If These Walls Could Talk

It’s always intriguing to observe someone don a slightly different hat than the one he or she routinely wears: the actor who occasionally directs, the music producer who releases a solo album, or, in the case of Amy Grace Loyd, the book/magazine editor who writes a debut novel. Currently the executive editor of Byliner, Amy has just published The Affairs of Others, her latest achievement in an enviable publishing career that includes stints at Simon & Schuster, W.W. Norton, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books Classics Series, and Playboy, where, it should be noted, I worked as her intern in 2006. The novel tells the story of Celia, a young widow still mourning the loss of her husband five years after his death. In the interim, she has purchased and maintains a small Brooklyn apartment building, where she leads a rather private life amongst tenants who respect her boundaries. That all changes with the arrival of Hope, a recently divorced woman who moves into the building and promptly begins a shocking affair, forcing Celia out of her carefully constructed shell for the first time in years. I chatted with Amy about the novel, sex in literature, and what it was like being a female editor at Playboy.

What was your writing process like?
I wrote, in part, on the subway, on the R train, the most peaceful, slow-going train in New York. I was subject to everyone else – all those unexpected collisions of characters and needs and bodies (those poles are there to hold on to, lady). But all that could be wonderfully helpful, too, to have that energy right there alongside the suspension of time and of everyday obligations of work and family the ride gives you.

Where did The Affairs of Others spring from?
I wanted to live with a voice different from the voices around me, voices that were part of a workaday magazine world and thus about deadlines and deals and e-mailing and Twitter and so on. I wanted to engage with a story in which the heroine decides her own story is over in certain ways. In the first few pages, she tells you, “American life asks us to engage in an act of triumphant recovery at all times or get out of the way. I have been happy to get out of the way.” She wants quiet and boundaries drawn and has no care anymore for convention or its dictates.

When we meet Celia, she is cagey, cold, seemingly incapable of joy. She says, “Monday mornings: After the formlessness of Sundays, there was purpose in them. Merciful purpose.” Why can’t she just let loose and enjoy life?
She’s made a promise to herself and her husband, and if she were to let go of it and the strict behavior she thinks she needs to keep it, she fears she’d lose herself and the connection to the love she had. Losing someone doesn’t mean you stop loving them. For Celia, that’s become a religion.

Sex, desire, and violence factor largely into this story. Why are these the forces that draw Celia outside herself as opposed to, say, friendship?
We’re all trying to decide when we assert our will, fight for something, and when we surrender to circumstances: life, others, our own needs. There are so many competing desires in and between us, and that can make for some inevitable collisions – the violent kind, the heaving-breathing kind, the-bend-me-over-a-kitchen-table kind.

Sex is subject to all of this. It can be the ultimate form of connection, of reciprocity and surrender, the most satisfying meal there is. It can also be about (the desire for) estrangement, to travel to an unknown place that has little to do with tenderness or reciprocity. Sex can be very brutal and many people prefer and need it that way.


You worked at Playboy, which we both know was not as salacious a workplace as others often imagine.
As you well know, there were no half-naked women hanging around the New York offices, no champagne in the drinking fountain. We worked hard, laughed a lot (how could we not?). The magazine had its limitations, content that had to be in every issue, but those same features gave us license editorially to pursue a really unique blend of high and low. As Playboy’s literary editor, I was given so much space for smart work, work that might convert our subscribers to the cause of reading.

Still, I’m interested to know how working there impacted with your own feelings about sexuality and how that affected your novel.
It’s true I was also a woman working for a men’s magazine and the women showcased in the magazine had little to do with me in the day-to-day and even less to do with me physically. Plus, they are all trapped in amber in Hef’s pages; they’re his version of the girl next door. It’s not an accident that the first line of my book is “The body of a woman aging.” Celia and Hope are well past thirty and yet are compelling for their complexities and for their desires, even their darker or more violent ones. I very much wanted to juxtapose all that sex can express – tenderness set against brutality, healing vs. stasis, intimacy vs. blunting intimacy, outrunning it.

You once told me that The Scarlet Letter was very influential for you.
Yes, Hawthorne’s brilliant novel, despite all the jokes made at its expense, really saved me in high school. I was part of this group of popular and terrifying girls in junior high who tossed me out on my ear at the end of one school year and then ridiculed me for a long time. I was packed off to private school finally (my mother had had it) and read The Scarlet Letter there, in ninth grade, and felt companioned in a way I hadn’t before. The narrative is so much about shame and being cast out, about functioning with one face but feeling another inside us, threatening to push through.

In your opinion, who are the female writers who show the most skill for writing about sex?
Maureen Gibbon, author of novels Swimming Sweet Arrow and The Thief, is a master at writing about sex. She manages to be straightforward and poetic in her approach. It’s astonishing. It’s also hard to beat Marguerite Duras for eroticism – she creates such atmosphere by way of a marvelous marriage, as in The Lover, of subject and style.

What about the women who handle it the worst? Ayn Rand comes to mind.
Who does it badly? I’m not telling. I still work as an editor! I even edit the dead from time to time (dealing with estates and agents), though I agree with you about Rand. That woman was no sensualist.

*This interview has been condensed and edited.*

Photo credit: Rex Bonomelli