My Interview With Author Amy Bloom

From AmyBloom.com: "Author of two novels, two collections of short stories, and a nominee for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and numerous anthologies here and abroad. She has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Her latest novel, Away, is an epic story about a Russian immigrant.  She lives in Connecticut and teaches at Yale University."

I talk to Amy Tuesday afternoon after rushing out of my two-hour appointment with physical therapist Lyn Paul Taylor. I’ve got a sore butt, aching feet, shin splints, and the worst TMJ he’s ever seen.

I sit in my car on Normandy and do the interview via my cell phone. I fear getting a parking ticket and I fear getting robbed and it would be just too embarrassing to have happen to me while talking to Amy Bloom.

What would she think?

Luke: "Amy, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Amy: "A reader. I just wanted to read and be left in peace."

Luke: "Did you have any vocational ambitions as a child?"

Amy: "None at all. I think for a little while I thought it might be nice to be a warrior, a Joan of Arc without the auditory hallucinations and the burning, but I don’t remember having any other ambitions."

Luke: "And what about as you moved through your teens and into college?"

Amy: "I hoped to be employed. I worked pretty hard. I was a waitress through most of college. I had thought about being a lawyer. My oldest sister is a lawyer. She was very good at it. I went to watch her one day and I realized that the person she was defending was guilty and I was horrified. I thought I would be a director in theater. It was one of my majors in college (along with Political Science)."

Luke: "What did your parents most want from you?"

Amy: "Want from me or for me?"

Luke: "Both."

Amy: "What they wanted from me, I don’t know. What they wanted for me, for me to be safe and happy and successful in some line of work."

Luke: "What was your place in the social pecking order in high school?"

Amy: "I was a complete little weirdo and outsider with pink Harlequin glasses until ninth grade when suddenly all of my weirdness and grumpiness and sarcasm became extremely fashionable and then I was very cool, much to my astonishment, having not spoken to anybody for 14 years."

Luke: "When you enter a room full of strangers today, where do you go? Are you the life of the party?"

Amy: "I usually go into the kitchen and see if I can help to lay out hor’doeuvres."

Luke: "Were there any signs in childhood that you were going to become a professional writer?"

Amy: "That seems unlikely to me, though I spent a tremendous amount of time in the library. I did write poetry as a child, but it was of the rhyming kind. There was such a high value on literacy in my family that it wasn’t considered unusual or even worthy of comment. Of course you read widely. Of course one was engaged with the things one read. It wasn’t worth remarking upon."

Luke: "What were the most sterling things people said about you as a child and as a teenager when they were predicting your future place in the world?"

Amy: "Startling things?"

Luke: "Sterling things."

Amy: "I have no idea what people said about me when I was a kid. I don’t mean to be recalcitrant, I don’t remember anybody making any remarks to me as a child about my place in the world. I don’t remember anybody being at all interested in my place in the world. I think the unspoken message, certainly from my father, was that anybody who could read and write well would be fine. That his worries were over once we were literate. As a teenager? People said the kinds of things they say to young women who are argumentative and reasonably nimble intellectually. ‘Oh, you’d be a good lawyer. You like to argue and you’re bossy.’ My father, I think, had hoped that I might go to medical school."

Luke: "Who was the first serious person to tell you that you were going to be a professional writer?"

Amy: "Nobody ever told me I was going to be a professional writer… I knew that it was going to be possible for me to be a professional writer after I signed my first professional contract with Harper Collins to publish my first collection of short stories."

Luke: "How did you become a writer? You were a psycho-therapist."

Amy: "I had been thinking about becoming a psycho-analyst and had gone from meeting with the guy who would’ve been my training analyst and on the way home, I found myself thinking about a plot for a murder mystery. I drove past my college where I used to bartend. It was always my job as a bartender to wake up the old alumni at the end of the party just to make sure they weren’t dead. I remember thinking, it would be funny if they were dead. It’d be a good mystery. And so I made some notes and I started writing up the story and by the time I got home, I had about 15 pages of notes, and I called the guy who would’ve been my training analyst and I said, I don’t think I’m going to do this right now. I think maybe there’s a story I’d like to tell. He said to me very sensibly, ‘Neither of us is getting any younger. Don’t dawdle.’

"I started working on the mystery. It was like warm-up exercises for me. And then about halfway through the mystery, I started writing short stories."

Luke: "How do you realize you’ve done well with a piece of writing? Is it overwhelmingly something that comes from within you or are there external sources of validation?"

Amy: "The first feeling when you have finished a piece is, ‘Thank God I’m finished.’ And then, ‘Am I really finished?’ And then for me, ‘I’m probably not finished.’ This will be after a number of revisions. Do I need one more revision? This will be number 37. Then I might read it aloud yet again and go, ‘That’s OK. That’s the best I can do as I intended it.’

"It’s mostly internal. It’s always nice when people like what you have done, but that is not always the best gauge."

Luke: "Have you always had the sense that you are a pretty good gauge of yourself and know what you are doing?"

Amy: "Well, my marital history suggests otherwise, but I think that on the whole, I have mostly felt like I’m a reasonably reliable gauge for myself, which doesn’t mean I don’t make huge mistakes, but even then, I tend to be conscious of them."

Luke: "Did you have a sense as a child and a teenager that you had something wonderful to give to the world?"

Amy: "No, I didn’t. Mostly when I was a child, I hoped that the world would leave me alone because it was pretty clear to me that I was kind of an oddball. I had a pretty good time as a teenager. I don’t remember feeling like I had anything particular to contribute. I observed that I was a good teacher. I did a lot of tutoring of younger kids. I observed that I was good with kids and that I liked them and they liked me. I don’t remember concluding anything else about my talents."

Luke: "Are you a better therapist or a better writer?"

Amy: "I’ve had my days as both. I don’t practice any more as a therapist, but probably a better therapist. First of all, I’ve been doing it longer. Also, you have a partner as a therapist. That increases your chance of doing well. On the other hand, there have been times as a writer when I feel like I hit it out of the park. Whether you are a psycho-therapist or a writer, you only get a certain number of those."

Luke: "Out of which emotions do you do your best writing?"

Amy: "Is that like love or fear or is that just all of the emotions?"

Luke: "I do my best writing out of anger, so…"

Amy: "I see. I don’t do my best writing out of anger, though sometimes in essays the pleasure of the polemic is apparent, but not usually my fiction. I think I tend to write out of a very strong wish to tell a story and to see people come alive in my mind. That is probably a certain kind of love and a certain kind of loneliness and some other thing that I’m not really sure how to identify."

"I don’t find that much it [the writing] comes easy, unfortunately, though sometimes you have a really good day and the character is apparent and the voice unfurls like a bolt of silk."

Luke: "How has being Jewish affected your sense of where you are in the world?"

Amy: "It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t know what it would be like to not be Jewish. I never went through a period of my life where I thought I wasn’t Jewish or other people thought I wasn’t Jewish. I think this is one of those ‘How do fish describe water?’ questions. I’m sure that the immigrant experience and the experience of hearing Yiddish spoken a great deal during my childhood, and the experience of hearing multiple languages spoken, and my parents’ very particular relationship with Judaism, which is on the one hand they certainly identified strongly as Jews, on the other hand they were both atheists and I was never in synagogue unless I was sent to accompany my grandparents so my grandparents wouldn’t be upset with the family, but all of those things have created all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies in my way of being and seeing, all of which I am very grateful for in much the same way I feel that being a woman has had much affect on my ways of being and seeing and being a mother has also had those affects."

Luke: "Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?"

Amy: "Sure. Unless you stay only in the heart of a very Jewish community and never venture outside, you will…experience what I usually think of as casual anti-Semitism in which people say, you don’t seem Jewish, or you don’t sound Jewish or I’ve never known anyone Jewish like you, you seem so nice, or, oh, that’s why he was asking about the price? Because he’s Jewish.

"It’s not like being dragged off to the ovens, but it’s unmistakably a particular response to a group you are a member of, even if they don’t actively wish you harm."

Luke: "Has God ever been important to you?"

Amy: "No. I was not raised in a family in which that idea has had any currency and it has not changed for me over the years."

Luke: "How did you develop your quality control?"

Amy: "In what way?"

Luke: "I’m struck by how all of your writing is first-class. I read in one of your interviews that you bought back a mystery novel. Did your parents drum it into you that everything you do professionally must be first rate?"

Amy: "No. My parents for being middle-class Jewish parents were remarkably indifferent were remarkably indifferent to a lot of the things you would’ve thought they’d pay attention to. We didn’t have braces, nose jobs. Nobody ever drummed it into us about achievement. I don’t know what they were doing, but they weren’t doing those things.

"I think I’m a good editor. I edit my work. I don’t think the point is to be published but to write the best thing I can write. If it gets published, great. One of the things that I can control is the work I put out. I feel strongly it is my obligation to the work to not publish stuff I think is crap."

Luke: "Is there any other area of your life where you take the same care?"

Amy: "I take the same care with other things but it isn’t the same because in writing, I have no one to blame but myself. It’s not that way in relationships, for example. I am conscious of being the best mother I knew how to be but there are a lot of people involved. In writing, you have to take responsibility for every sentence, whether or not your editor said it was good enough. If you knew it wasn’t good enough and you let them publish it, shame on you."

Luke: "What do you love and hate about being interviewed?"

Amy: "Most of the bad things about being interviewed are located entirely within myself. Nobody ever puts a gun to your head and says, ‘You must be interviewed.’ I am subject to attacks of diffidence. One time I had an interview with somebody and the person, her style was to make these leading statements, which I understood later were designed to elicit responses from me, but I’m actually a pretty good listener, so she would make her leading statement and I would say, ‘I suppose you could look at it that way’, or ‘That’s an interesting point.’ I could hear her become more exasperated. Finally, two minutes before the end of the interview, I understood that all of those things were not designed for me to be politely interested but for me to say, ‘Oh, on the contrary…’

"Sometimes I feel comfortable entering into semi-personal chats with people I don’t know and other times I get this wet bathing suit feeling and find it more difficult. It’s not anybody else’s fault."

Luke: "But flattering is not one of the things you feel?"

Amy: "Good point. I should feel flattered. I guess it doesn’t occur to me. Sometimes I feel disbelieving."

Luke: "Most people love to talk about themselves, but not necessarily you."

Amy: "It’s not the thing I find easiest."

"I don’t mind having a chat. I’m a good conversationalist. Mostly I feel like it would be boring for people to have to hear, which is why I won’t write a memoir."

Luke: "Hostility is not one of your immediate reactions to a bad interviewer?"

Amy: "Oh no, because I’ve interviewed people. As a therapist, I spent a fair amount of time having conversations with people who found it difficult or found it easy…"

Luke: "Do you read biographies of great writers and if so, does it speak to you in a particular way?"

Amy: "I love the [David] Nokes biography of Jane Austen. And that one of Oscar Wilde by [Richard] Ellman. So, very randomly and very occasionally. Yeah, they speak to me in that I have gone out of my way to look for the biography because the writer speaks to me. Or, Noel Coward’s correspondence, which I liked very much. Oh, when I read Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra and think about the kind of reviews she had to endure. There’s something very moving to me about it, that a writer like that would be dismissed as a country lady writing a mild amusement. It’s still distressing. Or, you read about Oscar WIlde’s terrible errors of judgment again and again and again. It breaks my heart that somebody should be so willfully self-destructive and self-deceiving on the one hand and so wonderfully clever on the other."

Luke: "I am often struck when I read these books that most of these writers write out of their failures in real life to communicate, so therefore they take up the pen. This doesn’t seem to fit with you."

Amy: "I suppose for anybody’s life there will be a certain level you get to where you could say, wouldn’t it have been better if such-and-such had worked out? It’s not that I feel my life has been a seamless floral print of successes going from one little flower to another. It was more of a wish to tell a story and to enter other lives. The first stories I wrote… I married young and started raising kids young, and perhaps there was some wish to go, what is it like to live other lives?"

Luke: "What are the principle rewards for you for writing?"

Amy: "The economic ones come and go. A good sentence and a good story are really a pleasure to me. It’s like building something. It’s solid and it’s there and it works every time you look at… I’m always very touched when readers say, this meant so much to me. I remember I was giving a lecture in Amsterdam and this guy, this probably 70 year old physician, came up to me, I had just published my first novel, and he said of the central character, ‘She is me. I understood her completely. The way she has approached her life is the way I have approached my life. Thank you.’

"I was so pleased that somebody so different from that character, and so touched that he would take the trouble to tell me… It’s lovely of people to be so engaged with the work."

Luke: "I have this fantasy that one of the great things about being Amy Bloom is that you can arrange dinners and coffees with other great writers."

Amy: "Well, that would be a terrible disappointment to you. In theory, sure, but I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s a tremendous pain in the ass for me to go see anyone or for anyone to come see me, but it’s nice to be friends with people who I can talk to about my kind of work. Mostly we are not talking about each other’s sentences. In theory, it would be nice to have coffee with a great writer but in fact the great writer may turn out to be an awful person and you’d be happy to not have coffee with them. You’d be happy to just read their book and be done with it. It was Swift who said that wanting to know the writer because you like the work is like wanting to know the chicken because you like the eggs."

Luke: "How is your writing different because you trained and practiced as a psycho-therapist?"

Amy: "I’m a better listener… I’m inclined to let people finish their own sentences. I’m trained to pay attention to people’s perceptions and notice the gaps between what they say and how they feel. My training reinforced my inclinations. I am by nature someone who likes to observe what is going on. I find people fascinating."

"I’m basically happy… I haven’t had any shortage of ups and downs and bad s—. People are born with certain kinds of dispositions. I feel things very deeply. I’ve had more than my share of thunderstorms but that hasn’t changed my sense of myself as being happy."

Luke: "How do you choose the photo for your books?"

Amy: "You don’t want to look homely… That’s about it. That’s a standard. You don’t want to look so good in the picture that when you walk into the book store, people have no idea who you are. You want to look good but if it will at least, please God, have a passing resemblance to yourself."

At the end of our interview, Amy says, "Thank you for bearing with me."

About Luke Ford

I’ve written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).

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