I began reading Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine on a plane ride. I sat next to a friend and fellow writer who was working on his own story collection. He’d published a novel and poetry, but never short stories, and he felt disoriented attempting the new form. He wanted inspiration. He wanted a sense of control and direction; he wanted to write stories that jabbed quickly and delivered more than one might expect in only a few pages. I’d only read the first two stories in Bomer’s new collection, “Eye Socket Girls” and “Breasts,” but I’d read them with a kind of greedy excitement, so I passed him the book. He read the same two stories and handed the book back. “See,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
All of Bomer’s stories in Inside Madeleine offer this sneaky, powerful punch, and after that first plane ride, I sat down and read the rest of the collection in one thrilling and intoxicating sitting. I deeply admired the patience and control and, as a long time fan of her previous collection, Baby, and her novel, Nine Months, I wanted to ask her a few questions about her style, craft, and inspiration.
Interviewer: Inside Madeleine contains eight stories and one novella, all but two of which are in the third person, and are written in a haunting, almost incantatory voice. Often your sentences contain rhythms based on a cataloguing of images or ideas. Is this where you begin when writing a story, with the narrative voice?
Paula Bomer: I think the voice develops or is dictated usually from a first sentence, or a general premise or idea. Style—to me that means voice, sentence flow—comes after some sort of substance, a character’s face or a character’s predicament. In other words, an idea for me can help propel itself into its own world that requires of me to find the right way to tell it.
Interviewer: Your reviewers often remark on the gritty quality of your work, and I too think of your work in the way I see some Diane Arbus photographs, the perfectly captured scowl, the baggy, zombie-eyed glance and grin of a parade reveler, bodies no one would call “perfect,” and I wonder what draws you to these kinds of characters, or maybe to the behaviors and thoughts that many of us have but all too often prefer to think we don’t?
Paula Bomer: I’ve always felt like a freak and I think many, many people feel that way—inside, outside, in public, in private. I like that you bring up Arbus—she could find the freak in an Upper East Side society lady. I remember feeling very comforted by Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” which I wrote about at Big Other in regard to the book Short Bus by Brian Allen Carr. Life is so beautiful and such a tremendous, mysterious gift and yet there is suffering everywhere and always has been. Harmony is fleeting. Human suffering is of huge interest to me. It’s funny I’m writing this while listening to Sun Kil Moon’s album, Benji, which is perhaps the saddest record I’ve heard. I think it’s safe to say I’m a little morbid, and it shows in my work.
Interviewer: In many of these stories, women are at odds with women, lead characters often compare themselves to other women with aching self-debasement; in fact, the themes running through all the stories seems to be about the precariousness of survival rather than some kind of redemption or achievement. To me then, your stories are more existential than epiphany oriented. Is this intentional?
Paula Bomer: I like that understanding of these stories—that they are existential rather than punctuated with enlightenment. I wouldn’t say it’s intentional but more my vision of the world. And there are epiphanies of sorts throughout. In “Pussies,” the narrator realizes: “But we only matter when we do something awful. Then, someone sees us and only then.” I think in “Reading to the Blind Girl” Maggie realizes she’s not the person she thinks she is. In fact, that seems to be a theme perhaps—we are not what we think we are. And that’s sort of an epiphany, but maybe more so a worldview.
Interviewer: The title story, a novella, has echoes of Andre Dubus’s “Fat Girl.” Was this story or writer an inspiration for you?
Paula Bomer: I read that story in one of those wonderful anthologies of best stories of the century or something like that. I remember being very impressed with it, but I don’t remember anything else about it. “Two Girls Fat and Thin” by Mary Gaitskill I read closer to the time I was writing “Inside Madeleine.” But I think for many girls, once puberty hits, if not before then, they become obsessed with their bodies. And many girls have a very strange relationship to food that is often a family dynamic. My bachelor degree is in Psychology and I spent a lot of time reading about eating disorders and mental illness, both which show up in many of these stories. So, mostly I would say I wasn’t really inspired by any other work, but I was obsessed with anorexia and mental illness, how it stems from and effects relationships, how it relates to being a girl or woman at the end of the 20th century.
Interviewer: All of the stories in the collection are set in South Bend, Boston, or New York City, and yet, despite the depiction of a couple specific landmarks in each city, the stories could be set anywhere, as if these lives are everywhere (at least in America). How important is place to you as a writer, and where are you writing about now?
Paula Bomer: I like to set stories in places that I’m familiar with. Where I grew up, where I’ve lived as a teenager and as an adult, are very important to me when I sit down to write. Interesting that you think they could be set anywhere—and I hope that’s because the characters and their predicaments are universal. But I often think of place as a character in itself. Southern writers get this a lot, setting their stories in the South becoming an important part of the story. I try for that—for making Brooklyn a character, or the sadness and absurdity of a shitty shopping mall fair (I’m thinking of “Down the Alley,” or just that kids hung out in alleys, a very non-urban thing), that could never happen in Brooklyn, but is something you used to see—probably still do—in small towns and cities in the Midwest. Basically, place is very important to me, but people are people everywhere.