Writer Amy Bloom’s stories have appeared in Antaeus, The New Yorker, and Story and been anthologized in numerous collections, including the Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories, and the O. Henry Awards. Some of her other writing has appeared in Bazaar, Vogue, Mirabella and Self. She is the author of the National-Book-Award-nominated short-story collection, Come to Me (which includes her highly celebrated story, “Love is Not A Pie”), the novel Love Invents Us and her most recent story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, which when we spoke was in its fourth printing. She lives in rural Connecticut, where she is winding down her psychotherapeutic practice to devote herself to writing full time.
Robert Birnbaum: You’ve written a mystery novel and then withdrew it from being published. How do you work hard on something and invest yourself and then…
Amy Bloom: It’s actually worse than that. I actually bought it back from the publisher and put it away. (laughs) I just didn’t think it was really there yet. You want to write something that’s as good as you can make it. That was the very first thing I ever wrote. It was my warm-up for the short stories. After Harper Collins bought the short-story collection they bought the mystery. I read the mystery again, and I thought, “I don’t think so, I don’t think this is actually as good as I can make it, and I don’t think it is as good as it should be.” Although I thought, “Not bad.” So now I tinker with it a little bit the way guys go into their wood-working shops [and tinker].
RB: Why did you write a mystery?
AB: Because I sort of understood the form.
RB: Do you read mysteries?
AB: I do. I do. I like P.D. James. I like especially the early Ed McBain, which I think is amazing. I like early Robert Parker. Actually, I should say I like Ed McBain all the time, at every stage. I like Elizabeth George, who I think is very good, and Francis Fyfield, who I think is very good. I am a great admirer of the form. But it was pretty clear that I was not going to be an admirer of my version, and so I didn’t want other people to read it until it was better.
RB: And Harper Collins would have published it?
AB: Oh yeah. It wasn’t anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print.
RB: Any thoughts about publishing it now?
AB: Sure, if I can get it right.
RB: What’s it called?
AB: Oh gosh — it’s been a little while — Them There Eyes.
RB: With quotes from the song of the same name?
AB: Not too many. I always think that that’s a bad sign in detective stories when you have to have the detective listening to jazz so that you know that he’s much smarter and better than everybody else.
RB: Funny that you say that because one of the general impressions I have of your stories is that all the narrators are smart people.
AB: I think they are, by and large, smart people. They just happen to be… they are not all smart in the same way. The mother in the first story is a deeply conventional person. And smart in pretty narrow way, as opposed to some of the other main characters, who have a bigger sense of the world and maybe a greater sense of adventure and smarter in other kinds of ways. But it’s true there aren’t any people who I’ve chosen as central characters who are really really limited in their ability to take in the world.
RB: In the context of these stories, you are not concerned with signaling the reader anything because these characters are smart, but in a detective story or mystery story…
AB: In a detective story there is a certain amount of underlining. The writer really wants us to know that this detective is a special detective. And therefore he listens to jazz sung by somebody who only cut two records between 1949 and 1952, all of which you would have to travel far and wide to find out. That kind of underlining. Whereas I feel like the characters in this collection are just everyday, reasonably bright people from different kinds of backgrounds. And different kinds of smart. But it’s true they are all people that I think wouldn’t be bad people to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.
RB: And they all have mature problems. Profound and ultimate.
AB: That’s true. It seems that way to me. The truth is I don’t know anybody over thirty who has not had to encounter illness, change or loss or love that did not work out the way they wanted to. Or love that worked out how they wanted to but led to things they didn’t expect. Or family life that’s kind of different than they had in mind. Or children with problems, or parents with problems. If you are paying attention at all, that’s pretty much the way life develops. With all sorts of great things in it but also things that are difficult. Somebody said to me, “Oh these are such unusual situations.” And I said, “How unusual is breast cancer? How unusual is loss?” I wish they were unusual, but they seem to me in fact to be commonplace.
RB: Maybe what was meant was how unusual for a writer to pay attention and present it as a story…
AB: That might be.
RB: …unlike all that is presented on TV or in the movies. Sort of cartoon-like troubles. People get sick, but you don’t really see it. Once in a while you get a movie like Philadelphia.
AB: Once in a while you get movie illnesses, which I love. Basically which means that Winona Ryder’s makeup is two shades lighter than it was at the beginning. I always say to myself, “Gosh that’s great! I can’t wait to have a fatal illness because I’m going to look fabulous.” So there’s movie-star illness. And there’s TV tragedy: although something unfortunate seems to happen, it’s pretty great all the way around by the end of the hour. I think it is true in life that something is salvaged, but I think not necessarily the most obvious thing. If not salvaged something else is understood or changed. Sometimes, not always. It also depends on your nature. And it depends on what you are capable of…in the story “Rowing to Eden” — about these three friends — what emerges is not what anyone would have expected, and it is not about how everybody is much happier and much better off now that they all survived a bout of cancer.
RB: Something about Charley in that story that was incomplete for me. Not a criticism of how you wrote it, but I just couldn’t get my hands around him. He was like a painting in which part of it is richly detailed and part starts to fade toward a bare outline of his form.
AB: The two central characters are probably the two women and their friendship. We see Charley more from their points of view. One reviewer said she thought that I was much more sympathetic towards men and much more empathetic with my male characters than a lot of writers were…which I was glad about. A good friend of mine who is a terrific guy and very funny and smart and quite overweight said, “Oh yeah, I tell everybody that I was the model for Charley, especially my ass.” Which I thought was great.
RB: Is the expectation because you are a mature woman writer that you wouldn’t be sympathetic to men? Or that no one wants to be sympathetic to men?
AB: I don’t know. It does not feel to me as if it requires a particular effort. I think it is complicated to be a woman. I think it’s complicated to be a man. It’s probably complicated to be a Labrador. (looking at Rosie, my Labrador who is sleeping at our feet)
AB: Maybe not. Maybe it’s very simple to be a Labrador and that’s why people like to have them. I didn’t feel like it takes anything special. It’s not really hard to tell a story from a man’s point of view.
RB: People still comment on women writers writing men characters and vice versa as if it’s an unusual achievement, despite that being central to what writers do.
AB: Right. It’s all sort of transubstantiation; that’s all you do and then you try to make it into a good sentence.
RB: You have a group of stories and then the last story, “The Story,” breaks the mold. It felt like you are humming along and you have a cup of coffee and the coffee is really strong and it hits you. Why put “The Story” at the end of the collection?
AB: I did have really strong feelings about the order of these stories. I wanted that story at the end because with a novel the ending is where the writer puts his or her cards on the table and says, “This is what I believe about this story. This is what I want to say.” I think it’s that way with a collection, too. I liked the fact that it turned out to be a different story…
RB: Turned out to be?
AB: Yeah, I wasn’t particularly conscious of…as I was working on the beginning of this story and I was having a lot of starts and stops and it was coming along — I think one of the things that’s hard especially if you are a pretty good writer — you can always make a pretty good sentence — the question is where there is any content. Whether it comes alive. You can always patch a bunch of sentences together in an okay way. But it doesn’t mean that it really moves. And I had gotten this opening. It was okay not really alive. Then I saw what the difficulty was. And then the next sentence was, “Can I tell you how it really was?” And suddenly this new narrator who had been hiding under the old narrator just emerged, and I could absolutely see her and hear her. People are saying metafiction. But metafiction with a heart. And I can live with that, but to me it’s as much an Edgar Allen Poe story as anything else. And that’s part of what I like about it because I am such a 19th century fan.
RB: Fill me in, since I am not.
AB: First of all we have an unreliable narrator. We have someone who reveals to us the truth which is usually horrifying only as we go through the story. The great Poe short story, “The Cask of Amantillado”…
RB: I read it in high school.
AB: Yes you surely read it in 10th grade. Anyhow, he bricks up the person who betrays him. Bricks him up while he is still alive, which is particularly horrifying. My memory is that what one hears as we find out what happens is the beating of the heart of the person who has been bricked up. That is the sound and we don’t know what it is. And all of Poe’s stories have that element in which there is something, but we don’t know what it is until the end. I wasn’t conscious of that when I was writing this story, but to me that’s really the root of it. Where the true story only emerges when you get to the end of the story. I was not really conscious and am not usually conscious about external or structures or how it would seem to somebody else when I am writing it. I liked the story then I reached a point where I realized there was some other thing had to come forth from the narrator. That we had to have more of a sense of her. So that it wouldn’t just be this chilly clever piece of writing about writing. And then I could see her whole life. I could just see what it means to conceal yourself and plot and plan without ever telling anybody what has made your life the way it is. And there we were.
RB: Tabling the issue of the relationship of short stories to writers, it seems to me that the readers of short stories are more serious readers. For instance I have never had someone recommend a short-story collection to me…
AB: That’s disheartening!
RB: Yes it is, but it seems that it is mostly writers who are interested in short stories…do you see that?
AB: It may be, of course, that I prefer not to dwell on it. In my house we were all very serious readers of short stories. I talk to other writers that much about what they read. I like both. It is true that my standard for a short story is probably even higher than for a novel. I feel that in a novel one forgives certain kinds of patches. One might say, the way I might say about White Teeth, for example. “Really great book, falls apart in the last sixty pages.” You don’t have that option with a short story. There is no such thing as a great short story and twenty percent of it falls off. There is no room for that kind of error. I feel it’s an incredibly high standard that you have to hold the short story to because there is no room for that really common, perfectly understandable difficulty.
RB: How do you judge a collection?
AB: If six of them [stories] knock you out and two of them you think are pretty good, that’s a really good collection of short stories.
RB: Some short-story writers that you give high marks to?
AB: Lots of Alice Munro is really terrific. Not all of it blows me away, but there are lot of really really fine stories. A lot of the early stories of Alice Adams before she hit it big with her novels. Like “Listening to Billy,” tremendous. Really, really good writing. I like a lot of Tobias Wolff’s short stories. I like a lot of John Updike’s short stories. Particularly certain ones about marriage. It always amazed me…this is a man who has a perfect ear for marital dialogue although I often feel that he does not understand his female characters. It’s a funny mix but exceptional ear for dialogue.
RB: What about some younger writers? Jhumpa Lahiri?
AB: I think that’s a good collection, and I agree with her own assessment, which is that this is a small book of nine stories. I thought it was a good collection. It didn’t knock me out. Some of the stories of Junot Diaz. I liked much better a short story I read in The New Yorker by Z.Z. Packer. A really good short story. You know people send me a lot of stuff. I don’t always keep up the way I would like to.
RB: Aren’t you occasionally a jurist for some big-time book awards…
AB: …occasionally. That was fun…
RB: …where you have to read hundreds of stories.
AB: Yeah, thank god I’m a fast reader…We almost nominated Seeing Calvin Coolidge in A Dream by John Derbyshire for a National Book Award and then we found out the guy was English. It was published by St. Martin’s Press. Such a good book. St. Martin’s, seems to me, did all they could to hide it from public view…I like Gish Jen’s short stories. There are lots of good people out there, and some of them you come across by accident. I think it is as [John] Gardener said, “The great weakness in 19th-century fiction is sentimentality, and the great weakness in modern fiction is coldness.” I am always looking for the way which people bring three-dimensional characters and real feeling to this really concise and demanding form. I’m sure there are lots of people I am leaving out and when I see their name I’ll say, “Oh yeah.”
RB: The Latin-Americans do it. I was going to say with great vigor but hat doesn’t sound right…
AB: With great intensity…
AB: Those are all people whose work I read regularly, whom I like…
RB: What happened to Gilb?
AB: I don’t know. I like this book The Tattooed Soldier by Hector Tobar, who is a reporter. I thought the relationship between the two men the torturer and the victim were just really well done and very powerful and it all takes place during the L.A. riots. And there some things that are actually very funny. I want to see what he’s going to do next. I feel like a pretty new short-story writer even though I have been at it almost ten years.
RB: That’s actually a long time.
AB: In the writing life you hope to have 50 years.
RB: Well, you live in rural Connecticut and you may be free of mobile phones and…
AB: You think it’s like be in the Caucasus or something and I’ll live to be a hundred and two.
RB: East Coast urban life is a psyche experiment…someone’s idea of a stress test.
AB: I feel very lucky that way. It suits me. It’s why I don’t get Publisher’s Weekly. It would just be a large chunk of stress coming over the transom on a weekly basis. It’s nice not to have to read a bad review of friend’s book or realize that some other friend’s book is even going to get mentioned. Or see some book that I think is terrible get a starred review. All those kinds of things. So I decided that things like actively pursuing my reviews probably wasn’t good for my mental health.
RB: You do a column for New Woman?
AB: Not anymore. I did for a while because it was a great way to pay the bills. Betsy Carter, who is a wonderful magazine editor, had taken over New Woman, and did a wonderful job. She had Wendy Wasserstein writing the manners column. And she had me writing an essay and that was great. She was wonderful and then, of course, another company bought the magazine said to her, “We love you, we think you are terrific and gosh and we won’t renew your contract but don’t take it the wrong way.” So she left and I left. Then I did a couple of pieces for Mirabella. I feel like the Typhoid Mary of women’s magazines. They pulled the plug on Mirabella…
RB: Do you write book reviews?
AB: Once in a while. I really prefer only to write positive book reviews. The truth is it’s as hard to write a bad book as a good one. I did a review of Alice Munro’s big, big collected works, Open Secrets. That was a lot of fun. I did a review of [Philip] Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Which was also fun, and it was nice because word got back to me that he thought I understood the book. Which I thought was very funny. What I said about that book was “…that if you didn’t know better, you would think that it was written by Andrea Dworkin with a sense of humor.” Because it was such an assault on macho natures and ostensible patriarchies. You couldn’t believe that it was written by a man.
RB: I must confess. I’ve never read Philip Roth…Or Updike either. Am I missing much?
AB: I think you are missing a lot in some of the Updike stories. There are these portraits of marriage and divorce, some of them are intensely moving and lyrical in the most unexpected and painful ways. There is a story about when the husband goes to donate blood and he faints and his wife doesn’t, which is just knockout. Or she wants to go on a civil rights march (this is the early ’60s) and he is making fun in this ugly racist way. And you also see it is not at all about the march, it is about her leaving him. Those are just really good stories. I think you could skip “The Witches of Eastwick”…
RB: And Roth?
AB: He sure is a smart man. I really liked The Ghostwriter. It was very interesting and complicated. For people who spend a lot of time with books and words, it’s a very interesting book to read. And I thought Sabbath’s Theater was very interesting — I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I don’t find myself being drawn to the heart of the narrative as it appears to me in Roth. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think he is a smart and a very good writer. It never makes me cry. There are also people who make me laugh out loud. David Sedaris. I don’t consider it to be serious fiction, but I like to read him the way I like to read Carry On Jeeves.
RB: What do think of the attacks by young writers on Mailer, Updike and Roth?
AB: Not just young stags. Tom Wolfe…
RB: People like David Foster Wallace…you are rolling your eyes…Do you take that to be anything more than the tribal/generational squabble?
AB: The assault on the father. I don’t understand quite what the need is. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
RB: And why spend time and effort writing about it when you could be writing something else?
AB: I can appreciate someone saying, “I don’t care for it,” which is something I am prepared to say about a lot of work. I don’t know that I would spend a lot of time writing about or trying to persuade people or acting as if there was a moral issue. I don’t see what the moral issue would be. There is no principle at stake. I usually turn down book reviews if I think I am going to slam the book. Unless I feel like there is a moral issue. But even so I’d be reluctant.
RB: Ever reviewed a mystery story?
AB: I never have. I wouldn’t mind because I really appreciate the genre.
RB: I just went on a Elmore Leonard binge. His mid-’80s stuff is just…
AB: Yeah, I agree. There is a level of mystery writing which is unbelievably complicated and interesting and filled with all sorts of stuff. The people who are really exceptional at it, like PD James or Elizabeth George, don’t repeat themselves. They don’t get stuck in that commercial rut. There is very little formulae. Even though there is familiarity it’s always changing. It has that dreamlike quality of spiraling down into something new. Carl Hiaasen, who I love, you do begin to see it coming. I loved him the first time I encountered him, but now I know there’s going to be a geeky guy who is going to rescue the fabulous babe from the smooth bad person or the from the dorky powerful person. The geek will be revealed to have a heart of gold and unlimited ingenuity. There is nothing wrong with that. Graham Greene made a great tradition out of that. On the other hand [Hiaasen's] Striptease made me laugh out loud.
RB: How much of what has happened in the last ten years of your writing life is what you thought would happen? Do you have a clear picture of where you want to go?
AB: Now that I no longer think it’s a fluke I have more thoughts about it…
RB: What was the fluke part? That you got published? That people…
AB: It was a fluke to me that I wrote the stories. Who knew that I was going to write a whole bunch of stories? And that they got published? Amazing. That people read them. More amazing. Now I am prepared to say that apparently this is actually do what I do for a living.
RB: Before, when you filled out a form and it asked for ‘occupation’ what did you put down?
AB: I used to write, ‘social worker.’ Now I write, ‘writer.’
RB: No ‘writer slash social worker’?
AB: I don’t. I did that for a couple of years, but the truth is I write much more than I practice. The kind of work I used to do is not very compatible with having a second career.
RB: Because it’s so draining?
AB: And its time-consuming. I used to see people two and three times a week. For several years…
RB: Doing psychoanalysis?
AB: Yeah. And I was always available to people. People had an emergency, they called me. I went out of town for a couple of weeks in August and ten days in the middle of the year and that was it. And I was there. I wasn’t late and I didn’t skip appointments and I didn’t call people up and say, “Oh gosh I’m going to be gone the next two weeks.” I did it the way I think you are supposed to do it. But I don’t really feel that’s available to me to now. I don’t want to be available in that way. I would like to do this work. I would certainly like to get in as many years in doing this as I did in the other career. Now it doesn’t seem like a fluke. Now I write, ‘writer’ which still does feel a little like I should look over my shoulder and make sure that’s really okay…with other writers.
AB: First of all, I think it’s a goofy thing to say about one’s self.
RB: I look at the blurbs on the back of your book’s dust jacket. Are you friends with Robert Stone? Did his blurb just come up?
AB: He lives in New Haven. We see each other in passing about once a year. No we don’t hang out. I’m a great fan of his and I like the fact…he sent me a note once, “I’m teaching fiction this year. You are the only living writer.” I said, “All right, I can retire now.”
RB: If you were looking for permission to call yourself a writer; it would seem you finally got it. Is there someone greater than Stone?
AB: No, I’m very happy to have the good opinion of the writers who wrote the blurbs [Robert Stone, Michael Cunningham and Jane Hamilton] That was very nice. I think blurbing is a disgusting business. I’m determined to never do it again. I’ll do it again if someone asks.
AB: I don’t plan to ever use them on my works of fiction again. I can’t bear it.
RB: The next book will have what on the back?
AB: A fabulous picture of me…
RB: A piece of art?
AB: A piece of art. Yeah. Maybe a coupon? Dessert at Friendly’s. It’ll be a extension of the cover. But I really don’t want to ever do it again if I can help it. So, I would like to write more short stories. I would like to write a novella. I would like to write another novel. More short stories…
RB: And your non-fiction book?
AB: That’s so much in my extremely immediate future that I tend to mentally leap frog past it so as not to make myself anxious. That’s no longer available to me now that we are talking about it.
RB: You are on deadline for it?
AB: I need to finish it this spring. But I am looking forward to doing that.
RB: Is it hard to write?
AB: I don’t find non-fiction hard in the way that I find fiction. I’m sure that if what I did all the time I was non-fiction I would find it very difficult and very demanding. I find it hard work, of course. And the task to make the right sentence is still the same task. Not having to imagine everything is feels like a lighter…
RB: Is the non-fiction book speculative or based on research?
AB: I’m not so interested in the research. There are probably people who are better equipped to do more thorough research. I’m really interested in people.
RB: So it’s anecdotal?
AB: Anecdotal and portraits.
RB: Case studies?
AB: Not so much case studies as portraits of individuals. And taking a look at groups and what goes on socially and interpersonally between. Really, I am just interested in shining a light and letting people draw their own conclusions.
RB: Are you surprised that somebody bought this book [on Transexuallity, etc]? Does it seem like it’s going to go flying off the shelves?
AB: Not to me. But what do I know? I was surprised that Random House so much wanted the book. It wasn’t like, “We love you so much we’ll publish this book, too.” No, they really wanted this book. They actually have a lot of confidence in the book. It may be because most books about both people who cross-dress and people who are transsexual tend to be autobiographical. If they have feeling they are usually autobiographical. And if they are not they tend to be clinical or else theoretical. My book isn’t any of those three things. It’s really about — people. Some of them seem very different from you and me and some of the people seem remarkably not at all different. And that’s part of what makes it interesting to me.
RB: I was going to speculate on the publisher’s rationale. But why would I do that?
AB: Well, do let me know. I’m always interested to know.
RB: In an age of marketing you need a hook. What you described is interesting. However, if I was in a store and saw such a book by Jane Rose, I wouldn’t notice. So the combination of a well-known and well-received writer and an interesting topic…You will absolutely get reviewed and noticed.
AB: I think that’s certainly their hope. Part of what is interesting to me is the nature of these people’s marriages and how they live their lives. It depends on how wide your own range of interests are. Very little would make me pick up a book about boats. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading The Perfect Storm. In the end, it’s all in the telling. Either I am going to be able to make it clear to people that there are things that you didn’t know that you would like to know. I was really very interested in the Billy Tipton Story.
RB: Did you read Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet?
AB: No, but I read Suits Me. Which distressed me because my feeling was here is somebody who whatever else has done his best to be a pretty good husband and a certainly a good father and made a lot of difficult choices as an artist so as to protect himself and his secret and his family and life he had made for himself. And did so through sheer will and insistence. The author of that book had such condescension for her main character and it bordered on contempt. I felt, “Well you can’t understand the person.” These things are really complicated. Suits Me focused on the deception, the sleight of hand…the deception.
RB: How did he do it?
AB: Right. Part of how he did it was by avoiding places where he wouldn’t pass. There was a reason this man, this woman did not perform on the West Coast. We tend to stand away from all these spouses and say, “How ignorant, how self-deluding.” And I think to myself, “Right. And in your marriage you never kid yourself?”
RB: You close the doors and behind them what stories there are…
AB: Everybody has interesting stories with interesting compromises…I remember talking to a woman casually at a dinner party and I thought her husband was very charming. He was really full bore charming and also a pretty heavy drinker. She said, “The drinking is the price I pay for the charm. Even I find him so charming I can live with the drinking.” I thought, “There’s an interesting story.” In neat and tidy stories the husband is an alcoholic and the wife has to leave him or get him to stop drinking. She had clearly decide neither of those things was going to happen. Who does not make all sorts of pacts and turn blind eyes and give up one thing for another?
RB: Only in bad fiction.
AB: Right. Only in bad fiction is it tidy. Even the way people revise their family and marital histories after somebody’s death is also fascinating to me.
RB: As some of characters reoccur in stories and you have said they will appear in others at what point do you think about moving toward a novel?
AB: I’ve gone too far with the short stories to suddenly make them a novel. I have three short stories about them. I’m going to write two more. What I think will happen — if I live long enough — there will be collected stories. And then they’ll be in the same house together.
RB: You don’t think, “There is a lot here, therefore I will write a novel?”
AB: A lot here — for me, that internal thought — doesn’t signal, “Now it’s a novel.” For me a lot here means, “Great I can do more than one short story.”
RB: Thomas Beller‘s book The Sleep Over Artist was a group of nine interconnected stories. Could you see a short story collection which was all about Lionel and Julia, et al.
RB: What would make that different than a novel?
AB: A somewhat different structural form. A certain kind of connective tissue that’s not required. And if you like writing short stories, that’s nice. In lots of ways I felt my novel was a collection of linked short stories as it was chapters. I really focused making pretty sure every chapter could stand by itself. It still has a slightly different narrative arc if it’s a chapter than if it’s a short story. I can imagine a collection of linked short stories. For me it would not be just one family. They might be linked in different ways. Somebody who’s a minor character…
RB: Will we see Claudine again [Lionel's French fiancee]?
AB: Ahh. The terrible Claudine. She was great. She was a terror. I do like Claudine. I like the kids in this family very much. I’m also looking forward to getting Lionel happily married at last.
RB: Can you talk about the impact of Lionel’s incestuous experience on his life?
AB: I think she [Julia] is prepared to allow it to mean more to her. She is prepared to take the blame and feel the guilt and suffer in way that he is adamant about not allowing himself to suffer. So she has to, it’s her job. I don’t think it has ruined his life.
RB: But there is evidence that something has gone off track…
AB: Who is to say that it wasn’t that his mother died very young and was a drug addict and his father died before he finished college. That he feels more alone than a lot of people. Who’s to say?
RB: Your woman characters seem not to be lonely, dissatisfied, almost self-contained and certainly not resigned. I would have expected them to exhibit more sadness, dissatisfaction, and perhaps panic. But they don’t. Does this go with being smart?
AB: Wouldn’t that be nice? They have the temperaments that they have…
RB: Not one pitiable person.
AB: ‘Pitiable’ is not of much interest to me. Self-pity is probably one of my least favorite qualities in a human being. Pitiable suggests a certain kind of distance that we feel. I would not like people to feel distant from the characters. I’d like them to feel in that world. That I step out of the way and they are in the family, having Thanksgiving, in the hospital, in the bed. Whatever it is. The characters are very much a mix. I guess I think resigned is pretty terrible way to go through life and not a very interesting thing to write about. There are some people that are more drawn to characters with pretty flat affect because whatever reason they find that pretty interesting — resigned, sad, dull view their whole life that way. Not so interesting to me.
RB: In the short term you are finishing the Transsexuality book…
AB: The non-fiction book, another collection of short stories and a novella.
RB: Have any enlightened filmmakers approached you?
AB: They do…
RB: I’m assuming they have to be enlightened because your work is not like…
AB: No I don’t think so either. The producers come and go, and I’m always happy to have a drink with them. There’s a fair amount of that.
RB: Is any of your work optioned?
AB: Oh yes, somebody has finished a screenplay of the novel. One can only imagine.
RB: Are you distant from that?
AB: There is no point in acting as if you have given your child up for adoption. People talk to me about would I like to do this. Would I like to do that and I’m happy to talk to them. Mostly it will come to nothing. I’ve done a couple of movie treatments which is nice because it’s nice to make a living. My feeling is that one should hope for the best and expect the worst. I think if I wanted to write a movie based on one of my short stories somebody would be interested. But I can’t see myself taking the time to do that on spec. At this stage of my life — probably by the time I feel I have the time to do that I’ll be so old that they won’t want a script written by somebody that old.
RB: Do you watch a lot of movies?
AB: I was very disappointed this summer. I had to rent a lot of movies because most of it was so bad. I’m very forgiving about movies. Give me a good 45 minutes in the middle and I’m a happy girl. Boy, was there a lot of garbage. And stuff that I watched, I’d go, “I don’t understand they paid somebody several hundred thousand dollars for that script and they couldn’t figure out what to do with the mother who suddenly disappears or something.” I find it frustrating. There are movies that shouldn’t have been made. Like Shaft. Or movies that could have had much more to them than they did. American Beauty is in that category.
RB: I thought The Ciderhouse Rules was a great one.
AB: I thought it was very sweet…a fall-down performance by Michael Caine. I really liked that movie. There was a period when my kids were small that I didn’t get to see as many as I wanted. But I like to go…
Copyright 2000 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing