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Falling into the Future: An Interview with Paula Bomer

By (June 1, 2017) No Comment

If calling a writer “unflinching” weren’t such a cliché, it would be the perfect word to apply to Paula Bomer. Actually, it has been applied to her on other, less discerning literary websites. But even a casual acquaintance with Bomer’s writing tempts one to do likewise, and in the course of her career, she’s become a blurb magnet for readers inspired to seek out suitably earnest adjectives to describe the bracing, confrontational nature of her work. Kirkus Reviews called Baby and Other Stories “vicious.” Julie Azzam called her novel Nine Months “shocking in its honesty.” And in her New York Times review of Inside Madeleine, Dayna Tortorici called it “the kind of woman’s fiction that critics like to call ‘raw’,” and that in the “stark portrayals of biological womanhood … Bomer offers her characters no outs — only the creeping sense that they’re doomed to swing forever between futile attempts at self-determination.”

Bomer applies the same unsparing (see?) approach to herself in the new collection, Mystery and Mortality – Essays on the Sad, Short Gift of Life, a series of examinations and ruminations about literature, uncertainty, and the pervasive sense of grief following her mother’s descent into dementia and her father’s suicide. Here, she discusses with OLM the challenges of ruin and return, language and catharsis, and trying to find hope and purpose when both seem woefully out of reach.

Steve Danziger for Open Letters Monthly: In her introduction, Meg Tuite praises your “Straight on ferocity that doesn’t reek of the formaldehyde of sodden decorum and martyr-esque, flushed vaginas that pop out babies with a smile and a song.” I hate to question a blurb of this magnitude, but if there’s one word I’d use in describing the emotional tone of these essays, it’s anguish, not ferocity. And your mother, whose presence hangs over so much of this work, certainly doesn’t sound like one of the baby-poppers mentioned above.

Paula Bomer: I like that you sensed the anguish in this collection.

OLM: It’s a little hard to avoid. But one of the striking characteristics about the book is the ways you chose to explore the theme. At this point in your career, what brought you to the topic?

PB: This is my fourth book, and my first collection of essays, and all of my work, in one way or another, revolves around different aspects of what it means to be human. Baby & Other Stories was very much about family life and love, where I tried to debunk the glossy magazine depictions of family dynamics and illuminate the genuine complexity of emotions. So much of popular culture, women’s magazines in general, sugarcoat life, avoid complexity, veer away from truth, and I felt a powerful need to refute that. The stories were written also as an attempt to engage with two Tolstoy short stories, “The Kreuzer Sonata” and “Family Happiness”; I wanted to write modern day versions of those because they spoke so strongly to me about the perils of love, lust, and ambition, social ambition in particular. Thinking about this now, I realize how engaging with other works is something I do with both my fiction and non-fiction a lot. I find that communing with writers that speak to me helps me to speak back, to contribute to the themes in what I hope is a meaningful way.

Inside Madeleine centered largely on the horrors of the young female experience, because it’s pretty hard to be a young woman, despite the fact that youth, and particularly the young female body, is wildly glorified, even worshipped. When I wrote it, I was very much under the influence of Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behavior, so again, my engaging with another writer helped propel my work. In this new one, my preoccupation was with our inevitable deaths, the fragility of our bodies, and the possibility that there are things we may not be capable of ever understanding or reconciling, like the meaning of our existence, the purpose of our lives if there is any, and the idea that there is a power greater than us, which can be called God, or the Universe or whatever.

OLM: Dealing with those themes, a certain amount of anguish seems inevitable. And before we make you sound too much like Brooklyn’s E.M. Cioran, I feel that I should point out that I know you as a funny and vivacious person, so it was jarring to see you wrestle so aggressively and solemnly with your grief.

PB: Ha! Well, how we present ourselves to the world and who we are privately can be confusing.

OLM: So is this something you do consciously as a writer, examine different aspects of yourself based on the genre, or context? Does the severity of the emotions on display in the book represent an aspect of yourself normally kept out of your other writing, or not expressed in your personal life?

PB: These particular emotions were so intense, so overwhelming…. Some very bad feelings, and yes, events and reactions kept out of my other writing, but necessitated here. I don’t care if it’s cliché to say that writing for me is cathartic. It can also be other things: fun, interesting, a challenge, depending on the context. But when dealing with my mother’s slow, horrible demise, my father’s brutal, violently abrupt death…

OLM: It was the essay form that gave you the means.

PB: It was the essay form that helped bleed pain from my body. I’ve used fiction in the past to do the same, but with my parents, non-fiction seemed to be the way. Does it solve my suffering? No. But it helps.

I had tried writing about my father only shortly after his death but was unable to. But when I read “Days of Abandonment” three years after he died, something clicked. The book gave me the scaffolding I needed to write about his death; it was as if her sentences and experiences gave me a place to hang my feelings and details of his death. Ferrante’s prose somehow liberated me to finally process and rage and cry on the page. It felt powerful, I must say, and gave me the inspiration to engage with other writers’ work to form the hybrid essays found in the book. Most of the essays were written seven years ago when I wrote under a pseudonym and I think that also freed me in some way. The fake name gave me permission to go places I couldn’t bring myself previously. It’s always funny to consider what brought us to certain projects, what things form us as writers.

OLM: So distancing devices helped you get closer to painful subjects.

PB: Yes.

OLM: Would you say that the act of reading was also part of your catharsis?

PB: Yes, reading too. Reading and writing are connected, always. They’ve both always been great sources of comfort. And I’ll take any little bit of help I can get. Anything that makes me feel alive and connected, any feeling that might be so fleeting and yet can make the pain lesser. Anything that helps me from doing what my father did.

OLM: That sounds a bit too ominous for comfort. You mention in one of the essays that you attempted suicide at 16, and it was serious enough to land you in a coma. Are these thoughts/fears that have followed you through your life, or did your father’s suicide bring them to the surface? Was suicidal ideation yet another distressing element you had to contend with after his passing?

PB: I forgot I mentioned my suicide attempt in that first essay!

OLM: Paula, I’m very close to calling you a doctor.

PB: I probably forgot because I’m really not proud of that. I haven’t been suicidal since I was a teenager, but I do have a tendency toward self-destructive behavior. Most people do. But suicide… I don’t judge anyone harshly who kills themself. Unlike Mary Karr in that interview about David Foster Wallace’s suicide, where she tears him a new one.

OLM: Are you referring to the Salon interview where she said that him leaving his wife that way was “such a nasty fucking thing to do”?

PB: Yeah. I mean, fuck her. That whole interview made me very uninterested in her. My attitude is more like Nan Goldin’s, talking about her sister’s suicide as “a tremendous act of will.” Regarding my father’s suicide, I was ruined with the horror that I was unable to save him, but I don’t think he did it “to me.” That’s where Karr’s narcissism shows. My father did it to himself, and maybe it was a tremendous act of will. That said, I’d chop off my arms to have him back in my life.

But for me, I haven’t considered it since I was a teenager. I seem to have channeled my needs to end pain into drinking and reckless sex and motorcycles and sky diving. I’ll try anything but anti-depressants, weirdly. Those I avoid. I have a strange stubbornness about them. I just refuse.

OLM: Tell us more about the reckless sex. And please, take your time.

PB: Ha! You can read Inside Madeleine if you want to get some idea, but I’ve got to hold onto some things for future books.

OLM: Kidding aside, I wonder how this need to end pain relates to a “death before death,” which is a recurrent theme in the essays – it’s mentioned re: Wallace’s Kenyon College address, your mother’s dementia, even alluded to in how Parker’s reading of signs leads to his destiny in Flannery O’Conner’s story “Parker’s Back.” Did the fates of your parents specifically bring you to this theme, or generate more substantial rumination about it?

PB: Definitely the latter. Grief is … weird. Even weirder than growing a baby inside me, which I thought was really weird, and the worst kind of suffering I’d ever experienced. But grief is like an uncontrollable storm to me, and one of its shocks is how it takes away all your control. As for “death before death,” I don’t think I was conscious of that being a theme until you pointed it out. I like it when I discover themes from other people reading my stuff. I suppose my interest in the death before death is in how any real joy or meaning can disappear before the body passes on or stops, and how so much of that experience is dependent on your beliefs. And I’m so on the fence about what I believe, especially in light of the subjects of my essays.

OLM: Do you think this state of uncertainty fuels the work…

PB: –Uncertainty fuels a lot of my work.

OLM: …and that grieving only leads to more questions, not conclusions?

PB: Yes. Always more questions. My mother’s dementia really made me wonder, what does it mean to be alive if you don’t know you are alive? What does it mean to be alive if all you experience is pure suffering? Which brings me back to questioning suicide, and exploring how others address the need to end all suffering, not least because often, I feel I can’t bear my own. These are questions I think about all the time, ever since I can remember, and it’s just been intensified as I lose so many things, which is what happens as we get older, we lose things. I’m always searching in my own life for joy, and wondering how others do likewise after feeling unbearable grief, such life-changing suffering. I guess I think that God is cruel.

OLM: This is the second time you’ve referenced God, or at least a higher power. In the book, you examine Cormac McCarthy’s work, how both he and O’Conner are steeped in Catholicism, and how McCarthy “writes about his version of a Divine truth.” Were these essays steps toward your own confrontations with a Divine truth?

PB: Let’s just say they do reflect my love of the Catholic religion. I identify as Catholic although I can’t say I practice it or believe in all of its tenets. But Parker didn’t believe in anything, and yet it didn’t matter; he suffered in confusion, and he was saved. He didn’t believe in God, but God believed in him. That’s what’s resonant to me about Catholicism, my hope that the things I can’t control and seem to control me have some meaning. Purpose, even. I don’t believe suffering makes us stronger. If anything it makes us weak. But maybe weakness of that kind, the kind sprouting from suffering, is underrated as a mystery of life.

OLM: Because the blows, the feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, our imagined weaknesses, all do lead somewhere? Or we hope they will, anyway?

PB: I think it can transform us, for sure. Make us more compassionate to other people’s weaknesses, more loving, more bitter, more hateful. I feel utterly changed by loss. In many different directions, some good, some not.

OLM: In your essay on “The Lover” by Damon Galgut, you say, “Galgut writes how language fails us, and in doing so, he gives language life.” Do you think that language inevitably fails us, or do we fail language?

PB: I do think it fails me. But it’s all I’ve got. It’s a very inexact thing, language. It’s not simple math.

OLM: And is it the writer’s responsibility to animate language, or does language animate the writer?

PB: I feel my responsibility to language is to treat it with honesty. The writers I don’t like hide behind words, use language as pure artifice, use it to show off too much. A little showy is fine, but the writers I love reveal themselves, their vulnerability, with language. Merritt Tearce’s book Love Me Back comes to mind. As for language animating the writer, when you feel you’ve strung the right words together it can make you feel very alive.

OLM: Or in some cases, reanimate a writer long gone? I’m thinking of your found text interview with Kathy Acker. What did you want the method to achieve? Does the rearrangement of existing text have something to do with how we/you commune with the dead? Like all that’s left are memories to be reorganized or reconfigured?

PB: The piece with Acker accomplished for me a way to organize the words of artists that lived in my head and make something new of it. It’s a way to honor them, I think, to play with their words and by being playful, honor the exhilaration they gave me at certain times in my life. Ultimately, all we have is memories to reorganize and structure into narratives. I hate the idea of living in the moment. What horseshit. We carry our entire lives with us, we carry the lives of others alive and dead with us. There is no moment.

OLM: Then where are you, right now?

PB: Falling into the future, carrying around a whole ton of the past.

Paula Bomer is the author of the novel Nine Months, and two story collections, Baby and Other Stories, and Inside Madeleine. She lives in New York.

Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly. His most recent review, of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, appeared in the January issue.