In fiction and in life, writer focuses on change
Martha Amore has worked with the struggling around the world - and tackled motherhood
Anchorage Daily News
It doesn't spoil Martha Amore's grand-prize-winning short story,
"Painkillers," to say ahead of time that one of its useful observations
is this: Some people can change their lives for the better, and some
people simply can't. And the question "why?" lies at the heart of her
It's a question Amore used to ask herself in real life, too, when
she served as a caseworker for some of the most chronic street drunks
and addicts in Anchorage. There she found that some clients could
literally rise from the gutter and save themselves - and some who
couldn't (or wouldn't) instead tried to deaden their pain.
"The interesting thing is that people who go about trying to numb
their pain all the time - if they're addicts or alcoholics - they're
pretty much just racking up more and more pain," Amore says now.
"They're also not experiencing life."
At least not the kind of life experienced by Anna, the risk-taker in
Amore's often humorous story of two would-be artists who end up
cleaning homes in San Francisco for a living. Anna, with her "dark,
sparkling eyes," is not only the one willing to take chances that
propel her and her boyfriend, Henry, in the wrong direction - almost to
the brink - but she's also willing to change course at the last minute.
"Anna sometimes scared me," confides Henry, as the story's partly
bewildered narrator. "The first time, we were posting flyers for our
cleaning service around town, me on my mountain bike, Anna holding my
seat post, trailing behind me on roller blades. As we dropped down the
Haight Street hill, Anna kept yelling at me to pedal faster. She never
wore a helmet. I ignored her and continued to ease on the brakes as a
bus roared beside us. We were closing in on the intersection at the
bottom of the hill.
"'Come on, Henry! We can make the light!' she yelled.
"I shook my head, clamping down harder on the brakes. Anna glided up
a few inches, right next to me, and crouched like a speed skater. Next
thing I knew, she was sailing down the hill alone ..."
Almost like Martha Amore.
"I'm a very Midwestern gal," says Amore, 34, launching into her
family history around large mugs of coffee set on a bare wooden dinner
table in the modest four-bedroom home she shares with her husband, John
Amore, a municipal real estate assessor, and their two daughters -
Lily, who's almost 1, and Kate, who's almost 3. The house rests on a
shady street next to Balto Seppala Park in West Anchorage.
She was born Martha Jean Panschar in Oak Park, Ill., the youngest of
four children in a mostly red-haired Catholic family led by an
Irish-American mother and a father who worked as an accountant.
She attended college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor,
where in 1992 she earned a bachelor's degree in political science -
then left the Midwest behind, first by traveling with a girlfriend to
Chile and Brazil, then by settling down in San Francisco, where she got
her first job assisting homeless, runaway teenagers through Catholic
She also continued to travel - to Alaska in 1994, then to Africa in
1995. In Tanzania she got a job as an intern with a children's
organization that helped street kids. She also contracted malaria.
Returning to San Francisco after a two-month convalescence, she
landed a job as a union organizer for the AFL-CIO, which involved a lot
of road trips. In Reno, Nev., she met up with John Amore, her older
brother's best friend, and they started to date.
"It was a long-distance thing," she says. "I didn't want to move to
Reno, and he didn't want to move to San Francisco. So we both kind of
And why Alaska?
"When I was a kid I would hear about Susan Butcher (the Iditarod
champion) and all that," Amore recalls. "So I always had it in my mind
- it was like this latent dream - that I would move to Alaska one day.
"And I was really surprised when I mentioned it to John, and he said
he'd lived here before (working in a cannery). And I was really
surprised when John said, 'Yeah, I'll move to Alaska' ... And it's
worked out. We both absolutely love it."
Arriving in Anchorage, she promptly landed a job working for the
municipal SAFE City Program that tries to combat violence, crime and
homelessness in the community. Then she became a case-worker for
Homeward Bound, helping some of the most chronic alcoholics and street
people in town help themselves.
After a couple years, she and John got married - and Martha changed
her last name from Panschar to Amore. Hardly any of the married women
she knows take their husbands' last names anymore, Amore says. But she
liked the idea of running against the grain - and her writer's ear also
liked the pairing of "Martha" and "Amore."
She also began to write, mostly earnest nonfiction accounts of her
experiences in Africa, which she says weren't very successful. Then she
took some UAA writing courses. The instructor, Michael Burwell,
encouraged her to submit one of her stories to the 2000 UAA/ADN
Creative Writing Contest. She did, and her story won first place in
that year's college fiction division.
The affirmation was life-changing, Amore says. So was the news,
about a year later, that she was going to be a mother. Instead of just
taking three months off from her job for the delivery, she decided to
quit and become a full-time "stay-at-home mom" - like her own mother
She considers herself a feminist, but she also thinks the feminist
movement of the '60s and '70s went too far in demeaning the role of the
"It was, 'You know, you don't have to be just a housewife ...' And
in a way that wasn't a good message to send out, because it basically
made it sound unimportant. And I think it's really important."
Right now, Kate and Lily are the joy of her life, she says. But it's
also a life that's begun to evolve since last fall, when she started
attending evening workshops in UAA's highly competitive graduate
creative writing program. She says she's learned to rely less on
narration, and instead, "show" the action. She's also depending less on
"Now I try to think more in terms of character and not worry as much
about plot or 'situation' - and just sort of see what develops from
putting two characters in a room."
Henry, the narrator, who really lies at the crux of "Painkillers,"
is a composite character who was actually inspired by a friend in
California, Amore says. That he cleaned houses for a living used to
strike her as out of character, since he didn't seem to be the
house-cleaner type. Then one day he explained to her that earlier in
his career he had a business with an ex-girlfriend and they used to
steal prescription painkillers from the houses they cleaned.
"Then it all made sense to me," she says with a laugh. "It was like, 'Ah, now I can see you cleaning houses.' "
And what about Anna? Is there a little bit of Martha in her? Amore just laughs.
"I wish I could say it was autobiographical," she says.
But like Anna, she does entertain some fairly lofty possibilities for herself.
"I would love to be a novelist and actually make money from it," she
says. "I'd say that's my dream. That's what I've always wanted."
When it came down to it in the past, she never had the courage to go
for it, Amore says. Now, surprisingly, she feels as if she does - at
the very time that she's committed herself to the kind of maternal role
that used to be considered stifling. Instead she's using it to reinvent
"Somehow, having kids," she says, "especially after my first
daughter was born - I've had the feeling that now I can do anything."