Don't hate David Amsden because he's brilliant, celebrated and 23

Yes, the New York Times gushed over his hipster lifestyle. But the author of "Important Things That Don't Matter" is entering the literary fast lane with more than style going for him.


Elizabeth Spiers
May 12, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

"I was so fucking fed up," says 23-year-old David Amsden, a former New Yorker intern and current contributing writer to New York magazine. "Enough with this uber-neurotic fiction where nothing really happens! I can't relate to any of the stuff! I just wanted something that felt really raw and honest."

Amsden's first novel, "Important Things That Don't Matter," is the story of a 20-year-old recounting his tumultuous relationship with his cokehead father in Maryland suburbia. "I was reading stories from the '70s and '80s about couples [that are having problems]," Amsden says. "There are children in the stories, but the child is just a wooden literary device." "Important Things That Don't Matter," he explains, reverses the traditional model and tells the story from the child's point of view.

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If his age and journalistic résumé aren't enough to generate interest in his debut novel, Amsden's celebrity friends (photographer Ryan McGinley, "Ken Park" starlet Tiffany Limos, among others) and hipster credentials lend glitter to what was already a marketable literary effort. As a result, fascination with Amsden's casually messy haircut, mellow drawl and affinity for clothing that would best be described as "thrift-store chic," can sometimes eclipse interest in the actual book. A recent New York Times article called ("A Night Out With David Amsden: Oh, to Be a Boldface Name") in particular, filled several column inches with such details.

I read the New York Times article and mentioned the book on Gawker.com -- a pop culture Web site I edit -- as being part of a hipster literary movement that had "kicked into disaffected, ironic overdrive." Skeptical but curious, I picked up the book and to my surprise, devoured it in a couple of hours. It was hypnotically engaging and almost painfully genuine.

Amsden happened to e-mail me a few days later. He had read Gawker and wanted to assure me that the book was "neither ironic nor disaffected." I sat down with Amsden fully expecting him to sound like the 20-year-old protagonist in "Important Things That Don't Matter." The character's verbal tics, attitudes and speech patterns were so consistent throughout the book that I had assumed that Amsden was writing in his own voice. A few minutes into the conversation, I realized that wasn't the case. Amsden is quite simply an extremely talented writer. (So, he's 23. Get over it.)

In the following interview, Amsden discusses the repercussions of literary celebrity, publishing industry politics and the art of self-promotion.

Tell me a little about what prompted you to write the book.

I always really wanted to write a book. Part of what compelled me to do it so fast, at this age maybe, was that I was getting a little tired of writing for magazines and I didn't know what the hell else I was going to do. Go back to grad school? I think a lot of people take deeper breaths than I do, and they're like, "well, I could always go back to grad school, get a law degree." And I'd get fucking kicked out of law school, or I'd get in trouble, or I wouldn't keep my grades up.

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Who do you feel your audience is, and who would you like them to be?

One of the coolest parts of publishing a book is that it gets in the hands of someone who you would never expect to like it. One editor who wanted to buy it at a different publisher was my parents' age, and she really dug it from that point of view -- really savvy, smart woman -- it gave her this window into her kids. I think the real key people are sort of 15 to 30 -- which is sort of a difficult thing, because, well, two reasons: One, none of those people buy hardcover books; two, some of them don't even look at books yet, they're so young.

I went to my high school and I did a reading there and a speech. A bunch of kids bought the book and I got an e-mail from this girl -- sophomore, 15-years old, really smart girl -- and she got it. That's really young, but I think when you're young like that, you can read in a more pure state.

What were you reading at 15?

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Me? I wasn't reading much at 15. I only read, maybe two books that year. I got into reading books when I was 15 because I wanted to impress this really smart girl. She said -- and I'll always remember this -- she said the man she marries will know who Helmut Newton is. Helmut Newton?! Is he a photographer? Like, who the fuck is Helmut Newton? And at the time? When you're 15?

So, I read a couple of books then. I read "Story of My Life," by Jay McInerney -- because she loved it. It's the only book of his I've ever read. I don't even know if it's any good, but I totally enjoyed it when I was 15. It has this scene, where this woman really wants to fuck this guy, but she thinks it's too early, so she goes home and masturbates with the faucet. And it sort of drags it out, and it's this really funny scene. And I remember that it taught me so much about women! (Laughing) I've seen McInerney at a couple of book parties. And I've never met him. I've wanted to. I've wanted to be like, "Dude, you have no idea how ..."

I used it as a line when I was 16. I'd say, "I know this seems crazy, but read this book and do what it says," and they'd be like, "Noooo! that's gross!" Then two weeks later they'd be like, (grinning) "Aaaawesome."

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I didn't like reading very much at 15. Books didn't do it for me. I was much more into smoking pot.

What about now?

I really like Denis Johnson. "Jesus's Son" was one of the first books that got me as an adult. It's that thin line -- it's like being 17 and really loving "The Sun Also Rises," and then not being able to touch it after 19. I like some of Martin Amis. "The Rachel Papers," I liked a lot; I think that was probably pretty influential for this book. Who else? I like William Faulkner a whole lot. I like Jonathan Franzen's first book, "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion." I read those recently and they fucking blew me away. I mean, I was floored -- totally floored. I like Rick Moody quite a bit. That's how I found my agent, because I loved him, and she represented him. Who else? Junot Diaz, I think is phenomenal. I look forward to another book because I've read "Drown" maybe 10 times now, and I need to read something else. Lorrie Moore ... she's brilliant. There are others I read that I don't like so much. I can't remember them. I read like three books a week so ...

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Do you think living in New York enhances your writing or distracts you?

I think it really is ... if you can handle being so close to the bullshit but not being affected by it, it enhances it. Actually, Jonathan Franzen -- I interviewed him -- he told me this. And I agree more now that I've experienced it to a tiny degree. The best thing about being in New York is that it really demystifies the publishing industry. Like, if you get a real bitchy review somewhere, or a bitchy piece about you, or a rejection -- all of that -- you understand that it's sort of par for the course. You sort of understand the mechanics of it and know the personalities involved and it doesn't hurt you very much.

Some people get really distracted in New York and want to pursue being famous more than writing. That could really happen. But really, the thing with writing is that you never get, you know, really famous. I mean, even if you are, you're still like ...

No one's walking up to you on the street and asking for your autograph.

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Yeah. I mean, I've always liked that about it. These things like getting into the New Yorker, publishing a book, seem as palpable as one day going to the moon. And once you're here, you're like, "Oh, I know -- that idiot used to work at X publishing house; now he works at Y. He hates me because I wrote this one thing two years ago," and you understand that it's like 85 people who have all, to one degree or another, fucked each other over and made love to each other. So shit's gonna come up.

So you're not, as a first-time novelist, sensitive to criticism, bad reviews?

I don't have that problem because a lot of the books I love, I haven't heard about through reviews. Maybe I'm fortunate because I just haven't been reading the New York Times Book Review for that many years.

If I got a really bad review by someone who seemed to understand the book and didn't like it, I'd be more hurt. The Onion did this review; they just attacked it. I know how this works because I've seen it happen: This woman read the press release and read certain things about me -- probably read that New York Times piece -- decided she hated me, decided I was just the enemy. She spent the whole review talking about all of that. "He's done this and that when he's young, so of course he's getting compared to all these people." But seriously, I don't even know who compared me to them. Nick Hornby? I haven't seen that anywhere. Dave Eggers? I haven't seen that anywhere. And at the end of the piece it was like, "It was well-written and queasily compelling." Isn't that what a book's supposed to be? Compelling? Aren't you supposed to want to keep reading it? So you read a review like that and it's just that kind of funny.

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Would you prefer that a lot of people read it even if they don't entirely understand it or have a small number of people get it and fewer reading it?

Well, I always loved books that ... the books I've really loved, many of them, if they were really big books, I never knew about them. I just sort of stumbled upon them like I was part of some small little group that maybe liked this book. That's sort of ideally what you want, but at the same time, you want to make a living doing it. I want to be able to keep doing it and not have to go to law school.

On one level you want the only people who like your book to be the people you'd want to hang out with in some fictitious house party. I've been fortunate so far, where the reviewers haven't really missed it too much. And I don't think there's some false idea of the book being propagated out there. I think that does happen. I think that's happening, maybe, with James Frey's book -- which I haven't read -- but it's really getting these weird diatribes.

Yeah, I think he's got this Norman Mailer thing going on ...

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His whole shtick is out of hand. But I believe it's genuine; it's just annoying. He just sounds annoying. [But] I don't think that's manipulated. I don't think he's like, "I'm going to get so much damn press." He's probably just this dipshit, this asshole. It's probably like, not a lot of people like him when they meet him. I've known plenty of people like that.

How do you think that working in the media industry affected your life as a writer and and your writing?

I think it's been great in that I learned that the artistry of writing is sort of intertwined with grinding it out. Learning to work and do it everyday, even when you don't like it and to think of it as a job. I think there's some sort of intangible thing that I can't really place. Like, I was hanging out with a photographer recently who shoots for big magazines, like the New York Times Magazine and also does artistic stuff. We were just talking, and he was like, "I think that, somehow, doing this has helped my other work. I don't know quite know how." And that's kind of how I feel.

But also -- that New York Times article -- I wanted to talk about that. [In the Times story, reporter Linda Lee followed Amsden for a night out, writing at one point, "you've got to hate this guy. He's already been called the voice of his generation," describing him as "darkly handsome in a studied, downtown way," and recounting his party-hopping with his fashionable friends.]

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OK.

Well, I just wanted that clarified -- that (laughing) I do not keep a blog of my life. But that was a very odd article. I think it's tough. It was really funny, in a sense, but I certainly don't think it was a full representation of me as an individual.

What else do you think they got wrong?

Some of my friends were like, "What a fucking great article! You look like a badass," and they understand that you take it with ... not a grain of salt, but with a fucking salt lick. Because it's the Style section of the New York Times. And I don't know anyone who looks at that as the be-all, end-all of truth. At the same time, it's everyone's favorite section, and everyone reads it. And it is the New York Times.

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There's that one quote "you have to have some faith in people -- or your ability to manipulate them." That was said with such sarcasm -- I mean, such obvious sarcasm -- after a long rambling monologue of mine on things I've been doing to try to promote the book.

If an article like that makes me look like some kid -- like a self-promoting type -- you gotta remember: I'm not getting the treatment of Z.Z. Packer, whose book first book is getting brought in with all the flags waving from the publishing house. They must be spending millions of dollars to promote this book; you see ads for it everywhere. It's everywhere. Every single thing costs money. I don't have all that going for me, and I do want people to read my book.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with handing someone a flyer for it. In a sense, what's so amazing about that to me, is how earnest that is, and how grass-roots it has been. I've really been breaking my back to try to get this book out to the right people. And what is more callous? Taking out a $75,000 ad in the New York Times Book Review? It makes you look more literary, but come on, it's $75,000 -- that's why the ad is in there. It's not in there because you're a genius. It's not in there because you're anyone. It's in there because your publisher bought your book for a shitload, and they're nervous, and they're taking these ads out.

Compare that to seeing someone reading Kundera, and saying, "Hey, here's a bookmark. Can you come to a reading?" And I think it's funny that we live in a time period where that can get really callous coverage and being someone like Z.Z. Packer ... and I've read two of her short stories, and they're really great. They're the real deal. But that huge publicity blitz! Profiled everywhere. Everyone in the media who's covering it understands that that's because an enormous amount of money is being spent. And my whole thing was the process of very little money being spent.

What do you want people to ask you that they don't?

Well, it's tough. To get press on books is so difficult. I don't mind this, because I like personalities, too, but what they really go after is the author's personality. And the problem with personalities is when they're digested into a small form. I've never met Jonathan Safran Foer, but everything I know of him is that he's "little Princeton intellectual guy." I'm sure he's a lot more than that, but that's because become his, you know ... And Franzen is über-serious literary guy with the perpetually furrowed brow. And there's something sort of fun about that. I think of Raymond Carver and I just think of this drunk dude. And I'm sure he was more than a drunk dude; same way I think of Foer as more than a Princeton intellectual arty kid. So, in that sense, what people have asked me a lot about is me, and my age, and that's fine because I think that's kind of interesting. I mean, I don't think it's that interesting about me, but as a reader.

I mean, I don't expect the New York Times to do a "night out with" column and have me deconstructing, at length, modern literature. I think that'd be about the most boring thing ever. That was the one thing I was really fed up with -- reading a lot of really self-conscious things and wanting to get back to raw Raymond Carver-y, not embarrassed of really true straightforward emotion and that's something I haven't really gotten to talk about because I spent time being quizzed on my clothes and my haircut by the New York Times (laughing) ... It's all good. It's all fun. That's what it comes down to, I guess.


Elizabeth Spiers

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor of Gawker.com. She lives in New York.

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