AN INTERVIEW WITH PAULA BOMER

In reviews and blurbs of Paula Bomer’s work, a word that keeps coming up is “raw”. As though picking scabs, she digs into the dark, spectral interiors of relationships—between friends, between lovers, between husband and wife or parent and child—in ways startling, strange, but most of all, piercingly real. 

And it’s one of the deep ironies of her fiction that such brave narrative can coalesce around characters who often lack that very virtue. From the tales in Baby and Other Stories to her new novel Nine Months, Bomer sends men and women scampering about, dreading their lives, fearing their husbands, wives, and children, yet unable, for one reason or another, to confront these fears. In other words, she writes about our secret lives. 

And it’s not only the directness of her approach to these sad, angry, complex people that alarms—and in many cases amuses (she’s got Mary Gaitskill’s knack for the killer one-line takedown)—but the wit with which she skewers contemporary upper-middle class mores and expectations that makes her fiction such vicious fun. And though she carved out her own space with the collection Baby and Other Stories, her new novel, published on August 21 by Soho Press, expands her unique vision into a genre all its own, one that upsets convention, and is not for those without a strong stomach and mischievous sense of humor.

I’ve known Paula for a few years, and another interesting point—though one that most readers won’t ever have the pleasure to know first-hand—is how far removed this caring, generous, vivacious author is from so many of the characters lurking in her imagination. It was my absolute pleasure to talk to her a little about the conception, and misconceptions, of her hilarious, thrilling, and astute new novel. - Shya Scanlon

In other interviews, you’ve spoken of both Baby and Nine Months being satirical. This interests me, because the work doesn’t seem to fit snugly into that category. Some of the characters, particularly in Baby, have exaggerated traits, but they’re not cartoons. Likewise, the situations and relationships, while often humorous or provocative, don’t seem designed as a send-up of another genre, nor intended primarily to condemn social norms. Can you describe what you mean by satire, and what role you feel it plays in your fiction?

I think a lot of people confuse satire with farce. Satire uses humor and exaggeration to examine serious issues and many writers that I admire write satire. This in no way makes the work “light” but is a method or style used to chew on some very serious themes of our human existence. Nine Months is a sustained effort in satire, but I tried to use it as a means of contemplating very real and important issues that plague us. Very specifically when writing Nine Months, I was entranced by Philip Roth and the satirical elements in his collection of novels, Zuckerman Bound, as well as in Sabbath’s Theater. The character, Philbert Rush, is my fake relationship with Roth, or maybe more precisely, with his character, the writer Nathan Zuckerman. I personally find Madame Bovary to be an outrageous satire as well as Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh delved into farce with some of his novels—The Loved One comes to mind, but generally used satire to wonderful ends. I do think that satire can be used to send up social norms, but this doesn’t belittle those norms; if done properly, rather it sheds a harsh light on them. In my collection, Baby and Other Stories, certain stories I perceive as pure satire—the title story “Baby”, for instance. Other stories, like “The Second Son”, are quite humorless and meant to be so. In that collection, I was able to write in a variety of modes and feel I still kept it together as a collection. With a novel, I feel that one needs to be more consistent in style.

It’s interesting you mention Madam Bovary, because in it, Flaubert skewers bourgeois attitudes in part through a character’s limited insight into her own predicament. Your main character, Sonia, certainly engages in some outlandish (and hilarious) behavior, but she’s anything but un-self aware. Though seemingly unable to prevent herself from making bad decisions, she’s constantly self-critical, and always second-guessing. Maybe I’m just exposing what a terrible person I am, but she struck me as entirely relatable. Was it your intention to create a sympathetic character? Tell me what you thought about Sonia as you wrote her, and what you feel about her in retrospect.

Beyond a general satirical element, it’s very true that the main protagonists have nothing in common. Whereas Bovary is all social ambition and unrequited love and lust, Sonia is the opposite. She’s deeply confused by the whole idea of social ambition and pretty much gets what she wants, as much as anyone can, somewhat shamelessly, regarding love and lust. Anyway, these are two women at two very different times. I’m thrilled you find Sonia sympathetic and I’m relieved and gratified to find that others feel the same way, because there have been many people—editors, agents, reviewers, plain old readers—who find her not so. I think that when anyone, regardless of profession, is unable to empathize with a fictional character, it says more about the reader than the character. Hell, I empathized with ruthless drug dealers while watching The Wire. Or better yet, I felt the moral, emotional anguish of the murderer and protagonist of Strangers on a Train, a favorite novel of mine. That said, with Sonia, I tried to push the limits of empathy and create, without a doubt, an anti-heroine. There’s this ridiculous notion that mothers are supposed to be good, and if they are not, than they are bad. It’s a completely unrealistic notion we, as a society, seem to bandy about.

Let’s talk about this “ridiculous notion” about mothers. Nine Months, among other things, is a road trip book—a kind of American picaresque, and like many picaresques, addresses class issues through a series of encounters. As you’ve said, Sonia isn’t lower class like, say, Huck Finn, but she has lower middle class roots, and of course interacts with a number of lower class people along the way. Including mothers. In their own way, each of the three mothers Sonia encounters challenge her own—and maybe the reader's—assessment of her parenting techniques. There seems to be a suggestion that all mothers, to borrow a line from your story “Baby, “fail their children” in some way, particularly through a rigid application of values. Can you talk a little about how the perception of good motherhood differs from class to class? Or even family to family? It seems like mothers are fucked if they live by their beliefs, and they’re fucked if they don’t.

Class definitely defines what is or is not expected of mothers, as does race and nationality, and in Nine Months, regional differences in the US are explored. Raising a child in a small Western town is going to be different that the Upper East Side of Manhattan or the deep South.  Fictionally, I’m willing to explore these differences, but otherwise it’s material for a sociologist.  But one thing we all share—we are supposed to be good at it and if we’re not good, then we are bad. It’s as if there’s no in between. Humans in general are not just good or bad, for the most part, and yet that’s this incredible polarizing crap that goes with bearing and raising children. People tend to fail each other, in big and small ways, in being daughters, friends, fathers and employees. But it seems like a certain wrath and very high standard applies to motherhood, that mothers, regardless that we happen to be no more or less human than any other being, are not given any leeway.

And some of the heaviest judgments against Sonia are leveled by other mothers—so even those under the magnifying glass step outside long enough to participate in the masquerade! Sonia’s failure, as a mother and as an artist, is reflected back upon her by basically everyone, and, perhaps ironically, seems to be the very force that pushes her into something approximating epiphany. It’s as if only in the isolation from all these expectations that she discovers or creates the kind of freedom (however fleeting—the novel’s final line is great) she’s been searching for. This kind of redemption at the hands of the very demons plaguing your characters seems to be a recurring theme in your work—I’m thinking of Ted in “The Mother of His Children”, among other stories from Baby. Do you have a goal in mind for your characters before you enter into the story, or is it something you discover along the way?

I would definitely say I discover where I’m going with my characters as I write, particularly with novels. Occasionally a short story maps itself out in my mind and then I connect the dots, but generally even in those cases something unexpected with come up. Failure interests me very much and I don’t think it’s because it took me twenty years to get my first book published, but rather as you so wonderfully point out, it’s often the impetus for some kind of change, even if that change is internal. I think our failures as human beings—in particular how we fail our loved ones and other people in general is fascinating. There’s the cliché that we hurt the ones we love the most and the details of how we do this illuminate a larger moral landscape. Ultimately, very few people have bad intentions and yet we do bad things, regret them, feel sorrow and remorse. Essentially I believe in the Christian idea of good and evil battling itself out within us and our free will struggles with these forces.

Particularly, one of the most rampant failings your characters seem to exhibit has to do with communication. While reading both books, I was struck time and again by the perhaps ironical disparity between the lack of direct communication between spouses, and the straight-forward, sometimes brutal honesty of your prose. I feel like a lot of contemporary fiction is full of dialog—I’ve considered the fact that people are increasingly influenced by film and TV as a possible reason for this trend. By contrast, your characters live in their heads for the most part, and seem to have trouble even getting quite simple things across to those they love. This of course is rich territory for trouble. But do you ever have to fight the urge to have them just sit down and hash things out?

I’m not sure about everyone else’s long marriages—I’ve been married for seventeen years and observed many other marriages—but most people go through some tough times and biting one’s tongue becomes a habit. Moving, financial problems, having children, having children with problems, parents dying—all these things and more cause stress on marriages. Frankly, just two people who love each other and want to beat out the divorce statistic will have to stumble to make things work at some point. This doesn’t mean they love each other less or are worse people than those mythological humans who don’t have problems—it’s just life. I think I do let people hash things out, sometimes. In “The Shitty Handshake” there is some serious hashing out at the end. And in Nine Months, in the Philbert Rush scene, words are exchanged rather harshly.

Yes, Sonia takes a drubbing at the hands of Rush. You mentioned that he was a stand-in for Nathan Zuckerman. I like the idea of entering into dialogue with other fictional characters, especially in a kind of cage-match. It’s an element of fan-fiction, really. Writing of course has these parallel lives: it speaks to readers, but it also speaks to writers (ur-readers? peers?). It’s necessary, but in cases risky. You sent your first book out for a blurb by one of these writer/peers, and didn’t get the response you’d expected. It makes for a sort of moral tale about the connections between inspiration and acknowledgment. You’ve noted other touchstones for your work, but let’s flip the script, what kind of fiction would you like your own work to inspire? What kind of writer will be coming to you for blurbs in twenty years?

Roth himself has Zuckerman visit a writer/mentor, secluded eccentric, E. L Lonoff who is a stand-in in for—readers guess—Bernard Malamud or Henry Roth. I’m not being secretive about my fake relationship with Roth/Zuckerman, but maybe because it’s truly fake as opposed to Roth having really known these writers. That said, The Human Stain was undoubtedly inspired by the “passing” of the critic Anatole Broyard. There’s no way Roth can deny that or even be secretive about it. Regarding writing for readers or writers, because I am in the small press world- although Soho is bigger than Word Riot and I love both presses tremendously—I’ve been accused to my face for only having other writers as readers, as if this were some problem (by some jackass friend my husband with whom my husband went to Yale, big surprise there). I write to write and want readers and if those readers are writers, so be it. I feel very fortunate to have an audience at all, very grateful for anyone who bothers to read my fiction.

The blurb thing: I got lucky but some people who I thought would like the book didn’t and that stung. Blurbs are part of the business and I’m OK with it. It’s like having cover art and as Matt Bell said, he sees it as a contextualization of the book. I find it irritating that people get huffy abut blurbs. Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to attract readers? I’ve blurbed a few books and was happy to do so. Meg Tuite, XtX, Justin Sirois’s excellent Falcons on the Floor all come to mind.

Well that generosity on your part has certainly come back around. I mean, Jonathan Franzen? That’s nuts. Anyway, let’s circle back real quick to your statement about the twenty years that have elapsed before having your first book published. Your experience recently is pretty inspiring. I also know it can be hard to revisit things you wrote some time ago (I know Nine Months wasn’t written 20 years ago, but it’s been a bit)—the anxiety of being asked to explain/defend work that was done years ago. How has the literary scene changed in the time you’ve been writing for small presses/lit mags? Also, what have you been working on since writing these books?

It was very challenging to do the inspired revisions that my editor asked me to do because I wrote the original draft quite some time ago. I worked my ASS off writing Nine Months. There were many near weepy moments when I’d open the computer and just be full of doubt. That said, there were many times when I’d get that writer’s high and felt I knew what I was doing. It’s always both: the horrible doubt, the joy in having worked so hard for so long that you know you can do it. I think one thing that has changed is, due to an explosion of young families in this country, and in particular where I live in Brooklyn, a dark tale of motherhood is now more viable. Mostly, I think I got lucky with finding an editor—FINALLY finding an editor—willing to publish something that’s not so easy to take. More generally, the ways that the literary scene has changed and grown is unbelievable. Online journals, an infinite amount of small presses, people looking down less at self-publication. I’m of two minds: on the one hand, I get to publish writers at my press that are amazing and are getting the attention they deserve, like Scott Wrobel’s Cul de Sac. On the other hand, Oh my God, there is so much bad shit out there. As far as what I’m currently working on, it’s a novella and short stories where all the protagonists are from the age of twelve to about twenty-two- and all female. It’s very similar in tone to Baby and Other Stories but very different subject matter.  Mind you, very few of these stories were written in my twenties—most were written deep into my thirties. It’s called perspective and I find it necessary to my own writing. Sadly, it’s the only good thing I can say about getting older: it gives you perspective. Otherwise, getting old just sucks.