Friday, September 9, 2011

Amy Bloom's Immigrant Novel "Away"

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in September 2007)

In Amy Bloom’s novel “Away”(Random House, $24) Lillian Leyb survives an anti-Semitic massacre that kills her family in 1920s Russia , but is not sure whether her young daughter Sophie is alive or dead. She escapes to New York City and becomes the mistress of Reuben Burstein, a Yiddish theater impresario, and the public, fake girlfriend for Reuben’s gay son Meyer. It is a life far away from peasant Russia.

A few months later, Lillian’s cousin Raisele comes comes through New York and gives Lillian the impossible news that Sophie may be alive and living in Siberia. Lillian then undertakes a desperate journey across the United States. In Seattle, she is almost murdered, but is saved by a prostitute, and is then involved in the robbery and accidental killing of a pimp. She takes a steamship to Alaska, winds up in a women’s prison and is befriended by a grifter named Chinky Chang. Lillian saves a family of orphans, takes a brutal journey through the countryside and falls in love with an ex-cop hiding out in a desolate Alaskan telegraph outpost on her way to Siberia. With her lush prose, Bloom writes a mesmerizing story of a mother’s undying love and her determination to find her daughter.

Bloom, 54, was born in New York City and educated at Wesleyan University and the Smith College School for Social Work. She is the author of four other books, including the National Book Award-nominated story collection, “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” and teaches in the English department at Yale University. Bloom spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in New Haven.

Q. What inspired you to create Lillian Leyb, a woman intent on walking from Alaska to Siberia to find her missing daughter?

A. There really isn't a memoir of a woman like Lillian. There were these apocryphal stories in Alaska, which was a great home to yellow journalism. You'd see these various posed pictures of young women with fur hats and rucksacks, some tall, some short, some blonde, some dark, with the caption, "The girl who walked to Russia." Really, all of those girls? My dad had been a journalist and was very much given to the announcement of the odd fact when I was growing up. He once lowered his newspaper and said, "The woman who walked to Russia must have been a nut." I found myself thinking about that, and what makes people take big, impossible journeys. If you are not naturally a lover of adventure and you are not nuts, what else makes you do it?

Q. Do you think Lillian is the ultimate survivor?

A. Yes, but she is not without a conscience. There is something, though, about the will to keep going. There is a line from a book by Paula Fox that goes, "I didn't have the nerve to do it, so I did what I had to do without the nerve." That's how I feel about Lillian. There have always been resilient people. I think it is in some people's wiring to survive. There are friends of mine who have suffered unimaginable losses, but they go on. They love their partners. They tell jokes. I find them to be extraordinarily compelling people.

Q. When Lillian comes to New York City, she throws off her sweatshop job to become the mistress of a theater impresario Reuben Burstein. What motivates her to do this?

A. Reuben is somebody that she is genuinely drawn to. There is a certain amount of self-deception for both of them, covered by the business-nature of their transaction. With Meyer, his son, she would not have been unwilling to become her mistress, if that was the gig. Look at Lillian's skills. Her English isn't great. She's a so-so seamstress. She's sensible. It's not like she is going to get an office job. It was common sense. What else would she be doing?

Q. What gives Lillian the insane determination to attempt to go to Siberia on an implausible scrap of information that her daughter might still be alive?

A. How could you not try? I would try. I would have come to a bad end a lot earlier than Lillian, but I would have tried. How could you get up the next morning after you find that your child may be alive and say, "Oh, well"? If you love your kid, that is what you have to do. At least Lillian is going someplace that seems possible. By the 1920s, you could get across the country is a few days.

Q. When she gets to Seattle, Lillian gets involved with a local prostitute named Gumdrop in the robbery and accidental murder of a pimp. Why?

A. People are true to their nature. Most of us stick to the conventional, because there it is, but that doesn't mean if the conventional were cast off, we might not be willing to go in a very different direction. It's a big world. Lillian's trying to make her way in it.

The robbery and murder was a very hard scene to write. The content of the scene was not hard, but finding a way to write about it in a way that didn't sound cold or disinterested, nor filled with hand wringing, was tough.

Q. In Alaska, Lillian finds the possibility of love with a telegraph operator, a disgraced ex-cop named John Bishop. Where did you find him?

A. The characters mostly appear to me as I am writing. I did a lot of reading about telegraph operators in these remote cabins. They were, by and large, not the most sociable of men. Why would my character be living in isolation? What brought him there? I wanted to have a strong ending. I didn't want the novel to fall off, as a lot of even good books do, so I stopped writing, read some more and thought for a while. I waited until I could see John Bishop. I was looking for that particular man.

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