Seven Questions With Amy Butcher
Amy Butcher, an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University, felt a connection to the Alaska trucker Joy Wiebe, a.k.a. “Mothertrucker,” before the two women even met. Once she was riding with Wiebe in her 59-foot rig along an icy Alaskan highway in the spring of 2018, she knew the trucker had a story worth telling, and she wanted to be the one to tell it. Others agreed—four months after she returned from Alaska, Butcher, the author of one previous book and many essays published in outlets from The Paris Review to The Washington Post, had a book contract. “Mothertrucker” will be published by Amazon’s Little A Books in early 2022.
Just after Butcher submitted her book proposal to editors, the story took a tragic turn. The 50-year-old Wiebe died when her truck slipped off the road and overturned. But her story, rather than ending, gained broader interest. A year later, it’s set to become a feature film, directed by Jill Soloway (Transparent) and starring Academy Award winner Julianne Moore. Butcher, who is on leave while writing the book, answered our questions via email.
How did you come to meet Wiebe, and what led to you riding with her in the cab of her tanker truck? I met Joy at a very difficult point in my life, when for various reasons, I found it increasingly challenging to feel like a strong woman in this world. I’d spent significant time in Alaska, but generally only in the southeast. I was hungry for a wild experience, and when a male trucker friend told me about Joy Wiebe, I knew instantly I had to meet her. She was a woman I trusted had things to teach me. After following her account on Instagram, where she boasted over 11,000 followers, I became even more certain of this fact, until eventually the day came when I tracked her number down and called her to ask if I might join her on the Dalton Highway, the 414-mile stretch of road that extends from Fairbanks north to the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay. When she laughed and said sure, I knew my instincts were right.
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According to a press release, the 50-year-old Wiebe told you, just four months before she died, that God wanted you to tell her story. Without giving away more than you would like, what was her story, and why did she want it shared? Joy’s story is one of dogged independence and strength and resilience. She is a woman who made a living—and made a life—on what has been called the deadliest, loneliest and most isolated road in America. More than that, she thrived there—she felt the road was where she belonged, and it was where she felt most like herself. There are many reasons for this, and many are steeped in the female experience: what it is to be a woman in contemporary America. But Joy was also a woman of incredible faith, and she saw God’s beauty everywhere in the Arctic. As difficult as her passing was, I’ve found incredible comfort in the fact she left this world in the place she loved the most, where she felt most connected to her God.
How did her sudden death affect your ability to complete the book? When we sold the rights to the book, I imagined the manuscript would end with me boarding a plane back to Ohio, the experience with Joy and the Dalton Highway tucked neatly under my belt. I had a scope of this project’s magnitude, and I’d been convinced of the story’s broader appeal ever since I met Joy, but I never could have predicted this outcome, even though the risk of the road was so much of what I was interested in. It’s an important lesson for a writer, and everyone, really: stories change, and so do their implication.
Congratulations on your movie deal! It seems unusual for a film to be announced two years before the book comes out. Can you tell us the how it all happened? Thank you. It is unusual and unprecedented. I’m still a bit in shock. Joy and I completed our trip in April of 2018. I submitted the book proposal to editors four months later, in mid-August, and Joy passed the following week. I was beside myself. It sounds very strange to admit, but Joy and I got incredibly close during our time together, and we spoke weekly—and texted daily—in the months that followed. So I pushed on. There was interest in the film adaptation less than two months later, and I was very fortunate to pair with an incredible literary agent (Samantha Shea of Georges Borchardt Agency) and two incredible film agents (Addison Duffy and Jasmine Lake of United Talent Agency), who showed remarkable passion for the project and believed in it from the start. In the spring, we discussed ideas with leading actresses, directors, writers and producers and partnered up with Soloway and Moore in March. This choice was mine to make, and I couldn’t have picked two better, smarter and more talented individuals. It was very important to me to work with a dedicated, empathetic, nuanced team that understood my ethical and creative concerns as it related to this project, and I’m very lucky we found a home with Makeready Films, who shares those values and that greater vision.
I'm told you're the one who brought gender equity to the world of emojis. How did that come about? During my second year as a tenure-track assistant professor at OWU, I was in deep admiration of my female colleagues, who are some of the most passionate, dedicated, intelligent women I’ve ever met. When a close friend in the history department texted me to announce she’d been granted tenure, I immediately looked for something visceral and illustrative to convey my elation, and that’s when I noticed that all of the professional emojis—the firefighter and the police officer, the doctor and the dentist—were male. Women, in fact, were represented only by the Playboy-esque dancing bunnies and images drawn from a hair salon: a woman getting a pink manicure, a woman getting a haircut, a woman getting a massage.
On the one hand, certainly, these are just emojis, but the more research I did, the more I realized that emojis are a language primarily used by young adults, many of whom report using emojis dozens of time daily and believe emojis to be a better way of communicating strong emotion. It bothered me that so many young women were scrolling—many times daily—through a vocabulary that simplified our entire gender to beauty and aesthetics. We’ve long used images and icons to represent larger ideas and emotions—cave drawings depict food sources, fire, weather, animals and other dangers—and the same is true of today’s society, no matter how silly some may find them. Representation matters.
I wrote an essay the next morning for The New York Times opinion pages.It was picked up the following day, and it ran within a week. A month later, Google proposed 13 new professional female emojis and cited my essay as their inspiration; 11 of these emojis were accepted by the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, and now they are standard on iPhones everywhere.
Your specialty as a writer and teacher is the essay. You said in a lecture that is on the OWU website that the goal of an essay is finding the small moment that matters, the thing that no one else is thinking to look at, and using it as a way to seduce a reader and get them to care about something and make a meaningful change. How do you find those moments? How do you turn them into something more? Generally, I subscribe to Philip Lopate’s charge, which is to begin from a place of doubt—a memory, truth, opinion or experience that, for whatever reason, raises questions of validity or creates some sense of doubt. It may also be something you question. This helps us step away from the academic sense of the essay, which is entirely rooted in objective truth and overly concerned, I think, with facts and research. The creative essay concerns itself instead with experience, with lived truths, and with finding the story in the situation, to take a line from Vivian Gornick.
My mentor, John D’Agata (director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa), describes the essay as a “mind on a page,” and I think that sense of evolving thought and understanding is paramount. You want to bring a reader with you, not argue with them over the span of several pages why your opinion or idea is right. In many ways, when I sit down to write, I am “essaying” an experience or subject—from the French origin, “to attempt.” I am attempting to describe my experience or viewpoint and show the way my thinking has changed. And that usually comes to me first through an image that has lodged itself into my consciousness, oftentimes for reasons that remain unknown until I sit down to write about it.
You're originally from the Philadelphia area, and you've been teaching at OWU since 2014. Have you found OWU and the Columbus area a good place to be a working writer? Columbus is—and I’m certainly not the first person to say this—the easiest place I know to be a writer, short of my graduate school town of Iowa City, which is heaven. There’s a reason we here in Columbus have such a vibrant literary scene, and it has everything to do with affordability and accessibility. I recently had the opportunity to hear Hanif Abdurraqib read as a visiting writer here at OWU, and he mentioned how living in Columbus (his hometown) enabled him to be a writer while also checking off all the other identity boxes that matter to him: Here, he can also be a son, brother, partner and friend, among other important roles.
I share that viewpoint. Writing is incredibly important to me, but I place equal value on my role as a teacher and mentor, as a friend and a colleague, and the little things matter to me: I want to be a good neighbor, a gardener, a homeowner with a yard to mow and a living room that needs to be dusted. I want a yard for my dogs to explore. I want to know my mailman. I’ve never been a writer who aspired to live in New York City or Los Angeles. I think I would get lost there. I value being part of a small community and knowing the people who’ve also made it their home. Columbus—and Ohio Wesleyan specifically—have allowed me to pursue all the things that matter to me while also making time and space for myself as a writer. It’s truly invaluable. And if you’re new to the Columbus literary scene, you’d do well to look up the work of Kelly Sundberg, Maggie Smith, Nick White, Hanif Abdurraqib and Saeed Jones.
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