Excerpted from Away by Amy Bloom. Copyright © 2007 by Amy Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Amy Bloom
Random House Reader’s Circle: Away is loosely based on a real woman in history. Can you tell us a bit about her life, and how you came upon her story? Ultimately, how did you make her story your own?
Amy Bloom: I don’t know that I’d call Lillian Alling a “real woman in history.” There’ve always been bits and fragments of a story about a foreign woman, mute or silent by choice, who came up the Telegraph Trail, determined to walk to Russia. There are no records of her arriving in Ellis Island and no records of her life in Alaska and, of course, one of the first questions is: If she didn’t speak, how did they know where she was going? I ignored all the fanciful parts and also all the shoddy investigations into her story (this was the golden age of yellow journalism–when whole wars were made up to sell papers) and thought instead: If you weren’t crazy or particularly adventurous, why would you make this extraordinary trip? And I thought, I would only do it for love.
RHRC: Lillian Leyb’s journey takes her across the globe, from Russia to New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle, to Alaska, to Siberia. Did you chart out her epic journey before writing? How did you conceive the arc of the novel?
AB: I sat down with a former student and a bottle of wine and dictated a forty-page outline to him. We wrapped it up at about four in the morning. The outline included a million unanswered questions, which led to all my research, and it also provided the entrances and exits of some of my favorite characters. This journey is as much about Lillian becoming alive again, and becoming an American, as it is about anything else.
RHRC: Away captures the mood of the Roaring Twenties, both in the rhythms of your language and in the atmosphere that you create. What sort of historical research did you undertake? What about the period captured your imagination to begin with?
AB: The Roaring Twenties only roared for some people. For lots of working people, it was a fast-paced world, but not one with hip flasks and flappers. The thing that truly captured my imagination was the way in which the twenties were so much like our modern world; they had everything we had (corruption, advertising, rapid transit, the cult of celebrity, expanded sense of sexuality) except television and computers. I researched in libraries from Alaska (which has extraordinary archives of first-person accounts) to Yale’s Sterling Library (which is just around the corner from a good cup of coffee) to making use, like everyone else, of all the search engines.
RHRC: This novel is filled with so many colorful characters, from the theater idol, Meyer Burstein, to the hardscrabble call girl, Gumdrop, to the loveable convict, Chinky Chang. Do you have a favorite character in the novel? Whose voice stands out to you most, and why?
AB: I love them all and they are all parts of me. My elegant sister, a hardworking and very upright lawyer says, “Gumdrop, c’est moi.” Gumdrop’s conflicts between love and practicality appeal to me, as does Chinky’s capacity to fall in love instantly. I also love Arthur Gilpin and his second wife, Lorena, a cardsharp who chooses love over glamour and money. The voice that is always with me is the omniscient narrator, the God’s Eye.
RHRC: The third-person omniscient narrator allows the novel to jump forward and backward in time and between parallel narratives. Tell us a little bit about your decision to use this technique. Why did you want the reader to know what happened to Sophie, even though Lillian herself never learns? Do you think Lillian ever stopped looking for Sophie?
AB:The omniscient narrator is God’s Eye on this world.The Eye can see into the past, into the future, and make connections that would not be available to the characters (Gumdrop doesn’t know that she is like Lenin). Lillian stops looking for Sophie, but never stops watching for her, never completely gives up the habit of holding her breath when she sees a brown braid tied with a blue ribbon, even fifty years after they have last seen each other. We see what happens to Sophie, as we do with all of the characters; what will be is part of the story.
RHRC: What significance do the chapter titles have? What are they derived from? And can you tell us why you decided to call the novel Away?
AB: Each of the chapter titles is a song title. The first half are Yiddish or Russian lullabies; the second half are American folk songs or Christian hymns. The book’s title is simple, to balance the complexity of the plot. It’s also one of those words that has in it both coming and going. I go away, I come away; I leave here, to go away and must go away again, in order to come home.
RHRC: As the author of a number of award-winning short story collections including Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, how did you approach writing a novel? Do you find it more challenging, or more freeing, to write in a longer narrative form?
AB: I approached writing this nove
l as I would a large, dangerous animal whom it might be possible to work with, if not to tame. I tried to apply the discipline of my short story writing (no longueurs, no self-indulgent riffs or pointless dialogue) to the novel, so that it would be dense, but not too long, full of characters but not baggy.
RHRC: We’d love to know what you’ll be working on next–can you share any details of your next book?
AB: It’s set in pre—World War Two America, in both the Boston Brahmin part of Beacon Hill and the make-it-up-as-we-go world of Hollywood at that time. At the center are two half-sisters, their mothers, and their father.
1. Dreams are a recurring theme in the novel. What are Lillian’s dreams, both literal and metaphorical? How do these illustrate or inform the larger subject of the American dream?
2. Much of the novel centers around self-invention and -reinvention. Can you identify some characters who reinvent themselves over the course of the novel? Which characters are successful? Which characters are unable to complete the process?
3. According to folktales, “when you save the golden fish, the turbaned djinn, the talking cat, he is yours forever” (p. 43). Which characters in the novel are saved, in one way or another? Which characters do the saving?
4. “Not that she is mine.That I am hers,”Lillian says,describing her love for Sophie (p. 79). In many ways, love is the primary engine of the plot. How does love define, inspire, and compel characters in the novel? What are some of the things characters do for love? Do you think that love is portrayed in the novel as a wholly positive force?
5. Contrast Yaakov’s story with Lillian’s. How do they each handle the loss of spouse and children, and how are they changed?
6. During Lillian’s journey, there are key points at which she is required to identify herself as either a native or a foreigner, insider or outsider. Can you point out some of these moments? At the end of the novel, how complete is Lillian’s assimilation?
7. Relationships among family members, particularly parents and children, play an important role in the novel. Compare and contrast the relationships between Lillian and Sophie, Reuben and Meyer, Chinky and the Changs. What is distinct about each family? Are there similarities?
8. How are sexuality and physical love portrayed in the novel? Consider Lillian’s relationship with the Bursteins, Chinky’s relationship with Mrs. Mortimer, and Gumdrop’s relationship with Snooky Salt, as well as Lillian’s relationship with John Bishop and Chinky’s relationship with Cleveland Munson.
9. What kind of person is Lillian? What do we learn, throughout the novel, about her passions and prejudices? Do you think Lillian is right when she says that she is lucky (p. 4)?
10. The metaphors and descriptive images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective metaphors that helped the novel come alive for you as a reader?