WHEN Amy Bloom was a child, her father would drop her off at the library on a Saturday morning, and collect her four hours later. She was in seventh heaven, reading John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and AJ Cronin precociously young.
“My dream, as a child, was to become a professional reader,” she says, with a husky chuckle. “I had this vision of myself working my way through the stacks in a little beige smock with my name on it, and, at the end of the week, somebody would give me some money. I was crushed to discover that job did not exist.”
The daughter of journalists — one a freelance magazine writer, the other a gossip columnist — it didn’t occur to Amy to follow her parents’ path.
“Writing wasn’t glamorous to me. It was just a job,” she says. It was a job she didn’t want. Instead, Amy acted and stage-managed in a repertory theatre in New York. “I was an okay actress, but the world was not going to be poorer for getting me off the stage.”
She then went back to graduate school, and became a social worker, before changing career again, and becoming a psychotherapist, which she adored, and might still be doing, had she not fallen in love with writing when she was in her 30s and was the mother of four children.
Her early writing was selected for the Best American Short Story Anthology two years in a row. She sold her first novel on the back of a short-story collection, but then bought it back, thinking it was too poor.
But then Amy is a perfectionist. Her latest novel, Lucky Us, is big in range and power, yet is only 240 pages.
Narrated by Eva, whose mother abandons her to her feckless father, it travels through Hollywood and the mansions of Long Island, as Eva’s sister, Ivy, pursues her dreams, but more often finds heartbreak.
It’s a mesmerising look at 1940s America, through the eyes of a blended family of misfits.
It conjures up a time when, against the backdrop of World War Two, anyone could be anything.
When Hollywood blacklists her, Iris becomes a governess, and their father, Edgar, who has reappeared in the hope of living off his daughter, reinvents himself as a butler. I absolutely adored the novel. But how does the author pack so much in, and in such wondrous detail?
“I am a great fan of brevity,” she says, then points out that the Great Gatsby was only 187 pages.
“I’ve no wish to take up more space than the story needs. I want to illuminate my characters and to bring them alive; that takes as long as it takes. Beauty is necessary, style and dialogue, too. It’s like William Morris: ‘only that which I find beautiful and useful’.”
Eva adores Iris, her glittering elder sister. She trails in her wake, picking up the broken pieces, protecting her, even, at one stage, stealing an orphan for her, even as Eva struggles through her childhood and teens.
Like her sister, Eva lives on her wits, becoming a reasonably successful clairvoyant, because she understands what people need to hear — but it’s not until the novel’s end that she steps out of her sister’s shadow and is rewarded with a relationship that is all her own.
Where did the idea start, and how did it all evolve? “I started with Iris. I could hear her brittle voice, in my head, as an older woman; she was grieving on being cast off by her sister, and not able to repair the relationship. Gus, the man Iris betrayed, came next, then Eva appeared, and she was the one who had so much to say. She is smart and resourceful, but she is also a little kid, and she doesn’t know much. I had to work my way in.”
When, finally, Eva earns her own money, she realises that the misery she had felt, and assumed was due to grief, was actually due to poverty.
“I think that’s true for a lot of people. Poverty just makes life harder. Extraordinary
>>> people do extraordinary things in order to overcome it, but, for most of us, being poor is like being cold or in pain, it does not make you a better person.
“If the external comforts of your life are destroyed, you’re unlikely to wake up with a sunny disposition. Eva is not sunny, but she is also determined not to lie down in the snow and die. I like that about her.”
Although its set in the past, there are a lot of incidents and situations that resonate with the present.
Does Amy feel that nothing ever changes? She nods.
“It’s like Faulkner said, ‘I don’t know why people say the past is dead. Hell, the past ain’t even past.’ That’s how I feel about it. The number of things we don’t learn is enough to make you weep,” she says.
Amy is a slow writer. Everything about the book, her characters, and the scenarios, have to come to life for her before she can commit them to paper.
“There’s a lot of lying around on a couch, staring at the ceiling beforehand, and I’m never secure,” she says. “I never know if a novel is going to work. The most secure day is when a book is finished, and my editor has read it and liked it. That,” she says, “is one good day.”
After that, it’s back to insecurity again.
“Publication day is nauseating,” she says. “I don’t read reviews. The only good bit of writing advice I ever got was to be in another country when the book comes out. Not reading reviews has become a habit.”
That strikes me as odd, when critics generally rave about her work.
“The very first review I got, for a short-story collection, was in the New York Times,” she says. “It was a very positive one, but it upset me, because, as far as I was concerned, it was a misrepresentation. That stayed with me for about ten years, and I felt if a good review could bother me I was clearly not cut out to read them.
“My publisher always said, ‘Then I’ll just send you the good reviews,’ but I don’t want to read any of them. They can tell me, ‘It’s good news,’ or ‘it’s not so great.’ That’s all I need to know.”
Amy is a great interviewee, both thoughtful and generous with her insights, but she’s not at her most comfortable with publicity.
“You know, honestly, when someone comes up and says, ‘I love your book,’ that is always great. If they are moved by it or distressed, or cheered by something — all those things are fine by me. I want them to be glad they have read it, and beyond that to make it their own.
“I try to be grateful for the chance to talk about my book, but I am a fairly private person and a homebody. Random House once had a really nice dinner for me, and the marketing and publicity people. My husband, Brian, came, and he was talking to everybody.
“At the end of dinner, I thanked them all, and I said, ‘I know it must seem to you that the smart move would be to send Brian on the book tour,’ and nobody argued with me. They were like, ‘Yeah, that would be great’!”