INTERVIEW / Slogs and transports: Amy Bloom illustrates human frailty. Anthony Quinn met a 'laureate of dysfunction'

The teeth of that old saw 'truth is stranger than fiction' show no sign of decay, and as a professional psychotherapist, Amy Bloom is better qualified than most to appreciate it. But on the evidence of Come to Me (Macmillan pounds 8.99), her first collection of short stories, she knows her way around fiction and all its strangeness too. Her writing traverses outlandish, not to say taboo, psychological territory - incest, insanity, paedophilia, transvestism - which a less sensitive talent might have betrayed to the claims of clunky moralising. Not her. Bloom, a 40-year-old mother of three from Durham, Connecticut, may be a novice in the fiction business, but she has found a voice with astonishing speed. Her stories, variations on familial distress, are compassionate, funny, unjudgemental and, to finish where we started, oddly truthful.

That truthfulness is not, she insists, in any way indebted to her clients' lives. 'Their lives belong to them,' she says, in her quiet, relaxed drawl. 'And in any case, whatever I did - even if I was still waitressing - I would be very interested in people. I spend a lot of time listening to them pouring their stories out or being the vessel into which they pour them. That would be true no matter what kind of work I did.' It is the manner, rather than the matter, of the confessional which Bloom has distilled into her stories. She is unnervingly good at dramatising the tortures of self-consciousness, of characters recognising their own dismal want of feeling or tolerance or generosity. She has an acute ear for what people can't, or won't, admit to themselves. In 'Faultlines', a pathetically insecure woman clings to her faltering marriage: 'Marie knew that she was a terribly and unfashionably jealous woman, and she also knew, without admitting it, that her jealousy made Henry curl up inside himself, like a mollusc avoiding a pin.' In 'Semper Fidelis', there's an even more desolate moment of self-realisation as a woman confronts a loveless marriage to a husband dying of cancer: 'I am performing without an audience, which is how it has been for some time. If you feel sorry for yourself, can it still be a tragedy? . . . It seems to me - and I would not be sorry to find out - that I have disappeared.'

In rummaging through the dark stuff of human desire Bloom conjures up some explosive sexual arrangements: a wife, her lover and her complaisant husband share the same bed for years; a widow and her teenage stepson, in mourning for the same man, fall for each other; a hairdresser turns out to be a transvestite seducer. Perhaps I've led a dull life, but isn't this kind of . . . racy? She smiles indulgently. 'I have to tell you, I don't think of them as very racy. The fact is, people's lives are pretty complicated and what I'm writing about isn't very unusual.'

Part of the book's appeal is the unsensational way in which Bloom handles this incendiary material: she is one of the least disapproving writers around. In 'Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines', an ignored and unloved child dresses up for an old man in the back of his shop. Far from being traumatised, she feels her own beauty emerge. 'I wasn't comfortable writing it,' Bloom admits, 'it was one of those I wrote with my eyes scrunched up. I didn't write it with any message in mind, but it's not uncommon to have relationships in which people come together out of mutual or mismatched needs - and if you're a kid you're even less qualified to judge what's a good idea.'

Children feature prominently in the stories, which prompts me to wonder what her own kids think of them. Her stepson, Alexander, and her two daughters, Caitlin and Sarah, are extravagantly thanked for their support at the back of the book, though their praise can be double-edged. 'My older daughter has read them, and liked most of them - I think - but she did say, 'Well, mom, I know you're weird and now everybody else does too.' I think of all the people in the world who would not find these stories surprising my family would be at the top of the list. My kids know I have a weird take on things.' So you won't mind being known as a kind of laureate of dysfunction? 'Yes, I most certainly would mind,' she laughs. Bloom's stories are far from being pessimistic, despite the emotional tumult she traces within her characters' lives.

Sometimes she has second thoughts about putting them through misery. 'You can take them this way and that. That little story 'The Song of Solomon', about the mother and her paediatrician, originally it was a much grimmer piece. It ended with the woman sitting in the waiting-room with her small baby, just waiting for him day after day while the nurses get more alarmed. It was a stalking story, rather than the nice instant romance. I could have taken them any place, but a voice inside me said, 'Give these people a break, let them have their moment.' '

In America, Come to Me sold some 25,000 copies, a remarkable figure given the superabundance of the short-story genre at present. Hardly a season goes by now without some new anthology of American stories overflowing the dumpbins. Bloom, a fiction addict from an early age, enjoys an eclectic range of short-story practitioners - from VS Pritchett to Alice Munro to John Edgar Wideman - but she made no conscious attempt to study it as a form. 'I really don't compare myself to anybody, for better or worse. I never read anybody and thought, 'Oh maybe I can do this' - it didn't occur to me. They were the writers and I was the reader. I didn't think of myself or describe myself as a writer, ever, until I signed a contract for the book. I was just putting stuff on paper.' Was that your own therapy? 'No, I don't think so. I prefer gardening. There is something very powerful and transporting about writing when it's going well. The rest of the time . . . it's just a miserable slog.'

(Photograph omitted)

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