Emily Gould Talks 'Friendship': "Writing fiction requires cultivating empathy like a muscle"

I spoke with Emily Gould just when the World Cup was beginning, and she professed how much she hated the soccer tournament already. "But I like watching people watch the World Cup," she said, and therein described herself better than I could attempt to. Gould is observant, but not nosy, and she's interested in people and what drives them. She's smart and articulate, and this became even more apparent the more we talked.

All of these traits — her close eye, her penchant for wording things exactly so — are evident in Friendship (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Gould's first novel and second book (after her 2010 book of essays, And the Heart Says Whatever ). The novel concerns the best-friendship of Amy and Bev, who are entering their 30s with unanticipated instability. Bev gets pregnant as the result of an awful one-night stand (narrated with brilliant details about the grossness), Amy quits her job and loses her boyfriend, and all seems gray. The women battle with ethics just as much as they struggle to determine what their friendship means and how it will fare. Gould's characters are at once isolated, alone in a New York that doesn't want them, and never alone in their love for each other. With insight, wit, and keen prose, Gould succeeds in putting on the page all the pettiness, purpose, and power that a deep friendship can throw at a young woman.

Over tea, Gould and I discussed writing, friends, abortion, publishing, and nearly everything else. She gave me advice and made me laugh, too — it was the kind of conversation you want to tell your best friend about.

BUSTLE: Congrats on Friendship! I enjoyed it, and meant to bring it with me, but I lent it to my friend.

EMILY GOULD: Oh, that’s better. It’s better to spread it around.

You wrote on your blog that you felt you were "initiating something" by writing this novel, and I’m wondering if you could tell me more about what that "something" is.

I just finished writing something about this, actually. I have a very New Age streak. Even though I know Tarot and astrology and stuff is probably bullshit, I really enjoy temporarily believing in it when it’s convenient for me.

Writing fiction requires cultivating empathy like a muscle.

Novelists who I know have told me that they’ve had experiences where they’re writing something that then came true. I was like, “Shut up — no. That’s not a thing.”

And then in the book, when Bev is telling Amy that she missed her period and she took a test that said she’s pregnant, that scene takes place in the Brooklyn Flea. Last August, I was sitting with my friend, eating cardboard trays of food at Smorgasburg ... And I made some joke. She had just gotten married, so I said, “Your life is going to completely change when you have a kid. It’s going to be hard for us to be friends.” And she just gave me this look, and said, “You can’t tell anyone!” She was literally two weeks pregnant, and thank God it worked out. You’re really not supposed to tell anyone when you’re just a tiny little bit pregnant. I didn’t tell her then, because I didn’t want to make that moment be about me, and she would never have understood how weird it was, because she hadn’t read the book. But when she went to the bathroom, I was texting my editor, the only person who could understand how weird it was. She said, “Do you feel like you conjured the baby into existence?”

In a larger sense, in trying to figure out what had happened, I was trying to figure out not what the future is, because who could know? But definitely in writing new things, and new experiences into my life, I was able to get out of my own head. Writing fiction requires cultivating empathy like a muscle, and to really work to imagine what it’s like to have other people’s consciousnesses.

It didn’t come naturally to me, because I had worked on a completely different skill set, trying to figure out why I had done things I had done. It was cool, hard, and took a lot of work. But I liked it, and I feel like I’d want to do it again.

What do you think this narrative contributes to portrayals of reproductive issues?

It was really hard to write. I wrote several drafts in which Bev has the abortion. I started working on the book in a way that I was showing it to other people. I started a writing group with a few of my friends. One of the first things that they all told me, which I felt like I couldn’t ignore, because I trust all of them, was to have her not have the abortion and see what happens. I was like, “How the fuck am I going to do that?” I couldn’t not have her have the abortion — that’s just Knocked Up.

I’m not the most grown up grown-up, but I also think something really crucial happens between when you’re 27 and 32 or 33.

But this was still the draft of the book in which I was every character, more or less, and I had to make that character be a person who would make that decision. The person who Bev is someone who would choose that. She wouldn’t have the abortion. It ultimately did not make sense for her to have the baby. There were a lot of reasons for her to not have the baby, but — I would have had the abortion. Definitely!

I tried to do a lot of different things, and I don’t know if they worked, but I feel really strongly that Bev having the baby was the right choice in the book. And ultimately the right choice for Bev.

That’s how I felt, too. Amy had to suck it up and grow up in some ways, and Bev had to do the same.

A lot of growing up is dealing with things that come in your path that you can’t get around and being forced to define who you are, rather than passively carrying on and being simply who you were. I do think I’m not the most grown up grown-up, but I also think something really crucial happens between when you’re 27 and 32 or 33. If you’re going to leave being an irresponsible kid behind, you have to decide to. And I see people all the time, especially dudes, who have decided not to. That has its own sadness and consequences.

But I also see a lot of people grabbing for maturity before they really have to. People move in with their boyfriends right after college, or people move up really quickly at their jobs. Something happens in everyone’s life, where they have constructed something they think is really stable, and it gets knocked down and rebuilt. Pretty much everyone who gets married in their early 20s gets divorced. Everyone has some sort of job loss, death of someone close to them, illness — something changes you. It seems to happen, statistically, to the majority of people. And maybe there are people who it doesn’t happen to, but I don’t think those people are lucky. It’s hard to do the work of personal growth and becoming a full human in a vacuum.

I do think that the process of writing a novel — it sounds very lofty, and I told my fiancé, who’s a novelist, and who told me this was bullshit — but you have to have a working theory of the universe so that you can create a universe in your book. He was like, “No, just describe things, and it becomes a novel.”

You have to have a working theory of the universe so that you can create a universe in your book.

What resonated most with me in this book is the idea that two people can get along really well and love spending time with each other, but they can’t both be simultaneously dealing with major obstacles. In all relationships, there’s got to be one person who stabilizes things at any time.

Yeah. I have this dynamic with my best friend, where we’ve both struggled at the same time. But it does always happen that one of us is the person who’s scooping the other one up. Someone has to do the scooping. I think what made these characters work is that neither of them could be that person. They’re depleted of the energy to be that person.

I’ve been there with friends. I’ve had friendships that ended because our lives were just too different. The friendship was more about nostalgia for the past than anything else. But I’ve never had a friendship just spontaneously combust. Sometimes, with my male friend Bennett, there are times when we haven’t spoken to each other for six months, but that’s just because we lived together.

And there are times in your life when you can’t be a good friend. It’s just too tall an order. But yeah, Amy asking Bev for money when Bev is pregnant and just getting her shit together is totally unconscionable. You can see how she got there, but she deserves — Bennett is in my writing group, and he was like, “You really tortured her. You took a sadistic pleasure in torturing her.” It’s true!

There are times in your life when you can’t be a good friend. It’s just too tall an order.

But stuff does work out. I’ve been surprised, in the past, not just by friends, but by family members, who I felt I fucking hated, and never wanted to talk to again. But it’s never over. If you’ve ever really loved someone, the love is always there. It’ll be there in a different way, but it’s always there. I hope that’s true. It seems true. I don’t know.

It’s not so true with relationships. When they’re done, they’re done.

Right now is a great time to be an observant, smart woman who makes art of her life and experiences. But it’s also not totally easy — what do you see as the obstacles?

It has gotten a lot easier. Or, maybe not easier, but friendlier, in the past five years. There are also just a lot of examples that you can point to, and these things didn’t exist before!

Around the time when my first book was coming out, I found myself really jealous of people who were doing similar things but in a slightly more mainstream way. I was like, “Fuck those bitches! Those sellouts!” But those people were opening doors for me. Their slightly more palatable version of what I wanted to do made it possible for people like me, whose work has more ambiguity and nuance, and also it’s polarizing. I say some things that people disagree with. I have a tendency to make people upset.

I say some things that people disagree with. I have a tendency to make people upset.

It’s inevitable, though.

Oh, totally. Even if you’re trying to be Little Mary Sunshine who brings brownies to all her readings, some people will still hate you. So why bother? If you put all your focus on being likeable, you’re going to double-fail. You’re going to not do what you wanted to accomplish, and you’ll fail at making everyone like you. Not everyone is going to like you no matter what.

But the obstacles: I think it’s still really fundamentally upsetting to the mostly white, mostly male, mostly heterosexual status quo when young women or old women — any kind of women! — have any kind of public presence or voice. It gets manifested in all sorts of coded ways, but it’s not really impenetrably coded. It’s really easy to break that code!

Even just a few years ago, people weren’t as likely to freak out about it, because it was just perceived as whining, like sour grapes, like, “Oh, you got a bad review; suck it up.” But now, you see it in things like that very silly review of Patricia Lockwood’s new book of poems on The New Yorker Dot Com. [Laughs] I like to pronounce the “Dot Com.” But now people much more readily see that for what it is and don’t take it seriously and almost find it funny. I’m not even just talking about the clusterfuck of New York media insiders, I’m talking about everyone. There’s just more precedent for calling people out on their bullshit that is obviously sexist and criticism that is obviously really gendered and condescending.

In the most liberal cities in America, it’s now a lot easier to be a public woman, but it’s just the tip of the fucking iceberg still.

The moves that critics do that are so transparent: the feigned concern, when you write about yourself, like “I hope her life works out okay…” It’s like, You don’t care about me! You don’t know me! It’s just another way of policing how women are supposed to act, what women are supposed to say and not say in public, how you’re supposed to think, dress, look, and feel.

In the most liberal cities in America, it’s now a lot easier to be a public woman, but it’s just the tip of the fucking iceberg still. Unless you are putting yourself in a position where you’re in the crossfire, it can be hard to notice. There was so much of this that I was really not aware of until I started putting my blog out there and wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about.

You brought up Patricia Lockwood. She said in an interview that the question of influences in writing is fraught because everyone lies about it when they're asked. But who do you genuinely believe has influenced your craft?

It’s weird that I’ve never thought about this, as if I just stepped out of a clamshell, re-virginized every year, my mind completely empty!

There’s actually this writer who I really love, who’s one of the Emily Books [Gould's independent e-book retailer] authors, Barbara Comyns. This might be slight self-apologizing on her part, but the way she told her life story: she grew up, had a flaky aristocratic family, flaky governesses that were sometimes there and sometimes not, but basically never had any formal education and never read any books. And then she produced all these drawings, and when she was 18, her parents sent her to art school. She finally walked into a library and read voraciously for a year, and she learned all the writing and drawing. She had been so embarrassed.

She didn’t write anything for years until she had little kids and they were hiding in the countryside during the first World War. And she started writing the story as a story virgin. They have this quality of not referring to anything outside of themselves. I can never have the lack of influence that she has, but I aspire to not sound like anything else. I’ve read a kabillion books and can never have unread them. I have writers who I go back to again and again, but I don’t see them as influences. There are definitely people I’ve mimicked when I was learning how to be a writer, when I was learning how to write first-person stuff. So... [people including] Eileen Myles. There’s this writer I love, Rebecca Curtis. Writing that I love and that has become part of the Emily Books canon, it all has this quality of being immediate, short sentences, not a lot of figurative language. Wordplay, jokes, jokes about language. I like reading stuff that is a little bit more obviously beautiful. But when people say something is lyrical, I usually shy away. I care about being a storyteller more than I care about a four-page description of something.

You published this book with FSG — did you consider hosting it at Emily Books?

I would have really loved for my book to have been an Emily Book selection, but we're not set up to be a publisher right now, except for when we republish books that have fallen out of print. One of our goals in the next year or so is to become a publisher. We have a lot of books that we're trying to put the stuff in place to figure out how to publish them. We need to figure out how to distribute and market print books before we do that.

I wanted traditional publication for this book. It felt important for my career to have review coverage, and for it to be in libraries and stuff. And that's something that really good e-book retailers can't do for books yet.

It's not a good idea to spend too much time thinking about the really long-term view of publishing and how books are made and sold.

I feel optimistic, though, about the space that's opening up in traditional publishing. It seems there's more room for start-uppy thinking and innovation. That's what I hope, anyway. We'll carve out a place for ourselves, as the industry changes. Ruth [Curry, Gould's best friend and Emily Books co-founder] and I both straddle generations and have the experience of what it was like when publishers had a lot of money and could afford to make rent, and we also have the experience of the emerging models of publishing and distribution.

On a good day, I feel really optimistic about it. But man, it's scary. It's not a good idea to spend too much time thinking about the really long-term view of publishing and how books are made and sold.

Image Courtesy of Emily Gould