Rancho Santa Fe: Author likens writing short stories to being a ‘cat burglar’
Editor’s Note: Short-story writer and best-selling novelist Amy Bloom was the guest speaker at the Jan. 10 luncheon of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society held at The Grand Del Mar. The six-event luncheon series is sponsored by Northern Trust, the RSF Community Center and this newspaper. Nonfiction writer Daniel Okrent, who was the first public editor of The New York Times, will address the next Feb. 3 luncheon. His latest book is: “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
By Arthur Lightbourn
Amy Bloom’s latest book, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out,” is a collection of short stories.
Well, not exactly.
More like, two quartets of character-connected stories forming two novellas, plus four free-standing stories connected only by the author’s determination to “entice, seduce, enter and alter” her readers as she has been doing for the past 17 years.
Bloom is the author of two previous books of short stories, “Come to Me” (1993) and “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You” (2000); two novels,
“Love Invents Us” (1997) and “Away” (2007); and one nonfiction psychology book titled “Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude” (2002).
She has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
She compares the job of writing short stories, her favorite medium, to that of being a cat burglar — “in and out in a relatively short time….to accomplish something shocking — and lasting — without throwing around the furniture.”
We interviewed her in the library of The Grand Del Mar Hotel and Resort on Jan. 10 prior to her luncheon talk to the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.
Bloom, 57, has a quick wit but when it comes to what she considers the “serious” business of writing, admits to being slow and meticulous.
Her stories, she says, go through some 30 rewrites before she is satisfied.
“It’s more like chiseling stone than anything else.”
Her first book of 12 short stories, “Come to Me,” took six years to write and was published when she was 40, a full-time working mother and psychotherapist who wrote after 10 p.m. when her three children were in bed.
Bloom was born in New York City. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
“I have to say I have a real soft spot for Jewish vaudeville,” she said, “because of my family’s background. My parents were first generation American and my aunt and uncle sort of made their careers in the Yiddish opera.”
As a result, in her fiction, she can’t resist dropping in a few Jewish jokes now and then, like in the closing lines of her story, “Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous,” where, at a home memorial service, the deceased is remembered with the joke about the Jewish grandmother who says to God when he returns her little grandson to her safely after the child had been swept off the beach by a giant wave, “Excuse me? He had a hat.”
Both of Bloom’s parents were professional writers: her father was a freelance journalist and author of several books, her mother, a gossip columnist.
As a child, Bloom was an avid reader, first, of comic books at the barber shop where her father hung out, then, of anything she could get her hands on at the local public library where her parents deposited her on Saturdays; but for many years she resisted becoming a writer because, she said, she thought it was “too hard.”
Her father later told her it was in her genes.
She earned a B.A. in political science and theater, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Wesleyan University, performed with a New York repertory theater, and later earned an M.S.W. (master’s of social work) from Smith College and opened a private psychotherapy practice in Connecticut where she still lives with her architect husband.
Even though she makes her living as a writer, she also continues to teach.
For a decade, she was a lecturer in creative writing (2000-2010) at Yale University, where she taught “Advanced Fiction Writing” and “Writing for Children,” and is currently a teacher and writer in residence at Wesleyan University “because I’m a worrier and it’s nice to have a back-up.”
Of her writing, she says, “I’m not selling anything. There’s not a lesson I wish them [her readers] to take home, but I think it’s true that one writes as one is, so people can draw their own conclusions.”
“I find people interesting,” she said. “I think people do sometime surprise us, not as often as we might like, but they do. People’s feelings are often quite different than their actions, and what people think they will do, is not in fact what they do. All those gaps, like the gap between the sidewalk and the street, that gap is the most interesting to me.”
In her first quartet of stories about Claire, a middle-age academic, and her best friend on the faculty, William, an overweight, intellectually stimulating Englishman, each married to other people, the gap begins with a 2 a.m. touch as they were watching CNN together while their spouses were asleep in other rooms.
That initial story of the Clair-William quartet, “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages,” begins with the words “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame.” It goes on to explore a surprising series of consequences.
The character of Claire, Bloom said, isn’t based on any one person she met or even treated in her practice as a psychotherapist, “but I know lots of people who are not unlike Claire. She’s smart. She’s a little prickly and she thought she knew herself and she didn’t, which, to me, is always one of the more interesting adult situations.”
The second quartet tells of an even more scandalizing twosome named Julia, a white music critic and recent widow of a famous black jazz musician, and Lionel, her 19-year-old stepson, who, in their mutual grief, give into a night of love that haunts them both for years, with Julia turning to relationships with another woman and eventually with a gay man.
Bloom’s views on sexuality in America?
“I think at this stage in America it’s really a civil rights conversation. It’s not really about sex. The history of America, I’m happy to say, is one in which, once we grant people civil rights, we don’t roll them back. The real issue in America is: Who is a person? Who is a citizen? Who is a human being?
“My grandchildren will look back on the period when we wouldn’t let gay people marry and say, ‘Are you crazy? What were people thinking?’
“My own experience is that no one who is happy or happily married gives a damn what other people do in the bedroom. Unhappy people care a lot. Happy people not so much.”
She said since she was 13 she realized she was bisexual. “I didn’t have a name for it, but I just figured most people liked Chinese food and hamburgers. I didn’t think people thought they had to choose.”
Her advice to aspiring writers?
“Just read and write,” she says. “Please don’t worry about being published. Please don’t worry about being famous. Just worry about writing a good sentence. And read, read, read. Read people who are not like you or who do not have your point of view. Read people who are foreign to you and even people who are hateful to you, but who are good writers.”
She is currently working on her third novel, “In Praise of Folly,” about two sisters and their father — “their ups and downs, relationships and misunderstandings” over a period of 30 years. It begins in the late 1930s in Hollywood.
Her first children’s book, “Little Sweet Potato,” is scheduled for publication next year, and she is currently working on her second “Sweet Potato” book.
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