The Sweetest Debut: Amy Rose Spiegel on Sex Writing, ‘F is For Family,’ and Coffee Shop Music

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Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Former Rookie staffer Amy Rose Spiegel has written the sex and relationship book we all wished we had when we were teenagers. Action: A Book About Sex is a mix of memoir, essay and advice about having the best consensual and respectful time in any situation imaginable from flirting to one-night-stands— and that includes respecting yourself, dear reader.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Action is a book of essays and other thoughts about sex that you won’t feel embarrassed to read (a) on the subway; (b) on your own, and/or; (c) unless you happen to be my grandparent.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

“Relationships,” to prevent the outcome of option (c) listed just above—but only in the case of my Italian Catholic grandmother. She recently told me that the TV show New Girl is too risqué for her because Zooey Deschanel wore a bathing suit on it once. In all other cases: I tell them what I’d tell non-grandma people. Even if I wanted to pull off familial subterfuge, it’d be hard to ignore Action’s subtitle. It’s not like it’s called Action: A Book About Dressage Horses Dancing to “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas (although I feel I could easily write a book on that worthiest of topics, too).

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote the proposal over the whole of summer 2014, working on it all night, almost every night, and most of the days, too. It sold in September of that year.

What’s a canonical book you think is totally overrated?

Voltaire’s Candide. Don’t @ me — but I do wonder if this was a matter of reading a possibly-bunk translation.

Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

Jincy Willett’s 1987 short story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life sits on my cranial mantelpiece front and center in an ostentatious gilded frame. Have you ever had a dream that’s a near-replica or continuation of the day you had before going to sleep, but everything has a glow instead of a shadow — like the fact of what’s in front of you might, any second, hatch or bloom or otherwise triumphantly morph? Reading this book feels like that.

“Jenny,” the penultimate story, is about an accident-prone young woman (in that respect, I will admit, like myself). Jenny’s problem is not that she is “exactly clumsy” — according to her mother, it’s “inattention.” When Jenny tries to snap to, “with this increased effort, the world receded even further, to moon-size.” I know the feeling, and at 15, I hadn’t yet encountered a person who was able to aptly translate the weird romance of spacing out.

I read Jenny and the Jaws of Life first at 15. I’ve since read it sitting in the middle of a shallow stream in rural Pennsylvania, in each and every of my bedrooms, and to teenagers terrified of the dreaded imperative-disguised-as-a-question what do you want to do with your life?, among other places. It’s good anywhere I am.

Do you binge watch any television when you’re not writing?

I was over the moon for Bill Burr’s animated Netflix show, F is for Family, which is about how it was to grow up in his household in the 1970s. On New Year’s Day, my dude and I watched it pre-hungover dumpling run, and I felt like it affected our conversation on the walk after even more palpably than the alcohol dregs murking up our blood. It kicked up something off the floors of us — like we had new permission to talk about our growings-up crassly and sweetly at once, instead of one vs. the other.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Ghostbusters. It was witty (and sometimes scary), but I was turned around by how narratives were often thrown away as quickly as they were introduced, which made it hard for me to care about what was happening, although I get that you have to advance the a plot quickly in action movies. However: I would watch the gods Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon act in, like, “an adaptation of Candide… for the digital age!!” if it came to that, so this was more than fine. (I also remain in love with Kristen Wiig, but that’s not the question you asked.)

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Traffic and the air conditioner if I’m at home. Otherwise, whatever’s on at my local coffee zone in the late afternoon. Last week, that meant a knuckleheaded NJ band called WYLDLIFE (!) that I was into — this song, “S.W.A.K.,” reminds me of being on the subway, listening through my Discman to the goopy-ass CDs my boyfriend burned for me while we were falling in love. That had a good effect.

I am not bothered by noise unless it’s someone talking through the talking I’m trying to write down. Oh! And I will take periodic breaks to dance to Patra, Orange Juice, YG, and Terence Trent D’Arby (my favorite).

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Do mascots count? I put together a sestina about a thinly disguised Chuck E. Cheese once — I could write twelve more verses just imagining the smell inside his head.

Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?

Late as late can go, no question. I write best at night because it’s very hard not for me to feel beholden to my other everythings during the day. After I wake up in the late morning or early afternoon, I set about getting piecemeal writing done, plus more bureaucratic things like invoicing and not being useless at texting people. This goes until about midnight. Then, I shudder to life and race through my writing until 6-8 am, depending on how much I have in me or what deadlines I’ll be meeting as I file before I go to bed.

Do you tend to write it all out in one big messy draft and then edit, or perfect as you go along.

I try to write as precisely as I can as I go, which is sometimes limiting and sometimes the exact right move. Every piece or project is different. Typically, the longer something I’m working on is, the more challenging it becomes to self-edit, then or after.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

While I work on the proposal for my next book, I’m freelancing like the wind, or at least like a sturdy breeze. I write music pieces for The FADER with some regularity. I have a monthly food column at Lucky Peach. I contribute one-offs to spots like Jezebel, Complex, and others if I’m feeling like I have an analytical piece I want to be able to write freely while still working with great editors. I’ve been writing and shooting little beauty tutorials a few times a month for Sweet, which publishes them on Snapchat (talk about brevity!). That’s mad fun — this afternoon, I went to take the videos for one tutorial at the Hearst building, and did my makeup in front of a mirror with a camera built onto it, a setup I’ve always fantasized about for different reasons (I love the faces people pull at the mirror and wish I could somehow ethically watch an hours-long reel of them). At any given moment, I’m typically somewhere in the throes of a longer story for a print magazine or, if the wind picks up, two.

That’s sometimes enough, and sometimes not. I’ve done copywriting for educational startups and synth-pop album one-sheets. Before my book came out, I spent a solid chunk of this year as the full-time editorial director for a music-based tech company, which was bizarre. Later tonight, I’ll work on ghostwriting a personal statement for a really bright medical student applying to surgical residency programs. Yesterday, he taught me what that main thick vein in your forearm is called — that’s your cephalic vein — how he squares up with watching strangers die, and how much an hour in a hospital operating room costs a patient, on average ($60-$100). I love scrubbing into his brain and fostering, for an hour or two, a life so far away from mine. On rare occasions, I get the most pleasure from jobs that seem strictly guap-based at first.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I don’t sleep much, which is probably aggravating to hear if you’re someone who likes to do that (read: most members of the populace with good taste). I also don’t fuck around. When I’m writing, I’m writing, meaning I am unavailable, and that’s it. I’m with my friends, family, and boyfriend a lot, but there are times when, like most people, I have to call you back if I’m doing my job. Most of my main beloveds get this, but some cannot quite understand that even though I might be at home, with a schedule that’s flexible if it has to be, it’s not up to them to decide when I’m at work and when I’m not. I can sympathize: My work and the rest of my home life bear a strong resemblance from the outside, given that, either way, I’m likely typing into my laptop in a backless leotard and periodically getting up to lip-synch to Terence Trent.

I really, really want to protect being able to write in the daily way I do. That means funding it properly. At the beginning of the summer, I made a list of all the exciting things I wanted to do before the season’s over. Item number three, in earnest, was “make money.” Also essential is not feeling monstrous about prioritizing my writing and the surrounding work which makes it possible, which some people want you to if you’re a woman. Even “feminist” media outlets will sneakily instruct you to feel bad by pretending to worry over your love life or coddle you about your health in what they publish. I didn’t give a flying fuck about “having it all” until I was informed by women’s-interest articles that I should aspire to that level of greed. Though I’m insulted by this, as a white girl, what is presented to me as correctly normative living should be contextualized with the restrictive attitudes nonwhite and/or non-cis writers face.

Judnick Mayard, Jenny Zhang, Tyler Ford, and Cord Jefferson are just a few people who have written about what expectations their work has been weighed inside of in racialized/gendered ways, if you happen to be into astoundingly good work!