Paula Bomer is the girl you smoked your first cigarette with in the girls’ bathroom or, as an underage girl, took a beer bong hit at some off-campus party. You listened to Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson together, and she always seemed to date a guy who looked like Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.
It’s not surprising, then, that the raw, luscious memories of 1980s high school and young-adult life zing with the flavor of Juicy Fruit in Paula Bomer’s stories, with a sharp nicotine edge. They’re your favorite mixtape of everything that made girlhood so painful and yet, somehow, fun. The New York Times says the stories in Bomer’s most recent collection, Inside Madeleine (Soho Press, 2014) “sing sex and food as means of self-understanding, they fall into the traps the culture seems to set for them. Their stories don’t end so much as stop — abruptly, on a sour note — and there are no resolutions.”–Bomer reads with Michael Downs and Megan Stielstra at the Artifact Coffee, Monday, July 7th at 7 p.m.–visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website for more information.
Jen Michalski: I found the stories in Inside Madeleine to be a tantalizingly circular in how they were arranged—the first and last story feature women with eating disorders (the first an “old veteran” of eating-disorder treatments, the last just coming in for treatment), and the stories in-between mostly explore how women respond/take control to sexism, slut-shaming, sexual assault, loneliness, obesity, and the like in their formative years, when they are at their most vulnerable. Was the ordering intentional to this effect?
Paula Bomer: The stories were arranged with great care and the circular aspect was intended. The collection is also intentionally about the formative years of young women and girls.
JM: I walked away feeling that for a woman to fully take control of her body, her image, she must destroy herself, annihilate herself to nothing. It seemed bleak but also a charged, confrontational thesis in the “f*ck you¾nobody can destroy/hurt me but myself” vein. (I also wanted Pat Benatar to pop out of the last page singing and dancing “Love Is a Battlefield.”)
PB: In regard to whether a woman must destroy herself to take control of herself, I’m not so sure. But that’s an interesting analysis. I do like the “fuck you, nobody can destroy/ hurt me but myself,” also apt and interesting, but I think a lot of the young women and girls are also most definitely hurt by others as well. I do think self-harm is a control issue, a sadly wrong way of trying to control one’s life. But I don’t know a person, and young women in particular, who also hasn’t been hurt by this world, by other people. I guess this book is about that, too, about how painful it is to just be alive. Which is sort of bleak, as you say (and weirdly, that just made me smile!)
JM: It’s funny we both talk about the bleakness of this collection, but it’s also very funny – your insights are so sharp, so witty, that I found myself laughing aloud despite the subject matter! Kirkus Reviews called you a “transgressive” storyteller. I guess I’ve always thought that adolescence is bleak AND funny and that’s what gives us that tough outer layer we need to deal with adulthood – hardly “transgressive.” But I feel like women get that label a lot (like, say, Alissa Nutting) more than men, if they receive it at all.
PB: I’ve come to terms with being called “transgressive,” and I’d say your book, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), is transgressive. I used to bristle at labels, but now I understand that those labels are helpful to readers and so I’ve made me peace with them. I just published a book of poetry by Dennis Cooper, who is also labeled transgressive. I think that Paul Bowles, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Nabakov, hell, even James Joyce, would be labeled similarly in their time. So, I’m not sure it’s a gender thing, but as aware as I am of the problems women face in the literary world, not to mention in the world in general, I’m wary of making statements when I feel unclear on the actual stats.
JM: It seems in these stories that someone always has someone over a barrel (if not figuratively, then sometimes literally). If the boys aren’t controlling the girls by calling them names and coercing them into sex, if the men aren’t controlling women by being standoffish and commitment-phobes, then women are subjugating other women/girls (like the narrator of “Reading to the Blind Girl”).
When you interviewed me at Rain Taxi a few years ago, you asked me about power struggles in relationships between women, and now I’m curious of your take on sexual relationships between men and women and platonic relationships between women.
PB: I think this book has a fair amount a cruelty toward girls coming from both boys and girls. I don’t know if I have a personal stance, beyond citing statistical and other studies, in that girls and women are very likely to be treated badly by men at some point in their lives. And a recent study showed that in a study of quite young girls and boys, girls were much more violent than boys when they thought no one was looking, which is fascinating to me, nor is it surprising. Sexism and violence against women by men is a huge societal problem but cruelty comes from all over, too. I guess you could say cruelty fascinates me in general. I feel I don’t understand it very well and I try to avoid who get pleasure in being cruel, of which there are many, and perhaps I write about it to try to get a better grasp of it. It’s a fascinating aspect of human nature.
JM: Congrats on the review in The New York Times! As a fellow writer, I’ve always been proud (and envious!) of your ability to get such great press for your books: Baby was an O: The Magazine pick, Nine Months received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and now Inside Madeleine makes it into The New York Times. What has been more important for you in terms of making your work heard – is it having an innovative publisher or having a good platform as a writer – or a little of both? (Or even luck?)
PB: I’ve been lucky to have wonderful publishers and now publicists, too, who work tirelessly to promote my book. And I do what I can do, too, although I don’t tweet or blog. But I have a website! And I try to show my face – go to readings, do readings – which I sort of didn’t do for a decade or so at one point. And it’s still not my strength. I do think perhaps some luck is involved but also, I’ve been writing and publishing in small journals for over two decades. That’s a long time. Like most writers, I’ve accumulated 50 times more rejections and things falling through then acceptances and things working out, gotten probably a thousand rejections from magazines, agents, and editors. Agents not working out – I currently don’t have one. A book deal fell through after being in contract for a year. I could go on, but after more than two decades, I’m sure I’m forgetting some huge disappointments. I think the point is, I’m so grateful to have gotten the attention I’ve gotten, to have three books out there, but I’ve think it’s clear I’ve been very patient. I didn’t publish my first book until I was 42, after haven written 5 books.
JM: That is a long time to be writing and paying your dues! And it’s interesting to look at what you’ve written about all this time. Your fiction is autobiographical in some obvious ways (you grew up in South Bend, went to school in Boston, and live in New York, which is the basic palette of your work). In what ways would readers be surprised that your fiction is autobiographical, and why ways not?
PB: That’s tricky to answer, because memory and imagination become very fluid when I get into a writing groove. And each story is different. “Breasts” isn’t very autobiographical, but some of the characters are based on real people and there are elements to Lola’s experiences that are emotionally resonant to me. “Pussies” and “Reading to the Blind Girl” are based on some real-life events. But really, it’s all a mix, or if not, just because the setting is familiar to me, I’m going to say the majority of my work is pure fiction.
JM: Which is the hardest part of the story for you?
PB: The hardest thing about writing varies from story to story. In general it’s trying to find the pain and then explore it in my stories. Novels are a different matter. But yeah, to keep the emotional intensity relevant and true feeling to me as I write can be – emotionally exhausting!
Don’t forget: Paula Bomer, Michael Downs, and Megan Stielstra will be reading and signing copies of their books on Monday, July 7th, 2014 at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For information, visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website or the website of Starts Here!