Issue 94 |
Fall 2004

About Amy Bloom

Although the virtuosity of her prose announces her as a serious author indeed, Amy Bloom is too sensible—and too funny—to get carried away with herself. A relative latecomer to the art, Bloom has written two acclaimed story collections, a novel, and a book of nonfiction essays; she contributes to top-drawer magazines, including The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Atlantic Monthly, and her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards. But she'll be the first to tell you that she's only now beginning to realize—or, perhaps more accurately, to admit to herself—how much she cares about the enterprise that has won her so much praise.

"As I've gotten older and been writing more, I felt I had to stop pretending to myself that I was just casually knocking this stuff out because I had another full-time career and my kids were younger," Bloom observes. "I'm more disciplined than I was. One is bound to fail—in fact, one does fail, you fail every time you write. But I think at some point I just decided I would not be such a chicken, and allow myself to take more regular—daily, weekly—opportunities to fail."

Born in 1953 in New York, Bloom first grew up in Brooklyn. Her father was a journalist, her mother a journalist and teacher. Soon enough, they made the traditional immigrant move from Brooklyn to Long Island, her parents finding a house, depositing a $500 down payment, and hauling them out to Great Neck. As a child, Bloom did a little writing, she remembers, but nothing newsworthy. "I've got a nice little sheaf of poems," she says. "Derivative, I fear—influenced by Dr. Seuss. There was a lot of all, ball, tall, fall."

By the time she reached junior high, her plots thickened. "I started writing these sort of revenge short stories in which terrible things would happen to people who had made me unhappy, of whom there was not a small number," she recalls, laughing. "I had a short story in which the vice principal-based very closely, as a matter of fact, on our vice principal—whom I described as having 'wispy blond hair and a chipmunk chin,' takes a magic potion he thinks will make him more powerful, but it just makes his awfulness more visible to other people, and bad things happen to him. My ninth-grade teacher, who adored me and whom I adored, read it and laughed and suggested to me that in the future I might want to disguise these things a tiny bit more."

And that, until about fifteen years ago, was basically it for Bloom and writing. Instead of crafting fiction, she was busy exploring her curiosity about people through other avenues, majoring in theater and government at Wesleyan University, then getting her M.S.W. from Smith College.

"I worked before I went to college and started an abortion hotline for pregnant teenagers in Massachusetts when abortion was illegal there," she says, "and I worked at a school for autistic kids. And I realized that I didn't find other people's problems as boring as many people seem to." Studying acting after college, Bloom found herself more interested in sitting offstage, listening to what was bothering her fellow performers. "So at some point I decided I might as well, you know, get paid for it."

She married a professor, became a mom to two daughters and a stepson, and built a therapy practice. The next logical step was to become a psychoanalyst, but instead of committing to the training, Bloom found herself sitting down to write. She's never felt it necessary to analyze why—a surprising attitude for a therapist. "It's handy," she says. "I don't think about my characters clinically, and I only think about my life clinically when I think I'm in trouble. I feel like I'm really lucky, because I can just bounce along as blind, deaf, and dumb as anybody."

Bloom's fiction, as we know, is anything but dumb. Her first collection, Come to Me (1993), garnered raves like Elizabeth Bennett's in The Los Angeles Times: " Come to Me is so rich, moving, and gracefully written, it's hard to believe [Bloom] hasn't been doing this all her life." When the collection was nominated for a National Book Award, Bloom was too green to be bowled over. "I believe that my historic response to my editor calling me was to say, 'Oh, that's nice.' You know, what did I know from a National Book Award?"

Bloom's next book, the novel Love Invents Us (1997), partly derived from one of the stories in Come to Me. Working to outdistance the hurts of an awkward, isolated childhood, protagonist Elizabeth Taube stumbles but eventually finds love with African-American basketball coach Huddie Lester. Critics like Donna Seaman in The Chicago Tribune again took note, commending the first-time novelist's ability to retain her "arresting economy."

Bloom remains a writer for whom economy is key. Asked why she gravitates toward short stories, she mentions their compression and intensity. "It's not like climbing a smaller mountain than a novel; it's just like climbing it faster."

Many a critic has pointed to Bloom's day job as a therapist to explain her acute sense of the inner workings of the heart and mind—a conclusion about which she's unsure. "I think I became a therapist because I love people's stories, the things that happen, or might have happened, or could have happened, the stories they—meaning we—construct and invent. I think that good shrinks, like good writers, are more likely to be born and made than professionally trained. And if people like to think that because I'm a shrink, I understand people, that's okay. I'm not sure it's true, but it's okay."

Yet given the obvious—that no therapist would betray specific confidences—aren't there generalizations to be made? Bloom's having none of it. "There are no general stories," she insists. "One doesn't hear general stories as a therapist. One hears unbelievably specific, intimate, detailed stories. There is no big picture. There is only this particular moment in this particular life."

Bloom's second story collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000), hones in on such particular moments. One story maps the dicey three-way relationship between a breast cancer patient, her husband, and a lesbian friend who's already had cancer. In another story, Bloom explores the ambivalent emotions of a mother who's supporting her transgendered son as he undergoes the surgery that will release him from his female anatomy.

The collection was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Referring to the "exotic intimacies" Bloom brings to life, and to the warmth with which she views the adjustments her characters make, The New York Times's Janet Maslin concluded: "This is not a brand of storytelling easily imitated or duplicated. It requires a writer of sure abilities and deep intuition."

In the writers' workshops she occasionally leads, Bloom works to help students connect with their own intuitions. "I suspect that we write as we are," she says. "There is a foundation in the fiction which is the fundamental relationship that the writer has to the world, and there's no hiding it."

Asked to describe what that means in her own work, Bloom starts by mentioning her disinterest in judging people, fictional or real. "Even though I don't have any interest in preaching it," she points out, "you'd be hard-pressed, if you read my work, not to understand that I don't think the only relationships that are of value are those that reflect The Saturday Evening Post in 1953."

In 2002, Bloom published her first nonfiction book, Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, a series of essays on transgendered and transvestite people. While reviewers praised the book, and many subjects stayed in touch with Bloom for years after their first interviews, some angry heterosexual cross-dressers did send her the first hate mail of her life, outraged that she had suggested their cross-dressing was more about narcissism and erotic drive than appreciating women.

Bloom's irreverence, along with her probing curiosity, has given her a reputation as a writer who's serious yet sarcastic; who's expert at evoking two contrasting moods at once. Now, she feels, she's growing past the initial challenges she set for herself.

"Some [stories] are that sort of serious-and-sarcastic and often focused on domestic life, family life," she says. "Others are probably darker and starker, and the bite goes in a different way. The longer I write, the more I see different kinds of strands, different kinds of branches developing."

She currently lives in rural Connecticut with her partner of ten years, the editor Joy Johannessen. In the past couple of years, she has been jetting back and forth to Los Angeles, where she's at work on several projects for television, but fiction remains her first artistic priority. There's a new novel in progress for her longtime publisher, Random House, and more stories are on the way as well.

Even against the obvious backdrop of chaos in the world, she still believes fervently in the importance of fiction, refusing to concede that it has been outrun by reality or the ever-spinning news cycle. "The need to understand things that happen right in front of us is no less than it ever was," she says. "And the capacity of human beings to understand and make sense of things that happen far away is even more pressing than it was because we get the information, which doesn't mean we have the insight or the understanding. All of which is an argument for first-rate journalism, which I am prepared to say is one of the tremendous needs of our society, like clean water. But the fact that we have a tremendous need for informed and intelligent reporting doesn't mean that we no longer have a need for informed and informative and insightful and provocative fiction. Do we have to say, 'Oh, we need trees but not rivers?' "

Anne Stockwell is the senior arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate.