Fem: Is Visiting Hours your first book? Can you tell us a little about it?
Amy Butcher: Visiting Hours is my first book, yes, and it’s a memoir, one I never intended to write, which is something I’ve heard often from the writers I most admire but never expected to experience myself. There’s an old adage in writing that a writer doesn’t find a story; rather, the story finds the writer. In other words: you have to become obsessed with the story, taken in by the story, in many ways haunted from its scope and content. Writing it, then, is cathartic, a release, sort of like an exorcism of sorts. I relate to that.
In April of 2009, a close college friend of mine, Kevin Schaeffer, walked me home from a neighborhood bar a block away. This was a small town in Pennsylvania, where there is virtually no violent crime, where my entire walk would have been well-lit and public, and I mention it because this was exactly the sort of person Kevin was: concerned, considerate, in short a very sweet individual. He said goodnight and turned for home and I did the same and went to bed. The next morning, however, I learned that just two hours after saying goodbye, Kevin suffered what professionals would later deem a ‘psychotic break’ or a bout of ‘temporary insanity.’ He murdered—and very violently—a college classmate, nineteen-year-old Emily Silverstein, and then called the police, saying he had no recollection of what he’d done but that he’d be waiting for them outside.
I didn’t want to write this book for obvious reasons. It’s one thing to write a novel or write a screenplay or write a short story about violent crime. It’s another altogether different experience to write about someone’s life lost, or about the man who killed her, or about—in many ways—the trauma that began to overrun my life as a result of thinking about it. I found myself grieving what I considered to be the death of two individuals: Emily, certainly, but also life as Kevin had known it. One minute, he was my close friend, and the next, everything about him changed.
For a book about a murder, there’s actually very little to do with the crime itself. I was much more interested in the ways in which our relationship changed and became defined by what we could and could not talk about. For the longest time, this was a result of the impending trial, and the impending plea deal, but even after Kevin was sentenced, I found I still moved around the parameters of silence and secrecy. I was one of the only people still in contact with him, writing him monthly even three years later, and yet neither one of us ever addressed what had happened that night, or how it had affected us, or the ways in which our lives now seemed in direct contrast to the innocence we’d known.
There’s something very upsetting in living life after trauma, far beyond the memory of the trauma itself. I wanted this book to capture the ways in which this incident essentially created a ripple effect that moved outwards, began to overshadow the more pleasant parts of life. It’s a narrative that resists easy answers, easy closure; the effect of trauma is lasting, renewed each time it is recollected, and I wanted the book to evidence this.
F: Have you always been drawn to nonfiction? What drew you to the genre?
AB: Like nearly every young writer I’ve ever known, I began first as a fiction writer. I wrote my first novel in third grade—a hundred pages typed, single-spaced, size-12 font. I was what my family called “a gnome,” a child who would—on a perfect summer day—close her door and seal her room and delve into who-knows-what. The what, however, was writing. I took a comedic fiction class in college and loved it, then dated a poet and moved into that, but by my senior year of college—essentially, just months before this violent incident happened—I found myself exploring the world of nonfiction and captivated by it, as a result. I think it’s the most exciting genre to be working in, frankly: it’s constantly being defined anew and the boundaries are always expanding. There are a lot of very important conversations going on about veracity and validity and fact-checking and truth, but I find myself much more concerned with the artfulness of nonfiction—the idea that you are, in retelling an experience, shaping art and beauty from life. I feel very proud and lucky to be working in this genre.
F: Are there any running themes in your writing? If so, what are they?
AB: I seek complication, or rather, I find myself consumed by it and I attempt to replicate it in my work. As a writer, I do my best to resist what is easy, what is pact, what is predictable. Life is not easy, not pact, not predictable; life is messy and it is hard and it is complicated and it’s oftentimes very uncomfortable. These are things I wish someone had told me from an early age, although I can’t blame anyone for not pointing at me and telling me that sometimes, I’d feel very alone, or very scared, or very frightened in ways I had no ability then to predict. But I do try to find the lightness within the dark, the moment of beauty in what is otherwise difficult. I’m a teacher, and the phrase I find myself repeating to my students most often is, Be weird. I tell them the entire reason metaphors work is because of the disconnect in comparing one item to another. As I writing Visiting Hours, for example, I found myself obsessed by the flies that would pool and cluster around a porch lamp in summer. I’d sit outside and watch them, sometimes for hours on end. In a strange way, they represented life after trauma: you spin in dizzy circles but can never break free from what captivates you.
AB: This is something I struggle with. In writing Visiting Hours, I worried very honestly I would be judged not for my writing or experience of an event but in my retelling—in the inherent fabrication that occurs in putting a moment or a sentiment into words. I could never imagine writing about the first instance I saw Kevin’s face on the nightly news, the booking photo in which his eyes were so strained they looked nearly purple, but it was something I built to overtime because that instinctual cringing, that sense of feeling utterly devastated, was important in relaying how hard it was to care for and express empathy to a person who committed murder. Time helped, certainly, but there also came a point when I had to just stop worrying about how I’d be perceived. I wanted to write the experience as close to the lived event as possible, and so I did.
F: What writers influence your essays?
AB: I’m very much moved by the narrative mastering evident in Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth. I can’t imagine ever writing anything as beautiful as her “Fourth State of Matter” or “Werner.” The first is cited often by essayists, and it’s her most well-known work, but it’s “Werner” that first got me excited about the genre; I came across it during the one and only nonfiction course I took in college, when we used David Foster Wallace’s Best American Essays anthology as our class text, and it really is a thing of wonder. In writing this book, especially, I found myself attempting to model my own work off of Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy For A Friend, Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking, Darin Strauss’ Half A Life, Dinah Lenney’s Bigger Than Life; all four examine the reverberations of trauma in those who are close to and survive it. More recently, I find myself gripped by the essay collections of Leslie Jamison and John Jeremiah Sullivan, as well as Jeff Sharlet’s incredibly poignant Instagram essays—“#instaessays”—which, for me, really engage the idea of essaying as an active, mental process.
F: What does your writing process look like?
AB: It has changed dramatically in these past twelve months. Last year, I decided to seclude myself in a cabin in rural New Hampshire and write for eight hours a day—really consider it a full-time job and give it the time and energy I felt the book demanded. I had the fortunate privilege of an online teaching job, which afforded me flexibility in when I worked, and so for eight or so months, I simply wrote, finishing Visiting Hours just in time for the world to that out. The year prior, I’d had the honor of serving as a writing fellow in upstate New York, and though I taught an undergraduate course on the essay, again, my schedule was very free. In September, however, I took a tenure-track job, and that’s changed things quite dramatically. I feel very lucky to get to spend my days discussing the art and crafting of writing, deconstructing a body of work and then putting it back together verbally, but it means my writing time is restricted primarily to summers. I had a mentor in graduate school who kept this sort of schedule, and I always deeply admired him for it. I think our responsibility, as educators, must be to our students during the school year. That said, I plan to go very quiet in the summer.
F: How do you decide how much information should be written on page one?
AB: It’s unique for every essay. In the case of Visiting Hours, I wanted the reader to get to know Kevin as I knew him, so as to create a sense of empathy and evidence him—everyone—as dimensional and human. We think of someone who commits murder and we think in very black-and-white terms; it’s a psychological tool of disassociation. I didn’t want to start, in other words, at 3am on that April evening, sensational and violent. But I also felt as though there was simply information a reader would need to know in order to understand, and for that reason, I drafted a prologue, which succinctly summarizes the chain of events while drawing a stark contrast between my world and Kevin’s just hours after it happened; he was being booked and questioned at the local jail while I watched The Price Is Right in my pajamas. I wanted to show how quickly we can slip from one world into another. We live this way all the time, but never give pause to consider how vulnerable and fragile everything—our lives, our mental states, the way in which we spend our days—really is.
Read essays by Amy Butcher and learn more about the author by visiting her blog.