Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Amy Butcher about Mothertrucker, wherein the author recounts her brief adventure on Alaska’s perilous Dalton Highway with the country’s only female ice road trucker and the far-reaching revelations brought by their meeting.
In your epigraph, you include a quote from Rebecca Solnit about how women are told they’re not reliable witnesses to their own lives? How does that quote inspire you? How does it inspire Mothertrucker?
Prior to writing this book, I was cognizant of the ways contributions by women—and especially women of color—are minimized or altogether absent from our cultural narrative, but it wasn’t until I began writing and exploring my own experience in an abusive relationship that I began to recognize how frequently this happens even within the realm of our personal lives and experiences. For many months both while in my relationship with my partner and immediately proceeding it, I dismissed and downplayed the mistreatment and abuse I had experienced because it didn’t fit the prominent depiction of domestic abuse—namely, my partner used his body more than once to physically intimidate me into positions of submission (into corners, onto the floor) or to invoke incredible fear (to the point of tremors) for my safety and wellbeing, but because he never outright struck me, his behavior seemed permissible, perhaps even standard, despite the outrageous fear I had for my own life. As I continued to draft and then attempt to sell the manuscript, I encountered dismissal—generally from men, but occasionally from women—who seemed to feel as though my partner’s behavior wasn’t sufficiently egregious to warrant the space and writing I gave it. And more recently, as I published stand-alone works in anticipation of the book’s release, still others questioned sentences in which I articulated the ways in which I felt his behavior could erupt at any moment into violence, wondering out loud and often to me if perhaps I was just imagining it. It’s devastating. Their doubt—a cultural doubt, because we so often think about domestic violence as a hierarchy in which only certain definitions and actions strike us as inappropriate and therefore warranting of worry—caused me, at times, to doubt myself, and this was exactly the sort of thinking that had kept me, in part, in that relationship for over three years: an insistence that it was all in my head, or that I was blowing things out of proportion. Joy, too, struggled with this for much of her life, stating outright that our culture expects us to endure volatile men—for the preservation of families, of marriages, and of cultural norms—to the point of damage. It felt important to ground my book in this thinking, both as a reminder to the reader and to myself that women are, in fact, reliable witnesses to what the experience and to the world, and any suggestion that we are not reveals immediately self-interest.
You found Joy “@alaskamothertrucker” Wiebe while scrolling Instagram. Joy, capital J, but maybe you were looking for a little lower-case joy, too? Or was it all eluding you? What were you looking for at that time in your life? What was your relationship to Instagram then? How about now?
It’s no surprise to say that in those days—winter and spring of 2018—I was looking to Instagram as both an escape mechanism and as a numbing agent to deflect what I was experiencing in my personal life. We didn’t yet have the cultural language of ‘doom scrolling,’ but it’s precisely what I was engaging with: dropping off into a world that was altogether different than the one I was living. I was smart enough to know that Instagram, like any social media platform, was and is performative, but something about Joy’s feed struck me as earnest and authentic, and it made me want to know for sure, to say nothing of my desire to be a part of it, if only momentarily. Frankly, too, Joy’s world seemed fun. It seemed adventurous and breathtaking and beautiful, and I knew I wanted to write a book that largely focused on someone else, that provided an immersive experience for both writer and reader. I didn’t yet know my story would play any role whatsoever in the book, but Joy alone seemed like a story worth telling. These days, I find myself in a love-hate relationship with social media, like most people, I suspect. It’s a remarkably useful and efficient tool, both for sharing things that inspire me and for the business that is inevitably marketing my work, but it also feels, at time, like an outrageous waste of time and leads so many of us to detach from our daily present in a way I’m now, thankfully, a lot more suspicious of.
What makes Mothertrucker the right book for right now?
I’m deeply proud of this book, and it is the product of years of thinking and writing and living. But I also believe this book is engaging in such a vital conversation about the reality and dimensionality of intimate partner violence and the myriad ways in which abuse manifests. Which is to say: not all abuse is physical, and not all physical abuse leaves bruises. And no abuse is permissible, is acceptable, is healthy. For years, I kept the realities of my relationship secret, at times it seems even to myself, because I did not believe what I was experiencing was severe enough to warrant concern or cause prolonged harm to my person. It was, and it’s devastating. As an educator who works primarily with young people, and especially young women and non-binary individuals, it feels vitally important that I be vocal and visible about the realities of what an abusive relationship can often look like as a way of modeling the impact and how incredibly important it is for one to get out if they are able. Mothertrucker, I hope, is continuing to further conversations shaped by so many smart writers, thinkers, and activists, but I see immediate cultural ties to Stephanie Land’s breathtaking book and Netflix series Maid, Kelly Sundberg’s often anthologized and deeply humanizing essay “It Will Look Like A Sunset” (Guernica), and the vitally important work being done surrounding ideas of gender and power by writers Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, and Lidia Yuknavitch, to name a few. I’ve also drawn a lot of inspiration on writing about power and society from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s work, though I recognize the privilege I was and am afforded as a white woman; McMillan writes that even credibility itself is a sort of privilege, a currency, and her work has really influenced my cognizance of the ways in which our society exponentially fails women of color in abusive partnerships, especially.
You describe Joy Wiebe as having had “the face of Kate McKinnon and a body like an exclamation mark.” How would you describe yourself?
Oh, I’m afraid anything I might’ve come up with at that point in my life would’ve felt dismissive and imprecise. Promoting this book, in fact, has been in some ways difficult because there are remarkably few photos of Joy and I together—largely because we never anticipated her life and our time together would be cut so short and so immediately—but the ones I do have reflect a version of myself that is hard for me to look at now. For one, there’s no joy or humanity in my face; I felt so whittled down, so stripped of love or dignity, and it’s all I see when I look at photos of myself from that time. I’d also taken to drinking every night as a way of coping and “tapping out” of my reality; drinking is a really fun and effective medium when nothing else about your life is fun. But I’m now two and a half years sober—something I once again owe largely to women and women’s transparency—and I’m much more likely to come up with something complimentary were I to write about myself now. I do feel like a force, when I allow myself that moment of self-congratulations. I feel like something strong, sturdy, stable. To counter Joy, perhaps, I feel like a period: something definite and sure.
You spent six days with Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe, but you say you imagined spending many more with her had she not passed away so soon after your trip together up the James W. Dalton Highway. How did you imagine the course of your friendship with her going? How would this book have been different?
It’s interesting, because while I tend not to read reviews or reader comments, more than one reader has suggested our friendship would’ve veered dramatically off-course following the 2020 election and the further divisiveness of this nation. But I don’t believe that’s true. Joy was a woman deeply devoted to her faith, a Republican, and a supporter of Trump, though she demonstrated a lot of nuance in her understanding of what it meant to vote for Trump and what it meant to be a human on this planet. I was a deeply progressive, leftist atheist. But there was enough between us—I think there often is—to reflect our similarities over our differences. Joy and I spoke the language of what it was not only to be a woman, but a woman who had endured abusive men. We spoke the love language of the wild, of nature, of a deeply protective sense over our natural environment. And we were women who shared a similarly dogmatic pursuit of adventure. I don’t pretend to think we wouldn’t have had our fair share of spirited conversations, but I do think our friendship would’ve only grown and strengthened over time. I have a hunch Joy would’ve found herself in very different circumstances now, were she still to be around. I think we both would’ve been single.
Where did you struggle most in the writing and researching of this book?
I worried that in the act of writing about what my particular abusive partnership looked like, I would be further muting the voices of women of color, who overwhelmingly suffer the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. In grounding my story in Alaska, in particular—a state that consistently suffers from one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country—it felt vitally important to acknowledge that that abuse is largely perpetuated against Indigenous women, who not only commonly lack access to health, law enforcement, and medical resources but also very rarely see charges and penalties brought against their abusers. Of course, there’s a very fine line between acknowledgement and exploitation, and I was very careful and intentional in how I walked it.
I’ll also admit—and I hate this—to some level of worrying what the men in my life would think: of me, of the larger project, of the way in which I’d incorporated my story alongside Joy’s. I love the men I have chosen to have in my life, and I’m very intentional about those words. The men in my life bring me so much pleasure and hope and pride. I think, given the nature of this book, I worried that they would feel as though I had categorically dismissed and admonished all men, which again, I think, speaks to what our society tries to do when women speak out about the harmful nature of patriarchy. I love the men in my life, and their support and friendship mean so much to me. It feels outrageously stupid to say that I recognize the patriarchal conditions of our society make it difficult but not impossible for men to be good men and good partners, but I was very conscious of this worry as I wrote.
Let’s talk about the emojis you inspired with your 2016 New York Times opinion piece “Emoji Feminism.” What are the emojis? What are the emojis you used most often when communicating with Joy? What yet-to-exist emojis might Joy’s life inspire?
Talk about a small grievance going viral. I absolutely believe in the need for authentic representation, and in the spring of 2016, our emoji vocabulary spoke the language of the patriarchy: the only depictions of females were digitized women getting their hair cut, or their temples massaged, or their nails painted. Or they were Playboy bunnies. Digitized men, on the other hand, were police officers, doctors, plumbers, foremen. It bothered me, in an era in which young people especially were scrolling through their emoji set dozens of times daily, that we continued to perpetuate the narrative that women were steeped in vanity while men were out there, doing things. It certainly didn’t reflect the women I knew. So I wrote a brief essay very late in the night after a female friend and colleague at my university earned tenure; due to the lack of representative professional women, I sent her a penguin, her favorite bird, and as a writer, I drew some metaphorical parallels to make up for it. But the essay went viral, and Google technicians responded by proposing thirteen professional women emojis, citing my essay as their inspiration. In 2017, the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee—indeed, a real thing—voted to approve them, and now we have female-identifying chefs and rockstars, gardeners and doctors and chemists and teachers, among others. It matters. That subcommittee has gone on to further diversify by including non-binary emojis and emojis-of-color, and it’s all good. Some might dismiss the concept as silly, but they’re not the ones I’m trying to reach with my work. The people who need them find them.
Joy and I exchanged mostly emojis of our nature: for Joy, a lot of prayer hands and dog faces. I, too, sent a lot of dog faces. We love our dogs, and were she around now, we’d have over a half-dozen between us. But there were also a lot of crying-from-laughter emojis, which I’ve since read indicate our age. Whatever. We laughed a lot, Joy and I. She was always making me laugh.
In the weeks since Mothertrucker’s release, I’ve found myself wishing there was a clear eighteen-wheeler emoji. There are trucks—pickups and small trucks—and there are truck cabs, which don’t necessarily discriminate because it’s hard to identify the length of what’s behind it, but I wish there was a clear and blue eighteen-wheeler. For Joy.
What does the word “Americana” mean to you? How does this book fit or defy “Americana?”
“Americana” speaks to a cultural narrative and the objects, ideas, and ephemera that define and distinguish America. It is a word rooted in representation. I believe Mothertrucker speaks to representation: it speaks to represent the millions of women in this country alone who will be abused, many severely, by former or current intimate partners in their lifetime. It speaks to the way in which our society fails women, and especially women-of-color, non-binary, and trans Americans. And it speaks, I hope, to an idea that we have the power to change this narrative, but it begins with visibility, acknowledgement.
If this book had a soundtrack, what might it be?
While I don’t write to music—I read my work out loud, and the rhythm gets muddled over vocals—there were a number of songs that spoke to the atmosphere of the book and the feel I was hoping to convey, and I listened to them obsessively in any and all downtime while I was drafting Mothertrucker. You can find that playlist on Spotify. At the forefront of that playlist was Corrina Repp’s “Release Me,” Yellow Ostrich’s “Fog,” and Glen Hansard’s “Her Mercy.”
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what did you listen to while writing this book?
I don’t! For the reason I mention above. But I do believe in immersing yourself in works that feed the feeling of your work. For me, writing Mothertrucker was a dive into another place, and I lingered there for what feels like years. I’m only just now coming back up to the surface. Most things I read, listened to, watched, and even the things I did and places I visited became a texture of that book. I spent a lot of time in the woods. I went for a lot of walks. There were days and sometimes whole weeks where I didn’t talk to anyone but my dogs. But it felt necessary, and I think fondly of that time.
Would you say that immersion memoir is your jam, your métier? How does being immersed in your subject material affect the outcome?
It certainly wasn’t prior to writing this book, but after my first book—a deeply personal, vulnerable memoir—I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the presence and act of writing about someone, something else. I taught myself how to do that through a class I designed and began teaching at my university, Ohio Wesleyan University (where I direct the creative writing program), called ‘Magazine Writing,’ and we read an incredible amount of long-form narrative nonfiction and literary journalism. I wanted to reverse-engineer works I loved alongside my students with the hope we might learn how to replicate those techniques and strategies, and in so doing, I taught myself how to write Mothertrucker. Becoming a part of that book and that story was never my intention, because it seemed at first a bit self-indulgent, or I worried I was using Joy’s life and story as a prop or scaffold to a political agenda, but there’s no getting around the fact that despite our many differences, Joy and I were both steeped and well-versed in male violence. I think most women are. And speaking to that felt necessary.
What’s next? Projects on the horizon?
I have a few projects I’d love to commit myself more fully to—in many ways, works that feel like an uncanny marriage between my first and second book—but right now I’m taking time to read other works contributing to the conversations Mothertrucker hopefully engages with. I’m also working, as I mention above, to define myself again in the absence of any partnership and thus anyone else’s behavior. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a gift.
Amy Butcher is an award-winning essayist and author of the 2015 memoir Visiting Hours (Blue Rider Press / Penguin Random House) and additional work that has appeared in the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s, The Iowa Review, Lit Hub, Guernica, Brevity, and others. Mothertrucker is in development to be a major motion picture by Makeready Films, directed by the Primetime Emmy-winning creator of “Transparent” and “I Love Dick,” Joey Soloway, and starring Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Julianne Moore. Excerpts from Mothertrucker earned a 2020 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and Amy’s additional work has benefited from awards and grants from the Vermont Studio Center, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Stanley Awards for International Research, and the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship in Creative Writing from Colgate University. Her essay, “On Images of Violence,” earned a notable distinction in the Best American Essays 2021 series, guest edited by Kathryn Schulz. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and presently serves as the director of creative writing and an associate professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University. Amy teaches annually at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Sitka, Alaska, and she lives in Ohio with her three rescue dogs. For more information visit www.amyebutcher.com.