In The Regrets, the charmingly spooky Valentine of a novel by Amy Bonnaffons, Thomas and Rachel are lost souls who find each other at a Brooklyn bus stop and ignite a passionate affair. It’s your evergreen tale of star-crossed lovers—you know, if Romeo died before the story began, then found out he was “insufficiently dead” and had to wait in limbo for three months while the institutional error got corrected.
I take it back. The Regrets is entirely its own: sharp, hilarious, heartbreaking, and ultimately more human than ghostly.
Thomas is supposed to be laying low—there are guidelines. When he meets Rachel, their connection is undeniable and electric. But when Thomas begins to disappear, literally, Rachel has to ask herself what she’ll sacrifice to remain in limbo between the world of the living and the technically dead. Their relationship tests the limits of vulnerability and impermanence as it asks, when does passion lead to possession? When does it become a kind of haunting?
I was so excited to talk to Amy about writing, art without rules, and this book that stretched my heart and imagination in equal measure.
Sara Shukla: This book is so smart, and so funny. It opens in the point of view of Thomas, who, while he’s just died in a motorcycle accident, isn’t sufficiently dead. There’s been an error, which is explained in the story. How did you land on the idea of the afterlife as a sort of imperfect bureaucracy?
Amy Bonnaffons: There were multiple sources of inspiration for that, but one of my favorite movies is this Japanese movie called After Life. It came out in the ‘90s, and I saw it while I was still in high school, and it just blew my mind. The concept is that when you die you go to this kind of processing center, and you stay there for a week, and over the course of the week you have to choose one memory from your life, and that’s the only memory that you’ll take into eternity.
Wow, that’s a big question.
Yeah! I love thinking about what I would pick. You learn at one point in the movie that the workers in this center are all just people who wouldn’t choose, or refuse to choose for some reason. And so I love the idea that the people who are supposed to be in charge are actually the people for whom the system didn’t work. And no one knows who’s really in charge. When I started to imagine this version of the afterlife, there’s the Kafkaesque bureaucracy in there, but I liked the idea that no one knew who was really in charge, and that they spoke in the language of authority, but there was no real sense to it.
For a while, Thomas hangs out in a hipster coffee shop, passing as alive. He goes to American Apparel and buys three matching outfits. I loved this mash up of the otherworldly and the human, how the line was so blurry. So many of Thomas’s reflections on being dead could sub for how it feels to be alive and struggling with something that makes you feel separate from the dominant narrative happening around you. He says, “I was like the photographic negative of a person, an absence given form, a loose ache of consciousness attached to a cheap facsimile of a body; I could blend in anywhere because I belonged nowhere.” While he’s talking about being a ghost, it felt very human to me, and I’m wondering if that’s how you thought of him.
Yes, totally. There were a few different ways I was thinking about him as an outsider. I thought a lot about his situation as a metaphor for having gone through trauma, and then trying to kind of blend in and live a normal life when you’re still in this other place, somewhat. But the more I wrote it, the more I was like, you know, I think a lot of people feel this way for different reasons.
I think people who end up being writers often feel this way for whatever reason. I don’t know if it’s just part of your personality or if something happens in childhood to make us this way (laughing), but I feel like we’re often the person who’s going through the motions but sort of standing outside of themselves observing, kind of taking notes for later, and so he has a lot of that in him as well. The other character, Rachel, does too, and that’s part of what draws them together. He sees her in the coffee shop, and he can tell that she’s not fully immersed in the stream of life. And he’s drawn to that because that’s where he is too.
While Rachel and Thomas’s relationship gets dark, for sure, I was touched by Rachel’s fear not of Thomas being dead, but of letting herself be vulnerable, of being “condemned to this openness.” It’s the permeability that’s terrifying to her. Did you have to ask the question, as you wrote, “Why would someone fall head over heels for a dead guy?” Or did you understand her from the start?
I mean, this probably says more about me than is comfortable, but that was not a challenge for me to imagine my way into. Like, of course, the sexy dead guy, what’s hotter? (Laughing.) I think in many ways, this book was my way of working through where I was when I was in my twenties. And as far as I know, I didn’t date any dead people, but in a way I did, right? I dated people who were unavailable in all sorts of ways, or people who were emotionally dead. And I think I did that because deep down I knew I wasn’t ready to really be seen by somebody in a deep way.
So for Rachel, it was attractive to have this kind of extreme narrative but where there was a little built in distance. She talks so much about the daydream. I think that when there’s enough space to fill in with her own daydreams and fantasies and projections, it’s really fun, right? In the way that having a crush is so fun. But you do pay for it eventually, and she pays for it, and I did too. And I’m happy to say that I’m in a different place now. But I think the book was in part me trying to figure out, why do I do this? Why do we do this? What is going on here?
I’d love to talk about Rachel’s daydream. She admits to a fear that the things she imagines “will take on such solidity that I cannot differentiate them from reality.” You explore the line between imagination and reality, how it can be powerful, even dangerous. And yet The Regrets and your story collection, The Wrong Heaven, feel surprisingly grounded too, even when they go to places like talking biblical lawn ornaments or women choosing to become horses. What draws you to magic as a lens for looking at your characters or the problems that they face?
I didn’t start writing anything magical or fantastical until I was half way through my MFA program. It just happened because I was so frustrated with a story that wasn’t working well. It was the talking lawn ornaments story, and it was supposed to be that the character was having a kind of crisis of faith. I was just stuck, and I had to turn it in for workshop. It was two in the morning. And I was like, “What the hell? What if Jesus just talked to her?” It was like this lightbulb went off, and I was like, “Oh, it’s a story. I could literally do anything.” And then I had so much fun with it. And people responded to it really well, because I think the fun I had writing it came through. After that, I kind of didn’t go back, because once having given myself that permission, I found that the emotional dynamics I was trying to convey in the story were often easier to convey through a conceit like that than through, just, meaningful dialogue.
Meaningful dialogue is hard. (Laughing… but truth.) Do you think Rachel and Thomas would have gotten together if he hadn’t died first?
Oh good question. I feel like the extremity of his situation is definitely part of the attraction to her. But that said, he was pretty fucked up even before he died, so they maybe would have found each other anyway. I think she would have been attracted to him no matter what. And I’m sure he would have been attracted to her too, but I think before he died, he didn’t feel any incentive to let a woman actually get through to him in any way. So I could see, maybe they would have hooked up, then he would have ridden off on his motorcycle.
He would have ghosted.
He might have ghosted! Whereas, his situation made him so vulnerable, and so permeable, and so grateful for the connection that’s available to him. I think that’s part of the magic cocktail of feelings for her too, to feel like she means so much to this other person. And yet it’s not a situation, at least she thinks it’s not a situation where she’s locking herself in forever.
I thought of Fleabag a couple of times while reading, with the idea of trespassing, of crossing a line to possess someone, to let that vulnerability open you up, then to have to walk away. Also in how the characters break the fourth wall and address the reader sometimes. I’ve been known to connect too much in life back to Fleabag, so stop me if I’m reaching. Are there things that you like to watch, read, or listen to, that help you get into an imaginative headspace?
Absolutely, and I love that parallel. I have a playlist that I listened to while I was writing this. It’s on all my social media now. It’s not a publishing gimmick; I listened to it every day when I was writing. It has a lot of Goth-y, electronic love songs.
I watch a ton of TV. One thing that I think is so cool about TV right now is that it’s so boundary pushing. Not that that isn’t happening in books; it totally is. But I think that when you look at the last decade of TV, it’s like the whole medium has shifted in this exciting way. And you have something like BoJack Horseman, and something like Fleabag, and you’re like, “Oh, you actually just expanded the genre.” Seeing the innovations happening in that medium is exciting because it’s like, oh it still is possible to innovate, actually. It’s endless.
I feel that way about your book! When stories surprise and delight me, they just make me want to be better in my own attempts at art. Like, look what you can do.
Yeah, it gives you permission. I think in general, if you have a weird impulse, usually that’s a really good impulse because it’s not coming out of your conditioning or your desire just to please somebody.
You co-founded 7×7.la at the University of Georgia, where you’re studying for a PhD. It’s like a game of improv (“yes, and…”) between a writer and a visual artist, each building on seven frames. I wanted to ask you about that, and about how visual arts play into your own creative process.
Yeah, thanks for asking about that. 7×7 was started as a collaboration between me and my friend Axel Wilhite, who’s a painter. We’d hang out, and I’d write a few sentences, then he’d draw a little picture, and we’d go back and forth. We were like, this could be fun to do on a larger scale, if we invited other people to play. So we created this platform online for people to do that, and that became 7×7. It’s been really fun to just see what people come up with. The format is like an exquisite corpse. The pair can determine who goes first, the writer or the artist. Say the writer goes first, so they write something, then the artist responds, and then the writer responds, seven times.
That’s so cool. So they’re each pushing each other forward.
Exactly. I know everybody’s creative process is different, but I actually find a constraint to be really helpful. You have to respond to what the other person’s put forward, but you’re completely free in how you do that. For me, it was a good thing to do while I was in the middle of writing this book, and sometimes feeling very stuck, like I was going over the same territory over and over again. It was a way to add some freshness to my practice. Writers should definitely reach out to us if they want to play.
In terms of the visual, when Axel and I started doing that, I was in this phase of my life where—I’ve always been really inspired by visual art—but I hadn’t taken an art class since middle school. I just thought of myself as not an artist, and it felt like something that wasn’t for me. I started teaching creative writing classes that incorporated an element of inspiration from visual art, or incorporated some visual exercises alongside the writing exercises, but it was all designed to inspire writing. At one point, I was like, oh, I seem to be kind of obsessed with this. Maybe I actually want to make art. And that was a scary thing to admit because, of course, I’m a total beginner in it.
That’s like Mira Jacob, how she taught herself to draw for Good Talk.
Yes! That was so inspiring to me, because, in short, I decided I had to try. I took a comics class. What was amazing was that I had the idea for my next book already. It’s a creative nonfiction book about family history, and American history. I was really excited to get into the material, but I had no idea how to start. I started in all these ways that felt like it had no life. During the comics course, I was like, what if I made a one-page comic about my grandmother. It wasn’t easy to draw well, but to tell the story in that way—it just flowed. It came out so naturally. So that was really exciting. Then I went into this whole spiral where I was like, do I have to take art classes for five years now?
Like an identity crisis.
It was totally an identity crisis. I was so thrilled when I came across Mira Jacob’s book, because I was like, “Oh, she just found a hack.”
It goes back to the TV thing, where it’s like, here’s the way we can do something a little different, and push a boundary, but it tells the story in the way that it wants to be told. And that’s okay. There’s room for that.
Amy Bonnaffons is the author of the story collection The Wrong Heaven and the novel The Regrets, both published by Little, Brown. Amy is a founding editor of 7×7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, GA, where she is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.