My Amy: The Life We Shared
by Tyler James
Chicago Review Press
Guest review by Adam Kaz
Authors who write about their lives with dead celebrities must sincerely and comprehensively answer a question that fantasy writers, for example, rarely ever face.
Why do readers need this book?
Artists working in make-believe, when they face that question, often counter with, “I don’t know, why not?” And what can we do to refute them?
But when the book’s subject has so much exposure. When it comes after a laundry list of other books, news articles, and documentaries—as these I-knew-them-once memoirs often do—the question holds greater weight. Without an answer, we, the concerned public, might assume the worst: that this author adds nothing of substance to anyone’s conversation, that the book profits off tragedy in the most cynical way and that we (the public) are worse people for having read it.
If we take musician-turned-writer Tyler James, Amy Winehouse’s lifelong best friend and the author of My Amy: The Life We Shared, at his word, the reason for his memoir is to “tell the real story, because she can’t.” Or so it says on the back cover.
It is a promise people familiar with the genre have heard before. But for good reason, especially as it relates to a fascinating figure like Winehouse.
In her brief 27 years, the British singer became one of the most celebrated and controversial artists of her generation, famous for her gorgeous voice and infamous for her corrosive substance abuse issues. James first met Winehouse when they were preteens at Sylvia Young’s Theatre School in London. He stayed by her side through the highs and lows of stardom. No doubt, he has the life experience to write a compelling book.
Unfortunately, he did not deliver—at least not with the “real story” he promised.
Sure, there are some moments where he “sets the record straight.” James leverages his intimate relationship with Winehouse to deliver information fans might not have otherwise known. For example, he goes after misconceptions levied against her by the press with comments like, “People on the outside think she never got better. Most people don’t know she stopped taking drugs for years because the tabloids lied about it.” But that’s hardly the same thing as telling the “real story.”
James cannot deliver an entirely revealing portrait of Amy Winehouse because, after reading the book, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could see this picture of her as “real.” The character of Amy Winehouse—and yes, she very clearly reads as a character—through James’ eyes is shockingly one-dimensional and derivative.
Throughout her entire life and career, James describes Winehouse through the language of clichés. As a teenager, she is a moody YA heroine, “She was never happy-go-lucky; she was complicated, solitary, and reclusive, like me.” When she meets future-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, James reduces her to a lovestruck ingénue, “Amy would sit and stare at him, salivating. I saw that look countless times: she was in awe of him.”
On more than one occasion, James describes her seedy drug hangouts as possessing “the Trainspotting vibe,” as though he can only illustrate these visceral settings through references to their portrayals in better art. This kind of lazy writing appears in other places. When Winehouse cries and cuts herself, a scene which could have been deeply disturbing if handled by a more adept author, James describes it as “like a real-life horror movie.”
This is not to say that the memoir lacks anecdotes and facts about Winehouse’s life. Things certainly happen. James provides details about partying with Winehouse, the homes they shared, his attempts to get her into rehab and her songwriting process. The book includes a comprehensive “behind the scenes” of some of the biggest moments in her career, including the 2008 Grammy Awards and her disastrous 2011 Belgrade performance. It’s just that many of these stories fall flat because they read as disimpassioned dictations from a writer trying to string together loosely associated memories.
At its very worst, the book devolves into a series of celebrity name-drops. Russell Brand, Adele, and Sharon Osbourne pass through the story with little more purpose, it seems, than to lend James credibility. It feels cringey and weird.
There are, however, moments where this book really does shine. While it fails as a portrait of a fully realized woman, it succeeds as an exploration into the day-to-day struggles of drug addiction, alcoholism, and bulimia. James pulls off striking imagery to reflect the inner turmoil of an addict, even if the bigger story around it seems jumbled and largely uninspired.
An alcoholic himself, James confidently explores the accept-try-relapse-accept-try cycle that addicts go through. He writes about his withdrawal symptoms in rehab, “You’re shouting at walls, telling walls how you feel, throwing things, having confrontations with strangers who are right in your face…all mind games, exercises, and techniques. It teaches you how to confront yourself and deal with yourself and deal with anything. How to not be affected by things, how to separate your mind from your body. Ultimately it just keeps you busy.”
It is frustrating to read passages like this and wonder, “Where were these details and ruminations when you were talking about her?” When he explores his own struggles with addiction, he captures the sensory details, internal frustrations, and paradoxes that make for a compelling story.
Let’s be clear: there is no reason to think of this book as a cynical cash-grab. James is not a bad man. Readers are not bad people for buying this book. The author knew Amy, respected her and, in this work, tries his best to protect her legacy. The greatest sin is not in the story or the intent, it is in the prose; they do not achieve the high bar James set for himself.
My Amy is available at most bookstores and through the Chicago Review Press website.
Adam Kaz is a Chicago writer and marketing professional. He graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2018, with a bachelor’s degree in advertising. As the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine The Ground is Uneven, Kaz publishes flash fiction dealing with themes like isolation, ambition, and growing up.