Talking Philip Roth, Class, and Artists with Kids with Paula Bomer

After learning she’s pregnant with her third child, Sonia — the protagonist of Paula Bomer’s new novel Nine Months — embarks on a frantic road trip, revisiting old friends and past homes. Taken together with her earlier collection Baby, they showcase Bomer as a smart observer of class, economic anxieties, shifting familial bonds, and the frustrations that can come with lives spent engaged in creative disciplines. (It doesn’t hurt that Bomer’s fiction is often impressively — and sometimes bleakly — comic.) After Bomer’s reading at a Vol.1 Brooklyn-organized Bookends event in September, we conducted this interview via email.

At the reading at Public Assembly, you spoke about the John Berryman poem from which you took your novel’s epigraph. Where did you first run across it?
I can’t remember! I had read Dream Songs, but somewhere else, I read a quote from the poem I quoted, and then I read all of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and then I read Anne Bradstreet’s remarkable poems. All of this was quite some time ago and thinking about it makes me realize how little poetry I read. I think for that reason the poetry I do read makes a big impression.

Throughout Nine Months, there is a sense of class and economics, without necessarily being a book that’s overtly about these things. How did you achieve that balance?
I think class is always hovering below the surface of my writing as it hovers below and above daily life, except for the times it’s just smacking you in the face. My mother grew up poor, my father grew up upper middle class- I grew up Midwestern middle class and then went to a posh boarding school. While America may not have the intense class system of England, it still exists and informs how we interact with each other.

I was reading Grace Paley’s Collected Stories last week, and started to think of a syllabus of fiction about raising children in Brooklyn. Do you see your novel as fitting into any kind of literary tradition?
While the subject matter is very much about raising children and pregnancy and conflicted feelings about making art, it falls -I think- firmly in the tradition of satire and the road trip novel. More specifically, I was obsessed with Zuckerman Bound and the wild antics of Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s oftentimes narrator. Sonia is my Zuckerman and the relationship she has with the character Philbert Rush is my imaginary relationship with Philip Roth.

Has your work with Sententia had any effect on your writing?
Sententia Books is a labor of love. I’ve got to know and publish the work of amazing writers like Mary Miller, Meg Tuite and Scott Wrobel. And that just enriches my writing life. That said, it’s a ton of work and so eats up my time. But I have plenty of time, so it’s not too big of a problem.

Many writers and artists have balanced raising children with their creative work; in Nine Months, Sonia has not. Is it that she’s in a more precarious place, or more that one of the elements of her personality is that she isn’t quite able to make that leap, and that she’s convinced herself that it’s impossible?
When my first son was born one of the very first things I thought–I really had a revelation–was that I wasn’t going to blame anything about my life on him. While not always easy, I was determined to write and raise children. I saw a lot of women struggle with balancing the desire to raise children and to have any other identity and I empathized with them. I think I wanted Sonia to embody that empathy I have with women trying to balance their lives and also, clearly, freak out. Characters freaking out often make for interesting reading and we all have a kernel, or more, of freakout in us.

Was there any overlap between the writing of Nine Months and the stories contained in Baby? Did the writing of these two books affect one another in any way?
There was lot of overlap between the two books. I’m not sure how much they affected each other. Tonally, they are very different. Novel writing is much harder for me and the stories vary in tone whereas the novel needs to be consistent in that way. I wrote Baby over the course of many years, carefully putting and pulling out stories as the years went on. Nine Months I wrote in a rush of a few months and then revisited over and over again, and then finally, once it got picked up by the marvelous Mark Doten at Soho Press, I spent a year exclusively revising it. That was hard going, but it was so worth it.

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