RITA BLEIMAN
Interview by Damien Echols

Damien Echols: What is the New England writing community like?

 

Rita Bleiman: Saying youíre a writer from Northampton, Massachusetts is like saying youíre a resident.

 

DE: How would you describe your writing?

 

RB: I write mostly satire which is often irreverent, dark, and political (though sometimes the ďpoliticsĒ are covert). My characters tend to be gray: no one is all good or all bad. Everyone is flawed.

 

DE: How often do you write?

 

RB: When I work on a project I do not necessarily write every day. Some days I might write for six or eight hours. Other times inspiration hits me at 3:00 AM, and Iíll get up and write for hours before I go back to bed. Often, days go by when I donít write at all. But I think about my project all the time. When Iím in public, Iím always on the alert for interesting physical traits, unusual verbs, or quirky speech patterns. When Iím alone, I might sit in one place for hours and think.

 

DE: When did you start writing?

 

RB: I grew up in Texas and spent my elementary years in a series of authoritarian schools in working-class neighborhoods, where often it seemed as if the teachers had an aversion to children. On top of that, my father was the foreman of a construction company that took jobs all over the state. In order to keep the family intact, we lived in a mobile home and moved whenever necessary. Often these relocations took place in the middle of the school year and I would enter a class as it was completing the section on, say, fractions, while the school Iíd just left might not have even started that yet. The only thing consistent about these schools was that the primary pedagogical philosophy was ďeducation by humiliationĒ. To be honest, I was not a particularly good student. I had the nagging suspicion that my classmates had read something I hadnít, which was certainly true if any of them had ever opened one of the textbooks. By the fifth grade I was getting byóbarelyóon sheer imagination. I had been told so often that I was stupid, lazy, and bad that I accepted those labels and planned my life accordingly. I looked at it this way: I was short and dumb, so when the time came, I would have an enormous dating pool. In my mid-twenties, when I was working in D.C., I started taking college courses. My job was very demanding, with hours and hours of overtimeÖ and then there was my social life. I often could not keep up with my assignments. On several occasions I received As on tests where I hadnít even read the material. My husband used to joke that I did better academically when I didnít know what I was talking about. It was then that I realized I was a bullshit artist. We all know thatís very important for a writer. Much later in life I enrolled in the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College. This is a program specifically for women over twenty-two, who did not finish their undergraduate education. An annual event at Smith is a fundraising program called the Rally Day Show, in which each class performs a thirty-minute musical parody about campus life. As a kid I loved musicals and owned all the albums from shows so obscure that most people never even heard of them. So, I was up for the Rally Day Show. I went to the first Ada meeting hoping to get a spot in the chorus, but when no one surfaced to write or produce it, the class was on the verge of opting out altogether. In a moment of insanity, I volunteered. Iíd never attempted creative writing in my life (and frankly, I was terrified about what Iíd promised) but I knew I could be funny and I knew the words to every song in every musical ever written. Once I figured out the rules of parody (change as few words as possible) all I had to do then was string the songs together with some one-liners. We had a show. It wasnít great, but it worked. I was so electrified by this dinky accomplishment that I signed up for playwriting the next semester. I had no interest in writing real plays; I just wanted to write a better Rally Day Show. The next show was much better. Of course, there were requirements in the playwriting class and I could hardly submit the Rally Day Show for credit, so at the same time I wrote a short play about my fatherís death. I assumed the competition was lacking when it won the Five College Denis Johnston Playwriting Award. Spurred on more by my interest in Rally Day than in legitimate theater, I signed up for another playwriting course. Again, our show was better. Again, my play won the Denis Johnston contest. I was hooked. I wrote plays, songs, op eds, humorous pieces, and a couple of poems before I moved to novels.

 

DE: Who are your influences, both in literature and life in general?

 

RB: Mark Twain is my biggest literary influence. As a teenager I read everything of his I could get my hands on. Some of his stuff is quite dark, but itís always ironic and humorous. In the Sixties, his book Letters From The Earth was very popular. In it a group of angels marvel at how the human vision of Heaven is everything man hates on Earth: praying all day, no sex, no intellectual pursuits, boredom, just sitting around on clouds all day, the requirement to learn how to play a musical instrument (mostly harps), and a complete lack of prejudice or discrimination! His views on religion, race, war, and patriotism were way ahead of his times. Kurt Vonnegut is another writer/social critic who influenced me. My parents probably influenced my life the most. They were working class, uneducated people, for whom life was sometimes challenging. Though hardly affluent, they provided a loving, supportive, tension-free environment. They were also two of the wittiest people Iíve ever met, and I learned from them that humor is both a humanitarian trait and a homeopathic cure. They bragged to their friends about any puny accomplishment I had, and in those days it took a lot of digging and imagination to find any.

 

DE: What was the drive force behind your writing, your muse, or what youíre trying to express?

 

RB: I just like to entertain people.

 

DE: Some people think of writers as storytellers, others as mystics as explorers of the consciousness, and some look at writers as societyís mirror. What do you believe the role of the writer to be?

 

RB: Above all else, donít bore the reader.

 

DE: Who do you believe is doing something worthwhile or innovative in literature today?

 

RB: I canít answer that.

 

DE: Your first book, Dirty Tricks, is a novel that comes about in part due to your experiences in the political scene. Could you describe yoru political career and what it was that gave you the idea for the novel?

 

RB: As with many from my generation, [John Fitzgerald] Kennedy activated what would turn out to be a life-long interest in politics. When he ran for president, I was a freshman at a high school which was across town from where we lived. I had to take two city buses to get there. I would hop on the bus and race to the back seat where I would hold Kennedy/Johnson bumperstickers up to the window and try to elicit thumbs-up or thumbs-down signs from the commuters. This was Dallas, and often I got a completely unexpected gesture instead. I was a couple of blocks away from the School Book Depository the day Kennedy was killed. I had just watched his motorcade pass by. After that I became obsessed with politics. But unlike my more radical counterparts, I aligned myself with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, joining almost every grass roots organization I could find. By my senior year in high school I was so involved in local political organizations that my closest friends were all over thirty. Eventually, since I didnít really fit in in Texas (bad hair, smart mouth, liberal politics) I moved to Washington, D.C. My goal was to one day work for the president of the United States. With that in mind, I hit Capitol Hill with a list of six senators Iíd agree to work for. I was not going to waste my time with someone who, unlike myself, didnít have a prayer of making it to the White House. Though it took me several months, I did eventually land a job with Senator Walter F. Mondale, and followed him to the Executive Office Building when he became vice president. Since moving to Northampton, Massachusetts, I have a served as an elected member of the school committee and served six years as a city counselor. I chose not to seek re-election this past January. I am a very political person, so most everything I write has some political aspect to it. Dirty Tricks draws heavily from my own life, though my characters and plots are completely made up.

 

DE: There are some very erotic scenes in Dirty Tricks that also manage to evoke the memory of being young and inexperienced in a good way. They manage to hold the attention of even the jaded. Did you realize while writing that readers would find the scenes sexy, or did you intend to remind them more of youthful fumbling?

 

RB: I wrote most of Dirty Tricks in an MFA workshop at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I had not planned to have graphic sex in the book at all, even though it was about a young woman and her first, intense affair. Originally, the seduction chapter ended with her entering a hotel room with the state senator, and the next one began the following morning when she was worried that sheíd made a mistake. When the workshop group discussed this, one guy said, ďI donít believe this. You have a narrator who tells us everything, and yet when the most important thing in her life happens, she skips over it.Ē Of course, he was right. So I rewrote the scenes with explicit detail. Then I sort of forgot about it. When Dirty Tricks came out, people were shocked, particularly my colleagues on the city council. I was amazed that they were shocked.

 

DE: When I write, I find that I canít think about what Iím going to write beforehand or it comes out stilted and artificial. What is your writing ritual? Do you have things mapped out before you begin writing, or do you just sort of go with the flow?

 

RB: Iím just the opposite. Because my background is playwriting, I tend to write in scenes. I donít outline the story, but when I finish a section or a scene, I obsess about what the next one will be. I work and rework it in my head until I have a pretty good idea of what I want. Then I write it.

 

DE: Youíre currently working on a new novel. Can you tell us about it and perhaps an estimated publishing date? What else is on the horizon for you?

 

RB: The Books Are In takes place in D.C. in the mid-Seventies. Gloria Warren is a secretary for a senate committee and something of a workaholic. While attending a gallery opening, she realizes that one of the artistsóClaudia Hoganówas a classmate of hers in the fifth grade. Something terrible happened to Claudia back then, and Gloria feels she was partially responsible for it. Though she hasnít thought of her in years, she is so overcome with guilt when she spots her that she leaves the opening abruptly. When Gloria finally gathers enough courage to have a face-to-face meeting with her, Claudia has vanished. Though there is no evidence that anything bad has happenedóin fact, the evidence seems to imply she simply leftóGloria is convinced something is wrong and she sets out to solve the mystery as a way to redeem herself of the incident in the fifth grade. I will probably finish the book by the end of the year, and then start the long and frustrating process of finding a publisher.

 

DE: When you need magick and beauty, where do you find it?

 

RB: My house has a second-floor screened-in porch, which overlooks a large meadow, and abuts a nature preserve. The views year-round are spectacular. When it snows, or when we have an ice storm, the meadows resemble a fairyland. In the spring, as things begin to come to life, the landscape changes daily. For a week or so in the summer, the lightning bugs come out, and the meadow looks as if it has a million twinkling lights. And in the fallówell, thereís nothing like New England in the fall. Also, sitting on my porch I can watch a mother bear and her three cubs, a beautiful red fox and her five puppies, deer, raccoons, and even an occasional bobcat.

 

DE: Itís an ancient tradition to end every TLC interview with a question, which has caused furious debates among its readers. The question is, do dogs have lips?

 

RB: Of course they do. How else could they keep those cigars in their mouths while they play poker?