Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Cut-Short Life of a Writer: Remembering Amanda Davis and her novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about death.

With my wife gone to Savannah, Georgia for five weeks to take care of some business, I've been alone in my home.  And when you're by yourself in a 100-year-old house, snow rattling the windows, two cats your only company, you tend to dwell on worst-case scenarios: drawing a bath, stepping in, slipping on the slick of bubble bath, hitting your head, and drowning in five inches of water; or taking a too-big bite of thick-crust pizza and choking to death, your cell phone in a distant room and your cats looking on with wide eyes, thoroughly useless when it comes to the Heimlich maneuver; or descending the narrow staircase to the basement, a plate of cheese in one hand, a wine glass in the other, and getting tangled in the cats swirling around your feet, tripping, the wine glass breaking, and you falling in just the wrong way so the jagged stem of the glass slices open your jugular and you bleed out right there on your own staircase.

That sort of thing.

But I've also been thinking about death because every night for the past five weeks, I've climbed on the stationary bike in our basement and pedaled for forty-five minutes until I've gone about eight miles.  The bike is next to one of my bookcases--it's surrounded, in fact, by my entire book collection--and is right at the D section of my library.  As I pedal, I look at the spines of my books and my eyes fall on the two volumes by Amanda Davis.  Even though it's been nearly nine years since it happened, I feel my chest constrict and the muscles of my throat squeeze and I think once again about the cruelties life hands us, the mean joke of the grim reaper's scythe chopping down a happy life which is just on the verge of getting happier. I think about fate and unpredictability and the agonizing "what ifs" of a future that never was.  I think about rooms bathed in sunlight until suddenly a heavy door slams and everything is plunged to pitch black.  These are the thoughts which cycle through my head as I stare at the slim spines of Amanda Davis' two books.

I didn't know Amanda, but I felt close to her in a way that the wires of the Internet can falsely bind us to strangers who may or may not give a rat's ass about our existence.  I liked to think that Amanda knew who I was (though she probably didn't) because, even as a fleshless citizen of cyberspace, I was drawn to her warmth, her wit, and her charm when she posted to the online forum at Readerville.  Sadly, the site--like Amanda--is gone now, but in its heyday it was a vibrant community of readers and writers who came to chat about everything ranging from The Hardy Boys to Proust.  It was a place where bookworms could connect with writers who frequently joined the conversation--authors like Katharine Weber, M. J. Rose, Caroline Leavitt, Peter CashwellEllen Sussman, and Amanda Davis.  She was a recent addition to the community, but I remember that whatever she said in the forum chats was bright and selfless and wise-cracking.  She was the flame, we were the moths.  We Readervillagers were happy for Amanda because her second book, a novel called Wonder When You'll Miss Me, was about to be released by William Morrow.   She'd worked as an editorial assistant at Esquire, published a short-story collection to critical acclaim in 1999, and had just been awarded a teaching fellowship at Mill’s College in Oakland, California.  Things were looking good.

From the sidelines, we watched Amanda make preparations to go out on a tour to promote the book.  For part of it, her father would be flying her in his Cessna from town to town.  Amanda was busy, but she still made time to stop by Readerville and promised to post dispatches from the bookstores along the way.

Some of Amanda's comments are archived at the now-defunct Readerville.  Here are just two:
      Feb 2, 2003
I once did a reading where the audience was my godparents, the organizer, and this one little old lady at the front.  I thought, OK, fine, I’m going to read just for this lady.  Well in the middle of it, she stood up and asked me to keep it down, she was trying to read.  Sigh.
      Feb 4, 2003
This is more nerve-wracking than I had imagined.  I mean, until last week, no one but my mother, editor and agent had read the book!

And then one day, we woke up, logged on to Readerville, and were crumpled by the news she was gone.

On the afternoon of Friday, March 14, the plane carrying Amanda and her parents crashed into a mountain in North Carolina. There were no survivors.

How could this be?  Amanda was 32 years old, she was just coming into her own, the literary world was about to be split open by her talent.  Why her?  Why now?

We could do nothing but turn to the legacy she had left us: the new book which most of us hadn't yet had a chance to read.  Its title, of course, was now unbearable, the irony thick on our tongues when we said it aloud.  Wonder When You'll Miss Me.

It became even worse when we actually read the book.  Here was the cruelest joke of them all: the novel was damned good--so good, we started to weep for the unwritten stories which were still housed in Amanda's imagination when she met her end on the side of that mountain.

Friends of Amanda--actual friends, not people who knew her only by intangible handshakes across the Internet--brilliantly eulogized her at a special webpage set up at McSweeney's.  She was, Heidi Julavits wrote, "one of the funniest, most self-effacing, chutzpah-charged, and big-hearted human beings anyone could ever hope to encounter.  To meet her was always an historical event, one you would remember for the rest of your life."

So where is all this going, all this rambling about mortality and young writers and scythes?  I don't know.  These are just some of the things I've been thinking about lately, alone in this winter-chilled house, biking eight miles while going nowhere beyond the D shelf of my library, mulling over the death of near-strangers.  I'm trying to not be morbid or maudlin here.  I'd really rather celebrate Amanda Davis and her writing, so I'll leave you with a review of Wonder When You'll Miss Me which I wrote for January Magazine a month after the plane crash.

One last thing before I go: It was only after her death that I realized Amanda and I had had another connection.  I was going through some of my files when I came across a letter from Esquire discussing some editorial suggestions for "Providence," a short story of mine the magazine had accepted for publication in 1998.  The tone of the one-page letter from an editorial assistant was upbeat and encouraging with some kind things to say about my writing.  The signature at the bottom of the letter was Amanda's.

Faith Among the Elephant Dung

How can a story that begins with the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl end on such an upbeat note 250 pages later with that same girl standing in a circus tent dreaming of spiritual liberation as a trapeze artist? How can a novel go from grim to grand in a brief, whispery page-turn?

If you're a novelist named Amanda Davis, the answer is something like a trapeze act itself: deceptively simple from the audience's point of view, but high up near the big-top roof, the flip-fall-catch is one of muscle, grace and, above all, timing.

In her novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis, like a trapeze gymnast, knows how to dazzle her audience with a literary act that disobeys the rules of gravity and leaves us, heart in throat, wishing it would never end.

Unfortunately, the novel does and, sadder yet, so did the short happy life of Ms. Davis. On March 14, Amanda died when the small plane her father was piloting during a promotional tour for the novel crashed into a North Carolina mountain. A sad story, but for those of us who didn't know her personally, it is just one more obituary on a page already filled with good, decent people who have gone to the hereafter. Just another obit, that is, until you read Wonder When You'll Miss Me or Davis' collection of short stories, Circling the Drain. Then the loss can be a profound, smothering weight. Nothing else will spring fresh from Amanda Davis' imagination; we're left with just two thin volumes of words.

It's both joy and agony that those words are so good, so dead-on target as Davis describes the pain of lonely adolescent life. If there's any comfort to be had in news of the author's cut-short life, it's that Wonder When You'll Miss Me is the kind of novel that will endure. Even though it's marketed as adult fiction, this is really the kind of story to be read by teens -- males and females alike -- going through that horrible, bumpy transition into adulthood.

Faith Duckle, the overweight girl who's assaulted under the bleachers during her school's Homecoming game, is a kind of Everyteen -- we've all had bits of Faith's loneliness and optimism-against-all-odds at one point in our lives. Davis hones in on Faith's troubled psyche so quickly and accurately that we immediately embrace the girl as an intimate friend. Faith is the kind of character who steps off the page in the first paragraph.

After the attack by the group of boys, described in stark but subtle terms (I stared at buckles and pockets. He pinched my nose so my mouth fell open. Then the terrible sound of zippers…), Faith tries to commit suicide, ends up in a mental hospital, and sheds 48 pounds before her release. She returns to school as a renewed Faith, but she is dogged by the presence of her former self, which manifests itself as Fat Girl.

While constantly stuffing her face with junk food, Fat Girl is a menacing, nagging ghost who dispenses advice like: "There are all kinds of anger. Some kinds are just more useful than others." She dogs Faith's shadow, insisting that the teen might be able to shed pounds, but she'll never lose the person she was. There were days when she was a comfort and days when she was a nightmare, Faith says. Eventually, she becomes more of a nightmare after she convinces Faith to revenge the rape.

The "character" of Fat Girl is a marvelous stroke on Davis' part because, honestly, we can never fully leave our selves back in teenhood. We may move on, but something always clings. Wonder When You'll Miss Me is all about the process of un-clinging the bad debris while coming to terms with the bits that can't be shaken loose.

In Faith's case, this means running away to join the circus (something Davis herself did for several months). She renames herself Annabelle and is taken on by the Fartlesworth Circus as it tours the Eastern seaboard. She begins by picking up trash around the midway, then works her way up to assisting with costumes, grooming the elephants and, eventually, practicing with the trapeze artists. Along the way, we watch as she grows from frightened, easily-manipulated girl to a self-confident, brave fighter willing to somersault through life without a net.

Part of Wonder When You'll Miss Me's appeal is Davis' no-nonsense style which makes Faith such an accessible character. But it's also filled with an array of details about circus life which place us effortlessly inside that bizarre culture, turning even a description of an elephant performance into an authentic glimpse of the big top:
It was loud inside. We stopped at the edge of the ring. In one graceful move, Olivia bent her head, Jim stepped up on her trunk, and she lifted him into the air, then began to walk again and Bluebell followed. I let go of her harness and stayed at the edge of the ring and did my best to smile, but I felt the heat of the lights and the people all around us, looking, their eyes like tiny hot bullets thumping me from all sides. I couldn't focus on anything, not even what Jim was doing. The sawdust made me want to sneeze, and trying not to made my eyes water. There was a strange soupiness to it all. My heart hammered away and everything sparkled. The band played tinny music so loud it seemed to echo in and out of every crevice, bouncing wildly around the enormous tent. I grinned until my jaw ached.

Just as the circus transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into small parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung:
I liked this feeling of lightness. It was what I imagined the world felt like from up on the trapeze, what Mina the Ballerina must know. It was what I imagined it felt like to fall when you saw the outstretched hands before you and knew you would come out of a spin and be caught. It was this lightness, this emptiness, this trust that you weren't about to plummet to an unforgiving surface, powered by the weight of yourself. No. You would spin and be caught, you would flip and fall and catch, and you would swing back to a platform at the end, arms in the air, high above the crowd, proud of your victory over what hadn't happened.

There are times when the novel feels like scattered bits and pieces, as if it had been written in fits and starts -- something akin to a teenager's diary. But when you reach the final page, when you come to the epiphanic moments of the book, those disjointed passages coalesce beautifully, even transcendentally.

At one low point, Faith frets, I didn't matter. I saw that. I didn't matter at all.  But, in truth, she does matter -- she matters a great deal, especially to any young people reading Wonder When You'll Miss Me and thinking they are the only lonely teenagers on the planet. More important, Amanda Davis matters; and her words -- the only things most of us will ever know her by -- matter the most.

In the final pages, Faith confides, I wanted to believe that I was not so easily replaced.

She's not, and neither is Amanda Davis.


  1. Oh David. I remember Amanda, and I remember when this happened, and how the dispatches came out over Readerville. So tragic. And thanks for writing such an eloquent, beautiful piece.

  2. What a wonderful tribute...off to purchase the book now.

  3. Out of all the books I learned about through Readerville, Amanda's was one of the very best... and the most heartbreaking.

  4. Powerful and poignant piece of writing. I too will go buy this book.

  5. Such a good piece...thank you. I met Amanada at Bread Loaf. She was such a memorable force. I'm so happy that I have a signed copy of Circling the Drain.