Aimee Herman Talks About the Writer’s Craft.
Aimee Herman compares their writing process to dinner at a buffet restaurant. Sit down, try lots of things, gorge and gorge, and then think: “that was delicious—I’m so full, I’m never doing that again.” But Herman always goes back to try something new—in poetry, fiction, performance, and songwriting.
By going back and trying again for 10 years, Herman wrote the acclaimed young-adult novel, Everything Grows (Three Rooms Press, 2019), winner of the 2020 Golden Crown Award for Best Debut Novel. Set in the 1990s, and seamlessly crafted of unsent letters and notebook entries, Everything Grows tells the story of 15-year-old Eleanor Fromme after her bully James commits suicide. Eleanor navigates loss, love, sexuality, and gender, coming out and becoming a writer in the process. Her young life is safe in Herman’s compassionate hands, which never, ever reach for stereotypes.
I interviewed Herman in October of 2021. They joined me from a light-filled room at home in Brooklyn, NY, which wasn’t to be home much longer. Herman has moved to Colorado, and now teaches remotely at New York’s Bronx Community College. Our interview ranged over a wide variety of topics: the life experiences that drive Herman’s writing, poetics and its effect on fiction, the need for LGBTQ+ writers, and the value of breaking the rigid confines of both gender and genre in literature. A rich buffet, indeed.
Dana Delibovi: Describe your young-adult life. In Everything Grows, the characters Eleanor and James are 15-years-old. What was your life like then?
Aimee Herman: I spent my childhood in suburban New Jersey. When I was old enough, I hung out at malls or went to the movies. As an adult, I feel a pull toward nature, but growing up, I was on cement—strip malls and shopping centers.
Adolescence was a difficult time for me. When I was 16-years-old, I tried to commit suicide. Nowadays, there’s such a beautiful language around mental illness and no shame. But when I was a teenager, nobody talked about it. We didn’t see it on TV. Famous people weren’t discussing it.
Like Eleanor and James in my book, I felt pain, I read, and I wrote. Poetry saved my life when I was their age. As a freshman in high school, I carried around a book of Lou Reed’s lyrics. I joined the poetry club. Poetry let me read the words that were inside me. Writing became the one thing that I wanted to do. It helped that I had wonderful teachers.
Dana Delibovi: You’re reminding me of Eleanor’s English teacher in your novel, Ms. Raimondo, who asks the class to write letters—a love letter to themselves, and a journal of letters “to someone” as a way to cope with losing James to suicide. Did you have Ms. Raimondo in high school?
Aimee Herman: Ms. Raimondo is an amalgamation of my 7th-grade English teacher, my high-school creative writing teacher, and my creative writing teacher in community college. I have only had wonderful English teachers! That’s one reason I love the language and writing.
I’m a teacher now. I do everything I can to open the door for writers who don’t think they’re writers. I do the love-letter exercise. Students write love letters to themselves and seal them in envelopes. Later, I put a stamp on the envelopes and mail them back to the students, so they have a beautiful moment to remember the kind words they’ve written to themselves.
Dana Delibovi: So, the character in Everything Grows —the empathetic teacher —is you, too. How much of role does empathy play in your writing?
Aimee Herman: A big role. The thing that created this book is the very same thing that connects me to my students: remembering my adolescent feeling that I was never in the right room. Expressing that feeling always motivated me, even though the book took me 10 years to write and went through many iterations.
I also wanted to write a book I hadn’t seen yet, that dealt with gender identity. When I started Everything Grows, a young, queer character like Eleanor didn’t exist on bookshelves. I wanted a story about a young person searching for self, who felt pain but had trouble voicing it—just like I did back in the 1990s, when we didn’t have most of the words that exist now around gender. In the 10 years it took to write the novel, queer literature exploded, but at the start, I was looking for a new perspective.
Dana Delibovi: Let’s unpack those 10 years. You said the novel went through many iterations. What were they?
Aimee Herman: My novel started as a poem. I do this a lot: start in one genre, then move the material through different shapes.
The initial poem was very dark, grotesque even. I turned the poem into an equally dark story. I submitted it for an undergraduate assignment, and my teacher told me, “Aimee, no one’s going to read this. The darkness is pushing the reader too far out.” If you want an audience for your writing, you have to let that audience in, and I wasn’t.
After that, I sat on the piece for a while. Then, when I worked it into another short story, I started to feel its life. It began dark when I was dark and angry. But as time passed, and I fell in love and felt forgiveness toward people who bullied or hurt me, light found its way into the writing. Light overcame darkness.
In its final form, Everything Grows is an epistolary novel: Eleanor’s journal of letters to James after his death, James’s notebook entries written to Eleanor. But the novel took this form only after I sent it to my publisher. I love the beauty of letters, and I wanted it to include some letters in the book. But when my editor told me to make the book 100% epistolary, well, that was challenging! I wrote a few pages of notes and had a temper tantrum. “Forget it. I’m done. I’m not good enough.” But I went to Coney Island on Christmas, all by myself, cold and crying. Then, I went home and looked at my notes, went to my computer, and started again.
This shows how important the process of revision is. I give the writing space to breathe. I put it away and don’t look at it for a while. Then, a couple of weeks, a couple of months, sometimes a year later, I look again. Then I’m able to line-edit and remove things. Over time, with practice, I’ve gotten better at removing without remorse. I even removed the original first line of Everything Grows, which I loved, to make way for the epistolary form.
Dana Delibovi: Since your novel began as a poem, how do you think the one genre influenced the other?
Aimee Herman: I’m going to push back the idea of one genre versus another. All writing starts with seeing the magic in things. Genre labels—poetry, fiction, young-adult, adult, and the rest—can suppress that. I’ve had negative feedback from teachers who told me my prose is too poetic. This stopped me from writing prose for a while.
I like to write in a “disco ball” sort of way. Spin, turn, and twist, without concern for genre.
When I started writing Everything Grows, I didn’t call it a “young adult novel.” I just wrote it. When I work with students, they sometimes ask “Is what I wrote a poem?” I say, it’s a poem if you call it that. We’re taught that certain genres have to look or sound certain ways. This just accentuates rigid, binary thinking. I’m for literature without categories.
Dana Delibovi: What about the notion that genres—poetry and prose, performance and memoir—can support each other each other in helpful ways? How do we analyze that idea once we move past genre labels?
Aimee Herman: They support each other in the way parts of a body support each other. We have one body, with various parts working together. We might label a part—here’s my finger. But my finger is not isolated. It communicates with my hand, my arm, my brain.
That’s why it’s a great exercise, once you’ve got some words down, to spend time trying those words in new shapes. Try your story as a performance piece, a poem, a photo exhibit, all communicating with each other. I do that a lot with my work. Actually, I’d say that that’s all I do.
I can’t know the shape of a piece of writing at the start, so I am constantly reimagining, experimenting, reshaping.
Dana Delibovi: Does that make it hard to feel done with a piece?
Aimee Herman: I don’t think anything is ever done. I rewrite published poems. When I am submitting work, I decide it’s done based on how I feel. There is nothing uniform to this. We change our minds; we contradict our imaginations; we break our routines. That is the beauty of continuity as writers.
Dana Delibovi: What are your routines as a writer? A favorite place or time to write, for instance?
Aimee Herman: For first time in a long time, I have a small office in my new home. A door I can close, a window where I can peer at the squirrels and bunnies. I do prefer quiet, and I prefer to write in the morning when my mind is fresh.
That said, I think there is no “ideal writing environment.” A writer writes. I write best when my emotions are stirring, regardless of the environment. I don’t write every day. But I think every day, which is part of the process. I keep a notebook with me in order to catch any falling debris, like poetic fragments that are not yet formed. I tend write in short bursts. I take a lot of breaks. Overall, I’m a very slow writer.
I don’t have rules like 100 words or five pages a day. Rules don’t help me. Maybe they work for other people, but I find them punishing.
Dana Delibovi: How do you manage your time to prioritize your writing?
Aimee Herman: I have to say this: writing my own work is not my priority. My students are my priority. I put them first, and then I write. I feel emotional just talking about this. Poetry saved my life, but teaching makes me feel alive. If I were to write before I grade, I would be depleted, and unable to look at students’ work honorably. I never really said this out loud; I prioritize my students. I still get my writing done, but my students come first.
Dana Delibovi: What is your writer’s journal like? Do you ever limit or censor what goes into it?
Aimee Herman: My journal has a lot of stuff in it. Thoughts. Things that interrupt my thoughts. Moments that I capture outside my window. Quotes from books. Pieces of songs. Ideas for poems. It’s a mishmash.
We need places where we don’t censor ourselves, and if that place is not the journal, where can it be? We need to encourage ourselves to be messier, to make mistakes and cross things out. We’re all so pressured by society to make things pristine and organized, to the point where more and more people have OCD.
There is no need to hold yourself back when you write. I say—find your stop sign and then push on. Is your stop sign, “Oh, what if this offends someone?” Is your stop sign, “Oh, this doesn’t sound good enough!”? Set your stop sign on fire, then drive on.
Dana Delibovi: What writers do you emulate?
Aimee Herman: J.D. Salinger—Catcher in the Rye was a favorite book in high school, and I still re-read it. Kathy Acker—I am blown away by her mixed media, her charts and shifts from dialogue to symbols, her blatant sex positivity. Carmen Maria Machado—I love what she does with language, how she queered the memoir with her book, In the Dream House. Charles Bukowski and his unapologetic messiness. As a feminist, I get nervous saying I like Bukowski, but feminism can coexist with him. He was a great poet as well as a fiction writer, as was Raymond Carver. Torrey Peters—whose first book just came out—is also someone who inspires me.
I love reading women writers, queer writers, non-binary writers. They were silenced for so long in literature. They’ve had all this time to stew and cook. Reading their words is the most delicious meal.
Dana Delibovi: What do you think is the role of LGBTQ+ writers now?
Aimee Herman: Our role is to exist and to get recognition for existing. Queer writers—BIPOC writers, too—have existed all along, but haven’t been given opportunities to be heard. It is enough that we are queer and alive and writing.
Queer stories are important because we’ve exhausted all the other stories. Queer stories always existed, but we haven’t had the chance to read them. I remember when I was a kid, the LGBTQ section in Barnes & Noble was half a bookshelf. Now there are entire bookstores of queer literature. It’s exciting, and I want to see more.
The visibility of LGBTQ+ characters matters for young adult readers. When I was a kid, I knew no gay people, because people were not out in the way they are now. We need space in the room—the classroom, too—for marginalized communities, for young people on the journey of identity.
Dana Delibovi: Speaking of identity, one of the things that really impressed me about Everything Grows was how Eleanor wasn’t pigeonholed into a single, permanent sexual or gender identity. Is that an important part of what you want to communicate?
Aimee Herman: Identity is a journey. We learn ourselves piece by piece, whether it’s our sexuality, our gender identity, what food we like. It’s never a flood of knowing ourselves completely, all at once. It’s bits and pieces that come together, breadcrumbs we pick up and taste.
In Everything Grows, Eleanor starts to think, “I’m a lesbian. But I know there’s something else, and I’m not quite there yet.” Little things move the journey of identity along. For instance, there’s a moment when Eleanor meets Reigh, a young gay woman, and finds self-recognition through another person.
It’s important to have art that explores this process. Maybe the exploration of identity increases as literature advances because different voices come in. When the voices were primarily the voices of men—who for a long time had a very fixed identity imposed on them—literature was less inclined to investigate identity that is fluid, not fixed.
Dana Delibovi: As a writer, what do you hope to inspire?
Aimee Herman: Of course, I want to move people, even though I know that I don’t have that kind of control. But at least I hope that my writing does for people what other books do for me: make me feel seen and lead me to more clarity within myself. Literature also ought to bring us closer to our emotions. And it should slow us down. Digging into a book is a chance to relax, whether it’s the finest literature or a guilty pleasure like a beach read.
Dana Delibovi: Writers often struggle to keep going. What do want them to know?
Aimee Herman: Find a community. My mentor gave me that advice when I was in graduate school and having a rough time. So, I went to open mics and met people who are still really important in my life. Go to open mics. Go to workshops. Get to know other writers. Connect and build your community.
Just be kind to yourself. Too often, we write something, we think it’s not good enough or somebody tells us it’s not good enough, and we stop. Don’t stop. Keep going and treat yourself with kindness. I’m saying this for me, too, because I can be very unkind to myself.
Every voice deserves to be heard. Your voice, too.
Dana Delibovi is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her work has recently appeared in After the Art, Apple Valley Review, Bluestem, Confluence, Ezra Translations, Forum, Linden Avenue, Noon, and The Riverside Quarterly. Delibovi is an MFA student at Rainier Writing Workshop, and Consulting Poetry Editor at the journal, Witty Partition.
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