Everything comes easy for Zach Johnston. Only 24 years old, he’s got it all– the girl, the high paying tech job, and the rent-controlled apartment in the Village. But when his best friend overdoses and his girlfriend leaves him, his inability to connect with other people overwhelms him.
Desperate to hide his pain from Amanda, the ex who met “11 out of 13 criteria” on his friend’s most important checklist, Zach plasters on a smile as he rejoins his single friends chasing girls at seedy bars and grungy apartments, hoping the emptiness inside him will disappear if he pretends it doesn’t exist. As he descends into a haze of weed, booze, and hallucinogens, Zach recognizes his remaining friendships for what they are— partnerships of convenience, forged long ago simply on the shared desire to get high and get laid, continuing to this day because the effort required to replace them is too great. He also turns his judgmental lens inwards and begins to understand the consequences of his one night stands and shameless flirting, and the perils of assuming everyone he meets is dumber than he is.
At the peak of this crisis of confidence, Zach meets Zoey Mclemore, the beautiful, intelligent woman he has always told himself he could love and marry. Eating caramels sober with her is better than being drunk or high with anyone else. But when Zoey finds Zach drunk and alone with Amanda, he knows he must show Zoey he is ready to be an adult, or face never watching Spongebob with her again.
Equal parts whimsical romantic comedy and cynical literary fiction, LOVE FROM AMANDA TO ZOEY is the story of a successful man who doesn’t feel like he’s successful or a man, and his struggle to understand the meanings of life and Zoey’s latest text.
While I walked to the Italian restaurant that I had picked out (Zoey had told me the onus was on me after she had managed to find the only caramel place in the Tri-state area for our first meeting), I rehearsed my opening lines. I rehearsed a few anecdotes that I could share. I rehearsed laughing at her spontaneous and relevant anecdotes that I was sure she would have regardless of the subject matter.
I saw her seated at a table in the corner when I got there. It was a small place, consisting of two “rooms” that were only separated by a frame that came down from the ceiling for a foot or so and than receded. She was seated in the back, near the bar. The bar had a white marble countertop and high black chairs crafted out of thin metal. The tables were a similar style, with thin twisting metal covered by burgundy tablecloths. She waved. Her hair was down, and she was wearing an olive blouse that was more revealing than what she had worn for caramels. Her jeans were a deep dark blue, almost black. I pretended not to see her, and had a waiter lead me over. He was a suave Italian man who spoke with a thick accent. It sounded too strong to be real. I figured it was supposed to contribute to the illusion that we were dining in Florence or Rome rather than SoHo. I thanked him and looked at Zoey. She frowned. I stuck out a hand.
“I’m Zach. It’s nice to finally meet you.” She didn’t laugh.
“Oh, don’t do that. You can come up with something better, can’t you?” I sat down.
“Well, then. There goes all the lines I rehearsed.” I sighed. She laughed.
“See? That was funny. Not that cheesy pretend this is our first date all over again stuff. You’re funny when you stop thinking about what you say.”
“Thank you? I think?” I took off my coat and folded it over the back of my chair.
“That was a compliment.” She picked up the menu. “Let’s get drinks. I’ve had a long day.”
“I’ll focus on the positive parts of it. And yeah, me too.” I signaled over the waiter. I opened my mouth.
“Can we get a bottle of the house Pinot Grigio?” The words didn’t come from me. Zoey smiled at me as the waiter wrote down her order and took the wine list. “I hope you don’t mind, I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“It’s fine. But if we’re smashing the patriarchy, you better pick up the check.” She smiled wider.
“Well, I’m not completely opposed to chauvinism.” I snorted. I looked over the menu.
“So if I’m not allowed to pretend this is our first date, I assume I can’t ask again what you do for a living?” I looked at her over the edge of my menu.
“Well you wouldn’t, except you never asked me that last time.” She didn’t look up from her menu.
“I didn’t?” I put down the menu.
“It’s okay, you were just concerned with making sure I understood anti-humor.” I groaned and she laughed. “I’m a grad student at Columbia.” I stood up.
“Well then, I think I better be going.” Her eyebrows raised and her mouth opened.
“Us NYU Bobcats don’t mix with you highbrow types.” I sat back down. We giggled. Our wine arrived. I poured us each a glass. “What are you studying?”
“Particle physics.” I looked up. A little wine spilled on the table. She studied my reaction carefully.
“Wow, that’s impressive. There aren’t many women in physics, are there?”
“No, but there are probably more than there are in computer science.” She took a sip of her wine. “Mmm, that’s good. I love wine.”
“Touché,” I said. I racked my brain for what I remembered about particle physics from the one class I had taken sophomore year. “So, string theory?”
“Is a thing in physics, yes. Let’s not do that, though.”
“Do what?” I went back to the menu.
“I’ll promise not to pretend to know how to program if you promise not to make me explain the universe to you.” She leaned down and blew out the candles that were sitting on the table. I frowned.
“What did you do that for?” The waiter, I think his name was Marco, brought over fresh bread. I ripped a piece and Zoey passed me a pat of butter.
“I don’t like the flame, it worries me.” I spread the butter on the bread.
“There’s a scenario I see playing out where the candle is knocked over, the tablecloth catches fire, and the whole place burns down in a fiery inferno. We escape, barely, but they expect us to pay for all the damages.” She said all this quickly, then looked at me to see how I reacted. She was showing me her weird side way earlier than she was supposed to.
“That’s all right, I’m paying for dinner, remember?” She smiled and I continued, “So that includes any fire-related charges.” I bit into the warm bread. “You have to try this bread, it’s the reason I come here.”
“You bring all the girls here?” She took a piece of bread and bit into it.
“Just the ones my mother sets me up with. By the way, if we’re sharing strange things we do in restaurants-”
“It’s not strange to dislike fire.”
“No, but it’s strange to have a whole scene playing out in your head as a the reason for disliking it.”
“Fair enough, go ahead. What do you do? Eat with your hands? Order only appetizers?” She put down her menu and rested her head on her hands. She was interested, it seemed. “I’m interested.”
“I like to sit facing the door.” She faked being offended.
“Are you really asking me, a lady, to move?”
“I wasn’t asking anything, I was just informing you of a preference I have. Now, if you were to take that information and choose to offer to switch seats with me, I wouldn’t object…” I trailed off and snuck a peek at her cleavage. She noticed. I’m sure she did.
“Well, it just so happens that I also like to sit facing the door. I watch for assassins.”
“Me too! Well, more like I watch for people I don’t like so I can avoid them. But I imagine I wouldn’t like assassins very much.” I finished the bread and reached for another piece.
“I’ll keep an eye out for you, how’s that? If an assassin comes in looking for you, or if your mother were to have just walked in, I’d let you know.”
“Jeez,” I said, laughing, “I don’t know which would be worse, an assassin or my mother.” Zoey’s eyes got wide. She shook her head.
“I certainly do hope you’re kidding.” My mother’s voice was icy. I turned around. She was wearing a purple evening gown and had her arm linked with Edward’s. That smug bastard nodded politely at me.
“Oh, Mom, what’re you doing here?” She looked at me with derision.
“I decided, on my first night in a new city, to try a restaurant that my loving son who would never compare me to an assassin recommended. What’re you doing here, and have you seen my son?”
Ian Mark first dipped his toes into the writing waters as a high school senior when his essay equating college admissions with dating was published in Boston Globe Magazine.
After a string of one-night standard applications he hooked up with NYU and spent the next 3 years immersed in Manhattan (and yes, sigh, occasionally Brooklyn) nightlife.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude with a B.A in English and American Literature in 2015.
Forgoing a lucrative career in… uh… Englishonomics maybe?
Ian placed his degree somewhere he cannot remember and absconded to Los Angeles, CA, where he hosts The Pasadonuts Improv Livestream every week and works as an actor in film and television.
His writing has appeared in Hive Magazine, Outrageous Fortune, CelticsBlog, the Newton Tab, and Washington Square News.
He grew up in Newton, MA, where he perfected the art of faking illness to skip school and read novels all day.
After reading a thousand or so he began imagining writing his own.
After a hundred more he jumped in the deep end.
His debut novel Love from Amanda to Zoey was published by Simon & Schuste/Omnific Valentine’s Day 2018.
He has no children or pets.
Meet the Author
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer. I read tons of novels growing up and I was convinced you had to be insane to write a novel. When I got to NYU I had insomnia, and often the only thing that tired me out enough to fall asleep was writing down the bizarre ideas sprinting through my brain. I write because the words demand to be let out.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
I like to spend a few months thinking about the central questions driving the work, baking them in my subconscious oven. I wrote my debut novel Love from Amanda to Zoey over spring break freshman year— 10,000 words a day for six days. My second novel Just a Dream was more ambitious and took about 45 days spread between winter break sophomore year and the summer after. I’ve been baking my third novel for the last 4 years.
Q: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I like to write in chunks of about 2,000 words. For Love from Amanda to Zoey, I did 5 chunks a day— I wrote when I woke up, after I ate breakfast, before and after I ate lunch, and before dinner. During writing Just a Dream, I had other obligations, so I wrote 2,000 words right when I woke up (or after I’d had my coffee). I find that writing by word count makes it so when I finish for the day, I know where I’ll start tomorrow. Then throughout the rest of the day it’ll cross my mind frequently and I’ll think about it differently than during active writing.
Q: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Writing is easy for me. A lot of writer culture fetishizes the struggle of the blank page— the accoutrements and circumstances needed to produce are mind-boggling to me. If writing was as hard for me as so many writers say it is for them, I wouldn’t write. Writing lets me escape— it doesn’t matter what’s going on or where I am, when I start letting the words out the rest of the world drops away.
Q: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
My first novel was just an attempt to write a novel— when I started I wasn’t sure I’d finish it. It was inspired by the thousand novels I read growing up. My second was driven by my questions about the nature of reality. Namely, does objective reality exist? Is shared reality necessary to the human experience? If pushing a button could send me to a dream utopia designed just for me, why wouldn’t I push the button?
Q: When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I was 18 when I wrote the first draft of Love from Amanda to Zoey, as mentioned earlier.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am also an actor, director, and improviser. While I love the solitary creative bliss of crafting a novel, with every word and comma mine and exactly where I want them to be, acting and improv connect me to other people in a way writing does not. Pursuing creative nirvana in those realms requires collaborating, giving up control, allowing myself to live in the moment. Basically, I like to be creative as possible in as many ways as possible. And when I’m done for the day and my mind is turning to mush, I like watching my hometown teams the Pats and the Celtics.
Q: How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
I’ve written two. My favorite is Just a Dream— I wrote 90,000+ words trying to determine the necessity of reality, and I still can’t figure out if I’d push the button or not.
Q: Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Read a lot. Write a lot. If you’re not doing those things you might as well not try. I read so many books that when I tried to write my brain had thousands of examples of things I like writers doing and things I don’t like writers doing. You have to know what’s been done before you can innovate, or even imitate. Forget what other people like— write things that make you happy to read them. The chief aim should be to fulfill yourself, not to make money or become famous.
Q: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
The comment I get over and over again for both novels and other pieces I’ve written is this: “I could really see this as a movie or tv show.” The comparisons I hear most for Just a Dream are Inception and The Matrix. I don’t know if it’s my writing style or the ideas I like to tackle but people across a wide range of demographics seem to want to see my stories come to life on the big screen.
Q: What do you think makes a good story?
I’ve spent many, many hours thinking about this. When we sit down to open a book we’re looking for lots of things: compelling characters, elegant worlds, surprising plot twists, and many more elements. Above all else, I think we’re hoping to be taken on an emotional journey. To me, all satisfying narratives take the reader through a series of ups and downs, emotional variances that play a melody across our heartstrings, each note necessary to make the next one resonate, so that when we reach the final page, we’re ready for the harmony’s resolution, that one final feeling. I won’t care about Zach finding love with Zoey unless I’ve already felt something about each of them. Emotional arcs are more important than anything else. My third novel aims to tell a complete story without time. That is, instead of a beginning, middle, and end linked by a few characters experiencing things within a certain period of time, the same minute will repeat over and over from dozens of povs. I believe that if I play the emotional notes in the right order, when readers finish the book it will feel like a complete story has unfolded, despite no time passing.
Q: As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I spent the vast majority of my time playing football and basketball, watching football and basketball, and playing video game football and basketball. As you might guess, I wanted to play in the NFL or NBA.
Six years they stole from me.