Paula Bomer’s debut novel Nine Months (Soho Press, 2012) has had a long gestation period. On and off for the past 10 years, Bomer had sent Nine Months to agents and publishers, rewrote it, put it away for a long time, unwrote it, and then gave it one last shot, scoring with the rising Soho Press. Since its release in August, it’s has won accolades from The Atlantic, Library Journal, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. When I caught up with Paula, she’d just finished the west coast part of her book tour, getting stuck in Los Angeles and then Chicago a few extra days to ride out Hurricane Sandy before heading back to her home in Brooklyn.
Are you back in New York yet? Everybody safe?
I am finally home and what a mess it is here. How is Baltimore? I wish I was back in LA. I can’t believe that, but it’s true sort of.
We’re good here—we actually didn’t lose power, which was wonderful. So I got to finish Nine Months without burning out my flashlight, which I would have—I loved, loved, loved it! I worried, as someone who’s never had kids, that I wouldn’t relate. But it’s much more than about Sonia, a married woman with two kids and an unwanted third on the way, a woman who’s so freaked that she abandons her family for several months and drives cross country, visiting her past. It’s really about a woman’s identity, as a mother and an individual. To whom are we ultimately responsible – ourselves or society? Did you experience similar issues of identity during either of your pregnancies? Now that you’re a mother, is there still pressure to put yourself aside, or are mothers encouraged to have it all (and have a nervous breakdown in process)?
Thank you for getting that my book isn’t just about motherhood. I think, hopefully, it’s about a lot of things. Jon Reiss wrote an article called “Judging a Book by Its Author” and had the same fear of not relating to my book and then loved it as he realized it wasn’t your typical mommy lit. I can’t answer who we are responsible to, but I think that’s a good question and I’m more interested, in that regard, to generating questioning ourselves rather than have any pat answers. I also clung to the idea that I was a writer and a mother and I plugged away at writing even when I wasn’t getting much published. As my shrink said, some moms need to go out to lunch with their friends, or play canasta – I needed to write. My kids are big now so I feel no need to put myself aside – I just beg them to spend time with me! Regarding mothers in general, there’re so many mixed messages and conflicting demands it’s either hilarious or maddening depending on my mood. A great non-fiction book that I read recently that really thoroughly explores all of these issues is Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids.
Parenting seems so hard these days, if you read books like What to Expect in the First Year and stuff. But then I think about moms popping out kids on the Oregon Trail, and they didn’t have Baby Mozart and Dr. Spock. Do mothers have instincts, like animals? Like, do you know when or when not to do things, like when to breastfeed and when to stop? I know, my non-lactating breasts totally showing themselves here.
I think there is some instinct, but mostly parenting is a learned experience and culturally influenced, especially regarding breastfeeding, child-rearing in general, discipline, and so on. It varies tremendously culture to culture not to mention if you look at the history of it all. In fact, childhood is a relatively new concept. For most of our time on this planet, children were just considered small people.
Is there anything you knew you wanted to do differently than your mother? Are you surprised that there were things you did that were the same?
Those are two loaded questions for me and maybe for many people. My relationship with my mother became much better after I had children. The one thing I think I did differently, purposefully so, is I never blamed my children for anything in my life. I wasn’t a victim of motherhood, and neither was my mother really, but I live in a time with a lot of choices that women didn’t have in the early 60s. Mainly, having kids made me forgive my mother for a lot of things and I think it gave us something in common, which was sort of lacking before I became a mother.
So, here’s what I really want to know: The writing in this book feels very autobiographical – the voice, even though in third person, feels very Paula Bomer, as do many of the biographic details of Sonia – raised in Indiana, school in Boston, sister in the Midwest, narrator lives in Brooklyn with two boys. I bet, like Sonia, you even have a black pair of yoga pants so old they’re green and the elastic is broken. Boy, where is this going? Is any of the story true, or do you not want to go there? And what did Nick (no relation to Sonia’s husband, named, curiously, Dick) think when he read the manuscript?
My husband doesn’t read my work or not all of it. He supports me and encourages me and—he’s just great. Sonia, despite the details we share, is very much her own character. Certain aspects are autobiographical and many, if not most, are not. It really is a work of fiction.
Oh, that’s a letdown. But don’t worry, I’ve got another—It’s so funny to hear Sonia complain about blow jobs and how penises smell. As a lesbian, I completely concur that penises are pretty gross and smelly. I never understood why straight girls loved them so much, but maybe secretly they don’t? I mean, do straight women think these things?
Keep in mind in that scene Sonia is very ill with morning sickness. When I had morning sickness, I once ran out of the apartment because my husband was cooking onions or something. Relating back to your question of whether or not the novel is autobiographical, I actually love oral sex as well as all sorts of other sex, like most people, male, female, straight or gay. That said, I do know straight women and men who can’t deal with oral sex. It takes all kinds, I guess. Some people just hate the idea of sex at all, I think—but they are rare. I think Flannery O’Connor had no interest in sex, for instance.
Some would argue that Sonia is selfish and irresponsible and will pay the price (through social services and possibly divorce) for abandoning her children for a month (does she even realize it’s that long? It doesn’t feel that long to me at all), but she comes to this incredible realization, defending her life to Philbert Rush, her old mentor and fuck that “[N]ot having children is like not passing puberty. Not having children is like not ever getting a job…[N]ot having children is missing the most sacred transition in life, from child to adult.” It almost made me miss out on not being a mother. It was a complete coup and gave Nine Months so much power.
I’m glad you think that chapter gave the novel power—it’s my favorite chapter because it came so organically to the narrative. It’s really the real conclusion, even if it’s not the end of the book. That said, I’m not in complete agreement with Sonia on that one. I know many very happy people who lead amazing lives and don’t have children. I always wanted children—literally from the moment I could think a thought—and not everyone is like that. I made it a huge priority and I have no regrets about that.
In her Dickensian journey not unlike A Christmas Carol, Sonia visits many different lives and ends of spectrum, from extreme libertarian parenting in the rugged mountain west to the childless, Peter Pan artist (her mentor Philbert Rush) to the fearless, partying woman (her friend Katrina) who, once her son is born, renounces all of her worldly pleasures and becomes a recluse from the world to raise him. Of all the characters, I felt the one missed opportunity was Katrina. She seemed like such a compelling person and integral to Sonia’s development in the late eighties scene in Boston that her transformation feels never completely explored. Do you ever find yourself returning to the Katrina character at all? Likewise, I feel the reader is left with unfinished business with Clara (not only her sexuality, but how her relationship with Sonia is left).
What I love about this question is that because of our friendship, and my great respect for you as person and a writer, I can handle you bringing up aspects of the novel you found wanting. Although I’m perfectly fine with there being faults with my first novel, I’ll offer some explanations or defenses for how I wrote about those two characters. Regarding Katrina, I think a lot of formerly wild people become incredibly different after they have children. Maybe it’s from shame or guilt, they tend to go far in the other direction, whereas someone who doesn’t have that sort of past can just glide into being a parent more easily. Another way of looking at her transformation is—people are strange. They really are.
Clara is a different story. I think it’s pretty obvious she’s a repressed lesbian. I hope that’s obvious. In an earlier draft, I wrote from multiple points of view—Dick’s, Clara’s, a marriage counselor who got cut completely from the final draft—and in that draft, Clara is more “explored” to say the least. But I think to make the book as strong as it could be, I really had to make it all from Sonia’s point of view. It really is about her journey and I think I improved the book by making that change. And when I did, Clara’s role in the novel changed some. It was one of many sacrifices I made when revising it to Sonia’s point of view.
Don’t worry! I want and expect you to be just as honest when my novel is out! I want to bring up the West Coast, since you just got back from doing a bunch of readings. Did you find West Coast moms to be different than east coast moms? What about West Coast writers? What about Jessica Anya Blau (Drinking Closer to Home), West Coast transplant mom and writer?
I haven’t spent any time with any West Coast moms on this trip! Just writers—not one who happened to be a mom. One dad, though, and his son. I think Jessica Blau is just an amazing person all around, so that would include her mothering skills. In Nine Months, I do address the West parenting thing of—teaching your 8-year-old kid to hunt, for instance. It happens in the East, but not so much. And then I address—sort of, and very satirically—the trailer moms of the Midwest. But I’m not trying to make any grand statements—these are really unique individuals/characters. Mostly, by creating all of them, I hope to show the silliness of all sorts of “ideas” about parenting.
So, publishing of Nine Months, or the state of publishing. You’d been shopping the novel for awhile—how did it get to Mark Doten at Soho? And Baby & Other Stories, your debut collection of short stories (Word Riot Press, 2010) was a completely different obstacle, with your first publisher for Baby going out of business before it was published. Are you more or less optimistic about the state of publishing?
I think I got extremely lucky that after the original publisher of Baby and Other Stories went under, I got picked up by the amazing Jackie Corley at Word Riot. She was amazing and put me on the map, so to speak. She has since become a friend, a comrade in the tough world of publishing. Throughout my years of trying to get published, I tried to get agents and editors interested in Nine Months on and off for at least 10 years. Getting Nine Months into Doten’s hands was a great, lucky moment. We have a mutual friend, Giancarlo DiTripano, the publisher of Tyrant Books. Doten mentioned on Facebook that he was looking for novels. I sent it to him and the rest is history. I am optimistic about the state of publishing when I think about it at all, which I really don’t do. It’s ironic I’m optimistic considering it took twenty years of writing before I got any of my books published. I just can’t get worked up about things that are out of my control. A lot of writers like to complain or discuss or think about the publishing industry—I don’t. I just don’t have the energy to complain, and mostly I’m grateful to be published and leave it at that. I have two kids, two dogs, two cats, my writing, reading, husband and houses, to worry about. I love running my small press, Sententia Books, too and I’m not worried about it being small. My writers are great and editing and publishing them is a great honor.
I think you have a well-rounded perspective, that’s for sure! There’s a lot of obsessing about the state of the industry and whether a person’s novel will be bought or even sell, and it can drive you crazy if you get too caught up in it.
Speaking of obsessions, do you own a Kindle? Is this thing going to go the way of cassette tapes, or are we stuck with it?
My son and husband both have them and love them. I like books, but I’m not against the Kindle or tablets. I think like all technology, they will be replaced in some way at some point.
Except for books, ironically. So far. Good thing for us!
You can find more about Nine Months and Paula’s collection of short stories, Baby, at her website: www.paulabomer.com/