Conversation with Amy Bloom

James Miranda: One of the things I’ve always admired in your fiction is the way you’re able to use taboo and transgression so deftly and intelligently as a source of narrative tension. From your earliest stories in Come to Me (such as the much anthologized “Silver Water” and the gutsy “Sleepwalking”) right up through your complicated protagonist Lillian in Away, or Iris and Rose in your newest book Lucky Us, you seem to have an intense interest in characters that push the bounds of what is socially acceptable. Yet their acting out never feels contrived or overdone. The prohibited takes on a sacredness that’s always palpable and quite beautiful in your writing. Are you conscious of the place that taboo and transgression have in your fiction? Do you find such socially constructed forces to be great fodder for compelling narrative?

Amy Bloom: I don’t really ever think of myself as breaking taboos and transgressing. It’s also true that although good manners matter to me a lot social norms do not. Good behavior is not usually a subject that fascinates me.

JM: Connected to this issue of taboo and transgression (and sorry to descend so quickly and cheaply into the depths of popular culture . . . and so early in the interview!), I couldn’t help but think of your nonfiction work Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude amid the current American obsession with the Bruce Jenner saga. That book seemed both a departure and a return when I thought about some of the recurring concerns in your fiction—a moving portrait of folks forced to contend with staid cultural orthodoxies when it comes to notions of gender and sexuality. Any thoughts about the way this particular story has been spectacle-inflated in the media given your professional interest in the subject in the past?

AB: It doesn’t surprise me that the big reveal of Caitlyn Jenner is what an attractive 65-year-old woman she is. It’s a little depressing that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Flo Kennedy, Barbara Jordan, and Hillary Clinton notwithstanding, the entire point of Caitlyn Jenner being a woman seems to be that she is a glamorous and conventionally attractive one.

JM: Your first novel, Love Invents Us, essentially takes, as its first chapter, much of the short story “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” from Come to Me. What was it about that story that lent itself to being explored further as a novel? What do you remember as one of the greatest challenges of writing that first novel and how has your process changed in the course of writing two subsequent novels?

AB: First of all although it looks that way the novel was not in fact an expansion of the short story. It was the other way around. I had written a novel and realized that the short story could fit as an opening. My process in writing a novel has changed mostly in that I have a slightly better idea of what I’m doing than when I wrote Love Invents Us, but only slightly.

JM: I’ve read in previous interviews that you seem to have a pretty intricate practice of outlining your novels before writing them. How closely do you end up adhering to those outlines in the actual writing of the novels? Has there been an instance where an item of research or a sudden development in character in the process of writing has skewed or imploded that outline? How so?

AB: The outline is very useful for me in the novels in which there is a fair amount of incident and event taking place. Some events get dropped, some get expanded, some turn out entirely differently but the outline for the novel would certainly be familiar to the reader of the novel. In Lucky Us, the entire trajectory for the character of Gus would have been different had I not come across a first person account of a German family’s internment in the U.S. in World War II.

JM: I notice that in all of your novels you tend to title your chapters. How do you see the titles functioning in the structure of the novels? I also notice that you like to use song titles or lyrics as some of these headings. It gives your novels almost a kind of interior soundtrack. It adds a great kind of texture to the work that comes from outside the world of the fiction. Is there anything that you find particularly appealing about repurposing those titles or lyrics?

AB: I love chapter titles in novels partially because of the way they evoke 19thcentury fiction, which I loved growing up and because they serve multiple purposes as communication from the writer to the reader: preview, warning, invitation. Music, especially vocals, are such a big part of my life as a listener that I’m not surprised that I find myself inclined to create the interior soundtrack for the written word.

JM: In both Away and Lucky Us you set significant sections of the novels in the world of stage and screen. In Away it’s the turn-of-the-century world of vaudeville and Jewish theater; in Lucky Us, the golden age of big-studio Hollywood (and even British cinema). Your characters are always on the outskirts of the respective industries, but we get a full-bodied sense of what it is to be immersed in the world of dramatic production. What is it that draws you to these worlds? What is it about the language and props and behind-the-scenes politics that you find so fruitful?

AB: I love backstage. I spent my childhood in theater classes and performances of everything from Robert Frost poetry to Shaw’s plays courtesy of my drama teacher Mrs. Klinger. The Jesuits say “Give me a child until they are seven and they are mine for life.” That’s the way it is for me with the backstage of any production—ballet, theater, TV, movie.

JM: Away and Lucky Us are also road novels in some way. They both involve somewhat epic journeys, characters separated and longing to reunite, trials and tribulations that test your heroines. Do you find yourself physically mapping out the journeys that your protagonists undergo? What determines the “route”? How do you keep yourself from getting easily sidetracked and buried by the research that must go into evoking these various places and periods?

AB: Because I have no sense of direction I am forced to carefully map out any activity in my writing that consists of more than leaving a room.

JM: A cheap shot but . . . if you had to choose one novel, one story collection, and one collection of poetry to keep you company for an indefinite period of time on a desert isle, what would they be?

AB: I would create a collected works of Jane Hirshfield since her individual volumes of poetry are too slim for my life on a desert island. I would take the collected short stories of Carol Shields and I would take a gargantuan book, which would be the collected works of Robertson Davies.

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