The Art of Asking is a book unlike any other I've ever read, and I mean that sincerely. Amanda Palmer, who since her wildly successful and globally infamous Kickstarter campaign in 2012, has now reached the type of fame that invites mass adulation as well as those who line up to take potshots at anything they feel is politically incorrect, has written a book I'd have no problem recommending to everyone I know. My mother, my best friend, my work friends, my Facebook friends, my LinkedIn contacts, even the people I meet on the street or see on the subway when I commute to and from work. It's that important and that groundbreaking. This book is not just someone's brave and personal journey from childhood to her life as an artist, but it also addresses why and how it's so hard to look into someone else's eyes and be real, and ask for help when we need it.
I'm deadly serious when I tell you that this book is exactly what I needed to read right now. Palmer has, not to put too fine a point on it, ripped open her chest and exposed her heart for all to see. She's written her truth - and it's at once brutal and gloriously, importantly beautiful. I spoke to her recently about the book and what it took to get to this day.
Holly: This book is exactly what I needed at this moment in my life. I want to profoundly thank you. I've written all over the pages and I also love Brené Brown's introduction.
Amanda: She nailed it... I fell in love with her book (Daring Greatly) and she was the first person I asked, I just met her on Twitter. I said - I am reading your book and basically, we've written the same book, Brené. You are writing about it as a researcher and an academic and a statistician, but holy fuck, every page of your book is reflecting every page of mine, I'm freaking out. And I just said - will you write the introduction? ... Of course, it didn't occur to me, I kind of got sad when I thought about it, but I'm a weird artist and all these people out there are going to maybe be intimidated by me or intimidated that this book isn't for them and I don't want them to think that and Brené just opens the door and says - nope, it's for you too.
Holly: Now I have to read her book because of what you just said, but I can tell by the introduction that she's really totally worlds apart from you... I don't know anything about her, I really don't, but she just seems like my Mom.
Amanda: She totally is your Mom. You should read Daring Greatly. It was like my bible, the month I started writing the book. I was so moved by it that I cite it three times in the book because it was just coincidence that all these studies came out that she was doing, just basically, [she was] just backing me up with data.
Holly: I love the part in her intro where she says she would be the person who would walk by the statue and wouldn't talk to the statue and would just give money and then scuttle on her way [Amanda supported herself at one time as a living statue in Boston]. It's just really moving. We don't have time for me to tell you what it means to me, but your bravery and your honesty and just baring your soul about all these topics - it just blows my mind how honest and truthful this book is. The other thing that occurred to me is that the book is kind of like the text equivalent of you just falling backward into the crowd and letting them hold you up.
Amanda: Yeah. It is. I mean, it was a hard book to write knowing that putting it out I was going to be opening myself back up in the line of fire. Because I am still kind of dealing with it...and I'm really scared. I don't want to go back to all of those places. I don't want to have endless discussions where I am defending all of my decisions, it's like I've fucking walked through the fire already, I came out scarred and burned and I don't want to go back in. That was over. That was 2012. It was all terrible. And I had to add an epilogue right before the book went to print - Anthony going into the fucking hospital in a week for a bone marrow transplant and he might not live [Her oldest and dearest friend, Anthony, is currently undergoing treatment for leukemia].
Holly: What was your process to write the book? How long did it take?
Amanda: I sat down for the first time around February 1 of this year and I barely took my ass out of the chair for seven weeks. I was in Melbourne, Australia. I went there specifically to lock myself in an apartment and write a book, although I didn't write any of the book in the apartment, I wrote it in the cafes and the bars of the neighborhood. And I was just a disciplined motherfucker: I woke up every morning, I went to yoga, I cracked my knuckles, I sat down with my laptop, and I wrote 5,000 words a day.
Holly: Wow. So how long did that take every day? How many hours?
Amanda: I probably wrote for about six or seven hours a day...I didn't capitalize, I didn't correct typos, I just slammed it out. And I also didn't write in any particular order. I just wrote whatever I felt like...I had a bunch of note cards that had notes like - write about being a Bride [her living statue appearances were as the Eight-Foot Bride], write about Anthony getting cancer, write about Kickstarter sucking. I just had a list of about a hundred things and every day I would wake up and I would say, what do I feel like writing? I'm going to write about that today. And what was really interesting at the very end, the last week, there was this little pile of things that I hadn't written about. What was in that pile was really telling - what I didn't want to attack and places I didn't want to go. Write about your abortion stayed on the desk for quite a while.
And then when I got to end of that trip, I flew to TED, very poetically, a year after I had given my talk .... I spent a week at TED and didn't touch the book. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my editor. I had two editors and they were going through all this shit that I had written. Then I started the long, arduous task of rewriting and editing and piecing it together. I hilariously thought that would take about a month; it took four months. Which meant that my summer which was supposed to be collapsing from exhaustion having handed my book in in June, had me handing my book in in August. And my life, which was supposed to get cleaned up and my marriage was supposed to get quality time and repaired, everything just got thrown out.
I just put up a giant sign - do not fucking disturb - I have to finish this book if they are really going to put it out in November - and sort of had the gun to my head. And then I handed this thing in at the eleventh fucking hour and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Renting an empty apartment in New York with my two editors; literally just waking up and going for a jog and then working for twelve hours piecing this fucker together; and it was a brain marathon of doom.
Holly: I would think that the editing was even harder than writing it.
Amanda: The writing was a dream. I loved my life in Melbourne. I was free, sort of on my own schedule, I was writing sort of according to my mood and it felt hard, but fun. The editing was hard and a total bitch. Not to mention giant life catastrophes of epic levels that I don't want to even discuss coming my way...trying to deal as best I could but just be like, wow, matters of life and death are happening all around me and I am just going to focus on my fucking book. I'm just going to get this done. I don't care what else happens.
Holly: Yes. Because who has time for real life when you're doing something like that, it is such a gigantic project. I don't think a project could be bigger than that. Except maybe writing a Broadway musical or something on that scale.
Amanda: And what is really interesting too is when I look at the entire process from tip to tail, it did take about nine months. And I think there is beautiful poetry in that, which is the book as pregnancy and labor metaphor is pretty apt. I've heard people say it a million times. It's a lot like that and I think a book much more than a record album. Because a book is a solitary process, you're the only one who is pregnant. You're not pregnant with a band. It is you and this thing that you're trying to get out of you. No one else knows what's in there and then it comes out and it belongs to the world.
Holly: I'll be so excited to hear people's reactions to this book because it's really not like any book I've ever read and what it discusses is not like anything that I've ever read about. How important it is to surrender to the "Art of Asking." Your whole story is about this book and the book is about your story.
Amanda: We edited about 70,000 words...Our big pair of cutting scissors was is it on topic? Even if it is an amazing story. If it's not about asking, it's hitting the floor. I had some great back and forth with my editors scooping up these little snippets on the floor trying to sneak them back in and failing, but they really did serve me and Neil [Gaiman, her husband] line-edited the book for me, he held my hand and helped me cut thousands of words. And if anyone understands the craftsmanship of what makes a story engaging, it's Neil fucking Gaiman. So I had some heavyweight help in constructing this sculpture. It's not a linear story. It bounces around in time and place - it bent reality in the book and things kind of happened out of order, but they are all just there to serve the theme. And it is there to make people really think about Asking.
Holly: What you write in the book about being seen, and seeing other people. That was so resonant - anyone can read this and get something out of it because we all want to be seen. We all need to be seen.
Amanda: Yeah. It's very true. That's been a lifelong lesson. And one of the biggest, ongoing and most powerful lessons that Anthony gave me.
Holly: So you're doing a big book tour. Going to a lot of cool places.
Amanda: I'm doing a book concert tour. I'm basically going around the country doing concerts with the book in my hand.
Last weekend I took a train up the Hudson to Rhinecliff to see Palmer's musical production The Bed Show at Bard College's Fisher Center for the Arts. Steven Bogart, her high school drama teacher at Lexington High School, was directing. A group of Bard students - each more gifted than the last - no, scratch that - they were all equally gifted - were the acting ensemble. Palmer had written several songs for it as well as contributing around six of her solo and Dresden Dolls numbers to the production. During our interview, she described it to me as a "passion project I've wanted to do forever." She continued: "it is a fucked up musical: there's all sorts of crazy; it is a beautiful, hot mess that will never ever go to Broadway in a million years musical...It is beyond Off-Broadway. It is Anti-Broadway."
The Fisher Center is a small and intimate theater. Prior to the show, Palmer and the students strolled around the audience with ukuleles and perched on people's chairs singing songs they made up on the spot. The show itself was stunning; simultaneously screamingly funny and steeped in pathos. It poked at your tenderest spots, not just touching them, but staying there, pushing in until you couldn't breathe. The actors were amazing and the building was charged with the energy of creativity. I took two friends with me who had only seen Amanda once before; they were astounded. We met many audience members of all ages, and one young woman had driven eight hours from Cleveland to see it. You see, it's like that. It really is.
Amanda Palmer will be touring the United States during her book tour, appearing in New York City Friday November 13th at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. Learn more here.
In her words:
"It's a book about...a lot of things. My marriage, my days as a weird street performer, my amazing band and label disaster, my difficulties dealing with a best friend who's had cancer for the past three years; but that's all sort of a veil. Mostly it's an attempt to try to discover why all human beings (especially artists) have such a hard time asking for things. I poured my heart into it. It's a really personal book. It's also really FUNNY. and sad. It's a weird book. but I'm really, really proud of it."
And she should be.