A writer’s eye and a psychotherapist’s ear

A writer’s eye and a psychotherapist’s ear

Beth Brophy

Amy Bloom is a professional listener: She has spent most of her adult life as a therapist in private practice. But nine years ago, at the age of 34, Bloom shifted from listening to other people’s stories to writing about them–a transition that quickly proved felicitous. In 1991, she sold her first short story to a Western Canadian feminist journal for $35; it was later included in Best American Short Stories for that year. Another prize-winning story soon followed. And in 1993, Come To Me, a collection of Bloom’s short pieces, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

This month, when her first novel, Love Invents Us (Random House, $21), arrives in bookstores, Bloom may find herself in the midst of another metamorphosis–this time from respected-but-obscure author to bestselling novelist. Her new book is already generating buzz in the publishing world, where Bloom is held in high esteem, both for her unusual insights and her elegant prose. “She can say more in less space than anyone I know,” says Kate Medina, Bloom’s editor at Random House. “She tells the unvarnished truth, written with generosity and wisdom. People get tired of a whitewash.”

As occupations, psychotherapy and writing draw on common skills: listening, noticing small details that illuminate larger truths, distinguishing “what’s going on as opposed to what people tell me is going on,” Bloom says. Both spring from the impulse to “put your hands on people’s lives, to be intimate.”

In Bloom’s case, her years in the therapist’s chair seem to fuel her success as a writer, shaping her characters and themes. “I have a dark kind of optimism,” she says. “To me, a happy ending might be that everyone is still alive, or that no one is rotting away with Alzheimer’s.” Her fiction deals with universal struggles: the limits of married love, the enduring bonds and rivalries of siblings, how love dooms–and temporarily redeems–us. “Finding the right family, not necessarily your family of origin, is one of the goals of adult life,” she says.

Indeed, Love Invents Us traces the quest of Elizabeth Taube for the love and acceptance her own emotionally distant parents were unable to give her. Taube grows up in affluent Great Neck, Long Island–Bloom’s hometown–and the story follows her from elementary school through middle age.

Clear boundaries. In interviews, Bloom demonstrates another trait common to both psychotherapists and fiction writers: She is most comfortable in the role of detached observer, mining the innermost secrets of others while remaining largely anonymous herself. “I don’t have a big confessional streak,” she says. She makes it clear that certain subjects–her personal life, for example, including her 1993 divorce from her husband of 17 years–are off limits. “I don’t think what’s painful to me is anyone else’s business.” End of discussion.

Yet Bloom also draws upon the ethics she learned as a healer in crafting her fiction. She scrupulously avoids borrowing material from patients’ lives (“that would be plagiarism”) or from her children (she has two daughters, 14 and 17, and a stepson, 31), though other people are fair game. “Everything you write is from you,” she says, “but it’s not your life. You want it to ring true but not to be accurate.” She won’t trash other writers and declines book reviews if she doesn’t like the book in question (“It’s as hard to write a bad novel as a good one,” she says).

And in at least one venue, her dual professional allegiance is explicit: her monthly sex advice column for New Woman magazine, addressing such controversial topics as nudity in the family and bisexuality. Editor-in-chief Betsy Carter enlisted her after being “bowled over” by her stories. The column is more “literate” than other advice columns and a favorite among her 1.3 million readers, mostly women in their 30s, Carter says. “Her tone is gutsy. She takes chances in her fiction and in her column. She’s always pushing the envelope.”

Taking up the writer’s pen later than usual was a chance that paid off. Bloom doesn’t regret not starting sooner. If there’s one lesson she has drawn from her years in the consulting room, it’s that change unfolds on its own timetable. “I wasn’t ready before,” she says.

COPYRIGHT 1997 All rights reserved.

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