Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with women writers. Here, we dance chick-to-chick with gutsy Brooklyn writer, mother, wife and homeowner Paula Bomer, 42. The acclaimed author doesn’t swaddle the truth when discussing her debut fiction collection Baby & Other Stories, praised as “raw and angry” by Publisher’s Weekly.
Thelma Adams: How old were you when you came out of the closet as a writer?
Paula Bomer: I started writing fiction in high school. After I graduated from college with a degree in psychology, I began writing fiction more regularly, knowing it was what I wanted to do. By 22, I began taking workshops. I applied to graduate writing programs at 24.
TA: What did you like to read as a kid?
PB: I read everything. As a young girl I read all the Beverly Clearly and Judy Blume books. I loved Madeline Lengle.
TA: And what did you read as a young adult?
PB: By the age of twelve, I had run out of children’s books and began reading things that went above my head. I read everything by Toni Morrison. And with great delight and horror, I read Wifey by Judy Blume. How shocking that the Blume of my grade school years could write so explicitly about sex! It was a very exciting time, moving toward books for grown ups, even if I didn’t understand everything.
TA: What was the first dirty passage you read in a book?
PB: Well, that might have been Wifey. I loved Chaucer in high school. In college, I went through a stage of reading Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski: all sorts of dirty stuff but it was “literature,” too. Later, Philip Roth, Mary Gaitskill and Alicia Erian, to name a few, also showed me how writing explicitly about sexual matters doesn’t belittle the work.
TA: What did you wish when you were first starting out as a writer?
PB: I wished to be published and read and, quite frankly, to cause a certain amount of trouble, the trouble that Henry Miller caused, the trouble that Philip Roth caused with Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m over that, for the most part. I’m not ashamed of wanting to cause trouble – you can’t tell me Roth didn’t have the same childish desire – but it’s fine to be over it, too.
TA: When did you publish your first book?
PB: I published my first story collection, Baby and Other Stories this past December, at the age of 42.
TA: OK, every one always wants to know: How long did it take to write this story collection?
PB: I wrote these stories over the course of a decade, with the bulk of them written within a five-year period. It’s hard to say, because I wrote two other novels and a bunch of other stories during that decade, too.
TA: How much of your writing is done with an eye to earning money?
PB: I have earned almost nothing from my writing. I would love to make a ton of money writing. But I can only do what I do. If it happens, I’ll be thrilled. I definitely write to be read, want readers, and in no way frown about successful commercial writing. I guess my eye, really, has been on The New Yorker. So, maybe “prestige” has been more of a goal than money.
TA: What’s your process?
PB: I used to write in the evening, but since my children were born, 14 years ago now, I write in the mornings, and sometimes go over and write more later, but mostly I write with coffee, after they’re in school and my mind has yet to fill with the minutia of daily life.
ABOUT THIS BOOK:
TA: What was the first kernel of an idea for Baby & Other Stories?
PB: Each story had a unique way of coming to me. Sometimes it would be a first sentence, as in the story “Superstition” which begins with “He married his wife because she was rich.” That story than just flooded over me – it was a great feeling. Other stories, like “Homesick,” came about out of a need to try and understand the lives of people.
TA: What character/scene/storyline ended up on the cutting-room floor?
PB: Many stories didn’t make it into my collection, many stories I liked. Shaping a collection is like putting together a record. Ten to twelve stories at the most, with little to NO filler. And it just has to have shape. I nearly have another collection from what I took out of this one. I called them my “B-sides.”
TA: Do you outline?
PB: I don’t outline stories but sometimes I “graph” them, which I guess is sort of like outlining, sometimes just in my head, but I may jot some things down in a notebook. The two unpublished novels I wrote were very vaguely outlined, outlines that I broke from almost completely. It doesn’t mean they weren’t helpful. It can be very helpful to depart from a plan.
TA: Did you start out with the same title? If not, what were the others?
PB: The title was chosen by my publisher. At various points I shopped it around as The Mother of His Children, and secretly, I wanted to call it Bad Marriage.
TA: What’s the most useful piece of advice you ever received about writing?
PB: I had a professor say to me something to the extent, “If you wait in line long enough, eventually you’ll be served.” That was a good one.
TA: What was the most evil thing any body said in a review?
PB: My favorite time was when a fiction editor at a literary magazine told another editor he thought I was a “bad mother”. That was priceless.
TA: Has your writing practice affected your personal relationships? If so, how?
PB: I’ve burned some bridges. But I did that before my writing was getting published, too. It’s just part of life, really, moving on. My husband, for the most part, doesn’t read my work. My parents never read my work- I never really told them I wrote. That helps.
TA: One thing most people don’t know about me is…
PB: I used to play on a billiards league – the Bud Light League – in the East Village, for a bar known as 81, as it was at 81 East 7th Street.