INTERVIEW: Paula Bomer

Paula Bomer (http://www.paulabomer.com) is the author of Baby and Other Stories (Word Riot Press, 2010), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and O Magazine put as number one in their “Titles to Pick Up Now” calling it a “brilliant, brutally raw debut collection.” Her fiction has appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Open City, Fiction, The Mississippi Review, Nerve and elsewhere. She grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in New York. In this jmwwblog interview, Jen Michalski talks with Paula about perseverance, male vs female writers, literary backstabbing, how to fix the publishing industry, and more.

Jen Michalski: I’m listening to Bowie’s Station to Station right now. I love Bowie. What’s on your iPod these days?

Paula Bomer: I love Bowie, too and recently went through a huge Ziggy Stardust phase. I tend to listen to the same music over and over again, almost to the point of autistic behavior. I have been obsessively listening to “Peace and Love,” Juliana Hatfield’s latest, which is very spare. She recorded it on a little eight track in her apartment. It’s beautiful and very sad. I’ve been listening to her for months.

JM: First of all, thanks for the shout out to jmww in the column “7 Things I’ve Learned” on the widely popular “Guide to Literary Agents” website! In the column, I was most struck by your statement that “[T]his is a really tough business if you don’t have some sort of in—as in, your father is the head of Random House” because we hear from agent after agent that a well-written story sells the work, not the connection. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily true–maybe it’s a combination of the two. For instance, in magazines from which I’ve been rejected I’ve read some pretty terrible stories by more established authors. And I’m not saying my story wasn’t terrible, too, but I think your name does matter in terms of whether your suckier stories will get published. Oh shit, what was my question? I guess I should trust you, right, since you once worked in publishing (and now run your own press)!

PB: That was a pretty bitter sounding statement but I meant it as a means of pushing the idea that perseverance is EVERYTHING. I often get excited when I read a mediocre story in a decent journal–it gives me hope. Other times, I get sort of angrily-laughy about it. As in, you’d take something some famous writer would blow his nose in and publish it and yet there are so many great writers not getting their proper audiences. Frankly, the main thing is–I try not, and rarely do, think about the ideas if nepotism, talent, luck. I try to keep my nose to the paper and leave it there.

JM: Baby had a long road to being published, did it not? It was scheduled to come out years ago with another publisher who folded (before being picked up by Word Riot).

PB: Yes, Baby has had agents and failed book deals and so Word Riot publishing it and the attention that it is getting is very gratifying. It’s an old book–I wrote most of it 8 years ago, some of it even later than that, and few bits more like 5 years ago.

JM: How did the nod from O Magazine come about? That’s a pretty big coup.

PB: My wonderful publisher Jackie Corley at Word Riot got it into the hands of someone there. I was thrilled, of course.

JM: I think you mentioned somewhere else that these stories were mostly from eight years ago. What have you been working on since?

PB: Since and during those many years, I wrote two novels and a bunch of other stories, and most recently, some essays.

JM: Where do stories begin and end for you?

PB: That’s a very interesting question and I’m not quite sure what you mean. Each story has a different life, starts differently, ends differently. I have had some easy paths, some are painful as hell, some make me laugh (satire is very evident in much of what I do). I find writing very hard. It can flow–those are precious moments. One thing I firmly don’t believe in is that it’s “work” like any other job. To me, the creative process retains a mystery that cleaning my house does not. Call me romantic, but that is where I stand.

JM: in Baby, I like your honestly about motherhood. It’s nice to realize things are just as dysfunctional on that side of the equation (ie, childless couples vs families). In fact, even though I’m not a mother, I have to think that your characters are not alone in thinking they want to harm their child, if only for a second. And it’s a thought, of course, that’s never acted on, that just serves as a type of stress release. But I have been surprised at some of the venom you’ve received because of the stories in Baby. Do you ever wonder, if you were a man, whether your take on parenthood would be celebrated by critics as “postmodern,” rather than criticized, that maybe you’d be Jonathan Franzen instead of Jonathan Franzen?

PB: I must start by saying I absolutely worship Jonathan Franzen’s work and he catches a fair amount of shit for his writing. But I deeply believe that women’s writing is very often received differently and that as a mother and a writer, people confuse my fiction with who I am and that men are far less likely to be judged for their character due to their fiction. Think of Raymond Carver, a great writer. Now, he’s been criticized for being a bad husband based on biographical information since his death, but while he was writing these bleak family tales, no one discussed his character. They separated the fiction from the man. Or at least that’s how I see it. Someone could prove me wrong I suppose.

JM: I also respect your honesty in the writing community. What, in your opinion, are the biggest problems facing the publisher industry and its little sister, the independent press?

PB: Those questions deserve very long answers, but I’ll just throw out a few ideas. Big publishers need to take more risks, period. Honestly, it’s like the movie industry. They want some proven thing–the next Nora Roberts, the next Stephen King, the next Jonathan Lethem. I just had the most bizarre experience with an editor at a large house who sent me synopses from the New York Times. I wrote back, I had no idea how this would help me revise a book.
Small presses need to stop trying to be so clever and really break away from youth worshiping. They need to stop having silly titles and silly names of their presses. Also, they need to realize that experimentalism can be just as bad, if not worse, frankly, than narrative fiction. So often the quirkiness feels forced and inauthentic. And it’s usually flat out bad, too.

JM: Where do you stand on the five overrated writers tempest on Jason Jordan’s blog, which was a continuation of the 15 overrated writers piece by Anis Shivani on the Huffington Post last year?

PB: Wow to Jason Jordan. I have to say, I admire him for doing this real take down of some sacred indie writers. Truthfully, though, the people who love Lydia Davis and Gary Lutz are going to continue to love them, so he probably only speaks to the many who like him, just don’t get it. Ballsy yes, having any effect? Unlikely. But there’s some usefulness speaking one’s mind. I myself am not going to write a list, but like every writer, I do have one in my head.

JM: Tell me a little about your press, Artistically Declined, that you own/run with author Ryan Bradley. How did you two hook up? Were you both looking to start a press? What kind of authors do you want to publish? Was there a certain void in the publishing company that you were looking to fill?

PB: Frankly, the press was all Ryan’s idea but now I’m really enjoying doing it. We both share the same vision of not having a particular aesthetic and really publish a diverse list of books. I don’t thing there is any void we are trying to fill, but just help get more books out in the world.

JM: What are you working on now in your writing? How does it differ from Baby? It’s kind of funny that, by the time a work finally comes out, we’re sort of divorced from it, in many instances moved in a complete different direction.

PB: I’m trying to add some stories to a collection, that like Baby, were written over many years. They’re very different than Baby, in that none of the protagonists are married or have children and many are young. I also have a novel in the very beginning stages and am revising another novel. The revision is the hardest thing for me–and that novel’s subject matter is the same as Baby. It’s a satire though, through and through, and the prose is in a very different style. I definitely enjoy doing different things. I read an interview with Nick Antosca, my press mate and friend, where he said something to the effect “I don’t want to discover my voice. I want to keep doing different things.” And I sort of feel that way, too. That said, I prefer third person past tense–all of the stories in Baby are written that way. But every now and then, it’s good to push yourself to do something different.

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