Q&A with Author Amy Shea!
Q. The essays in your new book reveal a middle-aged woman who confronts issues such as aging, dating, and rebelling. How do life’s events shape your writing?
A. My life shaped my thinking, which in turn shaped what I decided to write about. Facing difficult circumstances early on, I felt at first only a general survival sense, a “go the other way” feeling to the concrete things like where I lived, the lack of money, the danger, etc. I didn’t know what it was I wanted but I knew what I didn’t want. But I did understand, though very young, a responsibility about the whole thing, that it was all on me to change it. I saw happiness as a very active pursuit, though it did take some maturity to come understand the difference between pleasure and happiness. So, as a writer, I always have the choice to write as a victim—”let me tell you how horrible this has been” sort of thing—which would be a betrayal, as that is not how I approach life, or I can write from my true nature, as someone who faces what is, and chooses to write about that experience.
Q. You also write of overcoming a number of challenges, losses and setbacks. How do you find the fighting spirit to handle what comes your way?
A. I would not use the word “overcoming.” I didn’t overcome cancer. I had it; it happened. And that’s true of anything I write about. That’s the point, really, that life isn’t something to be overcome. It’s something to be responded to in the way you wish to respond, and not fighting it because it hasn’t met your ideal. I couldn’t change that I had cancer. I could, however, decide that I would do my best to keep dancing—which I have done all my life—and not waste time wishing that dancing was less of an effort, the way it had been before radiation therapy. Dancing makes me happy, so I defended that and kept doing it. I didn’t stop because it didn’t look the way it once did during that time.
Q. One of the tragedies to befall you was the loss of your brother, who was murdered by your cousin. How did you come to terms with this shocking loss?
A. One of the things that happens when a young handsome man is murdered in a “tabloid-like” way by his lover, who was also my cousin, is that there are no rules for how to behave. And that turned out to be a valuable experience, because I was able to experience that kind of divine release from custom and convention, as Socrates has put it. And that felt right—to act oddly under such odd circumstances, instead of trying to pack life back into its previous shape. What surprised me, however, was that it stayed with me. I never quite snapped all the way back into a conventional way of responding to life after that—and that has kept my brother with me all these years. He was dramatic and very beautiful, and liked to be a little shocking. So, him leaving me with this lack of conventionality is a sweet reminder of him that allows me to feel as if I’m carrying on for him, in a way. Not as a kind of mimicry, but as a gift he left behind for me. I’d still rather have him here, but that is not what is.
Q. A survivor of breast cancer, you know that life is precious. What bits of wisdom can you share with us after having confronted the end of life?
A. That you are going to die. That’s it, really. Cancer helped me to stop thinking about happiness as THE BIG THING. A lot of us have one of those: when I retire, I’m going to FILL IN THE BLANK. I wanted very much to write this book, it was a big thing in my life, but my happiness is hardly limited to this book. It’s the dozens of choices I make in a day, from taking time to eat something lovely instead of just having toast because it’s easy, or walking in the rain because I love doing that even though it’s messy. Whatever it is, defend it from any belief that it doesn’t matter. It’s what your life feels like to you, and that matters.
Q. You sound fiercely independent. Marriage just didn’t agree with you but you love to date. Is marriage an unrealistic institution today?
A. No, not at all. I’m just not temperamentally suited for it, at least not traditional marriage, but I have dear friends who have great marriages. From what I can tell, they are based on friendship and cutting each other a wide swath to be themselves. I do think marriage should always be a custom-made suit, however. I think many couples approach it following a parental paradigm or something they’ve already seen, often without even realizing it, when what they want in both their hearts is to create the kind of structure that suits them both as unique individuals. I often think that I might have been able to be married if I could have found a man who saw the value in us having separate houses, and checking accounts.
Q. One of themes presenting your writing is the advancement of women and how your generation broke through some significant barriers. Where do we stand as a society, in terms of the roles we see men and women occupy?
A. Gender relations are always going to involve a healthy dose of détente, because men and women are really wired differently. But, the social empowerment of women has colored even the most traditional aspects of relationships, like having children and marriage. I see it in young women all the time. There’s a sense of value that women feel now that I don’t think existed at this level when I was young, and that changes the entire dynamic, in a good way, even if it’s difficult at times. Women expect friendship from their husbands—something my mother’s generation would have never even thought about. That makes me feel very optimistic.
Q. You rage against aging. Are you winning the battle?
A. I’ve won the battle against raging, but not aging. Aging is shocking when you first start seeing changes, which I talk about in the book. And I felt angry and set up by it. But that was another opportunity to really question what I was associating aging with. It felt like one big ending, and that turned out not to be true at all. Yes, of course, there are things that are different, and even ended. But, as an independent woman with a killer wardrobe, well, I have to tell you, I’m having a great time. Aging
was another opportunity to defend my happiness from a myth that life was winding down when, in fact, this is a whole second adolescence, but without the acne.
Q. You grew up as one of seven in abject poverty. Did you buck the odds just by growing without getting shot or pregnant as a teen?
A. I was more afraid of getting pregnant than shot, actually. We were raised Catholic, and being an “unwed mother” meant a ticket straight to hell, whereas if you were shot and had recently been to confession, you could end up with your own cloud. I think one can grow up in poverty, and that’s one thing, but being poor and unsafe is something else entirely. Growing up in a housing project was incredibly dangerous. It was only as an adult that I fully realized how much the idea of safety motivated some of my early decisions. But there is also an amazing spirit in the people who come from there, some of whom have come forward to buy my book, feeling very happy that we made it out. Some of us didn’t.
Q. What advice would you give to young women today?
A. Find your bliss, and be prepared to defend it, because resistance and distortions are a part of life. And those things come from both outside and inside of you. And keep your sense of humor. Wit is often the quickest way to the truth. And a man without a sense of humor will be intolerable to live with, so figure that out early on in the dating process.
Q. What inspired you to write your book and where does the title, Defending Happiness and Other Acts of Bravery, come from?
A. I’ve written all my life. My first short story was published when I was a teenager, and I have published a lot of poetry over the years, which I still love to write. But I began to feel very interested in talking about life in a direct way, and just began one weekend writing the first story, the one on motherhood. Then I wrote another and another, realizing very soon that I was writing a set of stories linked by the philosophy that it took bravery to be happy. I don’t think of happiness as a soft thing. When I picture happiness it’s always wearing a black motorcycle jacket. I mean, just watch kids. What happens when someone takes their happiness away? It isn’t pretty. I can identify with that, though I’ve learned not to bite and kick.
Q. Is life ever as you expect it or hope it to be?
A. No. It’s far more wonderful and frightening than that. I think it’s harder than we expect, and more rewarding than we ever imagined. It seems to me that the collective human experience of life not ever matching up with an ideal should be encouragement enough to throw out the whole concept of applying ideals to people’s lives once and for all. Using an ideal to make a toaster is one thing; to try to make a life, that’s ludicrous. Find your unique bliss in all the moments of your day, and defend doing it. That’s work enough for any of us.
About Amy: AMY SHEA is the Executive Vice President of Brand Development for Brand Keys, Inc. in Manhattan and is the founder and president of Amy Shea Consultancy, Inc., a brand research consulting firm. Her clients include Microsoft, Delta Dental, and the US Army. Her work has been recognized by the David Ogilvy Excellence Award in Research, with both a Grand Ogilvy and First in Category for her global work with IBM. In 2008 she was recognized by the Advertising Research Foundation with a Great Minds Award in innovation. A graduate of the University of Georgia’s Marketing Research Program, Amy’s academic background also includes an undergraduate degree in creative writing, earned with the University of New Hampshire, with joint studies at Harvard University. She also co-authored a business book, The Certainty Principle.
Her writing career began as a teenager when her first short story was featured in a national magazine at the age of 13. She has continued to write throughout her life, publishing poetry in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Amy is the recipient of the prestigious Dylan Thomas Poetry Fellowship in Paris, sponsored by the Paris Review. She was also invited for a coveted residency at the artist’s retreat, the MacDowel Colony, and was awarded a Wesleyan University poetry fellowship.
She blogs often, including posts on Salon. She has been interviewed, in connection with her branding company, by the New York Times, Media Post, Daily Beast, and numerous business publications.
Amy resides in Hoboken, New Jersey. For more information, please consult www.DefendingHappiness.com