Medium: Your mother and your father were both writers. Growing up, what did that look like to you?
Amy Bloom: It looked like a job. Five or six days a week, my dad [Murray Teigh Bloom] got up, had breakfast, and went to his office in the house, which overlooked the driveway. When I came home from school, he waved to me, and I knew better than to go into the office. I think the rule was “no blood, no knocking.” He wrote about 700 articles in his lifetime, published five books, all nonfiction. He wrote for everybody from the Saturday Evening Post to Esquire to Playboy to many magazines that don’t exist anymore. It was a job like being a plumber was a job. That was a great help to me.
Were you expected to work?
In high school, I was a very popular babysitter. Then I bartended and waitressed all the way through college.
Were you collecting stories while you waitressed?
No. I was collecting tips.
And after college?
I got a job with the theater company. They were wonderful to me. If I understood a little bit more about adult life, I would probably have become a theater director rather than a writer. But my boyfriend and, later, first husband, had a son from a previous marriage and felt that being in the theater was incompatible with family life. I’m sure the company was absolutely appalled when I left. “See ya, you little dope.”
I then found my way to social work school, because I liked listening to people and helping them think about their lives. I started full-time as a clinical social worker at Yale New Haven Hospital in the adolescent medicine unit. I had my first baby. I had my next baby. I went back to work maybe two-thirds time. After about a year, I thought, “I’m good at being a social worker.” I had done a certain amount of talks and had a lot of contacts. People knew my name. So I started a private practice with a friend who was a child psychiatrist. I worked very happily for probably six years. And when the girls were five, six, seven, eight — somewhere in there — I started writing a couple of nights a week, from about 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
At home, did you set up the same rule your father had: “No blood, no knocking”?
No. There was no door — I was usually at the kitchen table. I was not made of the same stuff my father was. My father was supporting the whole circus with his writing. But I wasn’t making a living at it. That’s why I wrote after everybody was asleep. It was very important that my writing did not disturb the functioning of the family. Apparently, that would have been a terrible thing.
My youngest daughter made me a sign. On one side, it said “Please come in.” And on the other side, where I was looking for “Do not disturb,” it said “Knock and please come in.”
Your first published story was picked for ‘Best American Short Stories 1991.’ Tell me how that happened.
[I sent my first story to] Room of One’s Own, a western Canadian feminist fiction journal. I thought, “There must be nobody sending work to them. Surely they have room for me.” That story gets picked for Best American Short Stories. Then I get a call from the really great and sort of ferocious Jewish mother who was the editor of Story: “I really like that story. You want to send me one?” So I did. And that also got picked for Best American Short Stories. And then I think [at age] 36, 37, 38, I sent out more stories, and they got some attention, and now I have an agent. It takes me like five years to finish the collection, Come to Me. That gets a nice reception. And then I’m strongly encouraged to write a novel, which I have absolutely no idea how to do, but I kind of flail my way through.
During this period, what did your workday look like ?
I worked full-time. It didn’t occur to me that I would ever stop having my day job, because this whole writing business does not seem to be terribly cost effective. And I’m a big believer in making a living. So I continued to write at night or when nobody needed anything from me. But when the first book came out, I started writing a little more publicly within the family. My youngest daughter made me a sign when she was about nine. On one side, it said “Please come in.” And on the other side, where I was looking for “Do not disturb,” it said “Knock and please come in.” So that, I think, is a pretty good description of my professional writing life.
But now you have a door.
I do. We’ve moved houses. I have a room with a door and a desk, which is amazing. And I keep gum and candy and comic books in my desk drawer, so when the kids do come in, I can just hold up my finger — meaning just give me 30 seconds — and throw treats at them so I can finish the sentence.
At what point did you start reducing your practice hours?
About 10 years after my first book came out. I’m a cautious soul. I like to know that I can pay my bills, and it doesn’t strike me that the thanks of a grateful nation will be translated into cash and support of my artistic endeavors. And then I’m getting invitations to write catalog copy and magazine articles. Some nice lady from a women’s magazine called and said, “I love your work. You have such an interesting background. Are you interested in a column?” It was the greatest job of my life, this sort of sexual-slash-social etiquette column. I could just make up questions: “We’ve gone on vacation with this other couple. They set their bed on fire, so we asked them to pay us back.” It paid really well and made me think, “Oh, look at me, making money from writing. I didn’t know would happen. Maybe I’ll do a little more of that.” And so I did.
What other jobs were you doing at that time?
Well, everything else. It seems to me that’s what’s necessary. I particularly dislike when writers who have significant private funds, inherited or spousal wealth, wealth from a previous job, say with a straight face, “I really hustle at magazine work.” I just want to say, “Fuck you. That’s unkind and unfair to make people who are scrambling think that they are simply not doing it right.” I have no resentment toward people who have a lot of money coming their way. God bless them. I just wish people would say, “You know what? I’m really lucky. I have a ton of money stocked away.”
When did you start teaching?
Rob Stone, the novelist, was teaching at Yale. We had met literally once. He called and said, “This isn’t really working out. I’m not coming back after Christmas. So I’m going to tell them to hire you, because you’re,” and I will never forget, he said, “you’re a nice girl, you’re right up the road, and I teach your work.” So now I had three jobs: teaching, shrinking, and writing.
What did your writing practice look like at this point?
I’m down to about 10 hours a week of therapy, two good-sized days. Then teaching two days a week, and then writing. That balances out for quite a long time. The kids are bigger, so people are wandering around the house late at night. I found that quite distracting. And as a therapist, I had early morning clients and then a late afternoon or early evening client. So [I start] writing during the day when nobody’s around. Also, I’m older. Writing from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. is not an old lady’s game.
I wish I had not felt that the writing had to be contained so it didn’t interfere with anybody.
At what point did you begin to write for television?
I had the good fortune to have been invited to become a client of Ari Emanuel, who was a fan of my short stories. A particularly wonderful producer, Greer Shephard, who I assume had been handed my work by my nice, hardworking agent, says, “I just love your short stories. Is there any television show you’ve ever wanted to write?” To which I said, “Not really. I’m sorry, but nothing comes to mind.” And I could feel my father smacking me on the back of the head, saying, “The answer to that question is ‘Yes, I’ve always wanted to write a television show!’” He was always adamant that if people offer you a job, you say yes. So I start talking: “Well you know, I have this really interesting practice…,” and we’re off to the races.
We come up with the show that became State of Mind, develop a pitch, and sell it to NBC. Things are going swimmingly. Then Jeff Zucker becomes head of NBC and famously announces a loss of interest in both women and dialogue. Sure enough, that’s over. Meanwhile, I’ve got this nice working relationship with Greer, and so every year or so, we pitch a pilot idea to somebody, they buy it, I write the script, and they don’t make it. But still, they pay me, coming back to one of my essential tenets of writing, which is write for money.
Are you still seeing clients?
I shuttered the practice for a really long time, because I was traveling to and from L.A. and didn’t feel that was fair to people. And then a couple years ago, somebody asked if I could take a client, and I said, “Yeah, send them to me.” It’s a couple hours a week. I don’t want to give it up. I think the same things interest me in every profession I’ve ever had — people, storytelling, and how people make their way in this difficult, beautiful world.
What does a day look like for you now?
I have a fabulous little office over the luncheonette [near my house in Connecticut], with a view of the water. I can’t even talk about how much I love my office. You go up this badly tilted set of stairs that smells so nasty that my [second] husband once stuck an air freshener to the wall and it just slid to the floor. The acoustic tiles are about to fall any minute. It’s just dilapidated and perfect. I get here pretty early and kind of dick around, which I guess is my style. I encourage my children to call and interrupt me, because you don’t want to just be writing all the time. I go to the gym so I don’t collapse in a heap. And then I get down to it. I mean, I’ve got bad days like everybody else. I don’t find writing easy. It depends on how much deadline pressure there is. Like right now, I’m working to finish a script. I’ll do that until dinner.
Is there a misconception you had about yourself or your writing that you wish you’d let go of sooner?
I wish I had not felt that the writing had to be contained so it didn’t interfere with anybody. I really like being a mother, and I take it seriously, but it’s possible there might have been some things that their father did more of and I did less of that might have grabbed me a couple of hours. So there’s that. I wish I had been a little less accommodating early on.