The Fourth River

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The Heart of What I Want to Tell You About Is Not the Place: A Conversation with Amy Bloom

 

Interview by Lisa Slage Robinson, Associate Editor, The Fourth River

 

I want to crawl inside Amy Bloom’s head. I want to plant the bulb of my story into the fertile soil of her brain, let the roots take hold, watch the green shoots erupt and behold my novel blossoming onto the page.

This is what I am thinking as Amy Bloom and I leave the WPTS radio station at the University of Pittsburgh student union. In search of food, we cross Forbes Avenue amongst a swarm of students and spill into the acre of green space that is Schenley Plaza. Amy Bloom wants to check out the Conflict Kitchen.

I am a bit star struck having spent the last two hours interviewing her with Josh, a University of Pittsburgh MFA grad student, for the Hot Metal Bridge literary journal podcast, [in brackets]. Prior to that, I spent a month immersed in her three novels Lucky Us (2014), Away (2007) and Love Invents Us (1997), a short story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out (2010) and numerous published and audio interviews. Even still, I am mindful that I have consumed only a fraction of the Amy Bloom canon which includes a screen play, State of Mind (2007) and the nonfiction offering: Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (2002).

I’m so captivated, while trying to be a good hostess and an ambassador for Pittsburgh and Chatham University’s literary magazine, The Fourth River, and all things nature and place-based, that I forget to tell her about how Schenley Plaza used to be an ugly concrete parking lot. I don’t point out the new Victorian-style carousel or the ornamental gardens.

For Bloom, my omission would be of little consequence. It’s people and not landscape which interests her the most. Bloom has oft repeated that a trip to the museum yields barely a glance at the landscapes. She will walk right past the flora and fauna. But portraits? She can spend a whole day staring at them. To Josh and me she said, “Human beings are complicated. That’s why they are more fascinating than tulips.” She pauses to add. “Even though tulips are very nice.”

When I ask her how she nonetheless puts the reader four square into the many locations in her novels, Away (New York’s lower east side, Seattle’s Jazz District and Alaska’s Telegraph trail to Siberia) and Lucky Us (Ohio, 1930’s Hollywood, Brooklyn and Long Island), she responds, “I’m not Faulkner. The heart of what I want to tell you about is not the place. But character informs place and place informs character.” She tells us that the two are inextricably intertwined. How a person responds and adapts to her surroundings – that is very the essence of character.

We peruse the menu posted on a wooden placard outside the Conflict Kitchen’s kiosk which serves take-out with a side of diplomacy. The rotating menu of global foods is designed to inspire conversation about nations that in are in conflict with U. S. The current iteration supports the Haudenosaunee, better known as the Iroquois Confederacy. We peer past the strange looking names to the descriptions below. Neither of us can bring ourselves to order one of the three varieties of boiled potatoes with meat and succotash. So, we sidle over to the food booth next door, the Asia Tea House. I order California rolls while Amy Bloom orders bubble tea and stir-fried shrimp with lo Mein.

We sit outside – even though the sky is gray.

Amy Bloom doesn’t worry about the rain. Here, she becomes the inquisitor and I the interviewee. She asks me about my work as a lawyer, quizzes me about my family. Her voice is like an underground jazz club: smoky and mysterious with an edgy rebellious note. She enunciates each syllable as if her vocal chords are plucking a base cello. A ribbon of white through her otherwise black hair, frames the left side of her face. She is at once formal and distant and yet remarkably open.

The sound of her voice lures me into a bold place. Perhaps because she used to be a psychotherapist, I tell her things:

…that I really wanted to ask during the radio interview about the politics of the schmundie (a Yiddish euphemism for female genitalia which Bloom uses eloquently in Lucky Us.) because of the current climate and conversation happening around rape culture and sexual consent. She says, “Why didn’t you?”

… that I think the grad student, who has a tattoo on his forearm and in his Pitt profile picture looks like Jesus, is smart and handsome and, even though it’s weird, wonder if I should ask him if he’d like to meet my oldest daughter? She says, “Why not?”

…that my younger daughter recently changed her major from Economics to English, I think Amy Bloom, the prolific writer, will applaud with enthusiasm. Instead she arches an eyebrow and snorts, “Well, that’s practical.” In between my ums and a long awkward pause, I say, in defense, that my daughter wants, perhaps, to get into publishing. Amy Bloom smacks the table and says, “Then she must go to the Columbia School of Publishing when she graduates. Immediately. It can’t wait. Have her call me. I’ll tell her what to do.”

Taken aback, I admire her lo Mein. Bloom slides her dish forward and says, “Have some. I’ve raised three kids. I’m used to people eating off my plate.”

I sheepishly twirl noodles around my fork.

I marvel in her no nonsense, awkward generosity which mirrors the portrayal of her characters in her books.

More than ever, I want to crawl inside her head. It’s surely warm and blazingly bright in there.

 

 

To listen to the [in brackets] interview with Amy Bloom go to:

https://soundcloud.com/wptsradio/in-brackets-with-amy-bloom

 

AMY BLOOM is the author of three novels, three collections of short stories, a children’s book and a collection of essays. She has been a nominee for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories: The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous anthologies. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award for Fiction. Her most recent and best-selling novel, Lucky Us, came out in 2014. She is the 2016 Melanie Brown Lecturer and speaker at the 2016 Pittsburgh Contemporary Writer Series.

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Lisa Slage Robinson is a lawyer and a writer living in Pittsburgh. She currently serves as the associate editor for The Fourth River, and the fiction editor for The Crawl Space Literary Journal. She is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Chatham University.