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The Breathing World: An Interview with Amy Smiley, author of Hiking Underground

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Amy Smiley, LCSW, Ph.D., lives in New York City where she maintains a private psychotherapy practice and has a family. She is a writer of fiction and essays which have appeared in journals in France and the United States. She also creates paperjams—visual poems derived from daily headlines and photographs. A former professor of French literature at the Johns Hopkins University (and author of a full-length study of the poetics of the earth in the writing of Louis Aragon, published by Honore Champion), Amy has also taught classes related to psychoanalysis and social work at New York University.

You can buy the book here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I didn’t find the title, Emma (one of the main characters) did 🙂

This is the way I write: letting the story unfold freely, following the characters where they roam, letting tensions rise and fall as their search becomes increasingly poignant to me. Each time I sit down to write, opening the screen to enter the story, I feel like I’m jumping through a window into a world that somehow already exists, and I’m the one discovering and further creating it.

As for the title, it came to me toward the end of the story when the search leaned toward resolution. The hike underground relates to the deep connection to nature and that vibrant, breathing world above and below us—it relates to the exploration of unconscious impulses—and finally, to the artistic process itself.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

If the human heart is aqua blue and deep within a tree reflects into a pond, then the cover captures this very phenomenon.

The photo was taken by the very gifted photographer, Francine Fleischer—I saw it in its original form, in daylight, and fell in love with it. The cover designer at Atmosphere Press, Ronaldo Alves, came up with the idea of casting the image in deep aqua blue, which renders the mysterious and dreamlike landscape of the novel.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I grew up in a house with a big library, which was the pride of my father. Early on, I would explore that library to my heart’s content, devouring Wuthering Heights at age 11, spellbound into the night. I felt poetry in and around that house. I remember laying in my bed—not exactly laying but hovering—the curtains were billowing with the breeze and scents of freshly cut grass were wafting through the window. I thought to myself, “This is poetry.”

The house was surrounded by gardens that my father designed when my older sisters and parents moved in. I was the first one born in that house and I was very attached to it. As a young child, I would hide beneath the lilac bushes for hours, happy to sit amid the lavender scents, and make up stories that came alive there. And how wonderful it was to garden with my father, to kneel in the dirt, side by side, as he taught me how to poke holes in the ground with my fingers and plant seeds, then run out every morning to watch the flowers and vegetables grow. He would talk to me about Yeats and Browning, his favorites, and poetry soon became synonymous with nature.

I love books so much I wish I could eat them.

Reading is the most intimate thing there is. In the quiet, you can enter the mind of another; it is one of the greatest and most singular experiences of otherness that I know. And writing is my total freedom to discover that otherness in myself, all that I don’t know, all that emotion, all those images that drift in and out of my mind and which find their way onto the page. Writing is an extreme form of living.

The writers who particularly influenced this book are Yeats—his essay “On Magic” and the idea of a shared consciousness, which is integral to the relationships between the three main characters of the novel—the memoirs of Delacroix, particularly the passages related to his search for color and his walks through the woods to find it—and D.H. Lawrence for the deeply sensual connection of the characters to nature, the throes of their emotional life espousing the great landscapes of storm and light, snow and rivers, and as the great wheels of life turn so too does the inner life of the characters.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I was a professor of 20th-century French literature in the United States, which allowed me to go deep into the prose and poetry of some very powerful authors, like Samuel Becket, Proust, and Camus. I lived in France for about fourteen years, where I got my Ph.D. My sensitivity to language grew in ways unforeseen in the way I entered that world and its people, the experiences I had (wild, scary at times, exquisite and joyful at others), the art I contemplated for hours at the museums, and most of all the very sound of the French language and its expressive beauty. Writing my dissertation there allowed me to venture into the surrealist prose of Louis Aragon, where it came to me that his writing was a kind of earth writing, for the way the words seemed to root down into the page or sink into its swamps or feed the imagination with its dirt. It was a unique journey that resonates in Hiking Underground.

I became aware that the work with students became even more compelling in both their reactions to the books and the stories they told me about their lives. I decided to go back to school to become a psychotherapist, which is what I do today. I love my work for the profound connection with people, for the freedom to sit with intense experience and emotion, and for the dreamwork that I often do when appropriate. I work with young children, teenagers, and adults. Hiking Underground suggests the dive into the psyche—the pre-conscious and unconscious forces within us that make us who we are.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

The response of readers. I never dreamed my work would touch people the way it did.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

The Andantino of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959, for some of the quiet, sorrowful scenes.

A subtle hum, like a vibration, when Emma and Adam are hiking in the mountains or walking through Central Park, and when Emma is drawing, or when Alice is roaming the city streets and Washington Square at night.

Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor, KV 406 for the more dramatic moments in the story and the Quintet’s menuetto for the turns toward their resolution.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

The most important takeaway is our need for reverie, and the importance of finding space for it.

The perfect reader is really anyone who opens the book.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

Ongoing, and since the Covid era, I’ve been making paperjams, a term I coined to describe my newspaper collage poems that seek to create new meaning from the ghastly stories and propaganda I read in the paper. This kind of defiance and meaning-making was important to Dada and the surrealists who I studied and was moved by.

I am also working out an idea for an upcoming work of fiction that will comprise many characters and related prose pieces and how their worlds might cross in surprising ways.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

First and foremost, the initial conversations I had with the poet and Executive Editor, Nick Courtright, made the whole difference in my decision to go with Atmosphere Press. He was patient and sincerely curious about what publishing my work meant to me. It took me some time to take the leap, and this came after he suggested that I reread the book, and if I thought it should see the light of day, then I should just see where its publication would take me. I loved that approach to my work, and I took the leap. Every step of the way, I was impressed by the professionalism of the editors, their seriousness and excitement in bringing its publication to fruition, their availability to answer all of my questions, and the final book as object. I also opted for work with an Atmosphere publicist and Hayla Alawi really helped bring attention to the novel and get it out into the world of readers and critics.

You can buy the book here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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