Q&A with Amy Bloom

The New York Times best-selling author discusses love and loss, writing about the intersex movement, and the problem with the “real” America.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Amy Bloom has no patience for Southern politeness—or equivocation. The New York Times best-selling author and National Magazine Award winner doesn’t mince words.

Maybe her directness comes from years of experience listening and talking to patients as a psychotherapist; or from growing up in New York; or from her father, who was a journalist; or maybe because she thinks “people are for the most part a mystery to each other,” so why make it any more difficult?

Regardless the reason, Bloom’s directness and dedication to diction come across as much in person as through her writing. Her recent novel, Lucky Us, begins: “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us. […] There was no one like my mother, for straight talk.”

Bloom is the author of three novels, four short story collections, one television series, one nonfiction book, and several essays. Her work has been nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Magazine. She has recently taken over responsibilities as one of The Ethicists for The New York Times Magazine, along with Kenji Yoshino and Jack Shafer. She is also the University Writer-in-Residence at Wesleyan University.

The last week in February, Bloom was on campus as part of Rollins’ Winter With the Writers, where she taught a 2-credit course, led a master class workshop, and gave a reading. During her visit, Bloom and I sat down for breakfast at Hamilton’s Kitchen in The Alfond Inn, where we discussed love and loss, the authors who stay with her, and where ideas for her work originate.

Amy Bloom provides feedback to students during a Master Class in Bush Auditorium. (Photo by Scott Cook) Amy Bloom provides feedback to students during a Master Class in Bush Auditorium. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Laura J. Cole: Why did you decide to write Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude as nonfiction as opposed to fiction?

Amy Bloom: Well, I really was interested in these people’s stories. At that time, Tina Brown was the editor of The New Yorker, and she was like isn’t there a nonfiction piece you’d like to do for us? That led to the series. I did one for The Atlantic. I did one for The New Yorker.

I wanted to tell their stories. […] I did want to engage with the actual people; and I wanted to find things out. There were things I didn’t know anything about like the entire intersex movement and the medical and historical changes that went with that. I wanted to know, and I wanted to tell their stories.

I had some sense of what I didn’t know, and I wanted to find out. I didn’t do that with research online. What I did was reach out to a couple of the organizations that represented the people I was interested in and said basically, I want you to tell people that I’m OK, that I’m OK to talk to. So you ask me anything you want, you interview me, and if you feel that you’re comfortable passing my name off to people in the organization, I’d love to hear from them. That’s how I did it, basically.

And that turned out really well. Lots of people wanted to tell their stories. Lots of people felt that no one had listened to them or talked to them about this.

LJC: When you’re writing nonfiction how do you make sure it’s not exploiting them? How do you balance wanting to be able to share somebody’s story while making sure you’re being responsible for them—or do you?

AB: Well, I think there’s a difference between not exploiting somebody and protecting them and pleasing them. I think if you are a journalist, your job is not to please the subject. […]

My goal is only to be compassionate, but also if it’s appropriate for me to come to a conclusion, then I come to a conclusion. Sometimes you can get away with just describing it. But again, every word has a balance. Do you say stout or do you say statuesque? Do you describe his stubble or do you describe his beautiful blue eyes? These are choices you make all the time. And it’s not about the facts. One chooses among the facts. Always.

LJC: You mentioned in an interview that Away was 40 years in the making, a response to a question your father posed to you as a child. Is that how most of your stories come to you—as a response to a question? What, for example, inspired Lucky Us?

AB: In my fiction, I always start out with character. I think in my nonfiction, I like to know. I like to know things.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Lucky Us originated in two points. One was a biography of Eva Le Gallienne, who was a great actress and director in America and also openly gay in the 1920s, and had also gotten scarred and damaged in a horrible fire, so those things sort of stayed with me. I just kept thinking about her, doing a novel around her. And then, I completely stumbled across the information about the internment of German Americans in the United States. 11,000. I knew nothing about them. I knew zero. I knew about the Japanese, but that was it. And so then Gus appears. The first real writing of the book was Gus sending a letter to Eve from a camp in Texas.

LJC: One of things I love about Lucky Us is how it disrupts the master narrative in regards to a WWII. Some of the main characters include an actress who’s shunned by and kicked out of Hollywood for being a lesbian; an American-born German who’s sent to an internment camp in the U.S. before being extradited to Germany; and an African-American singer who paints herself in makeup so she can pass for white. What made you want to write these characters?

AB: The truth is I never really think about it that way. It’s just the people that are interesting me. This is a big country; you have a lot of different kinds of people. I always think it’s hilarious when people write about the real America, you know? I don’t know who Mike Huckabee thinks he’s kidding that real America is grits, gravy, and how to skin a squirrel. (I have some real doubts about Mike Huckabee’s own ability to skin a squirrel, but nevermind.) It’s all representational. It’s the creation of a different kind of fiction, and it’s all OK. But I don’t understand why those people, that description of real America is any more true of people in Central Texas with a gun on a farm than it would be of Italian stone masons in Massachusetts or some guy who sketched portraits of Coney Island in the 1800s. It’s a big country with a big history. I am interested in a variety of a bouquet.

When I hear the stuff about the real America, I always think you know, there are 50 stars on the flag. We don’t say there’s one star. And that’s the real value system.

LJC: Many of your works deal with love changing, arguably expanding beyond what the characters originally expected or hoped. For example, in A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, the mother in the first story is determined to love and support her daughter transitioning to a man, even though it means releasing some of the hopes she had for her daughter. How do loss and disappointment challenge love?

AB: I think loss and disappointment challenge everything. I imagine they challenge people’s faith; they challenge what the world is like; they challenge love.

I think if you love someone, you’re in the business of heartbreak. […] You understand that there’s going to be—if you’re lucky—a long, healthy period. But unless you drop dead when you’re 40, there’s going to be a down side, too. And you take that on. You have the opportunity to live your live. That doesn’t mean that there are no costs involved. If you love somebody, it’s like you get to go on this great picnic, but there will be ants and there will be rain at the end. That doesn't mean you don’t go, but there will be rain. It’s not like maybe there will be rain. There will be rain.

LJC: How important are your life experiences to your writing? Being a psychoanalyst, a student of theater, a mother—how do they inform your writing?

AB: That is what happens to your writing. You write as you are.

LJC: By that do you mean you write what you know?

AB: Oh no, well, we don’t have a lot of choice except to write what we know. But what you know isn’t contained in the facts. I don’t know what it was to be alive in the ’40s, but I know what it is to be alive. You can transport yourself through acts of imagination and empathy into your characters—if you can’t, you have no business writing them. But your life experiences, especially the family you’re born into, the person you become, the choices you make—all of those shape you as a writer, and it seeps through the page.

It’s very rare for anyone to ask male writers how being a father influenced them as writers but I imagine it has. I think we tend to see women as much more connected to their relationship experiences and therefore it’s going to shape their work; and I don’t know that it’s much more true of women. I only know that being a daughter and being a mother are two really important experiences that shaped my being a writer. I wouldn’t be the writer I am had I not been both of those things. I’m pretty sure that’s true of every writer, regardless of gender, but it tends to be more in the forefront when we talk to women.

Amy Bloom teaches students enrolled in a 2-credit course in Woolson House. (Photo by Scott Cook) Amy Bloom teaches students enrolled in a 2-credit course in Woolson House. (Photo by Scott Cook)

LJC: You make a good point, and I didn’t mean to imply that being a mother is the experience that’s influenced you more than any of others.

AB: But absolutely, it has. I have three kids. I’ve been raising children since I was 21, so, yes, it has. I don’t consider that to be a tough question to answer. It’s an enormous area. And as my kids always say, I only write about four things: love, sex, death, and family.

LJC: Is experience as important as sitting in a classroom and learning about writing—technique, grammar, the craft of writing?

AB: I can’t teach talent, and I can’t teach experience. I can encourage experience; I can teach people how to recognize a good sentence from a bad sentence, if they want to know. There’s often a feeling when young people are writing that the important thing is to tell the story the way they want to tell it, which is great, but it has nothing to do with being read by other people who don’t love you. For that, all you have is language.

It is certainly grammar and things like that, but it is understanding the difference between one word and another; it is understanding the rhythm of the sentence; it is learning to craft a good sentence, so that when you have your life experiences and you have something to say, you have the essential tools with which to say it. But if you don’t have language, you’re not writing. To me, if you’re serious about being a writer, you should be doing a lot of reading. A lot of reading.

LJC: What books or authors nag at you—in a good way? Which ones keep finding their way back to you?

AB: There are writers who are always with me. Certainly Jane Austen. Certainly Oscar Wilde. Certainly Robertson Davies. Certainly Edward P. Jones. Certainly Carol Shields, who I feel is the great underrated writer from the last 100 years. 10 novels, four short story collections, a brilliant biography of Jane Austen, won the Pulitzer, won every Canadian prize, short-listed twice for the Man Booker, and no one’s heard of her. Because I think she said, her interest was in writing seriously about serious women.

LJC: The business of writing, the self-promotion, the finding people that will read your work—

AB: Ya, that’s horrible.

LJC: How much of that is a part of making a living as a writer?

AB: It’s a big part of making a living as a writer. I would encourage people who are serious about writing not to dwell on it too much because you may have to deal with it as you get published, but until you’re published, why would you even think about it? Think about the work; think about the sentence; try not to distract yourself with thoughts of marketing. Do you want to find the audience or do you want to write your work? Maybe if your work is about pirate zombies on the South Seas, you might be all set with your huge audience, but if your subject is something else that maybe is not so popular, what are you going to do? Can the thing that you most want to write?

Writing well does not always mean you’re going to have commercial success. You may have to earn your living another way. I encourage people to develop a trade.

LJC: Harold Bloom. I have to ask. You mention your “dear cousin” in the acknowledgements for Lucky Us. I’d love to hear about even one of your conversations.

AB: He’s a genius. He’s the only genius I know. He’s not a young man; he’s 84; he’s not in great health. We adopted each other as cousins very late in life. I suspect that we would not have gotten along so well when both of us were younger.

He actually reminds me of my dad. They come from a very similar background, very similar turns of phrase. My dad’s been dead about five years. The first time we had tea at [Harold’s] house, we had a great couple of hours, and I went out to my car and I just cried because he reminded me of being with my dad so much. We are both very fond of each other. I think we both feel quite warm and protective towards the other.

Sometimes we talk about art. That would be mostly Harold talking and mostly me listening—but if I feel compelled, I make remarks.

LJC: What’s up next?

AB: I'm starting a novel. There’s some interest in making Lucky Us into a musical, which I find very exciting. I have a children’s book that’s out at the publishers, so we’ll see.

LJC: Is it a follow-up to Little Sweet Potato?

AB: It’s not, although my children of course are like Little Sweet Potato Goes into Outer Space. Little Sweet Potato Goes Under Sea. I mean I guess Little Sweet Potato could have adventures, sort of, but they’d always be the same: Unkind extraterrestrials and then he found a beautiful group of friendly extraterrestrials on this small planet—I mean, I don’t know. I may not have the right attitude towards this. I understand that for lots of children’s series, people don’t mind that it’s basically another version and another version and another version.

LJC: What is this children’s book about?

AB: This is called Unreasonable People. It’s about a boy and a girl who never do what they’re told. Their parents finally figure out that if they tell them the opposite of what they want them to do, they will behave. And they do. The children’s behavior improves, and then the children realize what has been done to them and then they do it to their parents, and it improves them.