In her series Psychopomp, author Amanda Sledz takes a literary approach to writing about urban shamanism, magical thinking, tarot, telepathy and other themes usually reserved for the fantasy genre. The series follows four characters: Meena, a woman who has experienced a break with reality; her parents, Frank and Esther; and Lola, a teenager who is becoming a shaman whether she wants to or not.
The first book in the series, Psychopomp Volume One: Cracked Plate, explores mental illness, empathy, our differing experiences of place, immigration and cultural identity, and the way our experience of family shapes our identity — without resorting to the cliches of genre fiction or descending into boring academic prose.
Amanda was raised in Cleveland and now lives in Portland, OR. She is self-publishing Psychopomp, but her work has appeared eFiction Horror and various small literary magazines. You can also check out some of Amanda’s works in progress on her site.
I recently caught-up with her to talk about Psychopomp, self-publishing and more.
Klint Finley: I understand you wrote a first draft of the first book in college — can you walk us through how the book evolved?
Amanda Sledz: I started working on it during my last semester of graduate school. I’d finished the entirety of an MFA in nonfiction writing, and thought I’d try my hand at fiction before escaping the clutches of academentia. There were a lot of subjects that I wrote about in my master’s thesis that were perceived as being unbelievable, because magical thinking as a means of interacting with hardship was described as a natural way of operating. The tone of the thesis (which was a memoir) became very self-conscious, with the over-awareness of the audience that’s required for decent nonfiction writing. I found myself longing to write something uncorked that still utilized the same themes.
I finished the first draft, which consisted of a shorter version of each section, very quickly. The editing and perfecting and development of repetition took a long, long time.
I abandoned it after wrangling it and getting sections of it published in small literary magazines. Then just over a year ago I was cleaning off my hard drive and thought doing nothing with it would be a waste.
And, in a way, as Grant Morrison might say I had myself locked in a hypersigil. I’m fairly certain my writing career would be permanently stalled if I didn’t let it escape.
I hate to ask, but given that you’ve got a writer from Cleveland who ends up living in Portland as a point of view character — how much, if any, of this novel is autobiographical?
The novel is essentially myself dissected. Though no character is entirely me, each one contains elements of my personality. When I first began working on this, I was wrestling with integrating all of my individual selves into a coherent whole. My life was divided by audience, with some wanting to exclusively interact with the academic, others wanting pure comedy and play, other wanting the very serious pagan sort. Shuffling myself this way made it easier to comprehend the whole, if that makes sense.
Like Meena, I’m a writer living in Portland who grew up in Cleveland and went to school in the Appalachian foothills. Her longing for Appalachia is definitely my own. Her fits of annoying hand-wringing is definitely a trait of my insomniac state. She’s very much me from a certain point in time, just after I arrived in Portland
At the same time, Esther and Frank are also very much me. I’ve always been fascinated by pathological liars who craft an additional layer over truth. It seems like an honest expression of American dissatisfaction, the constant quest for something other than what we have. The way we’re convinced we’re unreliable narrators in our own lives. I am also Polish and German and have ancestors executed by Nazis and ancestors in black and white portraits wearing World War I uniforms.
I think this ancestral baggage informs my own internal warring. And Lola represents the aspect of myself best equipped to deal with that. In a sense, this novel is what modern urban shamans would call a soul retrieval, in a verbal format.
Why did you decide to self-publish instead of seeking a publisher?
When I was finishing my MFA, there were a few agents that I approached and a few publishers that approached me with an interest in the memoir I completed. They were not interested in what I created, but the stories stripped away from the style and presented quite starkly, along with a few potentially controversial elements they hoped to exploit. It was clear that the intent was not to craft something unique, but to create a product that fit market demand. That’s fine, but it isn’t art. It directly interferes with the creative process when your drive is dictated by potential dollars. I know some people who have decent book deals, and some people who have had horrible, horrible experiences with publishers. The people who interacted with the dark side of big publishing discovered that they didn’t get very much money and still had to do all their own marketing, publicity, and book selling. Some of them slaved over a book for years, only to have it stalled in a warehouse indefinitely because maybe the publisher didn’t want it to compete with the latest book by John Grisham or something. Others waited and waited and waited for their book to be released, and by the time it came out they had finished three more and then had to wait and wait and wait all over again. I’m a bit of a control freak, and once I clock in at done I really don’t want any further interference with completion. While it was simmering, the publishing world changed. More people started to notice that publishers weren’t doing as much for writers as they used to, so there was little benefit (especially if you could sell books based on your reputation) to working with a publisher.
I was hesitant at first, because there’s still so much stigma about self publishing. Then again, much of what is conventionally published imitates one of ten dead white guys, and that’s not very interesting to me. I wanted the end result to be most definitely mine. I didn’t want a fish bowl or butterfly on the cover because I have a feminine name. I didn’t want the magical realism elements to be minimized to be nonthreatening to stuffy readers. I wanted to be able to take ownership of the entire book, not as a product but as a gift.
How many books do you think it’s going to be total?
It’s going to be at least two, and possibly three. I was committed to doing only two, but I’m really enjoying the way the four characters interact when it becomes more immediate. The Lola aspect of the story has gotten complicated. It definitely won’t go longer than three. Every series turns to shit after three, it seems.
Why did you decide to do it as a series instead of one big book?
A couple of different reasons. My writing style is a spiral where each image returns, each idea repeats. Doing that style of writing beyond 200 pages starts to sound forced and belabored, but works well in shorter format. I wanted each book to be portable. I also think readers (myself included) like to form relationships with characters that are lasting, so they feel personally invested in the outcome. This isn’t really done with literary fiction right now, but I think readers want that intimacy. I know I do.
You’ve said your depiction of life in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood is quite accurate — how did you research this?
The research has been going on for a very long time. My grandmother lived in the Warszawa neighborhood of Slavic Village her whole life, and worked at a pierogi shop there called Grabowski’s, so I have some context from visiting her. My grandfather worked in the steel mills. My great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warszawa neighborhood. Obviously, some of it is from personal experience and family stories. The images of waiting in line at butcher shops are culled from personal experience, as getting kielbasa and Polish rye bread in Cleveland is a serious ordeal. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject written by scholars, and discovered a number of detailed websites. This is where I first encountered the name Charley “Five Tongues” Franklin, which might be the greatest nickname of all time. That filled in a blank regarding how so many Polish immigrants found their way to Cleveland, which I believe is still the third-largest Polish-American population in the country (after New York and Chicago).
Then I discovered the Fleet Avenue Slavic Village community on Facebook, and they became a tremendous, generous resource. What I was really interested in (and was struggling to find) was the social aspect of life in Slavic Village, and I needed people with a memory from around 1965. Folks in that group answered any questions I had, and were overall quite kind. It was that sort of primary source that I struggled to find, and feared I’d have to go without. Certain things were adjusted based on this dialogue, to make it more authentic to both the time period and the place.
I found it interesting that Meena’s Portland, which is devoid of minorities and danger, is very much different from Lola’s Portland, since Lola is a minority and is the victim of violent crime. It made me think that this “there are no black people” in Portland mantra ends up being an excuse to ignore the issues that our small but very real minority communities face in Portland. Are Lola’s experiences a deliberate comment on that?
Yes. I think there’s a starry-eyed delusional pilgrim population that actively attempts to preserve an artificial rendering of Portland, the same way many immigrants arrived from foreign countries with a need to believe American streets were gold-paved. These same people fail to note that they are invading long-held neighborhoods with the same ambivalence to the existing population that their ancestors displayed towards Native American populations. I wanted Lola to be more aware of this, for her to be on the outskirts of Portland and not wrapped in the PC warmth of the center.
There are many white people in Portland who like to speak on behalf of the black population, but few white people who actually talk to black people. Meena would be more from that subcategory of Portland human.
You’re working on a young adult novel — how different is the process of writing YA different from writing a “normal” novel?
YA fiction is truly an anything-goes genre these days. Those who read it seem to like supernatural characters being quietly responsible for everything and the world itself teetering on the brink of collapse. There’s a lot of room for quiet activism, encouraging the next generation of environmentalists, weirdos, and radical thinkers. For these reasons, while writing the book (which is called The Falls Apart) I feel that I have to be mindful about what each action suggests, because the readers will likely take it more seriously. The vulnerability has to be more obvious, and there has to be a discovery element to match growing up. At the same time, it’s more fun. If you encounter a block you can just explode something, add a new super power, or toss a character to the wolves. It’s an awesome audience, with the same dedication sci-fi and comic book fans display. And for an author, that’s perfect.