I may need two hands to count the conversations I have had with author Amy Bloom since the mid 90’s, the last one in 2008 on the occasion of her first novel Away. Now comes her second novel second novel, Lucky Us.I sat down with Amy at my neighborhood coffee emporium the Keltic Krust and chatted with Bloom about the whole megillah —the knowability of people, teaching, shopping for shoes, President Obama, Carol Shields, True Detective, immortality, her current reading and her plans. Needless to say, I expect to continue this conversation when her next novel surfaces in the fullness of time.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
RB: I found your author’s note a bit curious. Something to the effect that, “I have also moved things and people, adjusted and reconfigured both when it suited the story.”
AB: Uh huh.
RB: So, if it’s a work of fiction, what are you reconfiguring?
AB: You would think that would be unnecessary since it’s a work of fiction. There is always going to be somebody who says, “Harpo Marx could not have sent her the green silk nightie because he was in England during that six month period to which you refer.”
RB: And you feel like you have to be true to that real history? Will people call you on it and say, “How could you?”
AB: Well, I know they will because they have done that in the past. It’s not so much that I feel that I have to—I don’t feel that I have to get every fact right. What I wanted to say preemptively is that the facts have been moved when it suits me.
RB:There you go.
AB: Hence, fiction.
RB: If someone is going to complain about that will they understand or accept your note?
AB: I’ll let you know.
RB: As a writer you invest yourself into the characters you create— when I came to Edgar’s fate, I wondered what you felt like when he dies?
Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
AB: Me the writer?
AB: Well I guess for me there are always two feelings. One is the feeling of, “Yup, this is the chapter when you die Edgar. See ya.”
AB: So that’s the writer. I felt for him because it was a difficult death and among other things, certainly not what he would have wanted and difficult for every one around him. My own father’s death was very much the way he would have liked it. He died in his bed and not in a hospital. I think this other way [for Edgar] was just very hard. And so I felt for him. But as I say as the writer, ”Times up.”
RB: So you simply return to the other characters. In Lucky Us the characters are all decent people. Except for Heda Hopper. They are noble and amusing —
AB: I don’t know if they are noble. I liked them and you liked them. But you know they are a lot of liars and forgers and con men. There’s a certain amount of fast and loose
AB: Which is okay with me.
RB: Which of the characters would actually say, “Lucky us?”
AB: (long pause) I don’t know. Somebody in the book does say, “Lucky us.” It’s probably Eva.
RB: And the book’s epigram, “It’s better to be lucky than to be smart”— somebody repeats that—
AB: Somebody does say that.
RB: That’s, of course, a commonly held notion.
AB: That is a direct quote from my dad.
RB: There is an old r ‘n b ballad that says, “Love is like a three ringed circus. First, the engagement ring. Then, the wedding ring and then, the suffering”.The Yiddish Franklin Roosevelt reference in the novel —three velten [worlds]: die velt [this world], yene velt [the world to come] and Roosevelt reminded me of it. I take that was current in the 30’s and 40’s?
AB: Oh yeah. I didn’t make up any 40’s sayings for people. It wasn’t really necessary. And “Lucky us” is, in fact, something we say in our family.
RB: (I had a quote* from Philip Roth which I showed to Amy Bloom) Ever see this? The last sentence brought me back to your story.
AB: (reads) Actually, I have read this.
RB: In this charming ensemble of characters, they do seem to know each other—there are moments that test that—
AB: And they know each other and they get it wrong. As we [all] do.
RB: When you started Lucky Us what did you start with?
AB: I started—actually the first character who came alive was Gus. So the first things I wrote were a series of letter from Gus to Eva while he was in Germany.
RB: What a survivor— he was a true example of surviving. There was this angry aside about the grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors appropriating [cashing in on] the Holocaust. What are they called Generation 3? 4?
AB: I am sure there is a name for them. I don’t know why anyone would write abut them critically —that seems like a fairly hostile thing to do—so I’ll just confine myself to Gus’s thoughts about it.
RB: When did the ending come to you?
AB: Sorry [loud woman on mobile phone fills the room—pause while we wait out her inane chatter]
RB: When did the ending come to you?
AB: Endings are always tricky and so I think somewhere —once I knew that the sisters would be connected I could see the ending. And there were, again, some family photographs in which I didn’t always know whom everybody was, that I really liked.
RB: I was reminded of Maira Kalman’s recent book, Girls Standing on Lawns. Which draws from the Museum of Modern Art’s vernacular photography collection. There is something about such photos that is compelling.
AB: Those are always very persuasive and evocative whether it’s your family or somebody else’s.
RB: I hadn’t even thought about the category called vernacular art. It now shines more brightly—I thought, “hey, that’s really the way to do it.”
AB: Yeah, I like that.
RB: I glanced at some of the Lucky Us reviews, which were very positive. Do you look at them?
AB: I don’t.
RB: Are you told about them? Do you care?
AB: Um, I care so much about them I don’t read them. And I don’t let anybody tell me about them. My husband says things like, “That was a nice one.”
RB: Most of them are positive. A good book can stimulate engaging reviews—okay, let’s forget about this. What’s your life like now? You write and still teach—
AB: I do because I have to make a living. So I teach every spring at Wesleyan. I teach 2 courses. They are very good to me and I also have a non-paying gig at Wesleyan, which is as the director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing, which is funded by two terrific Wesleyan alums.
RB: If they are so terrific why aren’t they funding the directorship?
AB: Well—they’ve done what they can and I appreciate it. And its fun to help.
RB: I was looking at the list of recent P.E.N. awards and scholarships—there is actually an award for Paraguayan literature.
AB: Terrific. I am unfortunately not eligible.
RB: I may look into the Paraguayan branch of the Birnbaums. You taught at Yale. Brooklyn College?
AB: That was one semester. It was a really nice gig Michael Cunningham, got for me when he was at Brooklyn. And then I taught
at Yale for about the 10 years and then Wesleyan made me a great offer. So there I am.
RB: Is there a noticeable difference in the students?
AB: Not much difference between the Yale students and the Wesleyan students. The Yale students tend to be a little more organized.
RB: (laughs) Meaning goals oriented?
AB: More goals oriented. Often the goal of the kids that I work with at Wesleyan is to write. Which is great. That obviously doesn’t include making a living.
RB: Do you offer any guidance or advice in that area?
AB: Yeah. I say, “Get a job.” Develop a trade. Be irreplaceable.
RB: So you are not discouraging people from writing as a career.
AB: If they have rich parents who have given them money or they have invented a better paper clip, I don’t think there something morally wrong with writing and not having to worry about getting paid. I just think that is not the way most people get to live. To suggest that teaching is the answer is both demeaning to the students and to teaching. Teaching is a serious job.
RB: Yes, it is a whole different thing.
AB: Right, it’s a very different thing. And if you are not interested in teaching it would really be a lot better if you were a carpenter. Or a neurosurgeon.
RB: Did you intend to teach?
RB: Earlier in your life you were a therapist.
AB: It was work that I loved. I still think its great work. But it wasn’t compatible with writing, as the writing became a little more successful. And it turned out that people would pay me to teach. I had started out as a nursery school teacher and my general experience was that if you can teach, you can teach. So I took the teaching jobs.
RB: Does your whole or most of your world revolve around writing?
AB: No, I mean (sighs)—my world is composed of my family. My world spins around my family—pretty much. And then there’s that other world that spins around writing. It’s a slightly smaller planet and its one I spend a lot of time on. I don’t expect my family to spin around my writing.
RB: You’re having a bad writing day; do you expect them to tolerate your mood?
AB: I expect them to tolerate that—I expect my husband to tolerate it because we’re married. He has bad moods and so do I. But don’t find it to be of interest—I don’t know why anyone else should care. The fact that you are in a bad mood because a sentence went badly is really not that different than if you are in a bad mood because you dropped a vase on your foot or broke a nail.
RB: There may be an attitude that art’s travails are more deeply felt—
AB: Wha, wha, wha. Wha, wha wha—I don’t feel that way. I am always astonished by people who do. And good for them if they can persuade someone—
AB: —to feel that way. I think we are all responsible for our behavior. Whether you are writing a symphony or driving a truck.
RB: I would deduce that you would not place greater value on writing a novel than on building a house. Or raising a family.
AB: Valuable to me, the writing.
RB: Is it important in the scheme of things?
AB: I have no idea. Happily, I am not responsible—
Amy Bloom circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
RB: (both laugh) So you spend no time pissing and moaning that the book business publishing and literature itself are diminished and perhaps disappearing?
AB: Well (pauses) I guess I am not. I mean its true but if I am going to go down that road and talk about the fact that if Franzen was named Joanna, the reception to his work might have been different. If I wanted to go down that road than I am lucky to be white.
RB: (laughs) Have you read anything really good lately? Or is reading other writing distracting?
AB: I love reading other work but it is distracting. I am really enjoying The Bat by Jo Nesbo.
Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
RB: I know his stuff—I’ve read 5 or 6 of his Harry Hole novels.
AB: I really like that. I love all of Val McDermid’s work. I just think she is so good but in terms of serious literature—
RB: —why is that not serious?
AB: Because is a mystery and therefore there’s certain shape that these things have. The shape is knowable in a way that a literary novel may not be. I don’t personally distinguish. I couldn’t write a good mystery if my life depended on it. So, it’s not that I denigrate them at all. I think it’s a great form and I think that people who do it really well are often exceptional writers. But I do think its true that there’s a particular form and that’s not really true of literary fiction.
RB: That’s certainly true of mystery series. Those who don’t write series have a better shot at being taken seriously. And should be.
AB: Yes. But as I say these are books that I love. The best book I have read that was literary fiction was Americanah.
RB: By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.I read Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. I came across an opinion that John LeCarre would be the writer of this era who would still be read 100 years hence.
A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You by Amy Bloom
AB: (long pause) It’s a big world. People have a lot of opinions. Who am I say?
RB: You are someone to say.
AB: You know, we’ll find out. Actually, I won’t find out. (both laugh)
RB: I don’t agree with the thoughtless denigration and ghettoization of genre writers.
RB: Having re-familiarized (sic) my self with LeCarre’s A Wanted Man and The Constant Gardener [motivated by the movie versions], I think they are in toto good as good as anything I have read.
AB: I think that’s true. And so for some people it would be John LeCarre. Other people Robertson Davies. For other people if they pay attention, it would be Carol Shields.
RB: The claim is not that he is the greatest writer.
AB: I understand. But you know, sure that could be.
RB: Do you think of yourself as writing for posterity?
AB: I try not to think about that. I think of writing the best story I know how. And serving the characters and serving the story. Its (pause), so far its gratifying for people to say, “I can’t tell you how much this first book of yours meant to me. And I still reread it” That’s great and I hope people go on rereading. But again, posterity is going to take place without me.
RB: (laugh) No afterlife for you?
RB: What is the most important ingredient for you in story telling?
AB: I can’t write it if I can’t hear it. So I have to be able to hear the characters speak. And then begin to get the narrative structure. Its clear to me as I am getting a little more familiar with novel writing I feel more mindful and interested in the narrative structure as well. That’s why there are letters in this novel. I really wanted to find other ways for some of the characters to communicate.
RB: Francine Prose included letters, back and forth, in her latest novel, as did Anthony Doerr. These different modes of story telling seem to be more present.
AB: People have for a really long time. There are stories by Alice Adams written years ago that are composed largely of letters, phone message slips—people have ben doing them for quite a long time. Everything—you know things have a moment. Suddenly you go, ”Its yellow Volkswagens.” “Its epistolary” or whatever it is.
RB: That puts me in mind of an anthology called Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (by David Shields, Matthew Vollmer)
AB: I like that. It puts me in mind of that famous Hemingway line, the world’s shortest story, “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”
RB: There is that genre called sudden fiction—which I know nothing about.
AB: It’s short. Its really really short.
AB: It’s really, really really short.
RB: Shorter than a tweet?
AB: Not shorter than a tweet. Not significantly longer, necessarily. Not significantly deeper. I haven’t fond myself pining to read or write sudden fiction.
RB: Have you written any?
AB: Well I tweet
AB: There you go.
Away by Amy Bloom
RB: Does this big turn to hyper-technology affect you? You live in rural Connecticut?
AB: (chortles) Yeah. I am grateful I have a phone. That’s terrific. I have a twitter account because Random House felt strongly that I should. And so I do. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I send email and receive emails— I don’t make a big deal about it—its fine. There were people when we invented the telephone that wrote long essays in major newspapers about the end of western civilization. It was like having “marauding strangers come through the wall.”
RB: I don’t have a theory about it. But I was getting my phone fixed at the Apple store and the woman next to me, with great emphasis exclaimed, “I love my phone.” And I‘m thinking, “I can’t imagine saying or conceiving that.”
AB: No. I find it sometimes annoying and usually handy. And that’s the end of it. Also, I don’t get that invested a when I can’t do something with a phone, I hand it to my nephew.
AB: I go, “Honey, when you have a chance.
RB: Is he ten?
AB: He’s 22.
RB: It s a huge wave that we are susceptible to being engulfed by. Do you feel present enough to fight that?
AB: Well, living in the middle of nowhere helps
RB: No mall proximal to you?
AB: There is no mall and I don’t like malls. It doesn’t mean that I am not happy to look at a pair of shoes online.
AB: There’s free shipping. My goodness, which wouldn’t want a pair of free shipped shoes to try on.
RB: Free shipping, both ways.
AB: I can only be engaged with so many things. Honestly, what I can be engaged with to a large extent is my family, my work and a strong interest in politics. That’s pretty much the end of the story; I don’t give a shit about anything else.
RB: What’s your take on the state of the union?
AB: Um, I wish President Obama could have a third term… I wish the Republicans had not taken the turn they taken in the last 10 years. I wish there was more civility and that moderate Republicans still existed and were welcome in their own party. The absence of them has damaged our country.
RB: Why a third Obama term?
AB: He’s a good man. A smart man. He made some big mistakes and he is smart enough to learn from them.
RB: He still seems docile to me —maybe too genteel to engage contemporary political in fighting.
AB: That’s certainly possible. That’s how I feel a bout. I don’t see myself in any way as an expert in these matters.
Normal by Amy Bloom
RB: Is there an issue you feel strongly enough to march for, to demonstrate for?
AB: Yes, I very much feel that way about women’s health and women’s rights. I am not a big marcher but write a pamphlet, drive some one across state lines so they can get an abortion if they need one and can’t get one where they live? Absolutely. I hope I will be doing that till I die.
RB: Women’s rights seem to have taken a bad turn.
AB: Not good.
RB: May be we have to wait until women totally outnumber men before we can get it right.
AB: Well, that seems the most likely thing. And not to give up power voluntarily. Probably if you had 150 women in Congress, it would be different. If more than half of the Senate was women it probably would be different.
RB: Well, there is House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—
AB: Give me 200 Nancy Pelosis—
RB: Even 100—
AB: —and we’ll see what we can do. What I always say to my daughters about these things is, ”You need to be aware of how it is and you need not to dwell on it.”
RB: I wonder of things need to get exponentially worse to arouse the ‘oppressed masses’. Occupy was a moment…a high awareness of income inequality. Now that’s a tagline on Sunday talk shows.
AB: It one of the good and the bad things about human beings. What was strange and terrible becomes not so bad.
RB: There’s an exchange in a movie called Safe House where to veteran operatives meet after a long separation. One says, “People change.” The other replies, ”People don’t change, they adapt.”
AB: I think that’s mostly true.
RB: What are we adapting to?
AB: That will be easier to see a couple of years after.
RB: It took you how many years to complete this novel?
RB: Do you want it to go faster?
AB: (laughs) You know, tick tock. I write the way I write.
RB: I spoke to a writer who was in his 60’s and he said he was done writing novels because he was afraid he might die before he finished. Does that inhibit you at all?
AB: They’re not pleasant thoughts but its not the worst thing in the world to me —the time to write
RB: Actually, that’s not what I wanted to ask. I suddenly become aware, mostly because of medical insurance, not that I am old but what old age entails for many people. And that constant reminder is distracting.
AB: You know, for me, I started adult life really early.
RB: (chuckles) What is early?
AB: Well, I was raising a kid when I was 21. So I have been a grown up for a long time. And so —
RB: It’s obvious but it’s not necessarily a matter of chronology.
AB: I feel comfortable saying O have been a grown up for a long time and the other side of that is that I have less of life ahead of me than I have behind me. That’s how it is. So I say to myself,”Do it now, write now. You want to write a play. You should start writing a play. You don’t have time—better get to work on the next novel.
RB: Has any of your work been optioned for film?
AB: Once in a while.
RB: Is there something that you would be tempted to put your chips into? That you would produce yourself.
AB: Oh no. Make myself? My money? My dad was a freelance magazine writer and he put two girls through college as a magazine writer. He wrote 700 articles in his lifetime and he raised a very fiscally conservative writer, just like he was. He lived at a time when one could actually make a living as a magazine writer. My dad’s rate per word was the same as mine. His heyday was the 60’s and the 70’s.
Amy Bloom [photo by Robert Birnbaum]
RB: I am surprised that HBO or Showtime et al haven’t approached you—if not for your already published work then for original projects. They seem to be using for literary authors. Do you watch those programs?
AB: Sure I watch good television.
RB: Have you watched True Detective?
AB: I haven’t watched True Detective yet because the one thing we didn’t get around to was the Wire.So we are watching that. We haven’t missed that much—we watch a lot Norwegian stuff.
RB: True Detective is a marvel. Nic Pizzlato wrote great stuff and it incredibly performed. Is book touring the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago?
AB: Pretty much. I tend to keep my head down. I don’t give a lot of attention to—
RB: Don’t go to festivals, conferences and such?
AB: I don’t.
RB: Book launch parties?
AB: Not so much.
RB: Movie screenings and openings?
AB: If somebody invites me to an opening I always like to go. I am not that social a person. And I find festivals a little overwhelming—sometimes I go. Not a lot. The point is the book. The point is the book and so it’s great to hear from my husband and my kids about the reviews. It’s great when they are overwhelmingly positive. Which they are in this case. And we’ll see —I hope. I sell some books. I hope I write a few more novels.
RB: What’s next?
AB: A novel—I’ve started it.
RB: Do you do more than one thing at a time?
AB: Not seriously. I can fool around and so more than one TV project but I can’t do more than a novel at a time. I have some short stories in the back of my mind. Basically, I am committed to a novel and then a collection of linked short stories, which is the story of a life from the courtship of the couple to the death of the couple. Different narrators.
RB: Is there a story or a large narrative project that you have been dying to do? A trilogy or a documentary about some obscure object of admiration?
AB: Well, I am not a documentary filmmaker so I always like to encourage my documentary filmmaker friends. There is a play I’d like to write but the next novel that I am writing really does actually make a trilogy with Away and Lucky Us. Away is set in the Twenties . This novel is set in the Forties and the one I am about to write is set in the Thirties.
RB: And they’ll be slip cased together at some point?
AB: It would be nice if they were slip cased —some of the characters show up repeatedly.
RB: Let me commend you for never using the word ‘schwartzer ’
AB: There were all sorts of errors in judgment that people could make.
RB: Which you try not to make. Always a pleasure. Thank you.
AB: Thank you.
Amy Bloom circa 2008 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
*You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you. (From American Pastoral)
Currently reading Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin(University of South Carolina Press)