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“I never think of any subject as taboo”: a conversation with Amy Bloom, author of WHERE THE GOD OF LOVE HANGS OUT

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Where the God of Love Hangs OutAmy Bloom is the bestselling author of Away and most recently Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a collection of stories.

Random House Reader’s Circle: In this collection of short stories, you tackle some new themes, notably love in the second half of life, and death. Why did you decide to go in this new direction? How do you see these stories fitting in with your earlier collections?

Amy Bloom: I think that generally the subject chooses the writer, not the other way around. It seems natural, even inevitable, that as I get older certain issues and moments in life that might
have been less central to me at thirty-five are now more present, and although a number of the stories in this collection are told from the point of view of younger protagonists, both of the quartets have to do with the passage of time. In the Lionel and Julia quartet, I was particularly interested in ending with a story that was largely focused on the point of view of people who were about to become the patriarchs and matriarchs of a family, having always been seen in these stories as “the kids.”

RHRC: You are known for tackling love’s taboos, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. What are some of the taboos you explore in this collection?

AB: The truth is I never think of any subject as taboo. And the things that I think of as truly taboo— pedophilia, sexual violence— don’t usually write about. As Camus once said, we do not choose whom we love. To me, this seems to be not only the way it is in life but probably the way it should be. I am all for loving relationships in which the couple at the center are a match set in terms of height, weight, color, and socially approved orientation. But it doesn’t strike me as any better or more blessed or more heartwarming than when people who clearly are not a match set on the outside are so clearly meant to be together on the inside.

RHRC: Tell us a little about your choice to write interlocking stories, as opposed to a novel or a single story?

AB: Perhaps one of the more striking aspects of both quartets is that they don’t just cover long periods of time in the life of my characters, they were also actually written over long periods of
time—years. One quartet took me seven years to finish and the other sixteen years. Linked short stories are a wonderful way for me to split the difference between the range and scope of a novel
and the compression and pace of a short story.

RHRC: The Lionel and Julia story “Sleepwalking” first appeared in your celebrated collection Come to Me. What was it like for you as a writer to revisit these characters in this collection? How did your understanding of the characters evolve over time?

AB: Of course I wouldn’t have revisited them if I hadn’t felt they had more stories in them and I could begin to see them in new ways. Two aspects of the quartets that were most gratifying: first, that I think I have become a better writer and am more able to put the skills I have in the service of my characters; and second, as in life, time gives you the opportunity to see events differently and to understand the actors in ways that were not possible the first time around. For example, although I always felt a great deal of sympathy for Julia it was only in the last story that I could really feel both the loss that had shaped her life and her unwillingness to yield to that.

Children, stepchildren, and the love between a parent and a child play a central role in many of these stories. At many times in this collection, the love for a child is in conflict with romantic love. Why did you choose to write about how people balance different loves?

AB: When is romantic love not in conflict with a child— if you have children? It is a wonderful, moving, heart- filling experience to sit with the man or woman you love and your beloved children and know that all are happy to be just where they are with each other and loving one another. This doesn’t happen very often. Somebody has taken somebody else’s sweater, somebody has driven the car without permission, somebody is making a terrible choice in a career or fiancé, or someone is ill, or the adults are putting a good face on misfortune for the sake of the beloved children, or the beloved children would rather be somewhere else. . . . Seems to me that family life is a long ride full of ups and downs, moments of sartori- like bliss, and moments when you feel like you’re in a second-rate sitcom.

RHRC: In the William and Clare stories, you write about the love between two people, but their relationship ripples throughout the lives of their families. You seem to be exploring the way love
touches people at their core and also at the more superficial but important edges. Why did you choose to move in this direction?

AB: The ripple effect of love, of hate, of indifference, the consequences of one’s actions, are always of interest to me. In Come to Me, I wrote a story about a woman who chooses to go back to her
husband rather than go off with her lover, not because she couldn’t bear to hurt her husband and her children but because she felt she would be an inadequate and unhappy stepmother, and, in the end, a bad wife to a second husband. In the William and Clare stories, part of what I was writing about is that in midlife, in the face of an unexpected and powerful love, one has a lot to lose. Inevitably, there is loss, some of which people recover from and some of which they don’t— another theme of mine.

RHRC: You are known for your titles, and the stories in this collection are no exception. Tell us a little about how you chose these titles.

AB: “Where the God of Love Hangs Out” is a little unusual for me because of the colloquial phrase “hangs out.” I ended up choosing that in part because it reflected the setting of that particular
story, which is a dive in a dying town. My hope for every title is that it actually adds something to the story. It doesn’t summarize it and it doesn’t preview it, it gives something to the story that
wouldn’t be there otherwise.

RHRC: Tell us a little about your writing process. Also, what writing projects are you currently pursuing?

AB: My writing process such as it is consists of a lot of noodling, procrastinating, dawdling, and avoiding. I usually write fiction in the afternoon. I am currently at work on a couple of television
projects—one about family, one about cops—and another novel, which is about sisters, parents, psychics, orphanages, and vaudeville.

The “fierce, elegant challenge” of story writing: Amy Bloom on why short is good

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Where the God of Love Hangs OutI have loved short stories since I was a girl reading Hawthorne and Poe. (Melville was a little sophisticated for me; I had to wait until I was a sulky teenager to love “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and then I took to walking around the house murmuring, “I would prefer not to.” My father, a Melville admirer, begged for mercy.) At the same time that I was reading the great American nineteenth century short story, I was also discovering my father’s library of pre– and post–World War II wits. Dorothy Parker was not just the funny brittle woman at the Algonquin Table; she knew sadness and self-deception from the inside out and she could put it on the page with painful, personal frankness and not a bit of  self-preserving paint or pretense. Her sentences are wry, but they bleed (“Big Blonde”). I read S. J. Perelman, the Jewish smart aleck of “Westward Ha!” and Robert Benchley, the urbane gentleman who could keep his head and his martini, even on an ice floe (“Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with,  it’s just compounding a felony”). I read odd, funny, sometimes disturbing James Thurber and used his “The Catbird Seat” to plan my comeuppance of my high school principal.

The great pleasure for me in writing short stories is the fierce, elegant challenge. Writing short stories requires Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and some help from Gregory Hines. We are the cat burglars of the business: in and out in a relatively short time, quietly dressed (not for us the grand gaudiness of 600 pages and a riff on our favorite kind of breakfast cereal) to accomplish something shocking—and lasting—without throwing around the furniture.

Flannery O’Connor (a reliable source when appreciating the short story) wrote that short stories deliver “the experience of surprise.” The surprise, I think, is that so few pages can contain so much, that what is taken to be a prism turns out to be not only a window but a door as well.

If you’re an American reader, you can love short stories the way other Americans love baseball; this is our game, people! We have more than two hundred years of know-how and knack, of creativity. Of the folksy and the hip, of traditional yarn-spinning and innovative flourishes. Of men and women, of war and loss and love, with a few ghosts and many roads not taken. And in all of that, you will find some of the funniest and most heartbreaking fiction, ever. (You could take a break right now and go find Parker’s “The Waltz” and Carver’s “Cathedral.”)

Short stories have no net. The writer cannot take a leisurely sixty pages to get things moving, or make a side trip onto a barely related subject, or slack off in the last forty pages. Everything is right now, right here, in the reader’s grasp and mind’s eye. The writer has twenty to thirty pages to entice, seduce, enter, and alter the reader. For me, the short story is the depth of a novel, the breadth of a poem, and, as you come to the last few paragraphs, the experience of surprise.

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