Interview By Lara Lillibridge
Amy Fish is the Chief Complaints Officer, or Ombudsperson, at Concordia University, a college of over 50,000 students in Montreal. She’s a frequent public speaker on complaining and has addressed groups ranging from surgeons to graduate program directors; students to caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s.
Her book, I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need, combines personal narratives with practical advice on how to solve your problems, stand up for yourself, and advocate for those who come in line behind you.
Amy and I met at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in 2016. She is my personal go-to person for how to deal with sticky situations as well as how to fix my awkward sentences. I was an early reader of I Wanted Fries with That and I closed the book feeling both empowered and entertained. It truly reshaped my view of complaining from something I dreaded to a way I can advocate for both myself and others. Amy and I sat down via Skype and chatted about her book, her childhood, and her advice for emerging writers.
LL: You write a lot about your Jewish identity. Jewish mothers are often portrayed as the heart of the family, but in my family at least, there is a prevalent stereotype about them as passive-aggressive martyrs. Your book is really in opposition to that, and it made me really curious about your mother and what your family was like. Were you raised to have a strong voice, or did you just came as you came and there wasn’t going to be anyone stopping you?
AF: I have two answers to those questions that are contradictory. On the one hand, my parents professionally were very strong advocates. My father was a criminal defense attorney, and then he became a supreme court justice. He actually wrote the judgment for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada. So my dad is all about equal rights. He’s all about the rights of the accused. He’s widely known as someone balanced and fair, and also someone who — if someone is accused of a crime, that their rights are protected. That’s what he’s known for.
My mother taught emotionally disturbed children in a hospital setting. When you read a story about these kids who were locked in a closet for eight years and then we rescued them, my mom was the teacher who taught those children how to read. She worked in an outpatient department of a psyche unit that specialized in treating those kind of children who were rescued from really troubled homes. She wasn’t responsible for nurturing them, she was responsible for 3+4. Together that was an atmosphere of advocating for the underdog—always looking for fairness, and trying to have some karmic balance in the world. That’s the first answer. But were my parents the type to send back food in a restaurant? Absolutely not. They were definitely the types to say, ’Amy, settle down.’
My Dad has a picket sign that I made when I was about six years old when I marched for a later bedtime. I would be the one [in elementary school] who’d say how come we’re not learning about girls and girl writers and where are the women? I was a little girl and I already knew that it wasn’t fair and that I had to make it fair.
LL: So you were a force to be reckoned with, but you also had some inspiring guidance, had some interesting conversations around the dinner table.
AF: Exactly. The two answers sort of contradict but all our upbringings have some degree of contradiction in them.
LL: And what was the resolution of the protest for a later bedtime?
AF: I got it!
LL: That’s amazing, and it sounds like a really interesting upbringing with a lot of deeper conversations. Speaking of family and friends, how have people responded? Like, I’ve had people say to me, ‘don’t put this in your blog.’ Have you had people afraid to talk to you because it might end up in print or online somewhere?
AF: Yes, but I have it both ways. People come in and say, ‘I have a great blog story for you,’ and people also call me and say, ‘don’t put this in your blog.’ I fully disguise people—that’s the creative part of my creative nonfiction—and I disguise places, I move things around. Unless you know the story, it’s pretty hard to figure out who’s who. As an example, you talked about my Jewish faith, and I write about my Jewish faith a lot in this book. But some of these stories that happened Jewishishly I un-Jewished them, because I thought it was getting to be too much. So I’ll give you an example: there’s a story in the book about a Sunday night meatball dinner, and it was actually a Friday night Shabbat dinner, but I converted the whole family and gave them a meatball and sauce dinner so that it wouldn’t be another Jewish story at another Jewish dinner. So I give very big disguises.
LL: You mentioned people coming to you with blog ideas. I am always asking you for advice as well. Do you ever get compassion fatigue?
AF: Oh, Lara, that’s funny! No! I never want to be left alone. I don’t have compassion fatigue. I’m used to always giving advice. I was the one on the schoolyard that people would come to at recess, and they’d play a game called Dear Diary, when they’d tell me their problems and I’d dispense advice. In history class, I read about the Delphic Oracle who sat on a throne all day and people came to her and asked advice, and I thought, ‘that would be a good job for me when I grow up.’ Everyone has a super power—you know in that movie, when Molly Ringwald puts the lipstick in her bra and puts her lipstick on? My lipstick in my bra is advice giving.
LL: Let’s talk about your writing path. We met at HippoCamp, and apparently, you’re one of the original attendees. In fact, you mention HippoCamp in the acknowledgments of I Wanted Fries with That. How did you hear about the conference?
AF: I was googling conferences that were drivable. I actually didn’t realize how far away it was going to be. It takes me about nine hours to drive there from Montreal, but I didn’t realize that. So I was Googling and I found it. I’d never heard of Hippocampus Magazine, I didn’t know it was the first conference. I pulled up at the Lancaster Marriott, with no preconceived notions. I took a writing workshop with Sarah Einstein who is a writer I really, truly admire. I devour everything she writes. I didn’t know who she was—I knew none of the names. I took pages and pages and pages of notes.
LL: And ever since then you’ve been coming back.
AF: That’s right.
LL: Your writing is a little different than a lot of traditional memoir/essay. I wondered if you had any thoughts on how can we make Creative Nonfiction spaces more inclusive to a broader spectrum of creative nonfiction writers? Do you ever feel that your writing doesn’t fit because you’re not writing a traditional memoir? Or do you find that you can go to any workshop and get something out of it?
AF: In my case, it’s more of an ignorance is bliss type of thing. I didn’t know what not to do. That’s my trope. I didn’t know creative nonfiction meant memoir. I thought that I was going to come to HippoCamp and it was going to be like, ‘Travel Writing at 1:00. Sports Writing at 2:00. Food Writing at 3:00.’ It is more like that now, but the first year or two it was more memoir based, and I didn’t understand that that was what I was walking into. I always felt comfortable because I didn’t know not to. And I always forget that I might not be accepted. I always think, well I want to be here, and I want you to be here, and I can be a little bit Pollyanna.
LL: That’s funny, because that was one of the things I was thinking about as I was rereading through your book earlier—that you are one of the most positive people I know.
AF: I know, it’s terrible!
LL: I’ve never heard you bitch about something. I wonder if part of it is because you do use your voice actively, so you don’t have to passive-aggressively grumble in the back row?
AF: There could be, but I really believe that sleep contributes to mood. I have good sleep hygiene—I sleep very well and take naps on the weekend, so I have energy to work hard and be in a good mood all week.
LL: I love naps, so I like that. For emerging writers, I wanted to talk to you about how your book took form. How much did your agent or editor shape your book, and how did you feel about it?
AF: I am incredibly open to feedback. I was very open—I wanted my book published. Unless it was something I felt very strongly about, I accepted every single change. I would tell emerging writers, if you that if want your book published you want to be open-minded. I’d think very seriously about picking your battles.
As an example, one improvement that the copyeditor, whom I love, made to my book was that they added a lot of italics. I have a tendency to talk to myself on the page, and if you’re used to reading my blog it’s less confusing, but if you’re coming in new—why am I talking to myself all the time? And they italicized it and it’s much smoother. I had to be open to that, because it’s a drastic change to my style.
LL: Have you had any surprising take-aways from the publishing process that you didn’t expect?
AF: Yes. I knew that I wanted to traditionally publish this book, because I found the distribution of a self-published book too stressful. So I had it in my head that I wanted a traditional publisher, which I found, and who I’m super happy with. I love them and I can’t say anything better about them. What I didn’t completely understand is the concept of how when you sell your book, you don’t own it anymore. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to own it anymore, I didn’t really understand the nuances. So for an example, the book launch is not determined by me. I’m not setting the location. I’m not setting the menu. All these decisions are being made not by me. And I didn’t totally understand that all those things, including the placement of essays, are a machine that has taken off without me at the center. I’m not driving the ship. I think you have to go through that to completely understand that. From speaking to people it seems that there’s a difference between different publishers and agents, but in my case, my publisher is very hands-on and I’m so grateful. I just didn’t know how that would look and feel. Now that I know, it’s 100% something I would do again. This is a good fit for me and my lifestyle, but I didn’t get it.
LL: For sure. Writing, and personal writing, you have ownership over and this is your life, your book baby, and suddenly it’s out of your hands. Like for me, I don’t have any control over if they do an Audible of my book, or if they did, who the narrator would be.
AF: I didn’t even get to audition for my Audible. And it was supposed to come out in April but it’s been going along buzzily so it’s going to come out the same as my release day.
LL: I look forward to listening!
I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need was released October 1, 2019 in the United States and October 19, 2019 in Canada with New World Library. Learn more about Amy Fish and take the test to find out if you’re a good complainer at AmyFishWrites.com.