebody who is a widow at, then, thirty-one and now thirty-four is that grief has become my life's work because it's chronic. My grief is not going to magically go away, as much as some of the power of positivity movement might like to suggest. I am going to be working through and on grief for the rest of my life. That is what love asks of us in the end. If you don't happen to die at the same time as your partner or your beloveds, somebody has to carry the legacy of what it means to love somebody. That does mean carrying the legacy of grief for the remainder of your life. That's what love costs. I think it's painful for people to look at that, but that is the reality. That is my reality. I will carry the beautiful legacy of our love and of my grief for my whole life. I sincerely hope that my grief does become bound into my life's work because it means that I'll be able to carry the stories of other people and maybe even allow other people to carry theirs in slightly better ways. That's maybe where my love of education and writing also finds its nexus, is a really deep desire to help other people bear witness to their own pain and to help the people around them bear witness to their pain. I really want to do that. I desperately want the book to connect with the people that need a mirror. If I can be a small piece of that, if my life's work can be a small piece of that, that would be a legacy maybe more than I deserve, truthfully.

Zibby: Wow, that is beautiful. You're such an intentional person. You're so thoughtful and considered, even in the way you form sentences in a conversation. I'm like, I don't think I've heard anybody say the word nexus in a sentence, ever. I don't know. That's so cool. Then in my head, I'm thinking, nexus, and spelling it out and the five letters and how it's so symmetric.

Amy: It's a really pleasing word.

Zibby: I know. It's a great word. I'm going to try to use it in a sentence. That’ll be my goal for 2024. No. I'll probably do it next week. Point is, you are such a thoughtful, considered person in how everything is. What do you do when you don't want to deal with any of that and you want to let it all go? Are there wild dance parties in your living room? How do you just get out of that order, in a way?

Amy: Thank you. I'd like to say thank you for being so affirming of the person that I am. I have a really intense life. My thoughtfulness is also born of a personal intensity. I think sometimes it can get misconstrued in some ways, so it heals something in me to hear that you see it as thoughtful and as tender and as beautiful. Thank you for giving that to me. That really moves me to hear that. How do I regulate when I've taken on too much? which is me every day. Truthfully, I will usually do one of two things. I'll either paint my nails, which is something I've done my whole life and immediately makes me feel just a little bit more relaxed -- you can't do anything, also, if you're painting your nails other than just doing that because your hands are literally engaged. The best thing for me is I will go walk beside the water. That's one of the best things. If I can run, if I have the energy, running is also really helpful. That makes me sound far more committed to my mental health than I am. Truthfully, usually, I'm staggering alongside the river trying to take a deep breath. That genuinely is it, is going and seeing a body of water and allowing myself to remember that the surface of things hides all kinds of life and death and that things continue. The river continues. The water still runs. I find something really grounding about that. I genuinely do try to do that because otherwise, I do work a lot. I like to work. I find that grounding in its own way as well.

Zibby: What other writing things are you doing now? Do you write for yourself at night? Are you writing a novel I don't know about? Tell me what else.

Amy: I am, actually. I'm writing a novel. I finished it last summer. I have two. I have one novel that I'm so behind on owing my agent, edits too. Then I did this novel. I'm halfway through the second pass of tightening the bolts before my agent sees it. Because I'm on leave from teaching right now to support Here After coming out, I'm writing in my Substack again, which I love. I'm a child of the blog era. I had seven different blogs as a kid. It would literally be like, today for breakfast, I had cereal. I would to my mom as a child. I'm a child of the blog era. I love them. I love the Substack. I love the opportunity to write freely in a personal tone about what I'm thinking about. I'm working on that as well, which feels really lovely. Then I'm writing some personal essays for a couple different outlets. Largely, I'm really pushing on this second novel's edits because I feel excited about it. I have the time to write right now, which is so precious to me.

Zibby: That is exciting. How do people find your Substack?

Amy: It's Thank you. That's really generous of you to ask.

Zibby: No problem. Anything that people might be surprised to learn about you?

Amy: I think people are always surprised that I'm taller than they think I am.

Zibby: That's true. I was very surprised by that.

Amy: I'm 5'10". I'm quite tall. If you've only ever met me on Zoom -- people tend to transpose their own height on me. They kind of assume I'm similar in their own height and then meet me and think, oh, you're so much taller than I realized. I think also, people would be surprised to learn that I am quite a bit more tender than I can appear at first. I have really big feelings and feel the world really intensely. I think sometimes people see me working a lot and think that I'm kind of a super-person or don't have time for feelings. I'm too busy working. The reality is I actually have a real deep tenderness. That is something that Kurtis saw in me and I think comes across in the book. I think that's why I show up so fully in the book, is because it's through the lens of how Kurtis saw me, which is as I am and maybe not as I appear when I'm in work mode. That's something really beautiful to have in the book too, is to offer the person that I am.

Zibby: Wow. Amy, you are a special lady. I will say that. You really are. Here After is just absolutely gorgeous. I am honored to play a tiny role in this and can't wait to really --

Amy: -- A big role. It's as much yours as mine. together.

Zibby: No, no, no. No, please, it really isn't. I mean this sincerely. I'm eager to see the impact that you have. I feel like you're this -- a storm sounds negative. There's this weather system that's coming in that I know is coming. I'm like the meteorologist in this situation here. You are the storm. Now I'm like, I can't wait to sit back and watch what happens when this thing hits. That is how I feel at the moment.

Amy: That's so kind. I hope it connects with people. Like I said, one of the greatest gifts was that it connected with you and that you saw it. What a gift you've given me, and all of the team that works on the book. I really feel that every day. It's amazing.

Zibby: You are the best. So sweet. Amy, congratulations. It's just getting started.

Amy: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I absolutely treasure this opportunity to talk with you.

Zibby: Me too. This made my day. Thanks.

Amy: You're the best.

Zibby: Bye, Amy.

Amy: Take care.

Zibby: You too. Bye.

Amy: Bye.

Amy Lin, HERE AFTER: A Memoir

HERE AFTER: A Memoir by Amy Lin

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