Amy Bloom, whose most recent novel Away is enjoying considerable success, is rolling into town for a pair of appearances, one at Vroman's and one at the Skirball Center. We haven't had a chance to look at Away yet, but we're pleased to have this fine guest interview with Bloom, conducted by Anna Clark, who serves up thougthful fare at her literary blog Isak.
Amy Bloom is the author of the 2007 novel, Away. She's also written Come to Me, which was a finalist for a National Book Award; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and the nonfiction title, Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. She’s also a producer and writer with the Lifetime television show, State of Mind. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.
How did you balance research with your creative process? Was it ever difficult, for example, to not let fascinating history overwhelm the core fictional story?
Fascinating history is like fascinating dialogue, fascinating landscape, or a fascinating collection of items in the bottom of the murderer's purse (whether real or imaginary). The trick is to maintain balance, pick the best of the lot and have all the details serve the story by illuminating character and advancing plot.
Did you conduct most of your research up front, or did you turn to it throughout the writing and revision of the novel?
I did the bulk of it after developing a long and detailed outline. When I came to certain points where the story took a new turn and the character went new places, I would find myself back the library.
Early in the novel, Lillian gets her hands on a dictionary and thesaurus to help her with her English. She delights in the thesaurus in particular, and from then on, the narration from Lillian’s point-of-view is marked be parenthetical synonyms. I think it’s brilliantly done--not overdone, but used as a quick, resounding beat that belies the emotion that Lillian is largely detached from. Can you talk more about this stylistic choice? How did it emerge in your writing process, and how did it influence your understanding of Lillian?
I think that in any language, a reference book becomes your rope-walk and ladder. Lillian clings to it in times of stress, even after she has learned the basics.
Though the novel is only 235 pages, your narration slips into so many different points-of-view, giving the text an epic scope. What was it like to balance the perspectives of all these characters, while keeping the story’s weight on our protagonist?
I have always loved the omniscient narrator, as a reader and as a writer. I never think of any of the characters as minor., so it not much effort to give them all their own arcs, however briefly … we are all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
How did you find working with the third-person omniscience in the present tense? Particularly in a novel set in the 1920s, it amps up the immediacy of the story, even as you leap into backstory and in the future shots we have of the lives of characters Lillian leaves behind.
I love God-the-narrator. The particular God of this story has a sense of humor, an appreciation of Chanel, an understanding of necessary violence and some sympathy with the devil.
In Away, readers get a wide view of the world in the mid-twenties. We see Lillian through Russian pogroms, Yiddish theaters in New York City, trains across America, Seattle’s skid row, a Yukon cabin and the Telegraph Trail. Were you ever concerned about how much knowledge of these places and people your readers would or would not bring to the book? What did you assume your reader would know, what did you feel you needed to be explicit about, and what didn’t matter one way or the other?
I assume that my reader knew nothing about anything and it was my job to make places and persons interesting to them, in the face of their knowledge or complete lack thereof.
You yourself are a descendant of Jewish Russian immigrants. How did your family history influence your writing?
The silence of my grandmothers and the journal of my grandfather offered me both the gaps and a few intriguing sentences. Plus, if you love P.G. Wodehouse and Mel Brooks, as I do, there's no way not to love Jewish vaudeville.
You’re on a wide-ranging book tour for Away right now. What sort of reader responses have you been getting, particularly in the places where the novel is set? Anything surprising or unusual?
People always like stuff set where they are, whether it's Alaska or the Target on the corner. No surprises there, although the passion of Alaskans can take you by surprise.
This is your second novel; you’ve also published two highly regarded collections of short stories, as well as a book of essays. How did you come to know Away as a novel, rather than a story? What’s it like for you to work in long-form fiction, compared with short stories?
I think I knew it was a novel when its 40-page outline appeared. Long form is, just like people say, a bitch. Every piece of fiction is, but a novel is worse because it's longer.
What’s your relationship with your past work? Do you ever re-read it?
I re-read on book tour and sometimes just to remind myself of a good moment, where I solved a problem or a bad moment when
I didn't. You teach Fiction Writing and Writing for Children to undergraduates at Yale University. How do you approach your classes? What’ your response to the old “can writing be taught” debate?
Yes, you can teach people to be better readers and writers, if they're willing. You can't teach talent but you can help people recognize a good sentence when they see it and a bad one that needs improvement.
As a book-hungry gal with a Booksense gift certificate burning a hole in her pocket, I can’t resist asking: read anything great lately?
Not great in The Cherry Orchard sense, but great with a small “g”: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon. Great with a big “G”: Jane Hirshfield's latest collection of poetry.
What books have been particularly formative for you as a writer? Why?
A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield; Superman comics; Louisa May Alcott and Oscar Wilde.
Because They were all creators of great sentences, great story and great characters.
What’s your next project?
A screenplay due at Christmas, start working on the novel in January.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Good bye and good luck, as Grace Paley said.