To Paint or to Breastfeed? The Dilemma of the Artist-Turned-Mother

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Paula Bomer's debut novel, Nine Months, examines how having a baby changes an artist's life.

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One third of the way into Nine Months, by Paula Bomer, I jotted in a page's margin, "If you write about this book, do not use the cliche 'unflinching.' (But that is the right word.)" In this, her debut novel, Bomer drills into the nature of parenthood for the aspiring artist. Creating a human life is the single most profound act anyone will ever accomplish, and nurturing that little creature to adulthood the most daunting. And yet there is something objectively banal about the whole affair--anyone can make a baby. The same cannot be said for writing a book or applying oils to canvas, and that is the artist's dilemma. When staring down the barrel of parenthood, the artist can surrender, fail, or find some kind of a balance.

Nine Months, which is out today, follows Sonia, a one-time painter and now full-time mother, who is unexpectedly pregnant with her third child. And though she surrendered some part of her identity (and consequently, her sanity) to each of her first two pregnancies, this third child--or the idea of a third child--induces a psychic break. She'd long ago abandoned the paintbrush, and now, it seems, she has to abandon even the hope of the paintbrush. "Another person arriving forever!" And so she runs away, abandoning her husband and children and setting forth on a cross-country odyssey to make some sense of life, and come to an accord with the simple act of existence. It is a desperate grasp for an identity beyond changing diapers and washing bottles. "The pleasure she gets from from her children is real, but so is the pain, so is the boredom. Sesame Street? Wiping butts? Sure, it's a part of life, but is it satisfaction? Is it all she wants? Isn't it fucking boring? Taking care of small children--and nothing else?"

There is a strong element of satire in Nine Months. Bomer scrutinizes grim parental impulses, but does so with a phenomenal comedic pace. The lead character of Sonia is fully formed, at once over-the-top, entirely human, and thoroughly relatable. Supporting characters--neurotic parents slavishly following the latest medical or pop-psychological study on how to create the Perfect Kid--only make Sonia more sympathetic. No doubt, Bomer's skillfulness with characterization comes from her thriving career as a short fiction writer. (Baby & Other Stories, one of her earlier collections, delves into themes similar to Nine Months.) Indeed, her style and tone evokes the early works of Roddy Doyle--The Snapper immediately springs to mind--which is itself exciting because it suggests Bomer will soon be evoking Doyle's later masterworks.

Meg Wolitzer once described in one of her novels an encounter between a new mother and old woman. The young mother is warned, "You will never have another day in your life that is free of anxiety." I think Sonia would agree with that. Indeed, such truths only underline what a miraculous gift parenthood really is. Because the anxiety and sacrifices are not only worth it, but are instinctively so, and a mere nine months separate inconceivable sacrifice and happy compromise.

The following interview with Bomer took place by phone, where she discussed her career, art, children, and fiction.

How did you end up in New York City?

I went to boarding school in Connecticut, which is a strange thing when you're from South Bend, Indiana. And I fell in love with the northeast. I went to college at Boston University and afterward everyone else seemed to be moving to New York, and honestly, I was doing the sheep thing--I didn't know what else to do. I never thought I'd stay and raise a family here. It's a great place to live in your 20s, but when you're 44, I could really not live here. It would be fine if I didn't live here. But we're not going to rip the kids out of school right now.

Because I'm from South Bend, I think I have a bit of a cynical take on New York City life--it's quite different. I've lived in Brooklyn now for 22 years. I've always felt that being from Indiana and going to boarding school, coming to New York--I've always felt like an outsider. Which is a great thing for a writer. You're observing people. You don't feel a part of it, and you have a kind of cold detachment that a writer must have. 

You've been writing for 20 years now. Describe the road that brought you to Nine Months. 

English was always my best subject and I kept a journal when I was an angsty teenager. In college, I didn't get a degree in literature, though I was a voracious reader. And then I started writing short stories. When I moved to New York, I got a job in publishing, but quit after a year. What I really wanted to do was write, and working in publishing wasn't actually helping me. So I started bar tending, and that's when I had the time and emotional energy to really concentrate on my fiction. I applied to graduate school and earned a Masters in Creative Writing and English. (That was the only degree available at the time; the equivalent today is a Master of Fine Arts.) I got it at City College, which is in Harlem, and it was pretty interesting to commute from Brooklyn to Harlem in the early '90s. It was a great program, and while I don't think MFAs are important, it was useful to me. 

Afterward I just kept writing and occasionally a story would get picked up. My first major publication was Open City--it was a big deal when they published a story of mine. And then, like most short story writers, I got pushed into writing a novel. It was a good thing, but it was very hard, I must say. I don't find novel writing easy. Just the opposite. I hope the novel doesn't come off like, "Whoa, she has to work really hard." I hope that's not how it comes across, but it really was a lot of work. 

And I'm finally getting a little bit of success. My first book came out two years ago, after 20 years of writing, like you said. It's something I've always kept at even when there wasn't much going on. And I raised two sons while making time for the craft. 

I started Nine Months ten years ago. When I first stated, there wasn't much interest in subversive mother literature, and the proliferation of Mommy Blogs hadn't yet begun. None of that existed when I first wrote this book. So the climate is right for the book to get published, and that is exciting.

What were the highs and lows of those 20 years? 

I've had lots of lows, with some recent great highs. A while back, I had another writer who has this book deal with Crown read a manuscript and say, "This is just bad writing." To my face. And I studied with a famous writer who was so enthusiastic. She even compared me to Richard Ford. And then when I asked her for a blurb for Baby & Other Stories, she wrote me a very unkind letter about how much she disliked the book. That one took me a week before I could lift my head up because she had been my mentor. Those were two lows. But the great things--getting the great reviews, and the people who get my books. And then also to have the support of Jonathan Franzen. I don't know him; I just wrote him a letter that said how much Freedom meant to me at a specific time in my life, and talked to him about other things. And then a year later I get the most amazing postcard from him. He gets me, and for me there isn't a higher honor because I'm a huge, huge fan. Another great high is working with Mark Doten at Soho--it's been an amazing relationship.

How did your creative writing program help you along?

My Bachelor's degree was in psychology and anthropology, and even though I was a voracious reader, I didn't have as strong a literature background as I would have liked. And there is a difference between studying books in a classroom and reading them on your own. The creative writing workshops were interesting. They toughen you up, if nothing else. I don't know how useful they are, in that the critiques didn't change me as a writer. But the encouragement by certain professors was great. I'm still very close with Mark Mirsky, the editor at Fiction magazine. He's published me twice, and we've known each other for 18 years and it's nice to have such relationships with other writers. But the workshops--they're kinda funny. You realize you've got your haters and your lovers and I have that with my story collection and obviously with my novel. I tend to write in a very polarizing way, and I figured that out in grad school. It definitely toughens you up to have people hate your work to your face. And I think you have to be tough.

Between the short fiction, the story collections, and the novel, you started Sententia Books, an independent press.

Yes! We publish two books a year, and I edit them. The small press world has been so good to me, so I kind of felt like I wanted to give back. And once I started, I realized how much I love it. It's a lot of work--my living room has been taken over by boxes of books and files and stuff--but I've published some great books, and next year I'm publishing three. I also have a journal called Sententia. We've done four issues now, each of which I'm very proud of. And now that my kids are bigger, I can dedicate myself to all sorts of aspects of publishing. Writing is obviously my first priority, but editing and helping out other struggling authors is very satisfying.

How did your experience with Baby & Other Stories and Nine Months differ?

Baby & Other Stories was published by Word Riot, which is run by Jackie Corley. She's been doing it for ten years, which is a long time to be doing something, so I knew I was in very good hands. And she was crazy about the book, and that's what matters the most. And we got lucky. I got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus gave me a great review. When Publishers Weekly interviewed me, things really started rolling. We were both very happy, and it was very surprising in the best way. 

With Baby, I had a lot of control. I chose the cover, I got all my own blurbs. I even picked the typeface! I don't have that at Soho, but they've done an amazing job. The book looks great, I hope to do another book with them in the future. But it's a very different experience. Still, to have Soho behind me and to have Random House as a distributor--it's a really exciting moment for me.

As the owner of a small press, what's your take on the state of the industry?

Jackie Corley and I have talked about this. There's no money in publishing. You just do it as a labor of love, and the idea is to maybe come close to breaking even a little bit. But you do it because you love it and because you care about the book. The state of publishing has me of two minds, sometimes. I buy a lot of small press books, and some of them, I think it's so wonderful that this book is out there. And then I read other things, and I just think, well, in another time it wouldn't have seen the light of day... and that might not have been a bad thing. 

I'm a curmudgeonly person because I'm middle-aged. A lot of young people are getting their stuff out when they're 25 years old, and they're not Hemingway. They're not the exception. I do find that there are way too many young people publishing stuff that hopefully, if they have half a brain, 20 years from now will be like "Oh my goodness, I can't believe I let that get published." Because there is a learning curve.

But I think there is good and bad. As I said, I'm of two minds. I've been getting certain books out--Cul de Sac by Scott Wrobel, for example--that's just wonderful. I have a soft spot for story collections, and as you know the publishing industry doesn't. So it's great to see more story collections being published. I think small presses can really help in that regard.

How was the transition from short stories to novels?

It was really, really hard. Really hard. This book, sometimes it was like banging my head on the table trying to make a novel. I wrote an outline that I didn't really use, and you have to keep track of so much more. If I had my dream career, I would be Alice Munro; I would just write story collection after story collection. With a novel, the sense of accomplishment is bigger because it's harder. It's harder to write a 200-and-something page book than to write a 20-page story. I've written two novels--Nine Months is my first published one--and it's just excruciating. But that's just my process. It's really hard to write a novel--especially if you want to write a good one. I wanted to provoke, I wanted it to chew on ideas. I wanted it to be entertaining and thoughtful and feel real. Because anyone can write crappy novels. If you're working really hard and trying really hard to do something special it's not going to be easy. You're not going to wake up every morning saying "Oh I'm so lucky I get to write!" even though I am lucky. It is a privilege. It's not like I'm working in a factory or whatever. But that doesn't mean that I'm enjoying it every minute. I definitely have moments of flow, though, where it starts coming easy. But to get there is a slog.

What is your philosophy as a writer? How do you approach fiction?

I think that you really have to have something to say. I don't mean that you have to have some grand idea, but you want to feel like there's substance to your work. That, to me, is very important. You have all these cliches--"coming of age"--but if you're actually dealing with the details of a person going through a very difficult time and you're illuminating why that is so, and not in a didactic way, it's quite a challenge. To me, the best fiction is not didactic, but rather discusses, or at least questions, real life problems. Class. Feminism. Motherhood. Alcoholism. There has to be something there. 

And it takes bravery. I feel like as a writer I have to be brave. I have to write things that make me uncomfortable and look hard at things you really want to look away from. At a more technical level, write a good story. Make it something where people want to know what's happening. That sounds simple, but it's a challenge to actually do, and it's a great accomplishment when you write something that someone wants to keep reading. That propulsion--the narrative has to pull the reader in. That's the technical stuff. But emotionally and intellectually, you want to deal with serious matters and I want the reader to be uncomfortable and thinking about larger issues.

So describe your fiction.

Baby & Other Stories is about motherhood, but also about marriage, and how marriage changes when you have children. Thematically, Nine Months and Babies & Other Stories are very similar, though Nine Months is more satirical in my mind. I was very influenced when writing Nine Months by some of Philip Roth's work--in fact there's a fake Philip Roth character in the book. It's my fake relationship with Roth, who I was obsessed with. He can be really over-the-top funny. I'd say Nine Months is over the top. But maybe other people would disagree.

My works have often been called brutal, but why bother writing something that doesn't make you feel uncomfortable? I want that. It's what I look for. It's not the only way, but it's definitely what I was shooting for.

Obviously motherhood is central to your work. How has it influenced your writing process?

In my 20s, I often wrote in the evening, and when my kids were born I became a morning writer because I was forced to become a morning person. And that stuck. I usually write for a few hours. I'm impressed with people who can write for eight hours a day. I can sometimes write for two or three hours, take a long break, and go back for an hour or two. But that's rare. Usually it's just two hours. 

When my kids were small, I made writing a priority. I never wanted to use my children as an excuse to not do what I really wanted to do. Maybe this sounds cruel but a lot of people do that. "Well I have kids now, so I can't do this. I can't play in this band anymore. I don't have time to write." And for me, they took a nap and I wrote two paragraphs, and that wasn't a bad day. I felt very dedicated to my work, and to not scapegoating my children. My children are the best thing about me, but I also wanted to write. I went to graduate school for it, and I didn't feel ready to stop doing it just because I was extremely busy chasing around two little boys most of the time.

Unlike Sonia, who put down the paintbrush with the birth of her children.

They are her excuse, and I think that's why she goes kind of nuts. And I think that's quite common. I think I was a little bull-headed. I probably would have been much more productive (possibly) if I didn't have children, but on the other hand it's a flexible schedule in that I didn't have a nine-to-five job. I was home with them. But Sonia is in some way my alter ego. With her I imagined: What if I did use my children as an excuse? And what if I did flip out? And I just went with it from there.

But it's not very autobiographical. I breastfed my children for a year, and they were in my bed for far longer than that. But I didn't subscribe to attachment parenting. I didn't join a group, and I was never sanctimonious. I had a friend who didn't breastfeed for a minute and she worked full time as soon as her kids were three weeks old and she's the best mother in the world. So even though I did things my way, I really dislike the "motherhood camps." And in the book, I take shots at the camps--particularly, extreme attachment parenting. 

And the sanctimony! Not long after my baby was born, I'm in line getting an iced coffee because I'm incredibly exhausted because I've been up all night with a baby, and a woman in line next to me asked if I was nursing--which is none of her business--and I said yes, and she said, "You know you really shouldn't drink coffee." I said something to make her go away. A cup of coffee is not going to hurt your baby. 

What's next?

I'm really looking forward to new stuff. Some people prefer the revision process, but I like that thrill of writing new material and I'll probably let myself work on some short stories. I'm also outlining another novel. Like most writers, I keep notebooks that I paste little things in. The next book might be a little bit more of a Jim Thompson-type noir, but less funny. Because I think Nine Months is funny, and I like the way Philip Roth, over the course of his career, wrote these outrageously funny books, and then he wrote American Pastoral. I would love to have that freedom as a writer, to be able to explore different ways of writing.
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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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