For someone who wrote her debut novel about a woman’s escape to the mountains, Amanda Goldblatt, who now lives in Chicago and teaches at Northeastern, hasn’t spent all that much time in the wilderness. She recalls the not-quite camping of her Girl Scout days in Maryland, back when she willfully believed in ghost stories. She also remembers snowmobiling in the backwoods of Maine while working on a documentary project, “a strange and wonderful and innocent time” of exploring taxidermy trophy rooms and seeing shooting stars.
Perhaps that’s why she never discloses the location of the mountain cabin in Hard Mouth, out next week. It’s a collage of her multiregional experiences in mid-Atlantic parks, New England woods, and midwestern wilds. For her purposes, all that really matters is that the cabin is remote enough that the protagonist, Denny, can’t run back to the life she left behind.
Hard Mouth follows Denny, once a lab tech in the D.C. suburbs, as she deals with grief by seeking complete emotional detachment. After receiving the news that her father is forgoing treatment for his terminal cancer, Denny quietly leaves her job and parents for the mountains.
Though Goldblatt, 36, has never personally sought refuge in the wilderness, she knows what it’s like to cope with the realization of a loved one’s mortality. Her own father was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. Seeking an outlet for her insurmountable fear and dread, she found solace in writing.
“Ultimately, that abject fear over the thought of maybe losing my father, and also all of the keen awareness that comes with that kind of fear, the awareness of mortality in everyone and in yourself, was enough to drive the novel into its first few years,” Goldblatt says.
Fortunately, her father recovered and has been in remission ever since. But Goldblatt’s writing process was bookended by loss: both of her grandmothers died in the same year as she was finishing her manuscript. The experience, she says, provided a sense of clarity and brought a resolution to the novel.
“In retrospect, I now wonder how someone starts or finishes a novel without something that feels that cataclysmic in their life,” Goldblatt says. “Certainly, people do it every day. But I don’t understand it.”
Hard Mouth is an adventure novel, so taking away Denny’s sense of stability was important, Goldblatt says. She notes that Denny has a “weird amount of safety” in her cabin: running water and meal replacement bars, not to mention a roof over her head. But a stray cat and an unlikely interloper pose unexpected threats to her self-inflicted solitude, effectively destabilizing her life in the mountains.
Although the author had never aspired to create a “page-turner,” Jennifer Alton, Goldblatt’s editor at Counterpoint Press, says that Hard Mouth was a manuscript that kept her up at night. Not only was she drawn into the compelling plot, but she also noted that Goldblatt blended the adventure story with “purposeful and performative” prose.
“Her language is something that really struck me from the beginning,” Alton says. “It’s really precise, and you can tell that you’re in the hands of a master, someone who is able to tell a story that’s working on multiple levels.”
Goldblatt is relentless about line-level language. Early in the writing process, she would write blind—typing on a wireless keyboard connected to her phone—because she knew she wouldn’t make much progress if she could see the words on a screen. A proponent of subtraction, she found it satisfying to whittle down her prose later to get to the core of her work.
In crafting a first-person narrative, Goldblatt paid close attention to Denny’s diction. Her narration comes across as matter-of-fact, detached, and perhaps even sociopathic at times. But the last is unintentional; Goldblatt describes her protagonist as more honest than most people. As she says in the opening lines of the book, “In this story, I do not mean to hide myself. Rather I want to be obvious. I want you to see, at least, me.”
“Our understanding of how people think and how people feel about things in life is limited by their performances and the representations and narratives that we consume,” Goldblatt says. “So when a character is perhaps more fully forthcoming, or performing that forthcomingness, it can seem like an aberration when really it just reflects more fully the human thinking experience.”
Creating a perspective outside of oneself requires empathy, Goldblatt says. She explores this idea in a vignette from Denny’s childhood where her father challenges her to imagine she is someone else. At first, she pretends to play along, but eventually she convinces herself that the thought experiment really worked—for a few hours, she becomes someone else. In Hard Mouth, Goldblatt invites readers to exercise their own empathy, following Denny to the mountains to understand her grief. v