I knew from the first time I read Amy Butcher's compelling Brevity essay, “Women These Days,” that I would follow her stunning prose wherever it took me next. Although the subject matter—intimate partner violence against women—is not light or casual reading, her gorgeous prose is magnetic, and the impact it has on the world is powerful. In fact, Google proposed 11 new emojis of professional women after one of Butcher’s guest essays published in the New York Times called attention to the misrepresentation of gender-specific emojis. She asked: “Where was the lawyer? The accountant? The surgeon? How was there space for both a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp, and yet women were restricted to a smattering of tired, beauty-centric roles?”
In her most recent memoir, Mothertrucker, Butcher journeys with “the nation’s only female ice road trucker,” Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe, along the Dalton Highway of northern Alaska. As Butcher notes, the highway is known as “the loneliest road in America” and Joy works within one of the most dangerous and male-dominated industries in the US. As Butcher interviews Joy, they discuss what they have in common, their shared experiences of domestic violence rising to the forefront.
Set against this remote landscape, the metaphor of isolation is all-encompassing. There is no cell service, no data coverage. This loneliest of roads, one of the most dangerous highways in the country, whose remoteness often makes it impossible to retrieve the bodies of the lives it claims every year, serves as a metaphor for the one in four women in America who will face intimate partner violence in this country. The harsh environment comes to represent Joy and Amy’s interior landscapes, and their journey across it charts a map toward reckoning. The book calls attention to the fact that victims of domestic abuse often feel alone, unreachable, forgotten. In another New York Times essay, Butcher writes, “Sometimes the world hands us metaphors too startling to ignore.”
In her signature style of sharp and pointed prose, which makes even a chain hotel’s continental breakfast buffet sound divine, Butcher weaves a memoir of friendship that has garnered praise from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Review of Books, the Oxford Review of Books, Booklist, Good Morning America, the Ohio Arts Council, and others. It was a joy to be in conversation with her about such vital work.
Laura Joyce-Hubbard: In the spirit of Mathew Salesses’s approach to craft, is there a question you’d like to hear asked of your work?
Amy Butcher: I think what I’m always interested in from authors as they reach the culmination of a years-long project is how they handle the intense sensations and range of emotions that come with publication and the post-publication return to normalcy. Perhaps that is related to craft, in the sense of tending to a field that is once again fallow? Whatever it is, I find the process of working on a book to be an enormous emotional and psychological undertaking, and navigating healthy ways of committing myself to that project while also pouring into and taking care of myself has been a crucial part of the last few years, especially given the sensitive nature of this book. I’m solitary by nature, and most of my friends are married with children, so there’s very little in my immediate world to break up the work or the long stretches of time between works, which can feel, at times, very isolating. For anyone wondering, I highly recommend––if your body, lifestyle, and finances allow––physical labor by means of tending to a Midwestern yard, three dogs that need walking, and a hobby that you’re no good at. I throw pottery once a week, and I call it, lovingly––“low-stakes arting.”
LJH: Thank you for bringing this up. Could you talk more about how you handle the intense emotional work involved with writing—especially a book-length project? Are there any other specifics you can pass on to readers? For instance, how do you structure your writing when anticipating that intensity?
AB: That’s a really thoughtful question and one I’d love to hear asked of the writers I most admire, because I think I could learn a lot from people who’ve done this many times before. It’s still very new to me. But I will say that I give myself a lot of clearance when working on a book project; on the days that I write, I tend to write only two or three hours a day, generally in the mid-morning after the coffee has kicked in, and I try to give myself permission to do things before and after that bring me joy or pleasure, however simple a joy that might look like. Tending the garden, for example, or cooking a nice meal from scratch. I work full-time, though I do have the privilege of creating my own hours several days out of the week, so I prioritize writing on the days that I can and spend the rest of my free-time reading and revising. Everything feeds the fire; when I’m working on a project, I obsessively consume works by writers whose work I want my own to be in conversation with. Leslie Jamison, T Kira Māhealani Madden, Melissa Febos, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Lacy M. Johnson, Rebecca Solnit, and Jo Ann Beard were instrumental as I wrote and revised this book. After the book was published, I immediately shifted gears and began to curate a new list of writers I want my next project to be in conversation with. For example, I recently read Justin Torres’s We The Animals and can’t believe how gorgeous a work it is—and on and on. When not writing, I’m reading and wondering which authors or texts I want to talk to with the next project, even if I’m not yet sure what exactly that project is.
LJH: Can you talk about the structure of Mothertrucker? Did you experiment with the structure of this memoir before deciding on its current form?
AB: The trick to this book is the same as my first; I began by writing a long narrative scene, then stretched it out like an accordion and inserted within the folds everything else I needed to tell a meaningful story: backstory into who I was when I set out on this trip, key moments within my abusive partnership, meditation on larger topics and ideas the book presents, and statistics that felt pertinent. Because I’m most comfortable with essays, and flash essays at that, I often find I have to “trick” myself into working on a long project, and this particular trick provides me with just enough structure so that I don’t hang myself on the page; the long narrative scene serves as the framework, the place of origin for each new chapter, but it also allows me the freedom and flexibility to veer off in different directions, different mediums, even. By no means am I the first to try it; I don’t remember from whose book I first learned this technique, but I can’t recommend enough reverse-engineering your favorite books, figuring out how they function, and borrowing from that shape.
LJH: Speaking of the shape of things, we learn in the prologue that tragedy struck during the writing of Mothertrucker. The truck driver, Joy—the main character other than yourself—tragically dies in a trucking accident. You receive this news before your second visit with her in Alaska. Can you please talk about this loss during the process of living and writing your memoir?
AB: When the news initially struck, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to complete or publish Mothertrucker. How do you publish a book when your subject isn’t there to say yes or no or maybe, to vet the lines and ideas as you attach them to the project? But—and this is a dangerous line of thinking, I realize—Joy was a deeply spiritual woman who believed very sincerely that God had brought me to her to tell my story. That became the refrain of our trip, and it became the refrain of the book. She must’ve said it some half dozen times in the few days we spent together. She felt she had a story to tell—even before she knew how little time she had left to tell it—and she trusted me to share it. If nothing else, I believe in that, and in the power and influence her life and truths have over other women, other abused individuals. I also think, in many ways, her untimely death speaks to the many indirect dangers of abusive partnerships, the risks you might not otherwise take if you didn’t feel such a pressing need to be able to financially provide for yourself and your dependents.
LJH: That’s such a pointed insight. Thank you for sharing. Joy certainly seems like an amazing person. Can you tell readers how/when you found the title Mothertrucker?
AB: I wish I could take credit for this, but Joy’s son came up with the term as part of her Instagram handle, and of course, it stuck as I committed myself to the project. For the longest while, I envisioned titling the book Joy!, Mothertrucker, with or without that exclamation mark. I liked the idea that while this was at times a very dark book with crucially important topics—among them, intimate partner violence, femicide, assault—there was also a lot of joy to be found in our time spent together, a lot of joy in the world generally. There was even joy in my abusive partnership, which made the process of leaving him all the more difficult. I was really taken by former Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg’s fantastic essay, “It Will Look Like A Sunset,” published in Guernica, because it was the first time I witnessed a writer demonstrate on the page the outrageous tenderness and kindness abusive partners often show the ones they abuse. There’s a line in that essay, specifically, about how her abusive husband invented a rapping kangaroo persona and wrote a song called “Get In My Pouch.” It still makes me smile every time I think about it, but Kelly also aligns that truth with the truth of his violence. That essay—that realization that one can be both—was monumental for me, and I owe a lot of the early stages of this project to her and that work. It added color and depth to my black and white depiction of abusive partnerships. Eventually, I dropped the “Joy” from the title, but the idea of preserving the joy in both my relationship with Joy and with my abusive partner remained in the form of lines of humor and lightness.
LJH: I love the “lines of humor and lightness” that run throughout. I wonder, given the intensity of the subject matter, did the writing process of Mothertrucker mirror your general approach to projects, or did it change for this manuscript?
AB: I’m very grateful to be affiliated with a university—Ohio Wesleyan University, where I now direct the Creative Writing program—that values scholarship and the quality time faculty need to carry a project into fruition, so this book benefited first from a sabbatical and then a scholarly leave in the final few months of completion. I don’t know where I would be if not for that time. But the process looks the same for anything I’m working on: on the days I can write, I wake, caffeinate, and then work for a solid few hours each morning I can afford to. I’m usually done by 1 or 2 p.m., and then I absolve myself for the day to take care of whatever else needs doing. I find this helps. Because I work on an academic schedule, some weeks I’m able to work like this consistently, and other times, it’ll be months between mornings like this. But I also believe in periods of time when the field lies fallow, and you’re simply reading, curating the list of authors and texts you hope your next project will be in conversation with. That is what I’m doing now.
LJH: Relatedly: Who do you show your work to first, second, third?
AB: I tend to be very private with my work. I really struggle with imposter syndrome, with feeling like everything I write is naive or self-indulgent (maybe a consequence of publishing my first book so young and still being so impacted by that trauma) so anything “new” reads as automatically stupid and obvious for the longest time until it doesn’t. But I’m so lucky to work with Samantha Shea, my first and only agent, who is an incredible first reader and who is in possession of such an incredible and creative mind. I also share my work with a very small handful of my closest women friends, none of whom are writers, and I bounce new and crucial project ideas off Martha Park, a wonderful writer and illustrator based in Memphis, and Mieke Eerkens, an incredibly talented writer in her own right and the only colleague from my graduate program at the University of Iowa with whom I share and discuss my work. More recently, I’ve cultivated a very small handful of rich relationships with writers I deeply admire, including T Kira Māhealani Madden, Leslie Jamison, Brendan Isaac Jones, Cathryn Klusmeier, and a handful of others. I can’t say enough good things about what good literary citizens these folks are. They always make time, and I owe them so much, both for their brilliance and their kindness.
LJH: How are you feeling now that your book is living its own life in the world?
AB: Relieved and grateful. I’m sure it’s the same for most writers, but after years of being wholly committed to one project, I find I spend so much time in my head: First conceptualizing and drafting the book, and then worrying about what I missed, rendered imprecisely, didn’t consider, etc. To have Mothertrucker out in the world after such a long gestation period feels like a gift. That it has received a largely positive response also feels very good. It’s also been nearly ten years since I finished my first book, which I wrote from the ages of 22–25, so I’m very proud to have something new in the world that more accurately represents my voice and the quality and integrity of work I aspire to produce. There are things I know now in my mid-thirties that I did not know so young. And while I was very proud of it at the time, there’s a certain youth and naivete in my first book that I’m grateful to move beyond. I think the goal with each new project is that we get closer to what we’re trying to do––to get better at it, certainly, but also closer to the product we’ve aspired to create. That certainly feels true of Mothertrucker and it has meant the world to hear from so many readers for whom Mothertrucker resonated. That is always the hope.