By Laia Feliu.
We are very happy to welcome Amy Feltman to The Reading Corner to discuss her new book “All The Things We Don’t Talk About“, out now!
Morgan Flowers just wants to hide. Raised by their neurodivergent father, Morgan has grown up haunted by the absence of their mysterious mother Zoe, especially now, as they navigate their gender identity and the turmoil of first love. Their father Julian has raised Morgan with care, but he can’t quite fill the gap left by the dazzling and destructive Zoe, who fled to Europe on Morgan’s first birthday. And when Zoe is dumped by her girlfriend Brigid, she suddenly comes crashing back into Morgan and Julian’s lives, poised to disrupt the fragile peace they have so carefully cultivated.
Through it all, Julian and Brigid have become unlikely pen-pals and friends, united by the knowledge of what it’s like to love and lose Zoe; they both know that she hasn’t changed. Despite the red flags, Morgan is swiftly drawn into Zoe’s glittering orbit and into a series of harmful missteps, and Brigid may be the only link that can pull them back from the edge. A story of betrayal and trauma alongside queer love and resilience, ALL THE THINGS WE DON’T TALK ABOUT is a celebration of and a reckoning with the power and unintentional pain of a thoroughly modern family.
Hi Amy! Firstly, thank you so much for your time. I absolutely loved “All the Things We Don’t Talk About”. I really enjoyed alternating between the different character’s perspectives and learning how their brains worked and what struggles they faced.
“All The Things We Don’t Talk About” portrays a family dynamic that is very far from what readers might be used to. What drew you to write about the lives of Morgan, Julian, and Zoe?
I started writing this book when I was a senior in college (I’m now 34!). I was really drawn (then and forever!) to novels with multiple narrators, so I knew that was a direction I wanted to explore. The beginning of the book came to me in two images: the first was Morgan, around eight or nine, in the car with Julian with the radio on, listening to an NPR segment about different bird calls. I knew Julian and Morgan weren’t talking about something life-altering, but were instead sitting in a tense moment while the bird calls went on and on. The other image was from that same summer, with a young Morgan sitting in Zoe’s apartment and watching a pigeon sitting on an air conditioner unit outside of Zoe’s bedroom. From early on, I loved the idea of Julian and Zoe having these sorts of connections—just shy of meeting each other, despite their common ground.
The project went through so many iterations—at one point Julian had a love interest and a different best friend; Zoe had a husband named Ken and twin daughters; Morgan’s girlfriend Sadie was a point of view character early on, and Zoe’s parents and her brother were also featured more in early drafts. It’s interesting to me to look back and see what’s always been there, since the beginning, even though the book is about half the length it was originally!
The story starts with Morgan almost experiencing a school shooting, and their mum arrives in their life shortly after. They seem to drift back to that incident again and again, especially when spending time with Zoe. Through these encounters, I got the sense that Zoe, in part, might be a metaphor for the gun that could have ended Morgan’s life, but ultimately didn’t. Was this something you were trying to convey to the reader? Why?
I think Morgan is very primed to be aware of uncertainty and abandonment, because of their history with Zoe and because their grandmother, Cheryl, has died relatively recently when the novel begins. The idea that everything can change in a moment is very real when your loved one is battling cancer. Being around Zoe triggers Morgan’s fear of losing their footing altogether. I’m also interested in the fact that even imagining disasters like mass shootings can be traumatic—that nothing needs to happen in order to jolt you from your routine. Morgan is a really sensitive person, and that can be really alienating when everyone around you is committed to nonchalance. On a national level, I do think that, living in the U.S. right now, we’ve acclimated to the truth that there’s a constant threat of violence in public settings, so I wanted to explore that as well.
Neurodiversity, gender, and queerness are very important themes in your novel. Was the decision to touch on these topics conscious or did it happen when you started drafting the characters? Have your previous works explored these themes before?
I always write with my characters in mind first—I never start with a theme consciously. I’m queer, and interested in queer family narratives, and I think exploring gender is a natural extension of that. My first novel, Willa & Hesper, also focused on two queer main characters; Willa is going through her fair share of emotional distress and abandonment issues, like Morgan, though Willa & Hesper is much more rooted in intergenerational trauma. Willa & Hesper is a more overtly political book, at least at first glance.
Julian was Julian from the very start—sensitive to light and sound, particular about his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, easily overwhelmed in social interactions—but I needed to do a lot more research before I felt ready to say that he was autistic in the text. I’m so grateful for the neurodivergent people in my life who read this and gave feedback. I’m also grateful for all of the autistic and neurodiverse educators out there who put their time and energy into creating resources for people looking to learn more about autism and common misconceptions about that community.
Forgiveness is one of the main struggles for Morgan when it comes to their mum, did you always know you’d give them that chance by allowing Zoe to recover, or did you make changes along the way?
I always like to write the saddest happy ending I can get away with, so I did know we’d end in that place with Zoe—although the last scene was a surprise to me! I didn’t have that particular setting planned for the ending, but I was happy when it fell into place. I wanted it to be relatively ambiguous about what’s ahead, but you can read it optimistically.
The characters in your book are so wildly different from each other, what perspective was the hardest to write from?
Morgan’s, probably, because their perspective and mine have the most overlap. It might sound counterintuitive, but it’s more straightforward to inhabit someone’s consciousness who has a very different point of view from my own. When you write from a perspective that’s close to your own, you don’t have as strong a sense of what’s explained clearly, what’s a cognitive distortion, what might disorient a reader. My editor would ask, “Why does Morgan think this?” and I would be really surprised, because it felt so natural to me to hop from one thought to the next. I also felt very protective of putting them in harm’s way. I’m sorry, Morgan!
Zoe experiences a severe disconnection from Morgan when they were a baby, which is a common symptom of postnatal depression. Did you consider exploring the reasons behind Zoe’s substance abuse in depth?
Originally, I had a long chapter of Zoe in rehab where she really dug into her past. She had a particularly painful relationship with her mother, which is mentioned quickly several times in dialogue with Morgan. In editing the book down, I was so sad to cut those sections, but they slowed the pace down considerably. But it also made sense, from a craft/storytelling perspective, to lose that, because Zoe is so checked out. She can’t access the past at all because it’s too painful. Depression makes you a stranger to yourself, and I wanted that to come across in Zoe’s relationship to her own memories and history. At the end of the book, when she’s able to speak plainly about those issues, it represents a huge turning point for Zoe.
I often wonder what happens after I finish a book I really enjoyed, what do you think the future holds in store for Morgan, Julian, Zoe, and Brigid?
I’ll tell you one thing: Julian gets a pet after Morgan goes away to college. He loves that dog!
As for Zoe and Brigid, I’ve got my fingers crossed for them. I hope Brigid’s dream of the two of them living a quiet country life ends up happening. I think Morgan will find their people. I see a lot of sweet collegiate nights for them, late night movies and slices of mediocre pizza. I think Morgan and Sadie will be in each others’ lives for a long time, in one capacity or another.
What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
That family can be any person who’s in your corner. And that it’s really, really hard to be a person.
Are there any books within the genre or with similar messages to “All the Things We Don’t Talk About” you could recommend?
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters, Future Feelings by Joss Lake, and Time is the Thing a Body Moves through by T Fleischmann are amazing books by trans authors. I’m also excited to read a Year & Other Poems by Jos Charles, and for Rafael Frumkin’s forthcoming novel Confidence, which will be out in February 2023.
Rebecca Schiller’s memoir A Thousand Ways to Pay Attention is an gorgeously written memoir about the author’s diagnosis with ADHD. My friend Jen Wilde’s charming YA novel Queens of Geek also has great autism representation; Jen was so generous with me in sharing her experience as an autistic person while I was working on building Julian’s perspective. I also loved Madeleine Ryan’s novel A Room Called Earth. Devon Price’s Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity is on my TBR list, too—I love following him on Instagram, he almost always has me considering things from a different perspective. I’m also looking forward to digging into Milkweed Editions’ Multiverse series, which is curated by and highlights neurodiverse authors.
And last but not least, where can everyone get their hands on this incredibly moving story? It’s available everywhere you’d buy a book, including bookshop.org, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon!
Amy Feltman graduated from Vassar College in 2010 and earned her M.F.A. in Fiction at Columbia University in 2016, where she was also a Creative Writing Graduate Teaching Fellow. She is the author of All the Things We Don’t Talk About (May 2022) and Willa & Hesper (2019), which was longlisted for the National Jewish Book Awards’ Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. She has worked at Poets & Writers Magazine since 2014. She received a fellowship to attend the Disquiet Literary Conference in 2015 in Lisbon, Portugal. Her short story, “Speculoos,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. She lives with her partner in Astoria, New York.
Amy’s Instagram: @amyfeltmanwrites
Amy’s Website: https://www.amyfeltman.com/
Discover more interviews here.