Not such a delicate flower
Amy Bloom’s readers must get used to sharing her with a wider audience, writes John Freeman
MY Bloom is the most unlikely opponent of complaining you are likely to encounter. Long before she made a name as a writer of plangent, soulful short stories about the emotional lives of everyday people, the 54- year- old American earned a living as a psychotherapist. People liked to tell her things, and she in turn found herself able to help by listening.
But as dedicated as she is to the talking cure, Bloom has no patience for sad sap stories. ‘‘ It’s only in the modern world that you get points for being a victim,’’ says Bloom, sitting in a diner in West Hollywood, where she has been living for the past few months to work on a television show.
She applies this no tolerance rule even to herself. ‘‘ People say, LA can kill your soul.’’ Bloom casts one of her big expressive eyes outdoors at the sun already beating down at 8.30am. ‘‘ Well, I’m not such a delicate flower.’’
It could just be that the cast of her novel Away has also put such issues in context. As the novel opens, Bloom’s heroine, Lillian Leyb, a Russian Jew who witnessed her entire family being murdered one night by gentile neighbours in a pogrom, arrives on the Lower East Side. ‘‘ At 22,’’ Bloom writes, ‘‘ she was an orphan, a widow, and the mother of a dead child, for which there’s not even a special word, it’s such a terrible thing.’’
On the advice of a greedy aunt, who always coveted her family’s home, Lillian has come to the Big Apple to ply her trade as a seamstress. Being a woman, and a not bad looking one at that, she winds up plying much more when she falls in with the Bursteins, two Yiddish theatre impresarios who have trouble with their w’s and a gangsterish role in Lower East Side nightlife.
Bloom grew up in Brooklyn, but long after many of these theatres closed. Still, she saw flickers of this fabulous world at its fringes. ‘‘ My sister and I would be called on to attend these Sunday soirees . . . to come pass around hors d’oeuvres to a lot of short, barrel- chested men with velvet fedoras and made- up ladies. There was Russian and there was German and there was Yiddish and there was French, and there was my aunt’s spectacular hosting.’’
As much as she misses that world, Bloom isn’t about to sentimentalise it. Like the future Hollywood starlets and producers, Lillian is used by — and uses in turn — the Bursteins. Bloom has already received one note from a reader criticising her for making Lillian a calculating mistress, but Bloom is unapologetic. ‘‘ What was she going to do?’’ she says. ‘‘ I was not much interested in glossy sentimental ire, which pretends to be tough but in the end is really just ‘ poor me’.’’
Most other readers aren’t complaining, however. In the US the book was a surprise runaway bestseller, landing on The New York Times list at No 3 in its opening week of sales, territory most often reserved for James Paterson and John Grisham. Even the acid- tongued Lionel Shriver was impressed. ‘‘ Her execution is exquisite,’’ she
Awrote in the Los Angeles Times , ‘‘ and exquisite execution is rare, not only in books but ( alas) in almost any undertaking.’’
To the small but loyal group of readers who have been following Bloom’s career, this exquisiteness is not a surprise; what is a surprise is having to share Bloom with a wider audience. Until now, Bloom has been known primarily as an author of short stories, a medium widely supported in literary journals in the US, but less so at bookstores.
Even Bloom’s evolution has been quiet. She began writing in her spare time in the late 1980s and early ’ 90s, and never expected much to come of it. When she was told her first book, Come to Me, was a finalist for the National Book Award, her response was: ‘‘ What is the National Book Award?’’ Her second book of stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You , was a National Book Critics Circle finalist.
For a while, Bloom stuck with this talent. Even her first novel, Love Invents Us , grew out of a story and unfolds in a series of story- like chapters. But Bloom knew early on that Away would be an epic novel, if on her own terms. ‘‘ I like to think of this book as a medicine ball,’’ Bloom says with a laugh. ‘‘ A lot denser than would at first appear.’’
After Lillian learns her daughter may in fact be alive, she journeys back across the US towards Siberia, meeting a series of characters along the way.
Away is the first book that required a lot of research from Bloom, and she dived into it feet first: descriptions of train journeys of the time, sentimental novels of the Lower East Side from the ’ 20s by Fannie Hurst, many of which she read as a girl.
One of the most important pieces, however, was right under her nose: a memoir left behind by her grandfather that Bloom’s father had translated from the Yiddish. ‘‘ He had been a
socialist, but had a conversion to capitalism when he came to this country; he saw the smokestacks and thought, ‘ What a wonderful country’.’’ Bloom finds this ability to change and adapt fascinating, and still, in spite of so much immigrant fiction, an untold story. ‘‘ This sense of all these stories untold is what’s interesting to me,’’ she says. In this sense, she feels a kinship between her characters and people she knows. ‘‘ I feel like there are people I know who have suffered tremendous loss, and the fact that they get up every day and love their children and make jokes . . . I just, I’ve been very lucky in my life. As my father used to say to me, you’re smart, but better lucky than smart.’’
* * * THROUGHOUT her career as a writer, these words seem to have shined down on Bloom. A couple of years ago, she was approached by two TV producers who liked her writing and wanted to know if she had any ideas. She came back with a proposal for a show about five therapists and the lives that unfold after hours.
The show got the green light, a hefty cast, and premiered this summer in the US to positive reviews. Bloom, who studied theatre and was trained as an actor, enjoys the collaborative work and the speed with which it is released to the public. On some occasions, lines she writes are spoken, shot, and on the air just 16 hours later. In real life, Bloom was married for many years to a professor at Wesleyan University, raised three children, divorced and then lived for many years with a woman. She is now engaged to marry a man, an architect. Many of Bloom’s short stories contain gay or bisexual characters and she says that’s not an attempt to alter the family. It’s just who she dreams about in fiction.
‘‘ I think inevitably you write what you are, or what feels true to you. Most of the stuff that people find immoral or disturbing, I feel like, well, that’s the way it is, isn’t it?’’
Previously, Bloom’s fiction marked her as unique and quirky, until she went public about being bisexual, whereby it became queer. She is aware, to a degree, that Away will mark her as a Jewish writer as nothing else has done yet, and she’s fine with that label but thinks it’s simply shorthand for something larger.
‘‘ There is a way when you plunge into a certain kind of novel, it’s like there’s a kind of rock you have to tie around your ankle to go down and do whatever it is. And for lots of it, it’s the past, and as you go farther into any American’s past, issues of culture and ethnicity loom larger.’’
That’s the long answer to where the book came from. Finishing up her flapjacks, Bloom provides a tidier and equally true one: ‘‘ That I can write things that matter to me and people want to read and someone will publish? That feels great.’’
Away by Amy Bloom ( Granta, 224pp, $ 29.95). John Freeman is president of the US National Book Critics Circle.
Exquisite writing: US novelist Amy Bloom, the author of Away , about a mother’s search for her child