Sam Heaps’s debut memoir Proximity unfolds as a series of letters. Some are prefaced by and addressed to a recent ex, A., while the remainder, numbered with (out-of-order) roman numerals ranging from I to XCIV, address the “yous” that make up Sam’s sexual and romantic history. This compendium of exes (lovers, crushes, harassers, worse) has no simple linear narrative, but a definite occasion for telling: A. has, for the second time, returned to an exclusive relationship with his wife. The letters that result—memories, dreams, self-remonstrations, and frank disclosures—feel like both an attempt to make sense of an all-consuming heartbreak, and also an act of defiance, examining the people, power dynamics, and personal history that have made that pain possible and lighting them on fire in the process. I thought it would be fitting to discuss this epistolary memoir in an email correspondence. Stretching between March and June of 2023, our conversation was a welcome opportunity to consider Proximity and its lessons about the pain and power of writing at length alongside Sam’s generous responses.
The first time I read your book was in January, on a plane to California; I had the feeling that a few weeks under sunny skies away from work and my usual routine would help me to feel both human and animal again: a part of this world, and able to enjoy the pleasure that offers. In that mood, I let your book wash over me, feeding that feeling right up until the final page, which holds a picture of a distant figure on a beach. (Is it you?) The ending was perfect, reminding me of a film I love, Wavelength (1967), which ends on a similar image. Both seem to invite the audience into a moment of transcendence; the work of art has burst past the boundaries it established up until that moment, leaving a sense of expansive possibility in its wake.
Over the past few days, I’ve re-read Proximity at home, where life has collapsed once again into something small and less hopeful, as it is apt to. I think your book reflects this oscillation very much, taking us between moments of soaring ecstasy and small humiliation. Back in the everyday, though, I’m able to do something that often gives me comfort: to think about a book, and the structure that prepares us for its conclusion.
In Proximity, fragments chronicle an intimate and painful relationship with A., as well as relationships, one-night stands, and passing interactions that precede and follow it. The book meditates on the purpose of collecting them: In places, you call it an archive and inventory. You also describe covering your walls in brown paper to begin. For me, this moment conjures a murder board: There is a need to unearth elements and get to the heart of a mystery (if not a crime).
But perhaps the evidence comes first: The mystery is what kind of story will emerge. You ask: “Is this a love story? If not reader. What story is this.” I want to believe this is a love story. At one point, you write, “It is the beach I really love and not any human,” and in the final moments, that photograph seems to gesture to a love rediscovered. But perhaps that is too simplistic in a book where exorcism and re-traumatization cannot be completely untangled.
So, to dive to the heart of that mystery: How did the shape of the book change over the course of writing it—and has it continued to change as you’ve launched it, hearing from readers giving their own answers to the questions posed in the book? I mean this on both a formal level (did you write chronologically and re-order fragments? Was it written in a sudden rush, or over years?), and on a conceptual level (how did your understanding of the questions posed and answered changed over the course of its writing and release)?
Wishing you many big, joyful, transcendent moments in this time of recent release—
This is such a gift. Being read and engaged with is something so new to me, and I just want to express from the start how grateful I am for your time and smart careful reading, and the connection. And thank you so much for the well-wishes! It has been a bittersweet release for sure, but also full of so many moments of love and friendship.
I’ve been trying to complete this correspondence throughout the week, very nervous I won’t say what I want how I want, and now it is the first rainstorm of April and I’m writing over and over again—Is it a love story?
That final image is of me, and I so appreciate your attention to it as punctuation. An English professor I was in a relationship with is the photographer. Something about the posture, I know I was simultaneously in a state of bliss, and perhaps for that reason, wondering if I should have put rocks in my pockets. I clearly want to be consumed by the things I love. “Love.” I am glad you hope this is a love story. I hope it is too I think? Except for when I’m afraid that it is, which would make the loss a real loss.
My relationship to A. continued to grow more complicated after this book was picked up for publication, and he hurt me, we hurt each other, many many more times. Very little in the ensuing relationship should be called love, but of course I am always straining for a definition here. The loss of this non-love “love” is a permanent mark on me, and the only history I have to look to to determine what the hurt is, why it has transformed me so utterly, is stories of romantic heartbreak. Although—the pain does hit the same way my loss of Jesus Christ felt. So maybe the only way I know how to love is to worship. Maybe this isn’t a love story, but an investigation of faith? I would love to have a definitive answer to this.
To answer your question on structure, with the exception of two essays, I wrote this book in three months during the start of lockdown in a series of emails to A. I had been plotting for some time though, the brown paper did indeed look like a murder board, and frightened many sexual partners. I appreciate this articulation of the book as a mystery. It is a book of questions that I am still asking myself, and each attempt at restructuring or reorganizing was an attempt to get closer to the truth.
Actually writing the book was very intuitive though. I would wake up alone in my apartment, teach a class, assess my emotional state, and write whatever I felt wouldn’t be too painful to manage that day. Everything came out with a desperate speed. I wanted more content to keep A.’s attention longer. I was sharing the essays with him almost as quickly as I was writing them. In the organization I try to give myself and the reader some safety. Respite after the bad memories, levity after taking myself too seriously—although I am sorry I am hopelessly melodramatic. I was almost unbelievably lucky that there were no substantive edits through the publication process, and Proximity remains a little time capsule in a way I hope is successfully conveyed to the reader as well.
I also appreciate that you think the book successfully pulls the reader through a variety of emotional states, as I am in a sad state right now, so it all reads to me as so sad. How to Adjust to the Dark though feels compulsively driven by a forward moving narrative. There seems always to be a destination you are reaching. Does this feel true to your experience of writing? I would love to talk more about time, or the feeling of time.
Eager to continue talking.
I suppose we are all always grasping at definitions of love. There is the love between friends and between writers, the kind of love you say you’ve experienced during your book release. The love of God or what we imagine God to be. The love or non-love of the romantic Others who we wish to be consumed by. When I said I want to believe your book is a love story, I don’t mean a love story between you and A. To know that the photograph was captured by an ex-lover (him or another) angers me—how dare he!—although I should have known. I suppose I want to believe that it is a love story between you and the ocean, not as a force of destruction but of creation. A love story between you and whatever helped you weather the storms of these relationships and catastrophes and make art of them.
To put it another way, I’m realizing I think it is—I see it as—the kind of book I wasn’t able to write.
It’s interesting to hear how you read How to Adjust to the Dark. I am glad it feels driven forward by narrative, as that is what I set out to do; I imposed a narrative frame on it years after writing the first draft. Only after reading your email does it occur to me how similar our books are in their inciting impulse: Mine, too, came out in a rush, exploring my relationships one by one as a way to get closer to some truth about myself (and especially myself as a writer, in absolutely destructive romantic and sexual relationships with other writers). But after I put aside the book for several years, what had once been memoir became fiction; I decided that readers wanted narrative, and the book would hold together more tightly with it. And, beyond that, I had perhaps reached the level of distance from the self and the time encapsulated in the manuscript that I simply needed to destroy it. What had once been very much a book about nebulous self-discovery, partially through literal magic, became a book that ends with a marriage plot. (Not only a marriage plot, but definitely a marriage plot.)
I love how you say that you, on the other hand, kept revising toward the truth, but I can see how elusive that would be, especially if the relationship that spurred the text kept unfurling. (You could always try the Leaves of Grass with Proximity, though . . . )
Did you always know you’d call this memoir? This feels so real, even though I didn’t know that it had its origins in real emails written under the constraints of your temporal and emotional capacity to write.
I’m also curious about what it was like to gradually become conscious that the reader would become a voyeur on those real emails. The pronoun “you” appears in many guises throughout the book—as A., as the default pronoun for others, sometimes as an avatar for yourself. But there is also consciousness of the reader, a sometimes reluctant consciousness: “I have not read Jane Eyre and this is not direct address.”
How did you think about the reader? Someone so proximate to the text yet unable to respond, to write back? (I am glad I can.)
“. . . I had perhaps reached the level of distance from the self and the time encapsulated in the manuscript that I simply needed to destroy it.” I read this the first time as I needed to destroy the self, vs. the manuscript, but I’m interested in this second meaning. I am so precious with all my work and memories, but I also feel totally blindsided by this articulation of my book being any kind of creation. It feels so often to me like a holding onto, at best a secretion, a residual, not anything new. It is pleasurable to look at it this way though.
I don’t like the idea of you not being able to write a book like Proximity (it simply isn’t true), but I’m fairly certain I could not write a book like How to Adjust to the Dark. I am jealous of the careful craft. I feel like so much of what I love about writing and sharing writing is expressing the chaos of emotion. I envy so much people who are able to edit, destroy, sculpt. Sometimes I worry I explode onto the page, and what may seem like stylistic choices are really just my overeagerness and inability to complete my own thoughts.
I will shamefully say I don’t think of the reader enough in writing. But also maybe I am constantly thinking of the reader, again, as more of a god-like figure? Maybe if I thought of the reader as a person, or all the separate people who would eventually pick up the book, I would have protected myself and others a little more. When I think of the reader while writing, it is to ask how can I share and be perceived in order to be confirmed that what I experience is the truth. So maybe the reader is still, for me, one deified person.
Fiction actually always felt like the better way to do this to me. Memoir seems so partial. Maybe that’s why I call Proximity that? I think I always knew I could only refer to it as an attempt at absolute truth-telling, or an attempt at absolute loyalty to memory.
What did you find that you were able to do in fiction that you weren’t in your initial project?
(Still thinking about love and the sea and the intruding eyes.)
I suppose we’re always envious of writing that does what we feel we cannot. To explode; to put one’s deepest thoughts, even if incomplete, on the page; to be vulnerable; to put one’s own truth before one’s concept of the reader—these all seem like such admirable and, really, generous writerly acts to me! (And, I’m told, we should always try to do what we feel is just beyond our reach, so I’ll be working on it.) I’ve said this, I’m sure many others have said this: There’s such an intimacy to your writing, and perhaps it is achieved precisely by not thinking too much about the reader.
You say that a goal is to “confirm . . . that what I experience is the truth.” I think in many ways it’s at the heart of what drives me to write, too, although I still have no clue whether that’s best achieved in fiction or memoir or what. The main thing I was able to accomplish by turning is something you hint at—finding a greater measure of safety, or at least the illusion of it. Plausible deniability: “If you find this narrator narcissistic, self-indulgent, petty, navel-gazing, delusional, rest assured she is not me.” But, most of all, it offered the possibility to conclude. At the end of my book, my narrator seems to understand why she writes, and to be full of hope that she will continue to do so for herself rather than for any imagined reader. Alas, I cannot say that is true of me; I wonder why and should I and can I really continue to quite often. A memoir would have been, as you say, partial. Fiction offers the possibility for enduring revelation; life does not seem to.
I’d love to talk more about safety: You say that, had you thought differently about the reader, you could have protected yourself and others. “Protecting myself”—How can I do this and still write? Every stage (writing, editing, being read, reading and performing) can be so fraught. But I sense strands of this impulse in your work, which I have wanted to talk about. I’m thinking in particular of section LXXIV: “The First Woman I Fuck / [Redacted. Mine.]” It feels like you know yourself, or the shape of this book, enough to know what should not be exposed to the reader.
Or am I misunderstanding this impulse? Are there certain strands of truth, experience, and life that were simply irrelevant to the patterns and experiences that began to bubble up—to explode—as you wrote to A.?
I’m also curious what, if anything, in life helps you find protection and solace after the act of writing itself. After delving into the chaos of emotion, what comes next?
That last question is something I should pay a little more attention to. Or give more care to. I’m not sure I have a good answer. With Proximity the hope was after the book there would be a little less internal pain, having externalized so much of it. As I think we discussed, that hasn’t happened. The most recent project I completed I felt similarly, like if I could write my way through the experience I was in that I would be just that, through. I do harbor a resentment for writing that is protected, which is of course probably a jealousy. The pair of sections you mentioned, XXIV and LXXIV felt greedy to me, like I was stealing something from the reader. Generously, maybe it was a form of self-care, but if art should be brave, as I want my art to be, those were not my best moments. They could have added more safety for the reader, some nuance.
And thank you for that word, safety, which I was of course dancing around and which is paramount to what I must be seeking even through exhibitionism. I think the only solace can be found in trying again, if not harder then smarter. At least that’s what I tell myself? That if this was agony at least I still have some time to try again and better?
Although having said all that . . . it is funny A. and I would discuss the book in our relationship following its completion, and he called it the “boy’s book”—and I do think there was the through-line in writing of interest in my relationship to masculinity and power: who I am in the system, that loving relationships with women and enby folk didn’t want to be a part of as much. This book does, to me, say something about men and what I want from them and what I aspire to in them and what I am afraid of in them. So it could not have been just self-interest that inspired the withholding of those two large chapters about important women in my life? There is more craft here than I like to give myself credit for?
I also saw that you may be working on some non-fiction. I would love to have this conversation again when you’re a little further along, maybe pull some wisdom from your experiences.
I hope you’re staying safe this summer, emotionally and physically, and looking forward to our next correspondence.
Yes, I think there’s so much art to this tactical withholding, to this focus on masculine power. I wonder (in awe, in surprise) that focusing in this way feels greedy to you—that there is a lingering feeling you owe the reader everything, your whole truth. This seems both admirable and impossible, difficult as it is to make sense of ourselves even in private, even to those we love most. To extend that to strangers from the internet: how generous, how terrifying.
This is something I’ve been thinking about since we started our correspondence (and, yes, related to me wanting to write nonfiction). Or, perhaps even more, what do we owe ourselves as writers? More and more, it feels like the answer (for me) is to hold nothing back, because if writing will always be difficult, and publishing it will bring even more difficulty upon the writer, maybe there is no safety or solace in half-measures.
“The only solace can be found in trying again, if not harder than smarter” you say, and this feels right. It is just a question of what “harder” or “smarter” might mean. For me, I think it means more honesty, less self-consciousness. For you—well, I have no advice, only gratitude that I’ve learned from your writing and our correspondence.
And, of course, a question: What’s next? We’ve tackled some of the agony of writing about the past and confronting it again through revision and publishing—so let’s talk about the present, and about the future. What have you been reading and writing? I know you’ve also been teaching a workshop on “The Modality of Mania,” which I’d love to hear about!
I must sound so redundant but that’s all writing is, right? To me. Looking for the truth? Trying to understand and communicate your experience in order to turn it into truth? Anything withheld or obfuscated is a disservice to that quest?
And absolutely, no half-measures.
I’m so grateful you think it is generous and not indulgent.
The present! Yes, right now I’m teaching a class on representing mental illness and emotional pain in narrative, and it has been exciting to explore some of my favorites with a really intimidatingly brilliant class. This week we covered Nate Lippens, Kate Zambreno, and Marc Anthony Richardson, but we’re also looking at Kono Taeko, Elle Nash, Terese Marie Mailhot, Chantal V. Johnson, and Qiu Miaojin. We’re feeling deeply and being kind—it’s lovely.
Outside of that I’ve been watching and reading a lot of Duchamp’s interviews in anticipation of some new work—Eve Babitz, Byzantine history—and I think I’ve read Dictee five times this year and Love Me Tender three. And I will read both of them again in July for sure. I’m feeling indulgent and euphoric in my consumption right now.
I love that this correspondence has taken longer than writing the book did. It was such a fever dream to put to the page and has been such a slow burn upon release. I’m still hoping it finds the person who needs it.
Rebecca van Laer is the author of a novella, How to Adjust to the Dark (Long Day Press, 2022). She lives in the Hudson Valley.
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