On August 17, Two Dollar Radio is reissuing A Mouthful of Air by Amy Koppelman, originally released in 2003 by MacAdam/Cage. The release is timed to a film adaptation of the same name, written and directed by Koppelman and starring Amanda Seyfried, Britt Robertson, and Jennifer Carpenter, to be released by Sony Pictures Entertainment this fall.
In its review, PW described Koppelman’s “polished” debut novel about a woman battling personal demons while struggling with postpartum depression as “lean, minutely detailed, and frighteningly convincing.” We recently spoke with Koppelman about why she wrote A Mouthful of Air, what she would do differently if she wrote such a novel today, what it was like writing and directing the film adaptation, and how Joan Didion’s encouragement years ago reassured her as an author.
PW: Why did you write A Mouthful of Air?
Amy Koppelman: I had no idea that this was the book I was writing. I remember when I got to the final scene, I had both of my kids in the room. I wrote that scene and my fingers jumped off of the keyboard. At the time, there was no information out there on postpartum depression. I went to a postpartum depression conference in 1997, and there were like 20 people there, because nobody talked about these things. I think, in retrospect, I was writing to the fear of what might have happened if I hadn’t gotten the help that I needed. I didn’t understand, when I had my son, because I loved him so much and all I wanted was to live for him and be his mom. But the sadness was so all-consuming. Finally, when I was put on antidepressant medications, all the clichéd things happened: everything went from black and white to color and I could feel again, instead of being in a state of being totally numb.
How do you do it, create characters who are filled with such pain?
For me, writing makes it much easier just to function as a person, because I can put all those dark, ugly, sad thoughts in a place. It gives me some kind of relief. My second book, I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio, 2008), was about what I inherited from my father, who is a very destructive force. What if I worked this hard to have this happy little family that I love and what if somehow I broke it all up? And my third novel, Hesitation Wounds (Overlook Press, 2015), was writing through acceptance, saying that you have never done anything so bad that you’re not allowed to forgive yourself. I always thought that it was important to write about women and about mental illness and what it means to be a good mom, the pressure women feel about being a good mom.
PW: Is A Mouthful of Air autobiographical then? Is the protagonist, Julie Davis, you?
This is the most personal of my novels. I was trying to figure out how to breathe, and how to continue, because there’s always this disconnect between the love and beauty I saw in the world and the sadness of this idea that everybody you love and who loves you is going to die. I just couldn’t get over that, the pain in that. It’s something I still grapple with, but in the past 20 years, it’s gotten better. The older you get, the more you realize that you can’t really protect anybody. So, in a way, there’s freedom in that.
PW: If you were to write A Mouthful of Air today, what would you do differently?
Well, the movie adaptation that’s coming out, I got to write and direct that, and there’s animation in it—I illustrated it. I made Julie Davis a children’s book author. I couldn’t get the book published for years; nobody would publish it. I couldn’t even find an agent. My book had been rejected by, like, every agent in New York City, because it was too dark and too scary. I figured out where Joan Didion lives, and I dropped off the manuscript, and a note: “This book is probably never going to see the light of day, and that’s fine. I’ll just keep doing what I am doing. But am I a real writer or am I not a real writer?” She wrote me back: “I read the manuscript and you are a real writer.”
I held onto that for years, because I think that when you are writing about things that people don’t want to read about, or think there’s not a big enough audience for, independent presses like Two Dollar Radio are so important: they give voice to the voiceless. Now, there’s many things in the book that are dated; there are many ideas that are clichéd at this point. The reason those things change is because people read about it or watch things about it. We’re lucky to have small presses that give voice to people. I would write it all completely differently today.
PW: Tell me more about writing the script and directing the movie.
It was a wonderful experience—sometimes a little surreal when things played out in front of me, especially the childhood flashbacks and stuff. Making Julie Davis a children’s book author changed everything. It was a good way to show how much color means to her, and how it’s almost counterintuitive to how we think about depression being this dark, black-eyeliner kind of thing. It’s the beauty that’s too painful for her, and that’s what I understand. It’s always been the beauty that’s been crushing to me too. So you see a lot of color. For Julie, this insistence on color is almost an affirmation: the more depressed she gets, the more she clings to color. It’s different from the book, but the basic themes in it are the same: what makes a good mom, what makes a bad mom? What we think we deserve, what we’re guilty of, what that shame is.