Amy Dupcak is a lot like her prose. On the surface: bright, elegant and meticulous. What lies beneath however, in both the woman and her work, is a relentless commitment to illuminating life’s quirky, raw underside.
In her searing debut short story collection, Dust, Dupcak unflinchingly gets under the skin of a tribe of fascinating young characters that offer insights beyond their years. Anchored with lush tangles of prose, Dupcak’s stories not only touch but often scorch the heart.
I caught up with Amy as she mapped out a plan for her September 20, 2016 launch party at Bluestockings in New York City (as well as planning for her wedding!).
Scott Alexander Hess: Congrats on this amazing collection! Tell us about the title, Dust. Very evocative. How did you come up with that?
Amy Dupcak: Thanks, Scott! I’ve used the title Dust since I was sixteen, when I submitted a poetry manuscript called Magic Dust to an adult chapbook competition. The following year, I compiled over a hundred poems and made spiral-bound copies of another Dust (I’d matured beyond the “Magic”), then made a second book, Dust II, a few months later. Before starting the MFA program at The New School, I created yet another Dust, but this time it was full of short stories, since I’d switched from poetry to fiction halfway through studying Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence. As a collection, Dust has continued to evolve.
I’ve always had a thing for one-word titles, maybe because I have a three-letter first name and no middle name. The word “dust” makes me think of ash, dirt, age, earth, waste, residue, and the visible evidence of our existence. It also evokes a gritty, disused, or macabre setting, along with a careless or haphazard way of life. The word (with its many possible meanings) has cropped up in my writing since my poetry days, and it appears throughout these stories, providing a thread that connects them beyond the common themes they share.
Hess: You write about young people. What drives you as a writer to explore this time of life? Is it a keen interest in this phase of life, or something in your own past that anchors you here?
Dupcak: Sometimes I feel like I’m still a teenager or early twenty-something. Even though I’ve often felt at odds with my generation, I’m eternally grateful to be living in a world that permits an extended adolescence and a “you do you” approach to life. In many ways, I never had to abandon my past selves to suddenly adopt an ‘adult’ persona, which means that I’m still firmly anchored to a “young person” phase of life. I want to remind readers of their own feelings of confusion, longing, and burgeoning self-awareness that is central to all of our personal stories.
I like to write about characters who don’t yet know how to make smart choices. Characters who self-destruct and fuck up and fail to understand why they do the wrong things. Characters who feel awkward, unloved, fragile, or exasperated by the way others treat them. Characters who haven’t completely “found themselves”—however you define that—but are open to new experiences and fascinated by life’s possibilities. In adolescence, teenhood, and the twenties, the uncertainty of the future and the loss of the past can feel truly overwhelming, but even when things are dark and scary, life offers slivers of magic.
Hess: As Nelly Reifler so aptly puts it, your work teeters at the border of control and disaster. Have you always been drawn to the darker side of life as a writer? Does your work allow you to wrangle personal demons?
Dupcak: I’ve always been pulled to the “darker side” as both a person and a writer. Actually, this might be the reason I became a writer. My exterior has often led people to believe that I’m happy, bubbly, and extroverted. While it’s nice to know that I’m pleasant to be around, rarely did I take this as a compliment; instead, I felt misunderstood and falsely one-dimensional. It bothered me that friends didn’t acknowledge my introspective, serious, melancholic core, but I realized that I could express that side of me through writing.
Although I’d written stories throughout elementary and middle school, it wasn’t until I started writing poetry at age 12 or 13 that I found a suitable means to explore my “dark” thoughts, which I had failed to communicate in any other capacity. Even now, my fiction and creative nonfiction allow me to “wrangle personal demons” and look them dead in the eye. Writing is expressive and cathartic in more ways than one.
Hess: Amidst the beauty and intensity of these stories, “Anything To Save Her” stands out due to elements of whimsy. Tell us about that story: what inspired it and how did you discover that absolutely charming central character?
Dupcak: “Anything To Save Her” is the story I wrote most recently; I set out to write a story with a lighter, more whimsical tone to contrast the darker themes in Dust. The narrator is a sensitive twelve-year-old boy named Jacob Farrow who loves superheroes, creates new words, gets teased at school, and feels generally misunderstood as well as alienated from his fourteen-year-old sister, Cammy. He wants to do something to prove his worth to Cammy and his classmates, so he decides to become a local hero by saving a stranger, but of course that doesn’t go well.
I can’t say that anything in particular inspired this story, but I do work with young writers, mostly ages 11-16, as an instructor at Writopia Lab: a nonprofit summer and afterschool writing program. After four years of leading these creative writing workshops, I’ve gained insight into what it’s like to grow up as a member of the “iGeneration.” I imagine that a kid who doesn’t quite fit into this reality and who wants to contribute something pure and meaningful to the world might have a difficult time, especially since he’s still figuring out who he is (like all other kids his age). I avoid referencing smartphones and social media throughout most of Dust, so I wanted to include a story that accurately reflects our present-day culture, with phones constantly at our fingertips.
Also, my father owned a comic book store when I was young, so I grew up with superheroes lurking in the background. I wanted to comment on the classic “hero complex” and the societal expectations of masculinity, which begins long before boys become men. Jacob does become a sort of hero in this story, but not in the ways he expected.
Hess: Have you considered toning things down and writing for the YA market?
Dupcak: I believe my fiction lends itself to an adult audience even when I write from a child’s perspective; it’s a window through which adults can see how kids are affected by the world, but it’s not written for children.
However, after working at Writopia for years, I’ve realized the true importance of writing for adolescents; it’s quite a responsibility! Kids and teenagers are so influenced by everything they see or read, and so much fiction still relies on ridiculous conventions and gender norms. Ideally, I’d love to write a feminist YA novel that accurately depicts (and subverts) what it’s like to grow up as a girl in American society. I want to help young girls learn how to stand up for themselves as they navigate a world in which men expect certain behaviors from them.
Hess: You are working on a novel. Tell us about that.
Dupcak: My novel-in-progress explores the bonds of a family and how personal choices can break those bonds and drastically alter the course of the future. The novel begins with two characters, Michelle and Colin, who fall in love and get married; later, readers are introduced to the perspectives of their three children. Most of the story is set against the backdrop of a future New York City, which has become a police state overrun with invasive technology. How the characters individually respond to this technology is also a major part of the plot. The book grapples with relevant issues like surveillance, terrorism, militarized police, and genetic manipulation, but it’s a character-driven, contemporary story about love, consequences, and the shifting dynamics of a family.
Hess: What if any similarities does your novel-in-progress share with the stories in Dust?
Dupcak: One of the themes in Dust is seeking connections. In the novel, every member of the five-person family also seeks connections as they carve out their own family. By finding this chosen family—whether it be a tribe, activist group, cult, or just other friends—they begin to more clearly define themselves and realize where they belong in the world. Connections are crucial, and they exist beyond the family we’re born into. Both Dust and the novel explore subcultural, radical communities and characters who possess anarchist viewpoints and purposefully disobey the status quo.
The question of personal identity has always been fundamental to my writing; I am deeply interested in the formation of “the self.” In the novel, genetics plays a large role, since Colin is a research geneticist, so the question becomes: How much of our “self” is already written in our genetic code, blind to our choices and the environments that shape us? I want to explore how knowing, or not knowing, where we come from genetically can impact our sense of self…and how in the future, we might be able to change this.
Hess: Do you have personal favorite in this collection? If so, why?
Dupcak: “Ten Days” has always been my favorite. I got the idea for it years ago when I let a coworker crash at my place while I went away on a short trip. Even though he held down a job or two, he was a rather transient person. Since I knew he was at my place, I couldn’t help imagining what he was doing with my stuff. What would he discover? What conclusions might he come to about the kind of person I am?
I liked the idea of one character “meeting” another by reading her journal, living amongst her things, and taking care of her aloe vera plant, so I created a character based off this coworker (whom I didn’t know very well) and gave him his own backstory and personality. Analyzing myself through the lens of my new character, Kyle, was a really fun experiment, even though Kyle is dismissive and judgmental of Alana’s habits and thoughts. I wrote the bulk of this 10,000-word story in a two-day stretch, during which time my eyes barely left the computer screen. That’s when you know you’re really having fun (or driving yourself insane)!
When I set out to write this story, one thing I hadn’t completely achieved in my fiction was seeing a character through a gradual personal change. I wanted every scene to take place in Alana’s apartment over the course of ten days, but how can someone change when they’re stuck in the same place? I took on this challenge and mapped out Kyle’s incremental changes and developments, which Alana influences even though she doesn’t know he’s staying there. By the end of the story, twenty-nine-year-old Kyle gains a new appreciation for Alana (or at least his version of her) and other important people in his life, and he comes to terms with his past mistakes. Essentially, he grows up.
Hess: Tell us a bit about your process. What does revision look like in the world of Amy Dupcak?
Dupcak: I am obsessed with editing; I guess my brain is just wired that way. I feel deeply unsettled if a word isn’t right or if I’ve left new writing in a rough state, and I will literally edit lines in my head while I’m trying to sleep! I’m just so enamored with language that I feel like I can control my life by adjusting my diction, syntax, grammar, etc. I think of it as stitching and re-stitching words to get closer and closer to the truth I’m trying to convey. For me, editing never ends, but I find it mostly fun and rewarding, and I also love editing the works of other writers.
In terms of my creative process, I jot down an endless series of ideas in notebooks, Word docs, gmail drafts, my phone app, the margins of novels, and sometimes on my skin. I do a lot of writing when I’m not actually writing. Whenever I’m working on a story or novel, part of me lives inside it. I could be riding the train or traveling to work or having a conversation but I’m also walking through the story I’m creating. If I’ve left my character hanging, I feel this deep angst because I need to go back to the page and move her forward. Luckily, I have the support of my writing group, the Ponies; we’ve been meeting once a week since 2009, and they’re an incredible resource when it comes to revision and progressing creatively.
Hess: Are you inspired by other writers? Who are they?
Dupcak: My first profound writing influence was Nabokov; I read Lolita for pleasure in tenth grade and felt compelled to make a collage of all my favorite lines, which I typed, printed out, cut up, and arranged on a poster board that still hangs over the desk in my childhood bedroom. Nabokov’s poetic prose inspired me to play with language, to apply my poetry instincts to fiction, and to look for original ways to describe the world.
More recently, I’ve gained inspiration from modern female authors publishing literary fiction. Julie Orringer’s story collection How to Breathe Underwater taught me the true impact of the short story form and continues to influence my storytelling. I love Mary Gaitskill’s willful darkness, depiction of trauma, and stark prose. I adore Miranda July’s original style and I sought to emulate her sad/funny tone when writing “Anything To Save Her.” I admire Jennifer Egan’s ability to experiment with plot and perspective, and her punkish young characters are close to my heart. I find Aimee Bender’s fiction to be delightfully imaginative, and Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help continues to echo in my brain.
Hess: If a film director wanted to make a movie about one story in Dust, which would you choose? Also, who would star in it?
Dupcak: That would be so exciting! I would choose “May Day” because it contains the collection’s most eccentric characters (inspired by people I’ve befriended in the past) and it would be fun to bring them to life cinematically. These goth/punk characters perform an ancient Druid ritual to reenact the final scene in the 1973 version of The Wicker Man. “May Day” would therefore become a meta-movie: a movie about a movie in which one of the characters is wielding a camera to make a movie!
I wouldn’t cast any celebrities in “May Day.” Instead, I would adopt Larry Clark’s approach to Kids and cast people who were already interested in the scene or subculture and who weren’t trying to be actors. No fake piercings or fake accents in my film! On both the page and on screen, I want my stories to be as authentic as possible.
Hess: What’s next for you?
Dupcak: I’m working on promoting Dust, but I’m also excited to return to my novel-in-progress. Ideally, I would love to finish the entire first draft by the end of 2017. I also have other stories lined up for a potential second story collection. And then there’s nonfiction: Amanda Miller and I began writing a joint collection of personal essays, which we’d like to pick up again. I’m rarely without a long-term project!
Amy Dupcak’s debut collection, Dust, is available on Amazon from Lucid River Press this September. Visit her at www.amydupcak.com