In it she recounts her lifelong struggle with chronic pain, her relationship to opiods, and what it means to finally put her story out there.
Before Amy’s book tour brings her to Austin, we had the opportunity to chat a bit about how the book came to be, her favorite Austin/BookPeople memories, and she even recommended a few titles to us (once a bookseller, always a bookseller, am I right?). Keep reading for more.
BookPeople: The next time you walk through the doors at BookPeople it’ll be as an author presenting her new book and not punching in as bookseller. Tell me what you think that will feel like?
Amy Long: I think it will feel like I’m coming back to work! I’ll probably walk over to clock in or start balancing the shelves! But, no, I’m kidding (except I really might balance the shelves). I’m honored to get to come back as an author. It will be fun. I’ll get to see all my favorite book people, and I can see what my book looks like on an actual bookstore shelf. I still haven’t seen it on one! I watched so many events from that little counter up on the second floor, and it’s pretty incredible that I get to be one of those people now. I guess I should say that I will feel triumphant!
BP: Tell us a bit about how you came to write this book.
AL: I started writing it as a long short story based on this time I used heroin to make my painkillers last longer and one that centered on the car crash in “Use and Abuse.” The first story got me into my MFA program, where I thought I’d write the book as novel (I write about this in the book!), but it was so, so boring. Fictionalizing it dulled all the specificity that makes it special, and it kind of distanced me from the material. I took a creative non-fiction workshop, and it all came out so easily that I decided it was better as essays. I didn’t want it to be linear, and I didn’t want it to end on a happy note; I wanted it to be honest and for the two major strands—recreational and medicinal opioid use—to intertwine. I alternated between those two themes and between the experimental and more traditional essays. I’d give myself all these formal constraints, and when they started to feel constricting, I’d move to a braided essay and get to spread out more. It was a good way to work.
BP: This is a very personal book, how’d you pitch it to a casual customer?
AL: My elevator pitch is that it juxtaposes my recreational opioid use with an addicted boyfriend against my medicinal use for chronic pain. But I’d probably tell a customer that it will change the way they think about our opioid issues.
BP: Throughout your essays, you’re spectacular at matching the form to the content. Which comes first — the subject or the desire to experiment with a new structure?
AL: Thank you! It really depends. Sometimes content is first, but just as often it’s that I want to play with a form; sometimes it’s a mix of both. But, for the most part, the formal experiments in this book are rooted in a project I did for the creative nonfiction workshop I mentioned above, in which I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. I put short essays in pill bottles with detailed labels or fake bags of cocaine or Suboxone packets and motel keys, and I had all this great stuff, but I needed to edit it and figure out how it worked together and if I could get it on a 2D page. I started writing the second set of essays, “Product Warning,” which look like prescription information sheets, and then I’d just kind of walk up to the cabinet and see what I hadn’t included yet or what I wanted in there and how to present it. But it has to work in this particular sort of way that I can’t really describe. You can’t force it. Any time I’ve tried to write something in a form just because I thought it would be cool, I’ve failed!
BP: Your new book is shelved right next (well, super close) to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, one of your favorites. Tell me what that feels like, sharing the space with her?
AL: Bluets is such an important book to me as a writer; I stole its structure for a lot of the essays in Codependence (the numbered braided essay), and the serious but playful and circuitous way she explores her obsessions and heartbreak in it were major influences on my writing about my own obsessions and heartbreaks; I think I read Bluets every six months while I was writing and editing Codependence, so mostly it’s just too surreal to be on a shelf with Maggie Nelson.
BP: What’s your fondest memory of working the BookPeople salesfloor?
AL: I only get one? That’s hard! The time I had to tell Jerry Stahl we didn’t have a copy of Permanent Midnight was pretty good (he thought it was funny, too, or I wouldn’t use it!). I loved teaching the couple of workshops I got to teach at BP. But most of my favorite memories are just of us booksellers standing around talking. I have to say Jason, though. We lost our coworker Jason Martin a little after I left BP, and he was one of my favorite people there. He’d worked as an EMT before BP, so when someone was freaking out over a relatively minor problem, he’d say, “Is anyone dying? No? Then it’s not an emergency,” which I use as a metric now, too. It’s the only thing that makes me sad about coming back: that Jason isn’t there to see it.
BP: What was your favorite book to handsell?
AL: Bluets, actually! But I also pushed Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, Joshua Mohr’s memoir Sirens, and an anthology Matthew Vollmer edited called A Book of Uncommon Prayer. With men who said they wanted something funny, I always went to Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, and while I described it, guys would look at me like “This is fun, light reading to you?”
BP: You’re a great reader. Are there any writers or books you’re particularly loving right now?
AL: Yes, lots! I read Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev recently, which is the best book I’ve read in maybe a year. The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter is incredible. Alex DiFrancesco is a writing machine and an amazing one at that. I loved Rob Roberge’s Liar (he does the whole thing in the second person; it’s so impressive), and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States.
BP: What do you miss about Austin, if anything?
AL: Bookpeople! And Mexican Coke and those little cookies they used to sell in the cafe.
BP: Codependence is being published as the discourse surrounding addiction and chronic pain is proliferating (Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick come to mind). Is there any recommended viewing or reading on the topic you’d suggest to our readers?
AL: Yes. Karen Havelin novel about a woman with endometriosis called Please Read This Leaflet Carefully and Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System are both important recent books that center on women’s pain. I also think of Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points as a kind of ur-text in this area. It came out in 2015 and is about to get reissued! It’s the Bluets of pain writing to me.
BP: What do you want readers to walk away with after reading Codependence?
AL: I want them to come away questioning everything they thought they knew about opioids and doctors and addiction. I want them to know that it’s more complicated than the media narrative we get fed and that these are vital drugs that allow people in pain to have real lives and control over their bodies, and we deserve that as much as anyone else.
Amy’s book and all of her recommendations are available at BookPeople in-store and online. And don’t miss her on September 21st at 2PM when she sits down with Austin author Amy Gentry for a conversation on Codependence.