Interview: Amy Bloom
We meet one of America’s most powerful and moving fiction writers, whose output is based on firm views about the nature of her craft
The first story in Where the God of Love Hangs Out, the new collection by American writer Amy Bloom - who shared a memorable session with Lionel Shriver at this month's Jewish Book Week in London - opens with happily married best friends William and Clare watching late-night news together and edging awkwardly, under cover of the TV, towards their first kiss: the beginning of a serious affair. Only a few pages long, Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages delicately and comically begins a series of stories of breathtaking intimacy and audacity.
This is Bloom's second collection of stories (she has also written two novels and one non-fiction book). In it, she takes on death, incest, unexpected confessions of love and hatred, and total breakdown of family feeling.
She sees these as natural subjects - "sex and death are certainly at the top of my list" - and explains that "this book comes out of an interest in mortality and change and ageing, as well as in love and passion, and I don't think that you give up one in the presence of the other. What's interesting about the second half of people's lives is what they do with the presence of both those things."
The new book contains only four stand-alone stories. The rest consists of two "quartets" of linked stories, the first about William and Clare, the second about a very different, loving, transgressing couple, Lionel and Julia.
Sex and death are certainly at the top of my list
Bloom insists that "a great short story has real breadth and real depth. It's not an extended anecdote and it's not a clever sketch; it is actually both very short and very full" - every relationship she describes is thoroughly plotted out.
She found herself "particularly interested in the relationship between Clare and Isabel [William's wife]." Through a few painfully brief conversations, she shows us the collapse of a close friendship - yet this is only a footnote to the unfolding of the main story, Clare and William's great passion.
A valued sideline until recent years, practising psychotherapy gave Bloom some of the tools she now applies in her writing: "learn not to interrupt people, listen to the end of their sentences, pay attention to the gap between what they say and how they say it. This is good training for anybody who wants to be a writer."
On the other hand, she is quick to add that, "the process of psychotherapy doesn't have much to do with the process of writing, which is a pretty self-centred activity." Not that she has had time for much self-indulgence: "I've had a family my entire adult life; I started raising kids when I was 21. I suspect that being part of a family has probably informed my life as a writer as much as anything else has."
By contrast, teaching at Yale, where she is a senior lecturer in creative writing, is not something she particularly thrives on: "My job is to help them write a good sentence and learn how to write about things that matter. It beats waitressing!"
Both of Bloom's parents worked as freelance journalists, which influenced her in a somewhat indirect way: "My father certainly believed that one could make a living outside of an office, as he did," she says. "And that if I didn't want to work for other people, there wasn't any reason why I had to. He conveyed that very strongly to my sister and I - that smart people can make their own livings.
"My father would have been spectacularly ill-suited to working for an institution of any kind, and I suspect that, to a lesser degree, that's true of me, too."
Amy Bloom's list of influences from the world of fiction includes some familiar names: Alice Munro, William Trevor, VS Pritchett, John Cheever, Colette, and a few rather less familiar such as Alice Adams, a prolific writer from Virginia whose career spanned the 20th century as brilliantly, Bloom argues, as the rest of these stars.
The key motive behind all these affinities, it seems, is independence. While Bloom registers the widespread pressure on writers to abandon short stories and concentrate on novels, she resists attempts to fit her writing into preconceived models. Just as she will continue to write both short stories and novels, so, we need not doubt, she will continue to write brave, uncompromising fiction that truly hits the spot. And the next one will be a novel.
'Where the God of Love Hangs Out', by Amy Bloom, is published by Granta at £10.99. Sophie Lewis is a writer, editor and translator