Q&A with Amy Howard

A square photograph of Amy Howard is set against a banner. The banner is a zoomed in section of Shani Nottingham’s cover art, which features stacked bread tags. Amy is smiling and posing with a stuffed owl and bunny. Behind her is a model rainbow, Pinocchio toy, and a book titled ‘I am bear’. ‘LEAVEN, an interview with Amy Howard’ is written on the banner to the right of Amy’s image.

AMY HOWARD is an illustrator, writer, and maker from Naarm/Melbourne. She has a postgraduate degree in art therapy, and has spent the last fifteen years reading stories to children in public libraries. She has never said no to a cup of tea or met a dog she didn’t like.

Our Guest Editor Josie/Jocelyn Deane talks to Amy about her fiction piece, ‘Where They Purr, published in #28: LEAVEN.

One thing that stands out in Where They Purr is an understated melding of the fantastical with the mundane of family life/trauma. What is the role this fantastical element plays in the piece for you? What does it allow you to do/depict that a more ‘realistic’ kind of fiction maybe wouldn’t?

The fantastical element allows me to create heightened emotions while moving lightly across the page. I want the imagery to combine the dark and grotesque alongside humour and absurdity, so the reader doesn’t feel weighed down. Creating strong imagery and indulging in the fantastical allows me to keep the focus on big feelings more so than small details. By removing the logistics of conception/pregnancy and in some cases birthing these objects (not including the case of poor Mrs. Sampson and her dishwasher), I’m able to minimise the involvement of those who do not possess a uterus, and give those who do, full autonomy over their bodies and desires. Even if the manifestation of those desires doesn’t always result in a positive outcome.

There’s a sense in your piece of recognisable charactersa mother and her foibles, the narrator, her Russian nesting doll brothersbrushing up against something that complicates this recognition. A teen pregnancy is complicated when revealing the teen has given birth to a games console. A gulf opens between what we think we recognise and what may be happening in the story. How did you approach writing the characters with this kind of double life? Did it affect how they functioned in the piece?

I focused on creating relatable characters who struggle with the same things we struggle with; human connection, expectation, disappointment, anxiety, and resilience. Despite moving around in a world where their external realities differ from ours, I wanted their internal expression to feel very much immersed in the human condition. The Russian doll brothers may indeed stack when they sleep, but they are also simply fulfilling roles expected of them, in the same way the narrator fights against what is expected of her.

In the piece there’s a sense of possibility diffused in everything, like everything has the potential to be different from what we think. What were the inspirations in writing this piece? Was there a point where you feel it could have been an entirely different piece, and if so, what were the pointsnarrative, thematic, an imagethe story coalesced around?

As a visual artist my writing often begins in a very visual space. My first draft saw the behaviours and emotions of the characters follow a much more fantastical story arc. The mother, when finding out about Mrs. Sampson’s pregnancy, howled uncontrollably at the moon and refused to walk, instead sliding on the floor like a slug. The brothers spoke in riddles and sucked their own toes. Mountains of dirty socks buried the house after crawling around like rats and the pea that rolled under the chair had thoughts of its own. The themes of the story were still present, but they needed to be coaxed to the forefront. The role of the fantastical was to strengthen the piece’s relatability, not distract from it. Paring back and creating imagery to compliment the themes and emotions running through the piece allowed me to find a more balanced mix of relatability and absurdity.