Novelist Amy Bloom Advises: The Goal Is Not To Get It Done; The Goal Is To Be Good

October 31, 2007
Written by

 

Away
Away
(Random House)

by Amy Bloom
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Amy Bloom
Author of Away (Random House 2007) and other novels

by Ellen Birkett Morris

November 2007

In her latest novel, Away, Amy Bloom tells a story that is both personal and panoramic. The story follows the journey of Lillian Leyb as she comes to America fleeing a Russian pogrom and journeys across the United States to Alaska en route to Siberia in search of her lost daughter Sophie.

“The first thought and moments of a character are pretty mysterious . . .
—BLOOM

“I found Lillian where one finds one’s characters – something sparks your interest and you blow on it and hope to make something out of it. The first thought and moments of a character are pretty mysterious to a writer. There is no formula. I try to imagine my characters in a variety of occupations and situations,” said Bloom.

She keeps a file with clippings that interest her that may serve as prompts for stories. One clipping is a letter to Dear Abby where a man confesses that he met a wonderful woman with a prosthetic leg and on the first date he told her he also had a prosthetic device. Engaged and in love he wonders how to come clean.

Lillian’s journey comes from an apocryphal story out of Alaska about a woman who walked to Russia. “The story was that a woman turned up in the Northern provinces heading north and didn’t speak English,” said Bloom.

Bloom combines sharp writing, telling details and keen psychological insights (honed by her work as a therapist) to craft a compelling narrative.

“I am interested in how people behave and how that behavior expresses feelings.”
—BLOOM

Bloom began her career as an actor until she realized that coaching and directing interested her more. From there she pursued a degree in social work and worked until recently as a therapist.

“I am interested in how people behave and how that behavior expresses feelings. When it comes down to it human behavior is the only thing that really holds my interest,” said Bloom.

Her character Lillian is particularly interesting. Numbed by tragedy, she approaches life with a sense of emotional and moral detachment, free to make choices based on her current needs.

“It is not my experience that terrible suffering immediately results in one being a better person. Lillian is in the process of coming back to herself. How you feel about Lillian probably depends on your own nature. She is not adorable, not plucky and she is no Shirley Temple,” said Bloom.

She noted that her background in social work taught her that personality is poured into a vessel that is shaped by family, community and culture. Bloom said character development centers on the age-old question of nature versus nurture. How much of ourselves is made up of what we are and how much made up of what we do with what we are.

"Most good stories don’t happen nowhere. We are shaped by the world and the times in which we live. . ."
—BLOOM

 

 

 

 

 

To bring the subcultures and communities that Lillian inhabits alive Bloom did extensive research “going to libraries from Yale to Alaska.”

In Alaska, she sorted through items that included old boxes of photos and a jacket made of whale intestines.

“Most good stories don’t happen nowhere. We are shaped by the world and the times in which we live,” observed Bloom.

The result is a story that crackles with details, from the scratchiness of the cheap nightgown her lover buys for Lillian to the endless white of the Alaskan sky.

Bloom began with a forty page outline. “I diverted from it many times in many ways and also clung to it like a safety rope,” she said.

Her challenge as she wrote using an omniscient narrator was “seeing enough through Lillian’s eyes while keeping up with other characters.”

“The ending is a crucial moment in storytelling where more
is still happening . . .”

—BLOOM

Bloom also struggled with the ending, missing a deadline by several months as she revised the last thirty pages of the book.

“Good endings are tough. In a number of novels that I love I feel the last forty to sixty pages fall off. The ending is a crucial moment in storytelling where more is still happening,” said Bloom.

Bloom’s preparation for becoming a writer was reading. As a reader she looks for “a writer who completely immerses herself in her characters, shows and doesn’t tell, can craft a great sentence, and uses strong, smart, moving language.” She likes a story to “be about something.”

Her advice to new writers is to read widely.

“As a writer you should read people
who are good writers
but not necessarily like you.”

—BLOOM

 

“As a writer you should read people who are good writers but not necessarily like you. If you are reading a lot of VS Pritchett try reading Don DeLillo. If you read a lot of Mary Gordon try reading Kelly Link,” said Bloom.

Bloom met early success as a writer. Her first story appeared in a Canadian feminist journal and was later selected to be in The Best American Short Stories. Her second and third stories appeared in Story and The New Yorker.

Her agent, Phyllis Wender of The Gersh Agency, read her first three stories and requested a meeting.

“She seemed like a person of integrity. I signed with her and asked, ‘What happens now?’ She said, ‘Now we get married and I get 15 percent.’ If everything I wrote between now and the day I die sold 100 copies she would always return my calls and always treat me well.” said Bloom.

She said authors seeking agents should look at the back of books of living writers whose writing resembles theirs and write a “short, professional, non-whiney, non-belligerent, non-threatening letter” along with their best ten pages of writing.

As for working with editors, Bloom advises writers to take every opportunity to make their writing better.

“The goal is not to get it done.
The goal is to be good.”

—BLOOM

“The goal is not to get it done. The goal is to be good. When you build a house in a rainstorm the goal is to be done. When you build a house to last 100 years the goal is for it to be good,”

Bloom is currently at work on a screenplay and will begin a new novel in January.

 

Amy Bloom is the author of the acclaimed story collection Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist, and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; a novel, Love Invents Us, and a nonfiction work, Normal. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University, where she is a fellow of Calhoun College.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists. 

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris