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Birnbaum v.

Amy Bloom

Straight from Boston, a conversation with author Amy Bloom on her latest book, Away, the benefits of the writing life, and the tedium of extra-long novels.

Amy Bloom, photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Writer Amy Bloom’s two story collections and three novels (Come to Me, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, Love Invents Us) have consistently garnered award nominations and been anthologized. She has also written a work of nonfiction, Normal, in which she “explores sex and gender through portraits of people who are widely considered not normal.”

Her latest opus, Away, is a full-bodied novel with the breadth of a 19th-century narrative—beginning in Czarist Russia, where a pogrom drives the young protagonist Lilian Leyb to America where she embarks on an odyssey across the United States, and concluding in Alaska on the Telegraph Trail, the attempted telegraph link between the U.S. and Russia. For what it is worth, Away is now in its tenth printing.

This is my fourth or fifth chat with Amy Bloom since the mid-’90s,which, per usual, cuts a wide swath through subjects literary and non-literary. Amy is as engaging face-to-face as she is on the page, which you will no doubt discover as you venture forward.

 

RB: I think this [Away] is a big story. I wonder how big the manuscript—the first take of the manuscript was.

AB: Oh, I don’t know. About 30 to 40 pages longer than it is now.

RB: Really?

AB: I think I just tend to write dense. I don’t have any particular wish to write a 600-page novel.

RB: But it does it seem right to characterize it as a big story?

AB: Yeah, I think it is.

RB: It crosses a lot of geography, a lot of characters—

AB: I think of it as sort of a modern 19th-century novel.

RB: Who’s your favorite character?

AB: That’s very hard. I’m very fond of a lot of them.

RB: Well, they’re fondly portrayed [laughs], even the slightly villainous ones.

AB: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of affection and admiration for Gumdrop. Although I don’t know that she has a terrific sense of humor.

RB: I don’t think she has a sense of humor.

AB: Not much. Whereas Chinky Chang who I’m almost very fond of, I think actually does a good sense of humor. Um, I really like the Gilpins. I like the second Mrs. Gilpin very much, the card shark. I love the Gilpins, actually.

RB: How about the matron at the women’s prison?

AB: Mrs. Mortimer, yes. Well, I feel less personally fond of her in that I wouldn’t want to spend a long evening with her, but I like her as a character. And I like the Bursteins very much, the father and son.

RB: What did you start with? I think I know all your work—much of it. And this is a departure. So what’d you start with?

AB: I think I started with “the hero goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” That’s what I started with. And then I started with, you know these little apocryphal tidbits of this woman who walked to Russia, none of which seem to have much of a grounding in fact. I think of those articles of having been written during the golden years of yellow journalism, when you could pretty much say anything you wanted. And I guess I was just ready to try a bigger story and really just try my hand at a real novel. I mean, I think Love Invents Us is a very good book and I don’t have any regrets about it, but I didn’t understand how to write a novel, which is why there’s not a lot of fabric between the chapters.

RB: And now you do.

AB: I don’t know that I—I think I can get better at it still, but I think I understand it a lot better.

RB: Well, if satisfying literary journalists is any indication, you’ve apparently done that.

AB: Well, that’s always nice. But I guess in terms of what I understand—I don’t feel like I’ve mastered it, but I understand what is required in a novel, in a way I didn’t understand before.

RB: You said a little bit ago that you have no interest in writing a 600-page novel. Why? How do you know that a story wouldn’t develop?

AB: If it turns out that I write a 600-page novel, I mean, I won’t balk. I just think that so often, when I myself am reading a 600-page novel, I often think to myself somewhere around page 400 or somewhere on page 601, “Gosh, this could have used a good editor.” You know—longer did not make it better. Sometimes it has to be that length and it has like this gorgeous fullness, and sometimes you just think to yourself, “Wow, I bet I didn’t need to read that eight-page riff on the nature of brown rice.”

RB: I was thinking that about how somebody recently found a previously undiscovered first draft of War and Peace, which I think was 600 pages shorter than the one that was finally published, which reminded me that any number of writers say to me that they thought they could take War and Peace and cut it down to 500 or 600 pages.

When I myself am reading a 600-page novel, I often think to myself somewhere around page 400, “Gosh, this could have used a good editor.”

AB: War and Peace, I think, is everybody’s favorite example because the good parts are so wonderful, but I think unless you are a very idiosyncratic reader indeed, you find yourself saying, “Gosh, that third wheat-threshing scene: possibly not necessary.”

RB: [laughing] Well, maybe it establishes a mood.

AB: Maybe it does, but I think by the third time, the mood it establishes is one of peasant-like weariness.

RB: [still laughing] Well, that’s important to know—it’s important to experience.

AB: Yes, it is important to evoke exactly what the characters are feeling.

RB: I’m trying to get a sense of—was the last book Normal? So that was what, three years ago?

AB: Something like that.

RB: So is this the book you’ve been working on since then?

AB: More or less.

RB: You’re just gonna give me a one-word answer? You want to elaborate?

AB: [laughing] Well, yeah, I guess so. I mean I was working on some short stories as well. And I did a bunch of TV work.

RB: How was that?

AB: It was fine, it was interesting. I loved my actors, I loved my producers.

RB: What was the show?

AB: It was called State of Mind [2007, Lifetime]. It was about a bunch of shrinks in New Haven, [with] Lili Taylor. It was like television summer camp. I learned a lot about editing, about acting. I learned a lot about costumes. I had a very good time. And there isn’t any reason for me to think that I will be doing the second season in my lifetime.

RB: OK. Well, I don’t really want to know much about television. Since I never watched it, or even knew it was on—but it does add to your C.V.

AB: I was also a very good waitress.

RB: What made you good?

AB: I had a very good memory; I am generally inclined to be cheerful; and I have a sterling constitution.

RB: That would make three great components.

AB: I was, I was outstanding.

RB: Do you handle criticism well?

AB: As a waitress?

RB: Yes.

AB: Yes, because as a waitress mostly what you say to yourself is: “If I can take criticism well, it means I will get an 18 percent tip instead of a 10 percent tip—so why don’t you just tell me how you really feel? And why don’t I try to make you feel better about yourself?”

RB: [laughs] Did that sort of segue into your life as a psychotherapist?

AB: No.

RB: No? No relationship? No connection?

AB: I mean, except my willingness to sort of listen. I do, I find people interesting. It’s always the same thing, whatever the work was.

RB: Yeah. I remember from the last time we talked, which was about Normal, I think you said something about having been to Russia, so I assume that was, in some part, having something to do with this book, although there’s not a lot of stuff in there that you needed to go to Russia for.

AB: Absolutely not.

RB: You could have spoken to a bunch of old Russian Jews and you could have—

AB: I wanted to go to Russia because I wanted to go to Russia.

RB: You wanted to hang out with Colin McCann.

AB: Well, I do like to hang out with Colin McCann and Ron Carlson. We had a nice time, I have to say.

I think for me as a writer, one of the great pleasures in doing this novel was actually being able to use that restraint that I use as a short-story writer. I still feel like I don’t want to read the boring parts.

RB: What was that for?

AB: Oh, some scam…

RB: “Writers Descend upon Normangrad,” or something?”

AB: Some literary seminar in St. Petersburg, run by a guy who had worked out a great racket in which he and his family got to stay in a very nice apartment in St. Petersburg and the writers got to stay in some hotel. We had to bring out the cardboard tube in order to get another roll of toilet paper.

RB: [laughs]

AB: But I had a very good time, and I met some people I really liked, and I got to see Russia, which was great. Yeah, there weren’t many places I had to go to research. The big place I had to go was Alaska. Everything else I could do in various libraries and through various private resources.

RB: That’s right, I think in your acknowledgments, you thanked a bunch of Alaskan-type people. Did you move to Alaska?

AB: [laughs] Why would I move to Alaska?

RB: I don’t know, I’m just asking.

AB: Well, I’ll say this: If I were a single woman and if I wanted more than anything in the world to have a husband, I would move to Alaska.

RB: What’s the count there? Like 50 to one? Why don’t women go to Alaska?

AB: I don’t know; possibly because it’s Alaska. But, I don’t know, I liked Alaska just fine. But it’s true that you cannot swing a cat without getting a marriage proposal. I mean, guys just kinda sidle up to in the diner and go, “Oh, you like scrambled eggs? Me too. You doing anything tomorrow?”

RB: [laughs] So why do they stay? After a while you’d think—or is there a big turnover rate in men?

AB: No, no. It’s the Wild West. It’s a very big place for people who can be the person they want to be in their own, odd, individual, bobcat-skinning way, and there’s a lot to said for it. I liked it.

RB: So it’s probably healthy in that they, native Alaskan men, spot a woman, it reminds them that they have those instincts and hormones, but they don’t necessarily put that as a primary thing in their lives. Whereas in American cities, it seems to me, men are much more predatory about women, but I’m just making that up as I—

AB: You know, I mean they’re furrier in Alaska, and they all sort of smell like tobacco and yurts and homemade things, but like—they’re just guys who want wives. I don’t see that being much worse or better than the other bunches of guys running around.

RB: But it’s not like Wyoming or you know, sort of the big sky country, where you can take off to an American city and be there shortly and get a taste of America. Don’t tell me Anchorage is—

AB: No, I won’t be telling you that. But what people do a lot in the winter is, they get a cheap flight to Hawaii and take a sleeping bag and go to Hawaii for three weeks, because it’s actually a pretty easy flight.

RB: Yeah.

AB: Stuff like that.

RB: Uh-huh. I guess everybody figures out where to survive.

AB: I have no particular understanding of Alaska. I just know what it looks like. Like Lilian.

RB: So I don’t think I drew out that full answer that I wanted about why you went from the kind of writing you were doing to this more full-blooded contemporary 19th-century novel [Away]. I mean, you wanted to try it—

AB: Yeah, I wanted to try it. It was interesting to me. I mean, I really don’t have any other reasons for anything I write, I don’t think. I wanted to try what was interesting to me.

RB: It’s just that in the work that I know of yours, the characters are more like my neighbors. They’re more like people that I encounter on a regular basis, whereas, in this particular book, they’re more like my ancestors.

AB: Well, I think that’s because that’s how we think of the difference in time and generation, but to me… You know, we will be someone’s ancestors and the things we do are interesting and quaint and distinctive and odd, and how extraordinary [it is] that people do this. But I don’t think of it as a terribly meaningful difference. To me, setting it in the ‘20s was just like setting it in a really interesting town. The people don’t seem to me to be not like me or not like people I know.

RB: A pretty smart black prostitute? A young Chinese woman from a family of mountebanks?

AB: The thing that is different is that women have more education now and that they have more employable skills than they used to and more options about things like that. But, you know, take away the middle-class educated piece. People do what they must, and sometimes they don’t, and some of them fall by the wayside.

RB: But I mean, I actually found these women particularly admirable in their scheming and alertness. Gumdrop ends up moving to what, St. Paul, and going to Hadassah meetings for 30 years and clearly ignoring the prejudices and dislikes around her? That’s pretty cool.

AB: I guess. I like them, too. I like them because they are not victims and they are not whiners and they are not handwringers.

RB: Were you tempted to take any of the side-stories any further? Or are you tempted to revisit some of these characters?

AB: Well, yes, sometimes it gets tempting. Being Lilian’s second daughter is an interesting story, probably.

RB: Right. She turns out to be a minor Soviet poet or something?

AB: Mmm-hm.

RB: And Reuben could have been a story.

AB: Oh, yeah, we love Reuben and Meyer.

RB: It’s always easy for me as reader, because I’ve enjoyed a story, to wonder if somebody who’s spent a lot [of time] with characters is interested in pursuing them further. To me, most of the time, the endings aren’t arbitrary, but—

AB: You sort of had to stop sooner or later and that sort of thing?

RB: Yeah, so I always ask: Are you interested in going on? And there’s usually this sort of definitive no. First, there’s a no.

AB: I don’t feel like a definitive no. I think it’s more a probably no. I mean, you tell that story, and it’s wonderful that the characters seem to have their own life, but we, you know the writers, know that we make them move around and—sometimes we’re just done.

I’m glad for me, as a writer, that I tried to do something I hadn’t done before and it seems to make sense to readers, as opposed to people going, “What? Why did you do this? This is such a bad, bad thing, and you’ve done it so poorly.”

RB: On the other hand, there’ve been a number of instances where I’ve had people say that to me, and they have gone on. Julian Barnes revisited Talking It Over in Love, etc. and I don’t doubt that he will come back again. Obviously Richard Ford did it [in The Sportswriter and its sequels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land—ed.], and he said he wasn’t going to do it again, and in fact he said again that he wasn’t going to do it again, but I guess it could be just a matter of his age.

AB: Sometimes you think you’re ready to do something brand-new and it will be brand-new, but it also involves elements of the previous work. So I wouldn’t say no. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the characters from this novel reappear in the next novel.

RB: Have you started that?

AB: Mmm. Just a little bit.

RB: What does that mean? You’ve been thinking about it?

AB: I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve talked about it a little bit with Random House. I’ll get to work on it in January.

RB: So I think we met sometime in the mid-‘90s. Would I be off-base to say that your life has changed a lot?

AB: Oh it’s changed some. I still live in the middle of Connecticut, in the middle of nowhere.

RB: Yeah, but you teach at Yale. Is that a permanent, full-time position?

AB: Well I hope it’s permanent, but no, I just teach in the spring. They’re very good to me.

RB: Weren’t you going to go to Brooklyn College?

AB: I did teach a semester at Brooklyn College. Michael Cunningham has been the—whatever he is—the rep of the MFA program [he’s the program associate for the fiction writing MFA—ed.], and so I was there for a while as a visiting professor. And that was fun. But I’ll stay at Yale.

RB: You don’t do any more therapy work? Still with some lingering patients or something?

AB: Well, really just one or two. I’ve basically found other therapeutic matches for everybody; I’m just gone too much.

RB: You’d characterize your last 10 years as: you still live in Connecticut? That’s how you might sum up your 10-plus years?

AB: Well!

RB: You published a number of books.

AB: I published a number of books.

RB: You just published a book that seems to have been reviewed everywhere, which is an interesting sign.

AB: Yeah, it’s nice.

RB: You already said that, that it’s nice.

AB: [laughs] It’s nice!

RB: Which makes you, in the book world, something of a hot commodity?

AB: Yeah, I’m sure there’s something wrong with me that I don’t—yeah, that’s great.

RB: It doesn’t feel like significant internal change? You’re still doing the same stuff, just in different places?

AB: Yeah, I’m still trying to write good sentences and good stories and good books.

RB: You’re doing more conferences and stuff?

AB: Yeah, I teach at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center almost every summer that I can. I teach in Aspen. You know, I went to Yaddo for a little while. I went to MacDowell for actually quite a long stay while I was finishing this book, which was wonderful. Um, I just feel like, I don’t know, if the heart of what I did changed very much, it would be quite unnerving. The heart of what I’m supposed to be doing is writing.

RB: Well, are there a lot of new people in your life? A lot of new conversations about stuff that you weren’t talking about before? So the content is pretty much the same.

AB: I’m as dull as a plate. You know, I talk with my writer friends, and we talk about gossip, and we talk about our work and one’s friends, and we try to be supportive of each other, and we gossip. And with my friends in my little town where I live, we talk about whether of not that thing that we heard happened at the garden club really happened—

I don’t want to read those long, self-indulgent, wah-wah-wah riffs. If I wanted to find out how quirky and interesting you are, I guess I’d go to your website.

RB: Did it?

AB: You know, that kind of thing. I’m a little busier. This past year has been busier year than most, because I had to finish the book.

RB: You had a deadline?

AB: Well yes, which I missed a couple times. But I really wanted to finish the book. And I got married.

RB: You didn’t tell me, I would’ve sent you a present or something.

AB: I know. On Saturday. That was big.

RB: Last Saturday? So anything else happen? It might come up in the conversation that other stuff happened?

AB: No, that’s it. That was big. That was like three days ago.

RB: Well, you were married before.

AB: I was, but not to the person I’m married to now.

RB: Right. So are you happy? Are you a happy person?

AB: Yes.

RB: Look, she’s smiling. Did we see her smile before today, in this conversation? I think what I really want to know, fundamentally, is has it gotten easier for you as a writer?

AB: In general, I feel like I’ve been lucky that by and large that people who read my work respond positively to it. That’s always been nice, and it continues to be nice. You know, there’s been such a strong response to the work as—lovely. But all that’s about publishing, it’s not actually about writing.

RB: Mmm hmm.

AB: I’m glad for me, as a writer, that I tried to do something I hadn’t done before and it seems to make sense to readers, as opposed to people going, “What? Why did you do this? This is such a bad, bad thing, and you’ve done it so poorly.” So this response is much better. I don’t know if it really changes much for me, really, you know when you’re sitting down in front a piece of paper. It’s not that different.

RB: It’s still hard? It’s still easy? It’s still whatever it was?

AB: Whatever it was, it still is. And mostly, I’d say, harder. You know, it’s not laying bricks, it’s not hard like that, it’s just—

RB: How confident are you in your own abilities? Do you feel like when you sit down you’re going to accomplish what you set out to do, more or less?

AB: No. But I do—

RB: Do you think you’re capable of terrible failure?

AB: Sure.

RB: Really?

AB: Certainly by my own standards. You know, I’m always going to be able to write a pretty good sentence—I mean, I think. And so that might cover up, as it often does, some terrible deficit, but yeah, I mean—I assume that for every little successful venture, there’s also always a strong possibility of falling off the path and tumbling to your death. It’s all right—that seems to be the nature of it.

RB: As a piece of craftwork, though, it seems to me that you’ve learned a few tricks, right?

AB: I hope so.

RB: One of them probably being that you don’t stay with something that you don’t feel totally right about for very long. You’ll bail out of something if it—

AB: Well, I think as a short-story writer, one of the great pleasures of writing a short story is that you get to finish before you get bored. Always. It’s like being a cat burglar—you’re in and you’re out. I think for me as a writer, one of the great pleasures in doing this novel was actually being able to use that restraint that I use as a short-story writer. Like, I still feel like I don’t want to read the boring parts. Whether it’s in a 27-page short story or a 270-page novel, I don’t want to read those long, self-indulgent, wah-wah-wah riffs in which the writer says to me, “Let me show you what a great liberal arts education I had and how quirky and interesting I am.” If I wanted to find out how quirky and interesting you are, I guess I’d go to your website or I’d ask your mom. I want to be in the story. That’s the only thing that interests me. So it was important to me to bring that kind of discipline of the short story to this particular novel and also to try something different. It’s not exactly that novels are harder than short stories, but they sure are longer.

RB: Well, everybody says that short stories are harder.

AB: Well, a really good short story is very, very demanding. But so is a really good novel. It’s just that we make more allowances. I mean, people say things about novels like, “Oh, it was a wonderful novel! The last 60 pages, not so great.”

RB: Hmm, do you know this new book? It’s called, Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson.

AB: Uh-uh.

RB: I don’t really either, it just came to me in the mail. I guess it’s got to be a writing guide or something?

AB: I think it’s probably a writing guide. [It is.] He’d certainly be a good person to learn from.

RB: He teaches at Arizona State University.

AB: Not anymore. Now he’s at [University of California] Irvine, I believe.

RB: Oh, that’s right. He once introduced a volume of Ploughshares by telling a story about a guy who helped him move a refrigerator to his cabin, which was so terrific. Anyway, who have you read who doesn’t evoke that quirkiness? Tell me some books you’ve read recently that you liked.

AB: Well I really liked Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. I though that was like the charming, English, less-developed but also less-self-congratulatory version of The Corrections.

RB: Did you read his first book? [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.]

AB: Yes, which I also liked very much, and that’s why I read A Spot of Bother. I liked that. I’m just reading Lionel Shriver for the first time, who I like.

RB: The Post-Birthday World?

AB: That I haven’t read. I meant We Need to Talk About Kevin. I haven’t done much contemporary reading in the last year or so, because I tend not to read that when I’m writing, so I’m looking forward to getting back into it.

RB: You teach in the spring, so what do you read in your courses?

AB: Oh, I’ll assign Alice Munro’s “A Wilderness Station,” I’ll assign Joyce’s “The Dead” no matter how many times they’ve read it. I assign Bob Stone’s “Helping.” I assign The Maples—you know that trilogy, who is it, Cheever or Updike?

RB: I don’t read either of them so I don’t know. The Johns.

AB: Yeah, so you’ll have to check and see who it is so I can get it right in my reference. [The Maples Stories is by Updike; Cheever wrote about a couple named the Maples in a story called “A Season for Divorce”—ed.]

RB: What do you teach?

AB: Well, I teach a fiction-writing class.

RB: And what do you teach?

AB: Well I do my best to teach things like, “This is a good sentence; this is a bad sentence. Let’s figure out the difference.” “Here’s why adverbs are mostly a bad idea.”

RB: “Mostly.” [laughing]

AB: “How do you appreciate people whose writing styles are different than your own?” “How is it that we understand that this sentence by Oscar Wilde and this sentence by Jamaica Kincaid and this sentence by Ron Carlson all are really, really good sentences, even though they don’t resemble each other?” I mean, you can’t teach talent; you can only teach craft and discipline and encourage them to read.

I feel like this is good and worthwhile work. And it matters to me. And I’m glad it has value to readers.

RB: How are your students?

AB: They’re good. They’re not dummies.

RB: This is undergraduate.

AB: Yeah.

RB: Are they particularly aspiring to be writers?

AB: Some of them; some of them not.

RB: Do you encourage them to be writers?

AB: No, that doesn’t seem necessary. I encourage them to be better writers. I don’t tend to try to get anyone to become a capita-W writer, least of all when they’re 20 years old. I think my job is to help them be better writers. That seems doable.

RB: It seems doable.

AB: It does.

RB: And how long have you been teaching?

AB: About five years.

RB: Do you have any sense that anybody you’ve taught is in fact going to be a capital-W writer?

AB: Yeah, there are two kids I’ve had, who I keep an eye on. I think they’re really talented and funny and smart and good writers, which doesn’t always go with the other qualities. Someone who’s talented and funny and smart might be terrific at a dinner party, but that has nothing to do with what gets on the page.

RB: If I had asked you some 10 years ago where you thought your brilliant career was gonna go, does that seem like where it would have gone?

AB: No, I didn’t think I would still be in Connecticut. I would have thought I would have moved someplace more interesting, like Brooklyn. And I didn’t know I was going to write a novel.

RB: So what are the things that you don’t think are gonna happen in the next 10 years? You’re not gonna live in Brooklyn?

AB: Well, you never know. I can imagine moving.

RB: Do you still have aspirations at your—

AB: Advanced age? [laughing]

RB: I wasn’t going to say that, I was going to come up with something clever.

AB: Lots of luck. My aspirations are to become a better writer and a happy old lady. That’s plenty.

RB: And what would it take to be a better writer? What’s the earmark of that? Just continuing to write?

AB: Continuing to write, I guess. If I peak before I’m done, I’d like to know.

RB: If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

AB: I guess if I couldn’t write because I had some physical or mental handicap that prevented me from writing, I guess I would do my best to do other interesting and worthwhile activities.

RB: You’ve been writing for the past 20 years, is that right? It’s occupied a big chunk of your life?

AB: Most of the past 20 years, yeah.

RB: If you couldn’t write—you have this optimism that you’d find someway to replace it. I’m just trying to get an idea of how central it is.

AB: It’s very central, but if you can’t improve—one still has an obligation to the world and one still has a life. I mean I would try to live a productive life. It would be a terrible loss; I hope I would recover from it. I would hope I would still go on.

RB: So, your future is not a detailed—

AB: Well, do other people have these detailed plans? Like, “I’m gonna get off at this subway stop and then go here…” I hope I will go on to write in a bunch of different forms and go on to be a better writer. Those are the goals. I feel like this is good and worthwhile work. And it matters to me. And I’m glad it has value to readers. It’s certainly not the only thing I’ve ever done in my life worth doing, but it’s certainly given a lot of shape to a part of my life. I think there’s a certain kind of solemnity that one acquires when talking about their own writing; I mean, it’s not like I’m saying goodbyes here.