Paula Bomer has just released her first book, Baby & other stories. Oh man, are they good. Paula's been publishing stories for some time now in all the good lit mags, but finally someone (Word Riot Press) got their shit together and put out her first collection. There are a million ways to describe this collection. One way would be, "Stories About Relationships and Being a Mother In New York City." Another might be, "Stories About In-Your-Fucking-Face Real Life, and What It's Like To Lose Your Mind a Million Times But Still Keep it Together Enough To Write Shit Down." It could go either way, but the first one just wouldn't be fair at all, you know. The stories are about so much more. Bomer goes to those fucked up places in her mind just like most of us. But instead of trying to hide what she finds there under her coat to try and sneak it by, she ties you to a chair, heats what she's brought back up over the fire, and then holds it under your nose until she's sure you won't forget it. Paula was cool enough to let me ask her some questions about her debut.
Vice: So. Holy shit. I just finished your new collection Baby & other stories. Some fucked up things in here. This may sound totally cheesy, because annoying people compare writing short stories to "giving birth to a child" or whatever, but there is actual afterbirth on this Baby. How did you do that?
Paula Bomer: Afterbirth. Just when you think the pain is over, the contractions come and blammo, you need to push something else out. Not as painful as birth, but still--is it necessary? Well, it is. If you don't get every iota of that afterbirth out of you, you bleed to death. Both my mother and sister almost bled to death because on inspecting the afterbirth, the doctors missed that one tiny missing spot, the spot that clung inside them. And they nearly died from it. The moral of this story is--afterbirth, every last bit of it, is necessary. Write it all. Holding that little bit back--that little gray, blood filled thing that feeds your baby--will kill the story. Or make the story lifeless.
A lot… most… all of the stories in here deal with some kind of fucked-up mother, I think, but I mean fucked-up as in great, or just realer than shit. I feel like I might now know (something I never thought I would know) what kind of mother or father I would be if I was a woman or if I was straight. How did you do that?
Aw, that's because you actually have empathy for other humans. But no, my time in the trenches of the playgrounds of Brooklyn had a big impression. It's so fucking Dickens- it was the best of times, and the worst of times. I'm glad I made you feel like a fucked up mother. That makes me happy. Also, I always found it strange when someone wants to only read about characters they can "relate" to. If I'm doing my job as a writer, more than people "just like me" will relate. It's called the human condition.
I am terrible around babies. In the story titled Baby, a new mother finds that caring for her infant isn't exactly the joy she thought it would be. She imagines taking her baby and "smashing his tiny, screaming head against the beautifully exposed brick wall." I have never heard any mother say this out loud before or write it down but I imagine they all have thought it at one time or another. This seems like one of those moments I hear about where writers think of something and then think, "Oh, I can't write that down," when they know that really means, "I must write this down." Was this one of those cases?
I've never been one to shy away from things in my writing, I LOVE WRITING THINGS THAT MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE. If I had the all too common experience of having to put the baby down and walk away--why not imagine it one step further--or have one of my characters imagine it one step further, even if she just imagines it? Many many writers have written about this. In fact I can think of three non-fiction books right off the bat- Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, Louise Erdrich's A Blue Jay's Dance: A Birthyear and Operation Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year by Anne Lamott. Every single one of those address feelings of violence toward screaming infants--and every one of those writers is a great mom, no doubt. It's just that screaming babies make you have bad thoughts. And we are not what we think--sorry, Catholicism, I still love you--but we are what we do. And most people do the right thing most of the time.
There are some points in this book that freaked me out. Here is one:
"To believe in God is to soothe the fear of our death. And when she realized that, she wondered, why worry about death when you are twenty-five? Or forty? Why practice staying still, why meditate, when in old age, you will be stilled, and then, you will die? Why not wait until you can't help it? Why force a young body, so full of movement and life and desire, to be still? To not desire?"
This is exactly how I have always felt. But right after that section, the narrator comes in with an answer to her questions: "…because we don't know when it will come." Now the entire metaphysics I've been building since college just crumbled. Thanks, Paula. What the fuck am I supposed to do now?
Oh, that is some personal shit that is about meditation and about everything else--being faithful, not doing too many drugs, exercising regularly, watching sports all day on TV, cleaning my house… I have no answers. Just questions. What to do? The right thing? The wrong thing? A little of both may be where I landed. As Josh Homme says in the wonderful DVD of Eagles of Death Metal making their second album Death by Sexy, "It's called zeroing." Vodka bad, Orange Juice good--zeroing! And he does this neat thing with his hands--as in one is up and one is down--and then they are even. The world made sense to me then. Sad thing is, I never put OJ in my vodka. But I do drink it solo in the morning, OJ that is.
I don't know who the fuck to compare you to. Who would you compare you to?
I know some writers who have inspired me, but I'm not sure I can compare myself to them. Mary Gaitskill, Alicia Erian, Sam Lipsyte, Denis Johnson--they all have written tight, brilliant collections. But in reality, all of these stories were written in direct response, after much note taking, to The Kreutzer Sonata and Family Happiness, by Tolstoy. All but two, or something like that. We think the world has changed so much since then, but I don't think so. I wanted to write modern versions of people going through the same dilemmas. I'm obsessed with Tolstoy.
In the second story of the collection, The Shitty Handshake, great title, by the way, the protagonist Karen (a writer) calls upon Tom (another writer) to accompany her to an AA meeting when she thinks her drinking is getting out of hand. Tom turns out to be a total asshole. I think I remember reading about this or hearing about this from you somewhere before. I'm not asking you to call him out by name or anything, but is that part of the story true? This would be a great time to vent if you're feeling into it.
Thanks for liking the title. I like it, too. I had a writer friend tell me to change it, and I did for a while, and then I realized, actually, it resonates. The whole story is a shitty handshake. I heard Clancy Martin wrote about his time in AA in Harper's. I want to read it. I'll try to get it tomorrow. My feeling is that people in AA are like people anywhere--some good, some bad, some really bad.
So, boom, your first story collection is out. Fucking congratulations! I mean it. You deserve this and you have earned it. Give me five other writers who also deserve it, but might not have it.
People who deserve it (some are on small presses and deserve bigger audiences):
Elizabeth Ellen. Good God, she's great. I just don't understand why she's not on a big press, selling tons of books. I mean--I don't get it. Kevin Sampsell and Barry Graham did good to publish her, but really, everyone should read her, not just small press readers.
Scott Wrobel. His collection is as fantastic as any story collection out there. Such heart and talent and he's funny and makes you cry. Why is he not huge? I don't get it.
Roxane Gay. I'm publishing a short collection through my small press Artistically Declined Press. She deserves better than us. She's amazing.
Those are some young ones. Now I am going to mention some older people.
David Paradis. Ageism is for real. He's a beautiful writer. A writer who deserves an audience. Why no one cares? I fear because he's not cool and young. It's a shame.
Mark Mirsky. Mark has been keeping Fiction magazine alive for at least 30 years and he continues to write amazing, thoughtful work. Why is he not in print? I plan to work on this, to make his work known. I would like to ad that Mirsky's work is outstanding and I nominated him for a Pushcart. He deserves a bigger audience.
After you're done killin' it for awhile with this new book, what's next?
I have four other books. I'm 42. I'd love to get my other books in print. One was called Too Quiet, another Offensive. I do what I do. I would love to see what the public thinks.
The release party for Paula's book is TONIGHT at KGB. If you're from New York, you know where that is. If not, you weren't coming anyway. But come!
Go buy Paula's book Baby & other stories here.