Amy Bloom on Normal

Amy BloomAmy Bloom has authored two short story collections, Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You and a novel, Love Invents Us. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, O Magazine and countless anthologies including The Best American Short Stories and The O Henry Awards. She has recently published Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, an investigation and rumination on varieties of gender. Amy Bloom teaches at Yale University and Brooklyn College and maintains her small psychotherapy practice. She lives in Connecticut.

Robert Birnbaum: When we talked 2 years ago, you mentioned the book you were intending to write. It seemed like an odd project. But that book, Normal, isn’t odd, after all.

Amy Bloom: I’m glad. I think that’s true. To me they are just interesting essays. But I understand the way people immediately are going to see it from the outside is, “Oh, weird things with gender and deviants.” Of course, if it was that simple I wouldn’t have bothered writing it.

Robert: Have you done any talk shows?

Amy: No.

Robert: Are they asking?

Amy: It’s an interesting situation. There are two things. One is that unfortunately or fortunately, I’m not Saddam Hussein. The truth is the focus in the country is pretty heavily on the Mid East and Iraq. The other thing is that I am myself not transsexual or a cross dresser or a cross dresser’s wife or intersexed.

Robert: You’re just an author.

Amy: I’m just a writer. The talk shows basically said, “This is a fascinating book. If only she were one of those things herself.” I think that tells you all you need to know. It’s okay with me, the book will get read. My vision for the book is actually that it should be like Esther Newton’s Mother Camp, which is a tiny paperback that has been in print continuously for 25 years and is used in every sociology and culture class. That would be fine with me. Her book is a great little book. I think this is a really good little book. I think people will read it, but not in a big flurry.

Robert: Where is your book in the bookstores?

Amy: I have no idea. I live in a small town and I haven’t been to any bookstores since it’s been out. I’m sure that there will be the usual excruciating things that they do, though I would put it in gay and lesbian or sociology or gender studies. To me, it’s just people that are interesting and aspects of a culture that are interesting to me.

Robert: For all the flak that Tina Brown has caught over the years, you give her credit for giving you the freedom to do the first magazine piece that led to this book. She did what a good editor is supposed to do…

Amy: Oh absolutely! The truth is I have no complaints about Tina as an editor. I’m sure that lots of people do who had more experience with her. For both the fiction and the non-fiction she gave me a free hand. She encouraged me to do what was interesting to me and she didn’t bother me very much. So, I was actually pretty grateful. I know from the reprint requests on that article on Female to Male Transsexuals how many universities used it and I know from the letters I got from young women and young men saying, “I’ve always thought this is who I was and never read anything about it and I read this (or my shrink showed me this) piece in the New Yorker and my way is clearer now.” That was great.

Robert: What was the response to the Atlantic (May 2002) piece earlier this year? (AB laughs and smiles)

I tried to write it as I saw it and as I experienced it. The truth is I’d rather not be present in the writing. If I could have figured out a way to write this book so that I wasn’t present, that would have been my preference.

Amy: Well, I guess there are 2 categories of strong response and then a third that was gently appreciative. Which is, of course, less interesting. The strong response was letters from some heterosexual cross dressers saying, “How dare you suggest my wife is unhappy?” I did have a couple that I especially liked which said, “How dare you suggest that I am a Republican?” (laughs) The others were basically, “My wife is very happy. We are no different than anybody else and you probably have driven some very nice men to suicide by suggesting that their wives were unhappy.” Those were tough to take. They were also all anonymous. And then I had letters from the wives. A lot of letters from wives including one from a woman who is a college professor and she said, “This book was really, for me, like The Feminine Mystique must have been for my mother. No one had ever described my life to me or for me. And I love my husband and I plan to stay married to him but this is what it actually is like. And I do not feel worshipped.” I got a letter a transsexual woman (man to woman) who is a physician on the West Coast saying, “I’m sure you are going to get a lot of grief for this but I have worked with a lot of cross dressers and I think this is the truth.” I had letters from people about whom I wrote in the essay who said, “It wasn’t fun reading this but we think it is fair and good luck to you.” Which I thought was enormously generous.

Robert: I saw 2 pieces on the web; one from Girl Talk was somewhat snippy and took you to task from calling cross dressing a compulsion.

Amy: I understand. I understand.

Robert: And then Nancy from Gender Radio called your essay a “glib caricature.”

Amy: I do understand that I hurt people’s feelings. And I felt very badly about it. I felt very conflicted about it. I would have liked nothing more than to see all the cross dressers I met—and I met a lot of cross dressers—as they wished me to see them. And I did see some that way. One of the reasons I focus on this couple, Dixie and Rebecca, was that they were truly happily married people having a great time.

Robert: Is Dixie the Alabama state trooper?

Amy: Yeah. Having a great time in mid life, third marriage for both of them. The wife knew everything there was to know and they’re having a ball. And for her, whether he is cross dressing or not, he’s always the same, fun-loving, charming, attractive—which he is—guy. And there you have it. Some people said, “Oh you just refer to these old fashioned stereotypes.” No, not really. These were actually people that I met.

Robert: I guess when you pay attention that a specific group, members of that group believe that they own the truth about it.

Amy: Right. And who are you to observe and comment. The other thing that I try to make it clear in the book more than in the magazine that there are plenty of heterosexual cross dressers who are not oriented towards family values, who don’t define themselves that way and who are not exclusive. And who are happy to include gay cross dressers, bisexual cross dressers. They don’t care. The particular group that I focused on had a more conservative bent.

Robert: Perhaps you were too subtle in presenting the notion of the sexual identity continuum? (AB is smiling)

Amy: It’s possible. (long pause) There are certainly things that I could have been less subtle about. But I feel that the fear that there is a continuum is very strong for heterosexual cross dressers and their great wish is to make it clear that, “We are not transsexuals, we are not gay.” The truth is that there were a number of cross dressers who I met who in fact said to me, “Really, I think I’m bisexual.” When I would say to them, “What’s your ideal woman?” They would say, "My ideal woman would be a bisexual woman who liked to be in charge." Several of the guys had spouses like that and those were much better matches than when they were with traditional heterosexual wives who, in fact, had hoped to be the more passive partner of somebody who was going to lead the family on a pretty conventional train ride, through life.

Robert: It turns out that the woman who unhappily went along for the ride was, to me, the more interesting complicated and opaque character.

Amy: I really felt for them. I felt for the guys too. When I was with the people who were happy that was great. It may not be true that "all happy families are exactly alike" because maybe if you are a happy family with a heterosexual cross dresser in it that makes you a little different. They were really happy families. I saw these guys who loved their wives and loved their children and really enjoyed being Republican Lutheran engineers and feeling this essential part of them which they—I understand people not wanting it to be called a compulsion, but I think that when you see guys who buy $10,000 worth of clothes one year and burn it the next and then go buy another wardrobe and store it across town and then burn it and then buy it again—it doesn’t seem like a hobby. It’s costly. It’s risky. It’s anxiety provoking. It’s painful. I don’t think that that’s a hobby. People were very open. People wanted to tell their stories, you know, as they do. It was really interesting for me and lots of times, sad. Lots of times I felt really bad for people.

Robert: It stood out for me that in describing the trailer park of Lyle, one of the transsexuals you interview, that you made a point of saying it wasn’t shabby and run down or stereotypical. Not quite on point for a “study of transsexuals.”

Amy: I tried to write it as I saw it and as I experienced it. The truth is I’d rather not be present in the writing. If I could have figured out a way to write this book so that I wasn’t present that would have been my preference. But it was clear to me that that was not going to be an option. And that there wasn’t much point in me pretending that I wasn’t who I am since I was going to be an outsider to all of these groups and that I might as well write it as I saw it and understood it.

amy bloomRobert: One of the subjects accused you of getting pleasure out of these interviews or some such thing. What did she say?

Amy: Oh yes, she said, “You seem to really get involved in the lives of your interviewees.” She was really cross with me. Everybody sees through their own lens, and my choice with the book was to pretend that I didn’t—which is one style of journalism, to pretend that I was just God, looking. The other was just to say, “Oh no, no this is just me with my limitations and my biases and bad habits and what I bring to it and this is how it all looks to me.” In the end these were personal essays. They didn’t pretend to be scientific essays.

Robert: Right, and you do say in Normal, “There are shelves and shelves of academic, clinical, ideological and autobiographical books on one or more of the subjects I address here, I didn’t want to add to them: I wanted to tell the stories of the people that I met…” But the choice wasn’t a real choice because you only could have done the personal as opposed to the omniscient approach.

Amy: No, it wasn’t [real], but I felt like I had to pay attention to it, and my own inclination is to write more in the way that I wrote in the Afterward, which is to say, “Let’s think about these things.” I felt that I had to face the fact that I was present in these conversations and that my presence had meaning. It had meaning for the cross dressers, a lot of meaning. My presence had meaning for the guys who were transsexual. I had my own feelings about it. I don’t know that I ever spent so much time thinking about what I was going to wear in (Robert laughs) either of those circumstances. Or with the intersexed, just my own awareness that no one had ever mutilated me.

Robert: That was certainly a poignant time to consider the Latin phrase, Primum non nocere, “First do no harm.” What a great name for a short story collection.

Amy: Um huh. (long pause) In France they wanted to call the last story collection Mal DonnĂ©e, which is like “badly dealt.” I said that’s not really what I had in mind. They said, “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You is much too sentimental for the French.”

Robert: Sure. It’s been a while since I read it, but in Justine—one of the novels in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet—a character observes that he can identify 9 different genders in Alexandria.

Amy: Yes, I do remember that actually. I don’t think this is a new idea. What’s new is that we are—it makes us so anxious. As opposed to saying, "Oh gosh, that is a big scope." As I describe it, the Greeks, slavery notwithstanding, women notwithstanding, had a better idea..

Robert: Hemlock notwithstanding.

Amy: Yeah, there were serious problems but nevertheless they certainly understood that there were masculine men and feminine men and people you couldn’t really tell what they were and that was the variety that people came in.

Robert: This is straying a little, but I just read an anthology of Cuban writing and it reminded me that a disproportionate number of Cuban writers were homosexuals. Any thoughts on that?

Amy: One possibility is that in Cuba it is so important to be masculine that even writing itself is considered an effeminate act. Maybe if you are a heterosexual guy you just don’t have the guts to write for fear you will be branded a marecon.

Robert: What is it that modern humans don’t fear?

Amy: Well that’s true.

Robert: What an age of fear. We fear everything. To quote a Joe Jackson song, “Everything gives you cancer.” It would seem that some issues should get settled.

Amy: Some do, in weird ways. One of my girls when she finished reading the book, said, "You know mommy, I think this is the last frontier. Sometime in the next 20 or 30 years, people are going to figure out that discriminating against and being prejudiced against people because of the way they are with their gender is wrong. Just like people had to figure it out about civil rights." It does seem to me that people who are 18, 19, 20 seem somewhat more relaxed about it.

Robert: I have a sense that they are a lot more relaxed about a lot of stuff to the point of lethargy. I’m not clear on what young adults are actually caring about today.

You could dig pretty deep and not get past homophobia. There is just still this anxiety.

Amy: That’s true too. It’s always hard to get people caring about stuff without seeing themselves as victims and being casual about things without being apathetic—there’s that little line in between.

Robert: I have a friend who believes we are going to be the last generation to die. That the following generations are going to have a lot of time to think about everything…You made reference to Anatole Broyard.

Amy: I meant that there are easier and harder ways of passing and one of the ways of understanding why people pass—there is feeling among people who are transsexual that people who are transsexual should always announce that. That they should be warriors, they should be politically engaged. There are a lot of people who are transsexual, had very successful surgery and they just go live their lives and that’s the end of that.

Robert: What’s the obligation to become some kind of badge or token?

Amy: It’s not that I think it’s right, but I can understand the feeling—especially if you are successful at it. Especially if you are a lawyer or something else and you have done a good job of it, maybe you should be a poster child for the group as a whole. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to do that. I understand why it would be nice if they did. I met people who transitioned as transsexuals on the job and took a lot of grief for it. I met people who nobody knew, who had transitioned quietly over the course of a year and then started again, with a new birth certificate in a new town, moved into town adopted kids and nobody knew and nobody could tell. The truth is in America you want to be able to tell. Whatever it is that people are, you want to be able to tell, right away. As if to not be able to tell, is just too alarming.

Robert: That’s puzzling. What can you tell about someone by their gender? At this point—and I clearly have a bias and would like someone to challenge this—the only group I am willing to generalize about (AB chuckles), and it’s why I like to talk to them is, writers. I think they are smart, at some level.

Amy: Sometimes, yeah.

Robert: Well, I haven’t talked to any dumb ones. Truly.

Amy: Oh my god, I can’t tell you how grateful writers all over America must be to hear that (laughs heartily).

Robert: Mostly, I think you have to attach 6 or 7 variables (in the way that Amazon and other marketers are perfecting) before you begin to know something about someone.

Amy: You can’t generalize, but it still makes people feel safe. And the essential thing you want to know is gender.

Robert: Why does it make people feel safe?

Amy: I assume that it that it makes them feel safe because of their own inner anxiety.

Robert: They think they know something when they know someone’s gender.

Amy: What they really mean is, “I know how to treat them.” Although that’s not necessarily very different. “I know who I am in relationship to them. If they are male, I know that I am female. If I am male, too, then I know that we are both men.” It means among other things, “That I will not accidentally be attracted to someone I shouldn’t be attracted to.” Like an incest taboo or a sex taboo. No matter how attractive you are, if I know that you are a man really and I’m a guy now I can make sure I’m not attracted to you. Or the other way around. You could dig pretty deep and not get past homophobia. There is just still this anxiety. The other thing is, “What about me? What will I find out about me? What about my own slippery characteristics?”

Robert: What about me?

Amy: Always. If you are not worried about you then you don’t really care what other people are or how they express. What difference does it make?

bloomRobert: How do the 3 groups you talk about in Normal play out in Europe?

Amy: Well, we’ll see. The book comes out in England, which is not Europe in …

Robert: I thought that was a nation of cross dressers?

Amy: They like to present it as if they have no problems with it and it’s all fun and games. Of course, that can’t be anymore true than it is here.

Robert: And they are not racists either.

Amy: Dressing up for the music hall once a year is one thing. But liking to walk around the living room in your wife’s underwear when she is not at home is different. On one hand Europeans see themselves as much more tolerant about sexuality of a certain kind. Which is certainly true. The feeling that you don’t marry for intimacy and therefore if you have relationships outside your marriage, this is not necessarily a bad thing or a wrong thing or a hurtful thing. It certainly is not everybody should do whatever they want, sexually. That has to do with a certain kind of system and a lot of these people [in the book] fall outside of it. The people who are intersexed, I was really struck by how much our social issues around gender affect these people’s physical health.

Robert: The numbers you cite are surprising. There are many more intersexed people than one would think.

Amy: That’s every kind of anomaly. That’s just not the ones that are striking. That’s the ones that are minor and can easily be corrected, which lots of them can. People who were intersexed were not arguing to never have surgery. They were just saying have surgery when people need to have surgery and not when there is no medical issue involved.

Robert: Don’t have surgery because the surgeon wants to?

Amy: Don’t have surgery when the surgeon says, "Well, I think there would be a good social reason for this baby to have surgery." The baby doesn’t have a social life. There was a study in Lancet [a British medical journal] that was very persuasive to a lot of doctors which was that people who had had this early surgery were markedly less happy and less well adjusted than people who had had no surgery at all. That was quite an education for me. Every time I thought I had reached a common-sense understanding, it was clear to me that my common sense was actually a mixture of habit and assumption and my own lucky life and blind spots. It wasn’t common sense at all. If common sense was everything then we would all still believe the earth was flat.

Robert: Hermaphrodites or?

Amy: Intersexed. Though there are lots of hermaphrodites who don’t mind being a identified that way. It’s a little like reclaiming of ‘dyke’ or whatever. You’re going to have to ask me first if you can call me a ‘hermaphrodite.’ But I can call myself a hermaphrodite…

Robert: They are not a marginalized group. They’re invisible. It’s not considered a disability or dysfunction?

Amy: As it is not. These are people with a medical condition and what’s happened is that as other groups in America have come forward around issues of sexuality—around things which are private…30 years ago you didn’t have people who were intersexed coming forward and saying, “You know, the doctor did a terrible job. I have no sensation below the waste. And I’m outraged.” They just hoped that nobody would throw stones at them or think they were too weird or creepy and they’d go about their lives. For all the stuff that I don’t like about this shift in our culture like bad manners and Bermuda shorts and shirts in churches and people who don’t say, “Excuse me.” I do think that being able to come forward and say, “You know bad things were done to me and I’d like to lodge a protest.” Seems like a good thing, especially if now people don’t have to blame themselves. In that context you are starting to see a lot of people who are intersexed in their ‘20s and ‘30s saying, “Uh, I don’t think I did anything wrong. I was born with a physical anomaly. I had 7 surgeries before I was 10. They were all incredibly traumatic and did very little good and I’d like to lodge a complaint here. I’d like to mention to somebody that this is not a good idea.” And that’s really how it began. It began with people who were strong-minded, people who had been born with this medical condition who said, “This wasn’t good. This didn’t make me happier. It didn’t make me healthier. And I suffered.” Even if you didn’t feel shame as most people do when they are different most of us are not brought up to say, “Hi, let me tell you about my genital surgery.” People came forward, mostly, because they were not going to let other babies go through this. A guy, Hale Hawbecker, whom I write about whom I just thought was terrific.

Robert: The man whose parents let him be the way he was.

Amy: Just be the way he was. As he said, the twin qualities of denial and procrastination saved his life. I think that’s great. Certainly, somebody like him would never come forward except that he could not bear the thought that little children were going to suffer that fate. It’s not to say there isn’t a role for medicine, but it has to be done differently and I think it is.

Robert: This fundamental premise of medical practice: first do no harm. How many surgeons grasp that?

Amy: Well, as they say, if you don’t want surgery don’t go to a surgeon. I’m sure that most surgeons, even surgeons who were doing what I consider to be bad medical practice, thought that they were doing good medical practice and that they were intervening in a helpful way. And that the patients didn’t understand and were in no position to make this judgement and they were doing what was best. We all know how reassuring that can be in a crisis and how horrible it sounds afterwards. It was clear when I looked at the surgical videotapes that people’s lives were not being improved. To say the least. None of us would look at that and go, “Great. Gosh, I’m going to have my nose done and then I’ll have that.”

Robert: This book has been longer than 2 years in the making.

Amy: I was fussing about with it. I did the piece for the New Yorker and then I wrote another collection of short stories and then I even wrote the novel after that. And then I worked on some other projects. I didn’t really hustle through it. I’m glad about that. I feel like I got to know more and see more and I got to think about it more than I would have otherwise. And Random House was very patient, which I appreciated. It was very different writing the non-fiction.

Dressing up for the music hall once a year is one thing. But liking to walk around the living room in your wife’s underwear when she is not at home is different.

Robert: Is this a book you write and then put on the shelf?

Amy: What else would I do with it?

Robert: I don’t know.

Amy: I guess write it and think about and talk about it every once in a while—which is what I do with most of the books that I write. I don’t know what else ever happens with it. I hope it makes people think about things. I hope it’s useful. Even more than useful, I hope it encourages people to think a little bit, and those are wishes I don’t ever have for the fiction.

Robert: There are social values that are affected by thinking about the issues presented in Normal.

Amy: That would please me. I would like to think that it serves in a way, again, that I never expect my fiction to…

Robert: I was thinking for instance that it would be interesting to have you and Richard Russo, whose best friend is a male-to-female transsexual, and some third person to have a panel discussion on some of these issues.

Amy: I’m certainly willing to do that to a point. I always underestimate how anxious this stuff makes people. I think about stuff like this all the time and it doesn’t make me anxious. It makes me really interested. I always underestimate how disturbing people find this.

Robert: Were readers disturbed by the first story in the last collection?

Amy: Some. I’ll put it to you this way: I was never surprised by people who came up to me and said, “That’s my favorite story.” But in some important way the focus in that story is really the mother, not the transsexual child. So people could deal with that because there was nothing wrong with her, necessarily. I know that this subject makes people just—I can see it in their eyes as you see some one watching a car come over the horizon—”it’s sort of interesting but then you have to talk about sex, and genitals, and talk about how you actually feel about people. It would just be nicer if we didn’t.”

Robert: So what do we do if we don’t do that?

Amy: I have no idea. I don’t know what other people talk about. Gardening?

Robert: Football?

Amy: Your fitness routine? When it comes out in paperback I imagine I’ll go to a bunch of universities and do stuff there.

Robert: I would think it would be adopted as a text.

Amy: I think that’s probably what its life will be. That’s fine.

Robert: Outside of whatever that field is, ‘gender studies’, I would think it would be an admirable book to use in a writing class.

Amy: To me, it’s just a book of essays about things that I am interested in. It’s harder to be a generalist than it used to be. It’s harder to say, “These are interesting essays about people.”

Robert: Why do you think that is?

Amy: It’s like making everybody have a college degree so that they can do nothing.

Robert: Answer the phones.

Amy: Right. You see it with magazines. It’s harder to be a good, interesting magazine. I’m not sure anyone is ever going to bring out one more good general interest magazine. I wish they would.

Robert: I’d like to think someone will. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a hunger for things—for lack of a better word—for things that are smart.
You can only consume or have shoved down your throat, junk, for so long. This country is not filled with idiots.

Amy: No, I’m ready…(laughs)

Robert: Not watching TV for 2 months and catching the news in oblique ways has led me to perceive public conversation as gibberish.

amy bloomAmy: Yeah, I think that’s true. I certainly look forward to more smart stuff and being able to find things that are interesting and thoughtful and where sound bites matter less and ideas matter more. It’s going to be an uphill battle. No doubt about it.

Robert: Yeah, I say that I think it will happen but I can’t think of any evidence to show that it will. Except that some worthy things continue to survive in the face of…but then other bad things continue to spawn.

Amy: (laughs)

Robert: You are teaching at the second greatest university in the world now?

Amy: That might be what they say. I teach at Yale every spring. I’m also teaching at Brooklyn College in the MFA program. That’s the only teaching I really do.

Robert: What about the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown?

Amy: I’m not doing it this summer [2003] with great regret. Only because there are some ladies who are doing a writer’s conference in Assissi, in Italy.

Robert: Who said the life of the writer wasn’t a frolic?

Amy: Excuse me, I was a waitress. So this is not a bad life, so I feel very lucky.

Robert: How long have you been doing workshops at the FAWC?

Amy: 4 or 5 summers in a row. I really like it. It’s a really good program. A great faculty, and for me it’s very nice because I get to ride my bike and visit people at their houses and lie on their patios and work on my tan…My plan is underway with another batch of short stories and a play.

Robert: How about an opera?

Amy: If I could carry a tune even this far…

Robert: You just write the libretto some one else will do the music.

Amy: I listen to music all the time. I did a treatment of a screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola and Barbara Streisand. You can only imagine.

Robert: I’m trying to imagine.

Amy: And lived to tell the tale. I really liked the treatment and think it would be a great musical. So I have that in the back of my mind. I woke up about six months ago and thought, “You better get a move on girl. You don’t have that much time. You want to do all these things, you better get a move on.”

Robert: Does that mean that you get up earlier every day?

Amy: I go to sleep later. I got up early for much of my life, getting the kids to school—getting up at 6:15. Now if I don’t have to I don’t get up until 7:30 or 8.

Robert: And you still have some therapy clients…

Amy: 5 hours a week. Maybe it comes out to 7 hours a week in the end but that’s about it. I don’t take any new patients and once in a while I’ll do a consult for someone.

Robert: You say 5 hours like 5 hours is nothing.

Amy: No it’s a lot. There’s no way around it. These are people I have been working with a long time. It’s great work and some times I really miss it. The truth is I know what I am doing as a therapist.

Robert: And as a writer?

Amy: It’s like wandering around in an attic filled with sharp objects and very little light. I assume as a writer that most of the time I’m going to fall down and fail.

RB For a time I thought it was false modesty when writers would said such self-effacing things. But it’s such a universal attitude I am convinced of its sincerity and of the miraculousness of the accomplishment. Like that Steve Martin joke about starting with just a pencil and a blank piece of paper…Anyway, you’ve started some stories.

Amy: A batch of stories. And I started work on a play. A historical play. A play set a couple hundred years ago. I’ve done a couple screenplays.

Robert: Has anything of yours been optioned?

Amy: Yeah, they come and they go. Like the suitors in The Glass Menagerie (laughs) as far as I can tell. They’re not really people you’d like to spend your life with, but they come and you have to entertain them. And they don’t really want you, and you don’t really want them, but everybody thinks they do. And then they go away. That’s pretty much how I feel about it. I’d rather do original work. I think my work is hard to adapt and would not be improved.

Robert: Well it would be something else.

Amy: Then you just put a bow on the baby and sell it to the highest bidder and that’s fine. And there are great things. I think The Remains of the Day is still a fantastic film. They did a great job with that. I’m looking forward to The Hours.

Robert: It seems that writers, especially the younger ones, increasingly seem to be candidates for celebrity, though that hardly improves the literacy of public discourse.

Amy: It’s part of the InStyle approach to the Universe. There will a few names of famous writers that you identify with and a few famous people in different areas.

Robert: Does it seem like more writers are in the news?

Amy: I don’t know. When I was 25 it wasn’t this way, but I also didn’t read that stuff. I just read books. I didn’t read stuff about writers. Mostly it makes me feel itchy when I read stuff about. I don’t read stuff about myself and I don’t read about other people. I don’t think it’s to anybody’s advantage to be seen that way.

Robert: I find it hard to not at least scan book business stuff, I don’t much care about whatever gossip around the Booker Prize selection, but I find the spat between Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens on Stalin interesting.

Amy: That’s fun. And that was fun to read. Partially because the content is not, “I don’t like you.” Or, “You don’t like me.”

Robert: But yet creeping into the article was the question asked of Amis, if he and Hitchens were still friends?

Amy: It’s harder for them [the newspaper writer] to follow a discourse that takes longer than 60 seconds.

Robert: So what are you doing for fun?

Amy: Lots of writing and teaching. I do a little gardening. I play a lot of tennis.

Robert: Bad knee and all.

Amy: I scuttle across the court. I really like tennis.

Robert: I am prying because frequently it would seem that the writerly life is without joys external to whatever one might accomplish as a writer.

Amy: I live in a small town of 6000 people in which there are, as far as I know, no other writers. We go to the movies. I read a lot of books, and when we want excitement we go to the big city.

Robert: Read anything great lately?

Amy: I loved The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope. It was wonderful. It came out of nowhere for me because I never read Trollope—a terrible thing to admit.

Robert: No, no it’s okay. Why do you think you have come late to it and then appreciate it so much?

Amy: I was on vacation with my family and my son was reading it and I snatched it out of his hands. Then I just devoured it. A great read about this corrupt, shallow, hard-hearted heroine. Then I finished a book, Dancer, coming out in January by Colum McCann. He’s a wonderful writer and it’s a wonderful novel. That was a great pleasure.

Robert: You know him?

Amy: Yes, we are friends. Then his editor said, “He would never ask you but I’m his editor and I’m supposed to ask you.” Sometimes in those situations it’s hard to figure out what to do. In this case there was no problem.

Robert: In terms of writing a dust-jacket blurb?

Amy: I’d like get to the point where I could persuade my publisher—not for this book which probably needed it—but for the next book of short stories let’s not ask anybody [for blurbs]. Which is what I intend to do.

Robert: Will they listen?

Amy: We’ll see. I don’t see what difference it makes. Plenty of nice people have said plenty of nice things about my work. Why do we have to go on logrolling? I can’t bear it.

Robert: I wonder if the blurbs and bios on the dust jacket mean much to the reader?

Amy: I don’t think there is anything wrong with a book jacket that says, “So and so lives in Connecticut” That’s always been my first choice for the back flap.

Robert: It’s either that or you go to the elaborate tongue-in-cheek which is hard to pull off and doesn’t have a long shelf life.

Amy: I don’t have the energy for that, for all that cleverness.

Robert: Well, good.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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