Paula Bomer's debut, Baby, is a collection of 10 ferocious stories about the pressures on married couples as they raise families.
Where do the stories come from?
There's a lot of social pressure on people to bask in the glory of parenthood, but it's not really glorious: we're not allowed to talk about how hard it is. Parenting is the death of marriage, the death of two people, and the transition to being four or five. I spent a lot of time on the playgrounds when my kids were small; as a Midwesterner I've always felt a little like an outside observer, though I've lived in Brooklyn 20 years, and I've also felt that New York parenting was so different from my childhood, growing up in South Bend, Ind.
In New York, people express their social ambition through their family. To me, that's a corruption. I feel somewhat critical of just wanting the good life; that's not going to bring you joy. The one PTA meeting I attended was frightening: the people were so cruel. I find petty unkindness more powerful than people want to acknowledge, and it amazes me on a daily basis how people treat one another. Perhaps people feel it's not significant.
Who are some of your literary models?
I think Mary Gaitskill has a tremendously brave way of facing her subject matter. Discovering Bad Behavior as a young woman was pivotal to me. After reading it, I thought, "This is what I want to do. I want to write." I had been writing before that, but only after that book did I really know. Another contemporary writer I think is brave and brilliant is Alicia Erian, whose collection, The Brutal Language of Love, thrilled me. I thought, if she can get a book deal writing this uncomfortable, honest stuff, maybe I can some day.
Most of these stories have appeared in literary journals or magazines. Was it difficult to find these venues?
I wrote these stories mostly eight years ago. I've worked with agents and I was in contract with another small publisher that went under. Now my kids are teenagers. I'm 42 years old. I look at the book and feel a little estranged from it. Obviously, my writer friends are very excited for me. Other people are offended. One fiction editor rejected my story "Baby" because he thought I was a bad mother. I wrote a nasty satire called "Nine Months" that offended one editor. At the time I cried, but it's supposed to be mean. We are not what we write. If you're not being brave as a writer, it's hard to care.
One of your character wonders if his wife has any "genuine feelings of the positive variety." Why are your characters so mean?
One woman I know—a wonderful mother of three kids—once said to me, "Every time I have another child, a part of me dies." I thought that was beautiful and honest. My characters can be horrible, but I try to show their humanity. I feel sympathy toward these characters. They're taking care of small children and not taking care of each other. This book is as much about marriage; I wanted to call it Bad Marriage. I took out a bunch of things. I wanted to make it tight... and relentless.