When she was in her twenties, Amy Neswald—whose debut story collection I Know You Love Me Too (October 2021) won the New American Fiction Prize—intentionally squelched her strong urge to write so she could try her luck at acting. Following her first gig building sets and building props with The San Francisco Mime Troupe, her creative journey took her from beauty school to Broadway, where she worked as wig master including for the legendary show Jersey Boys, and from screenplay writing to filmmaking. But destiny kept nudging her gently back to writing. In the early aughts she won NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge – and with it, a scholarship to a two-year screenwriting program. In her mid-forties, she left Broadway to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Hampshire and then went on to teach creative writing at the University of Maine in Farmington. Her screenplay The Placeholder was awarded a Best Screenplay award at the Rhode Island Film Festival in 2008.
Fascinated by the breadth of Amy’s creative accomplishments and the way she seems to magnetically attract awards and accolades, I asked her to join me for an interview here on WU.
SB: Tell us about I Know You Love Me Too, and how it came to win the New American Fiction Prize
AN: I started working on the collection in graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. When I wrote the first story, I had no idea I’d stick with the two sisters who are its main characters, but my professor, mentor, and friend Tom Paine introduced me to Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. It was a game changer for me. I didn’t know a short story collection could tell a complete story over time about a single character and I loved it. So I wrote another story, which is no longer in the collection, where one of the main characters simply passes through, but at a pivotal time in her life. And then I was hooked. I fell in love with both sisters and everyone who surrounded them.
Winning the New American Fiction prize was completely unexpected. When I felt like I had a collection, I sent it to all the big contests and, as expected, I was rejected by all of them. My collection is not edgy; it doesn’t hit on trending issues and the questions it asks are very subtle and small, so I really didn’t expect any attention. But… you’ve got to put your work out there. I don’t know the real ‘why’ or how David Bowen and Judith Blair Mitchell chose my collection out of a pile of other quality works, but I’m so thankful that they did. I’m gobsmacked by the opportunity to have the New American Press publish my work.
SB: You’ve won several prestigious awards: The Rhode Island Film Festival’s Best Screenplay, NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge… It seems that each award was for one of your “firsts:” first film, first short story entered in a contest, first collection. How have these awards shaped your path as a writer?
AN: That’s a great question. One of the things I’ve learned about awards is that the things that make a story worthy of an award are reflections of the personal preferences of the panel or judges and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you win an award, it’s not necessarily because your piece was the best of the bunch, it’s that the judge liked it the most, for whatever reasons. And if your work doesn’t win an award, it doesn’t mean that your work isn’t award worthy, it simply means that the judge preferred someone else’s work over yours – for whatever reasons. You never really know what a judge or a publisher is looking for.
That said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be able to hand someone your “award winning” screenplay or book.
In terms of shaping my path as a writer, I think what these awards have done for me is provide me with some confidence in my work. They help me see what ‘s working (when I win or place as a semi-finalist) and they help me see what I need to work on when my work receives no attention at all.
SB: There’s one job title on your resume most people have never heard of: wig master. What is a wig master and how did you happen to become one?
AN: A wig master is someone who creates and maintains hairstyles and wigs in theatrical productions. We and the wardrobe staff are the last people the actors see before they step onto stage and we are a huge part of the backstage life of the show as well when we change wigs or fix them when hair comes undone. We also maintain facial hair. Most wig masters also know how to repair or build lace front wigs. We work with hair designers and costume designers, sound crews, directors, actors, and others in developing and running a show. We maintain wigs, which are very fragile and expensive garments, some of them upwards of five-thousand dollars, so they require a lot of care.
I fell into working with wigs in a synchronistic way. There was a lot of luck involved. The short story is that I was tired of trying to be an actor (which for me included years bartending and cocktail waitressing). During a haircut at a Lemon Tree, I asked the woman who was cutting my hair how she got into hair styling. She told me, among other things, that it was a great job for an artist. I was sold. So, when I got back to New York, I enrolled in one of the two beauty schools in New York City at the time.
Early in beauty school I learned two things. 1. I didn’t actually like acting, and 2. Hair is a sculptural medium that I love. No one in their right mind would let me do with their hair what I imagined, so I looked into making wigs. I bought a book. I taught myself how to ventilate. And one day, when I was walking out my apartment building I ran into my neighbor. He was carrying a wig block, so I asked what he did and he told me he was a milliner for Broadway shows. I asked him if he knew any wig people. He did and he introduced me to my first mentor. From working with him as a wig builder, I learned about the different opportunities in theater – things I’d never heard of before and when I stepped into my first Broadway show, The Elephant Man with Billy Crudup and Kate Burton, I was hooked on backstage life.
SB: What connections did you discover, if any, between your background as a writer of screenplays and fiction and your work as a wig master for Broadway shows?
AN: Everyone in the theater is a story-teller. Pre-show, it was so much fun to visit different departments and swap stories. The stage doormen were the best storytellers of all, and I learned so much about telling a quick, amusing, direct story – when to slow time down, when to speed it up… and when to cut your losses and get out before you embarrassed yourself or went on too long.
Not only that, but within the nightly styling of wigs, or while working with the designers to develop hairstyles that fit the needs of the production, we had to dive into different characters and think about who they were, where in time and place they were, what their social standing was, what they were thinking or feeling when they woke up that morning, etc. Keep in mind, most characters would probably do their own hair, so a wig designer and a stylist need to consider – did they do their hair in a rush that morning? Or did they prepare it meticulously for a date? What flaws exist? Working within the context of a writer’s work and a director’s vision, there was so much opportunity to think about the character’s backstory and the cultural context of the play.. In a show like The Producers, wigs also capture the voice of the piece. Whatever the style, not only does it need to work within the production, but it needs to work with the actor as well. Wigs are like masks. They can change a performance. And yet, they need to be subtle, like the words and language of a short story, and not to call attention to themselves. They serve the story.
Working in theater and living in stories on so many different levels, night after night, was one of the best training ground for learning to tell my own.
SB: How about the connections between acting and writing?
AN: I think that acting is really where I learned to write. Living in the sea of someone else’s words, developing a character that’s already been created by the writer, reverse engineering characters by taking clues from the page and figuring out that character’s backstory and driving motivation are just a few ways to create a character in dialogue with a play or film script. I don’t think practicing this in rehearsal is much different than rewriting your own work or creating characters starting with a singular entry point – perhaps how they walk or talk or a look or catch phrase or a memory of that character, a little backstory. As writers, we assemble the paltry clues that we’ve been given and then excavate for more clues, more insights, more backstory. And, as writers, we inhabit our characters. When I teach screenwriting, I encourage my students to inhabit their characters, to take them food shopping, to walk like they do, to stand like they do, to identify a gesture. In doing so, you can find that character’s voice. Acting is writing. And writing fiction and screenplays is acting.
On that note, I also think that every screenwriter should make a short film so that they can not only see their work on screen, but also so that they can experience and understand the job of directing and how a screenplay, in some real way, is a letter or an epic poem to a director and crew. When a writer sees herself as an actor, director, and creator, and treats each job seriously, I think that writer becomes a force to be reckoned with.
SB: You wear so many different hats as a creative professional. How would you characterize yourself?
AN: I try not to label myself as anything, really. But I do like to try new things. I like to experiment. I like being a beginner. Sometimes I succeed, most often I fail, but I always learn something new that changes my perception of myself and my world. So – if I had to characterize myself, I guess I’d call myself a dreamer, maybe. Or maybe a fool, like in the tarot deck. A storyteller… or maybe, just maybe, on a really good day when I’m feeling alright, an artist.
SB: What advice would you give to other multi-passionate creatives striving to make their mark on the world?
AN: One of my strengths, I think, is that I’ve always been willing to defy middle class expectations. I’ve kept my life as simple as possible. I’ve worked hard, but also always searched for work that allowed me the brainspace and time to do my own creative work. I’ve strived to live well below my means. I did get lucky in that I moved to New York when rent was affordable, so I understand that I’ve been very fortunate in being able to live frugally.
So my advice: keep doing the work. Keep showing up, even when you don’t feel like it. And practice patience along with everything else. Success is incremental and sometimes it’s invisible, and sometimes it takes so long to show its face that you feel like it’ll never come for you. Consider every small step forward a win. Celebrate small successes. Keep reminding yourself why you’re making your work – and allow that reason to change as you change.
Say yes more than you say no.
Support your fellow artists and creatives.
I just read something I really like. Though I can’t remember who said it, I’m going to paraphrase it anyway, because I think it’s probably the best advice of all. Be relentlessly helpful.
Thank you, Amy! The parallels you draw between wigs and storytelling, between acting and fiction, and fiction and screenwriting, hold timeless lessons for all. So does your point, “I try not to label myself as anything, really.” Inspiration for all.
About Sharon Bially
Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s a member of the Director's Circle at Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s largest independent writing center, and writes occasionally for the Grub Street Daily.