Amy Bloom has a wry, cynical wit that she exercises in her smoky maple syrup voice on any subject, from how her psychotherapy practice informs her writing—“I don’t know how it would, so that you can spend your time lost in your own creative narcissism?”—to her thoughts on her recent stint writing for network television—“I will skip the part where a producer would say ‘we want to do a show about a crazy white couple who adopt a black child.’”
Yet somehow, Bloom’s world-weary attitude always manages to give way to a decidedly non-cynical topic in her writing: love. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that couldn’t be called a love story,” she says.
She’s published two story collections, a critically acclaimed non-fiction book, Normal, that explored trans-gender and trans-sexual subcultures, and two novels, including most recently Away, an epic story of love and loss set in the 1920s.
Of course, Bloom’s variations on that particular theme aren’t all happy ending love stories, but more like meditations on its ephemeral nature, the rarity of making lasting connections and the intricate ways people find to complicate relationships.
It’s hard to say if her laser-sharp demeanor toward human relationships is a result of, or the reason for, her 20-year psychotherapy career (though she closed her practice recently due to a time constraints).
“Spending a lot of time listening and observing is useful to a writer whether you’re doing it professionally or not,” she says. “I often see things in details. I was a quiet kid and spent a lot of time looking at things and I imagine that habit has stayed with me. I’m interested in the specifics of what people do, and how they do it.”
As for those people who assume she borrows specific details for stories from her psychotherapy patients, she shrugs this off. “Every once in a while someone will tell you something that’s such a fabulous detail but pretty much I exercise the same self-restraint and fundamental decency that keeps me from stealing nice jewelry off the hands of a dying woman.”
Her reputation for observing the details won her fans in an unexpected place: The producers of the popular TV series “Nip/Tuck”, about high-powered plastic surgeons, came to her for ideas, in fact. She ultimately ended up writing an episode.
“What I was interested in is what I think of as ‘backstage.’ No one had ever written backstage about therapists because all therapists on television are obviously written by patients, not therapists,” she says. Her idea to do a show about therapists won the attention of producers at the Lifetime Network. “They wanted a smart, interesting series,” she says. The show, called "State of Mind," quickly interested actress Lily Taylor (of HBO’s mortuary drama "Six Feet Under" fame) who came on board to make the idea a reality.
The show centers on a New Haven psychiatric association whose offices are located “in a rambling Victorian house turned office building for a group of therapists,” according to Lifetime. The main protagonists include “a newly minted lawyer and an eccentric office manager, all of whom have personal problems as interesting as those of their eclectic and offbeat patients and clients.”
Together with a small team of writers, Bloom wrote and produced seven episodes, each of which, she feels, was better than the one before it. “Our pilot was the weakest and our last episode was our best,” she says.
For Bloom, being a head writer and producer on a TV program was by far one of the more unusual writing experiences of her career—and as for unusual projects, don’t get her started on the treatment she wrote for a Francis Ford Coppola produced musical. “I’m still alive to tell the story,” she says with a laugh. “Every moment of it was hilarious.” She says she’s grateful that the project didn’t come to fruition.
“I haven’t been a writer of books and stories all my life, but good writing is good writing and I thought TV writing would be an interesting experience. Nobody puts a gun to your head saying they’ll kill you if you don’t write for television,” she says.
It turned out to be an exhilarating opportunity, she says, but one that came with challenges that she hadn’t encountered in the cloistered and personal world of writing a book of fiction.
“It’s always a struggle to work in the efficiency of TV writing without falling into clichés and to make things worth watching. I brought my usual sensibility: let’s create people who are genuinely interesting. Television is an all-show, no-tell medium. The narrative is the camera and you focus on dialogue and story structure.”
While she was able to learn to adapt to the format of TV writing, she confesses, “I’m not really anybody’s idea of a good staff writer, for the same reason I got kicked out of the brownies when I was six years old; there are limits to my collegiality and ability to follow instruction,” she says.
She also found the group writing process a bit tiresome. “A writer’s room can often be a waste of time and energy. There are a lot of intelligent people sitting around bullshitting for hours and hours and eating Danish pastries. We’d have some thoughts about what would need to happen in the episode and then the writer would come back in, have some conversation and then go off and write it. Then they’d bring it back and we’d go over it.”
Still, she likes to say, “Even the worst day of writing, “beats the hell out of waitressing.”
And there are aspects of writing for television that she found to be, if not better than writing fiction, at least unparalleled. “The end product of TV writing you obviously don’t get with books. To have written a scene, watched people rehearse it and then make it better is a lot of fun, a complexly different universe and function than writing fiction. It’s wonderful to see what the actors bring to it, and I’m a big theater junkie. In fiction I just do it in my head; I have more control over the performances but am less likely to be surprised.”
Though "State of Mind" ended after just one season, she hasn’t ruled out doing further TV writing. “I would love a chance to work in that medium again. I like telling stories in different ways. So I’d like another crack at it.”
Bloom’s fascination with the drama and production that went into writing for television may have its roots in her early experiences with theater. “My love of theater began with my parents; they took me to see My Fair Lady when I was five years old. It was an absolutely galvanizing experience. I don’t think I ever sat down,” she says. “We went to a lot of theater, and I also went to Mrs. Klinger’s school of dramatic arts, a program from which I suspect not a single successful actor has ever emerged! I’m sorry that there was no video to capture the skinny boys with big glasses and chubby girls with big harlequin glasses doing their Martha Graham routines.”
The community theater plays a role in her most recent novel Away, in which Lillian Leyb, a young émigré from Russia, whose husband, and possibly daughter, were killed in a Russian pogrom, comes to New York in the 1920s to try and make her way. In the city her first jump up in status comes through the attentions of Reuben and Meyer Bernstein, a father and son, who run and perform in a Yiddish theater on New York’s lower east side.
“My aunt and uncle were patrons of the Yiddish opera, so as a girl I spent a lot of time handing out hors d’ouevres and martinis to men like Reuben Bernstein and women in velvet turbans and pink cigarette holders, which I’m sure was a formative experience,” Bloom says.
When Lillian learns that her daughter may still be alive back in Russia, she embarks on a dangerous and epic journey toward home that takes her to the Telegraph Trail in Alaska and beyond.
Bloom says she wanted to write a “big” story with Away. “I feel that, as a writer, I’d done a good job of exploring a lot of things that were very interesting to me, and I was done for awhile with that particular range of contemporary short stories. The starting point for me just happened to be the 1920s. It didn’t feel so much like I was looking backwards in time, because the ’20s was an extremely modern time. If you were a middle-class person the only way the ’20s is any different than now is that there were no computers. They had phones, airplanes, cars, gossip columns. People ate out and took cabs and drank martinis and shopped at Macy’s. But if you were poor, you were a 19th century peasant. Again, not that different from our modern world.”
Though it is her second novel, in many ways, she says, it feels like her first. “This is the one where I began to understand what I need to do to write a novel. Structurally there were more requirements of me. You need more rope and more room because you have to keep the elements in balance longer.”
No matter which direction she takes next, Bloom has clearly shown that whether the subject is love, trans-gender sexuality, or writing for television, she’s not afraid of the next creative challenge.