Paula Bomer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375. She is most recently the author of Baby.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering whether producers will declare him a “bad radio show host” for thinking terrible things.
Author: Paula Bomer
Subjects Discussed: Prethinking a story involving an uncomfortable situation, whether smashing a baby against a brick wall constitutes shock value, Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, the stigma on maternal neglect, Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, whether or not “mother” means good, differing childhoods in South Bend, Indiana, the Catholic idea of whether or not we are our thoughts, guilt and bad thoughts, the paragraph structure of “The Mother of His Children”, plot vs. consciousness, going places you’re not supposed to go, trying to keep terrible thoughts within a character’s head, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, implicating husbands, the relationship to thought and action, Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl on the Plane,” potshots toward the rich, Jean Rhys as a main inspiration, characters as writers, Nathan Zuckerman, Bomer’s secret novels, writers who write about painters instead of writers but who really wish to write about writers, editors who have accused Ms. Bomer of being a “bad mother” to her face, agents who have declared Ms. Bomer of being offensive, brutal rejections, whether or not offending people matters, attempts to not go to the uncomfortable, Scott Smith, horror writers being nice people, the autobiographical qualities of “The Second Son,” trust and crushing emotion, Iris Owens’s After Claude, Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, brutal birth scenes, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, sexual frustration, and perverse imagery.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You have this extraordinary moment where a mother wishes to smash her baby against a brick wall. I’m wondering to what extent you prethink a situation where you’re writing about an uncomfortable situation. Is there an inherent risk to some degree in exploring what might be argued as “shock value” behavior? How do these things come into your head? (laugh)
Bomer: Well, I had a lot of fun writing that story [“Baby”]. I think it’s one of the funnier ones. And that one was basically pure satire. But there’s also, like any good satire, there’s elements of truth and real emotion as well. And actually a lot of women have written about that exact same feeling in nonfiction books. So that was a bit of the inspiration. Anne Lamott wrote a book called Operating Instructions and Louise Erdrich wrote a book called The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. And both of them discuss in nonfiction wanting to smack the baby or hit the baby, and having this real incredible moment of frustration. So it had been done before. But I think in the context of “Baby,” the title story, it’s not this lovely nonfiction book with nuances of other emotion. She’s not a very likable person. And so I think that giving her those thoughts make it even harder to take. Because she’s not very sympathetic.
Correspondent: Well, there’s certainly a stigma upon any kind of thought of neglect. Ayelet Waldman got into a lot of trouble with Bad Mother.
Bomer: Oh right!
Correspondent: “I would rather be with my husband than my children.” That kind of thing.
Bomer: Well, you know, when I — this was fifteen years ago; I have teenagers now. But still I remember. The pressure to be — there’s this strange idea that “mother” means “good.” And actually mother just means that you had a kid. And lots of people have kids. And it doesn’t automatically make you a good person.
Correspondent: The Manson Family!
Bomer: Yeah, right. (laughs) I was in the trenches of the playground and I was hoping that this was a time for people to be loving and supportive of each other. Because it’s an incredibly difficult time. You’re not sleeping. Your life has changed. So on and so forth. You have this incredible responsibility that gets sick a lot and cries. And yet in the playground, it was more like high school all over again. It was just really hard to find people who wanted to be understanding instead of pick at your weaknesses. And that might be a New York thing. I said in my Publishers Weekly interview. I’m from South Bend, Indiana and it’s a different childhood. And it’s a different way. New York. New Yorkers — sometimes, they just can’t turn it off. It’s always got to be like some competition. And even motherhood — like I said, I think it’s a corruption of a difficult but beautiful experience.
Correspondent: But not just motherhood. What constitutes abuse? Does a thought constitute abuse? Does a homicidal consideration of your born child constitute abuse?
Bomer: That’s funny. Because Giancarlo DiTrapano asked me something similar to that. And that’s a Catholic idea. That we are our thoughts. And I don’t think we are our thoughts. All sorts of things go through your head. And we are our behavior. So having a bad thought can make you feel terribly guilty. But I don’t think it makes you a bad person. Why I think that character is bad isn’t because she has a tough moment with her baby, but it’s because she’s so shallow. It’s a satirical Upper East Side mom. Even though I think she moved to Tribeca. Everything’s about one-upping someone else. Even having kids becomes a part of it.
Correspondent: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned whether a thought translates into an action. Because there is something very interesting you do in these stories. I want to point to two of them. In “The Mother of His Children,” the second paragraph could almost be the first paragraph the way it’s written when it describes Ted Stanton. But then you have the first paragraph, which is very consciousness-heavy, and that really is the story. And that is the motivation for it. You do something similar with “A Galloping Infection” where the first paragraph reads as if it’s the beginning of a noir story. With the wife’s body dragged out of the two bedroom house. And then you have the second paragraph that begins with the sentence, “He no longer would have to disappoint her.” My question is how you arrived at this bifurcation between plot and consciousness. It’s almost as if you’re suggesting with these stories that narrative can’t always capture these more unpleasant and seamy sides of consciousness.
Bomer: You mean narrative can’t capture it. You mean, the plot?
Correspondent: The plot. Yes.
Bomer: I like getting inside the heads of my characters. It’s not the only way to write. Okay, “Galloping Infection,” in particular, the man’s in shock. Because his wife dies. And I think anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one — even though he also discusses his lack of love for her because relationships are complicated — but I kind of wanted to capture that shock. And so I think you really need to get inside someone’s head. Because the things that go through your head when someone dies — it’s funny. Some of the darker stories, I had a lot of fun writing. Like there’s another story about marital rape. “She Was Everything to Him,” which originally appeared in Fiction. And it’s not a funny story. Some of the stories are funny. But this one is not. And yet I was giggling the whole time I was writing it. Because I knew that I was doing something subversive. And it was fun. For me, it’s fun to go places where I’m not supposed to go. I’m too old and I don’t want to be a rebellious teenager anymore. So I get to be really wrong in my work. And it’s wonderful fun for me.
Correspondent: Wrong? I’m wondering…
Bomer: Bad. How’s that?
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