Interview: Amy Koppelman, author and screenwriter of ‘I SMILE BACK’ tells us where Amy ends and Laney begins.

AmyKoppelmanBeautifully insightful, generous human being, and honest writer, Amy Koppelman now has three books and one screenplay under belt. Her novel, I SMILE BACK just opened in theaters, a film she developed for the screen with her screenwriting partner, Paige Dylan. After her first novel A Mouthful of Air, Koppelman used her own life as a rough base for the lead character in I Smile Back, Laney, immaculately portrayed by Sarah Silverman on the big screen. I got a chance to sit down with Amy last week, and pick her brain.

Liz: Firstly, congratulations, to both you and Paige on bringing such a bold and honest story to life. Thank you for tackling a subject we tend to try to hide rather than seek help for. I would love to know, where does Amy end and Laney begin?

Amy: All the thoughts and fears, the self-loathing, the doubt, the sadness, all of those, I own those completely. The ways in which they manifest in Laney and in me, that’s where things diverge. I’ve been sleeping with the same guy for 25 years…

Liz: So her outwardly self-destruction and addiction.

Amy: Exactly, that’s not me.

Liz: Did Brian (Koppelman, Amy’s screenwriter/director husband) actually help you at all with the transition from page to screen?

Amy: Well, he’s very helpful in the sense that he actually kept me alive and got me better for so long, and yes, of course, he was helpful. He gives great notes. It’s like, what more could you want but a great screenwriter in your house. I mean screenwriting for me is a completely different muscle than novel writing. It uses a completely different skills set and some people can do both with fluidity. For me, it’s counter-intuitive to the way I write, so he was very helpful.

Liz: Do you think it’s easier to “write what you know” or is that more of a challenge?

Amy: I don’t know because for years and years I just wrote without thinking about what I’m writing… I mean I knew that when I was writing I Smile Back I wanted a write a story about a woman and about how everything she did was based on fear, that she was so anxiety ridden about hurting or being hurt by the people she loved that she almost preemptively strikes against them. Because even if everything goes right, even if they don’t leave her, somebody at some point will die and that’s just, you know… I always think that by the time you’re five and you realize that everyone you love is going to one day die, it’s amazing that every five year old doesn’t run into traffic. So, I just write and write until I hit a scene and think, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been trying to write to.” … It’s not that I know the answer to that, I just write from the inside out, I guess.

Liz: Yeah, I don’t think that there’s an definitive answer. Sometimes it’s a hindrance to  know too much or you don’t want to reveal too much. Sometimes it’s cathartic. Every piece it sort of it’s own thing.

Amy: Yeah. I do know that when I write, I don’t hold back anything. I don’t care how I’m judged or what people think of me. It is the most unadulterated part of myself.

Liz: It’s great. It’s very accessible. It’s unapologetic so it’s unfiltered. It’s very relatable.

Amy: Maybe not for everyone?

Liz: But I think in some way, you’ve either known someone who’s like that, or perhaps feared to become that person?

Amy: Yes! That’s what I think it is. You know, when people ask me about redemption, I don’t understand that question because for me, redemption comes for the viewer or the reader, for the person who is experiencing it. I know the reason that I read, or the reason that I watch films is so that.. the thing that moves me the most is when someone is able to articulate a thought or feeling that I’ve had that I haven’t been able to put into words. Sometimes that I didn’t even realize I was having and it makes me feel so much less lonely. I hope that I Smile Back can do that for some people. Make them feel like they can identify themselves in the character or someone they love in the character and either help that person get the help they need, or realize like Josh Charles (who plays Laney’s husband Bruce in the film) ultimately has to, that sometimes, no matter how much you love somebody, you can’t make them better.

Liz: That’s why I loved the ending so much, because it’s honest and real. (SPOILER ALERT- *scroll down if you haven’t yet read or seen the film) It’s real life. Things don’t get wrapped up in a bow.

Amy: We’ve come to expect that somehow and some of the bad reviews have been very angry about the ending, “It just ends in the middle of nowhere!” And I thought, well, I don’t think it ends in the middle of nowhere, it just ends there. It wasn’t some ploy to be cute or something. That’s just where it ended for me. Maybe Laney can get her shit together.

Liz: And who knows? And you let that story just sort of live in the ether and I thought it was awesome.

(SPOILERS ALERT OVER!)

Liz: I  also thought there was an interesting comment on this cultural need to fake it through your day. But also, as a Mom, to sort of lose your “self” to family obligations. Two really big things… especially in the city!

Amy: Yeah. I think as women, at some point, we do feel the need to put people at ease. Not all women, but I do think that is a trait more inherent to women. To kind of make things right, so I think that for Laney, if she can keep her family okay, and keep her kids okay, and keep her demons to herself, then maybe they can all be safe.

Sarah Silverman I Smile Back stillLiz: What was in Sarah’s voice, when you heard her on Howard Stern? Was it a tone or something she said?

Amy: It’s funny, I’ve been tempted to listen to the interview again, because someone told me it was online, and I thought, “I don’t actually think I should listen to it again.” There was just something in the tone of her voice and I can’t explain it except for like it happens a couple times in your life, you have a moment of magic, like when you fall in love, ya know? I just thought she’d understand me. She would understand Laney and what I was trying to explain with Laney. I do believe that as writers, or carpenters, or teachers, or just human beings, we just want to be heard and understood. So, my first inclination was just to get the book to her because I thought, “Oh, she’s gonna understand me and that in and of itself felt like a real victory.” The fact that she got it, and opened it and read it, well that was a real miracle.

Liz: So, Postpartum Depression, in the past couple weeks, has gotten a little more attention than it normally gets. Which I think is important. I have a lot of  friends, who have just given birth and who are also pregnant, and clearly that is a huge fear. You just don’t know if and when it’s going to happen.

Amy: Every woman, to varying degrees has.. it’s very emotional when you have a child. I mean the hormones in your body, the estrogen, there is something called Baby Blues which isn’t Postpartum Depression and so postpartum depression is just like baby blues, that just doesn’t go away, it gets worse. I started writing [ A Mouthful of Air] 20 years ago, it was impossible to get published, and I think every single agent in NYC rejected that book and they all said, “No one wants to read about this.” I remember, I’m so sick, that when Andrea Yates killed her children, I don’t know if you remember that? I remember seeing it on the cover of Newsweek and calling one of  the agents and going, “See?! This is a real thing!.” And she said, “Well this isn’t going to make it any easier for you, it’s going to make it worse.” So, I’m really happy to see that people talk about it more now. When I wrote that book, people say it’s a book on postpartum, I never even knew the words postpartum depression even existed. I just thought it was a variation on the theme of depression. I didn’t know there was this separate world of this kind of depression. I remember after writing the final scene… I remember going online and reading, I don’t even think it  was Google, I think it was Ask Jeeves!… it was the first time I saw the words “postpartum depression” and it was on a very rudimentary site where some mother was writing about how her daughter had killed herself, not the child. Slowly through that book, I met a lot of people who were working really hard to bring awareness. It’s much better that people know to look out for it. People know with their friends, they can spot it. They know the difference between when the person is having emotional stuff happen because they have just had a baby versus, “Oh, that’s something different.” And they need an different level of help. A Mouthful of Air is actually out of print now but you can get it for free on my website. (www.AmyKoppelman.com) You can print it out at home or you can get it as an eBook. I might as well have it there, because the most rewarding thing for me, even though I don’t sell a lot of books, is when I get letters from psychiatrists or from people who say, “I gave this to my patient’s husband, so that they could understand what’s going on with their wife.” Or, “I gave this to my patient’s mother so they could help get their child to take medication.”

Liz: I think that’s so generous of you.

Before they steal you, HESITATION WOUNDS! (Amy’s new novel) I think it’s  so interesting that you’re coming from a psychiatrist’s point of view in this respect. I think that’s a really interesting way to tackle the subject of depression.

Amy: I think that one of the things that Susa Seliger says, (The main character in the novel) she says that even though she knows so much about the human mind, it doesn’t really help her in terms of being a human being. It doesn’t make it easier for her to deal with regret and fear and mourning and anger. The guilt for having survived. And, I hope you like it!

hesitation wounds coverHESITATION WOUNDS Synopsis:
The new novel by the author of I Smile Back, now a film starring Sarah Silverman.The acclaimed author of I Smile Back, Amy Koppelman is a novelist of astonishing power, with a sly, dark voice, at once fearless and poetic. In her breathtaking new novel, Dr. Susanna Seliger is a renowned psychiatrist with a specialty in treatment-resistant depression. The most difficult cases come through her door, and Susa will happily discuss medication or symptom management but draws the line at messy feeling. Her mantra and most fervent anti-prayer, and the undeniable fact of her past is that the people who love you leave.But the past is made present by one patient, Jim, whose struggles  tear open Susa’s hastily stitched up wounds, and she’s once again haunted by the feeling she could have saved those she’s lost, including her adored, cool, talented graffiti-artist brother. Spectacularly original, gorgeously unsettling, Hesitation Wounds is a wondrous novel that will sink deep and remain—powerfully, transformingly, like a persistent scar or a dangerous glow-in-the-dark memory.
i smile back posterI SMILE BACK  is in theaters now and will be On Demand this Friday, November 6th.

Hesitation Wounds comes to shelves tomorrow, November 3rd!

About Liz Whittemore

Liz grew up in northern Connecticut and was memorizing movie dialogue from Shirley Temple to A Nightmare on Elm Street at a very early age. She will watch just about any film all the way through (no matter how bad) just to prove a point. A loyal New Englander, a lover of Hollywood, and true inhabitant of The Big Apple.