James Bloom: “I knew this by authority long before I started, do not for a moment imagine that because the book you write is engaging and beautifully written that anyone will buy and read it”

I knew this by authority long before I started, do not for a moment imagine that because the book you write is engaging and beautifully written that anyone will buy and read it. The preponderance (though by no means all!) books that sell well are mediocre in their quality of composition and many are outright […]

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I knew this by authority long before I started, do not for a moment imagine that because the book you write is engaging and beautifully written that anyone will buy and read it. The preponderance (though by no means all!) books that sell well are mediocre in their quality of composition and many are outright crummy. Conversely, do not assume for a moment that because your book barely sells that it is no good (though of course, that may well be true!) Especially a writer of my type, whose aim is to salvage shards of those whom and that which he has experienced from vanishing utterly into the looming dark, writes for that alone.

I had the pleasure of interviewing James Bloom. For two dozen years James Bloom taught upper high school students English Literature, Philosophy and occasionally History at selective schools in half a dozen countries. When he could do it no more, he stood at his computer for half a year and wrote a memoir about the first two years of the decade he had spent traveling the world and working at all sorts of odd jobs before that. His wife, who wrote comic novels herself, was pleasantly surprised at how engaging and well-written the product of his labors turned out to be and helped him to get it published…Voila.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up rather privileged on the Upper East Side of Manhattan during the 60s and 70s. I was saved from becoming a corporate lawyer, or a specialist doctor, or a senior executive of some kind by my father’s early mainframe data-sharing business going bust when I was 4 and his becoming a fringe member counter-culture and nascent animal rights movement for approximately a decade. This gave me a double life as a kid, which afforded me the opportunity to look at upper middle-class American life from afar and askance every other weekend, as well as during alternate school vacations, and hence to see through it and turn my back on it with an Etrurian statuary smile.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Although the title of the interview series for which I am ostensibly answering these questions is “Five Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Becoming an Artist”, I do not consider myself an artist. Moreover, I consider that the vast majority of people who do consider themselves artists are deluding themselves in a manner likely to be deleterious to both their spiritual and material well-being. Instead, I would say that I am a former English teacher, whom many students found inspirational. I know this because every once in a while one of them, now in their forties, thirties or late twenties, will write to me out of the blue and graciously tell me so. When I left my profession after nearly a quarter-century because I felt tired out and was losing my vocation, I thought I ought to do what many of those students, along with my own children, had long asked me to do, namely to write down some of the adventurous, often humorous stories of my youth before I ever became a teacher, which I would sometimes tell them on weary days when it was hard to make headway. It was mainly owing to these longstanding exhortations that I used my newfound free time once I was liberated from earning my crusts to write In Search of the Blue Duck: A Memoir of Rough Travel and Young Love in Australasia and Indonesia, 1985–86.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I live in Andalusia, in Xerez where sherry wine comes from. This July, to escape the southern Spanish summer heat, my wife and I went traveling in Galicia in the cool, rainy, green northwest of the country. One afternoon, we were sitting at an outside table on the harbor of a large town where few foreign tourists venture. Our two friendly little dogs were with us and a couple of hippyish girls from a nearby table, whom we had been surprised to overhear speaking English, came over and asked to pet them.

Being former high school teachers, my wife and I soon got chatting with these girls, who had just graduated and were traveling in Spain before going off to college, a step into quasi-adult life about which both admitted to feeling, not a little trepidation, along with eager anticipation as many young people do. My wife told them not to worry and that a large part of her newly released humorous memoir, A Young Lady’s Miscellany, was about her own misadventures at university in England thirty years earlier.

The chattier of the two girls casually asked us whether we had any advice for them about this next chapter in their lives and I said that in the dim light of my own distant experience, it seemed important to stay open to everyone and avoid falling into cliquishness. She then asked me to elaborate with an example, which I did by explaining how, when I had arrived at university, I’d had the incredible luck to make an impression on a cheerful, talented and very cute girl from a public school out west who did me the honor (though I didn’t see that then) of getting intimately involved with me.

Meanwhile, though I was falling in with a group of black-clad students from backgrounds much more similar to my own who shared my more-sophisticated-than-thou pretensions, and who cast a cold eye upon my bright and breezy new girlfriend, as a result of which I soon pusillanimously blew her off in a callous manner that she rightly found quite hurtful. I had never seen fit to apologize for my crappy conduct and when I thought of it occasionally over the decades, the way I’d acted and the contemptible attitude behind it inevitably made me cringe.

I could see upon closing this homily that I’d made the desired impression on my young audience of two. The looks on their faces showed that they were suitably unimpressed by how I had behaved and wished never to do anything like what I had just related, or to have it done unto them.

After a moment, the one who had elicited the unhumorous anecdote asked me, “Where did you go to college anyway?”

I duly answered and she exclaimed, “Wow, weird my mom went there!”

“Huh, did she, maybe I knew her,” I said, “What years was she there?”

“Oh, I doubt it,” the kid answered, “You look a few years older than her.”

“I look a few years older than I am,” I replied, “I was in the Class of ‘85.”

“Holy crap, that’s when my mom graduated!” she laughed.

“What’s her name?” I checked…But actually, I didn’t need to. I had, during the preceding dialogue, registered the resemblance in the pert facial features as much as in the bubbly manner that went with them. I had just been given the uncanny opportunity to apologize unwittingly to a daughter for the shabby way I had treated her mother on another continent thirty-five years earlier. Strange are the coincidences that occur, not only in movies and novels but in real life.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

In Search of the Blue Duck takes place during the years I was 22 and 23. I’ve recently started writing the next volume, which is about the following years, 1987–9, when, among other things, I worked as an English chat host in Osaka, was briefly thrown in jail in Seoul, lived in a squat and worked as a messenger in London, served as a water bailiff and falcon cadger in the Western Isles of Scotland, followed my girlfriend to Trinity College Dublin, where I talked my way into becoming a grad student of Anglo-Irish Literature while supporting myself as an erstwhile business journalist…and so on.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

The most interesting people I’ve encountered were those who were most radically different from me. Owing to my travels, these were tribal people who were still, with a few adjustments, leading a neolithic lifestyle. I relate a few of these encounters in In Search of the Blue Duck. They are too lengthy to retell here in a way that would be meaningful. What matters is that interacting with such different people, we can be unsettled into a heightened awareness of ourselves, and of the oddity to others of what is, to us, the ‘normal’ way in which we exist. The odious yet astute 20th century German (and Nazi) philosopher, Martin Heidegger, referred to this as ‘Da Sein’ or ‘Being There’, which also happens to be the title of an excellent film by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers that deals with this, as well as with the opposite topic of the decline of American democracy back into oligarchy.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

Since my writing is an attempt at the artful narration of episodes from my early life alongside descriptions of what I experienced then, this question is somewhat moot. If not exactly inspiration, I draw a sense of urgency from the fact that when he was 20 years older than I am now, my father was dying of cancer, while my mother had already been effectively erased by dementia. Assuming I am fortunate enough to live to be roughly as old as my parents, I am in the bottom half of the sixth inning of my life. Unless I write the significant events in that life down soon, as Rutger Hauer playing the dying replicant Roy Batty, reminds Harrison Ford as Deckert in Blade Runner, “all those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The whole time I was a teacher, nearly a quarter of a century, I selected and approached texts with a view towards impelling students, as we worked to sharpen their reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills, to reflect also upon being good, or better people. I always used to begin my course by having them do a close analysis, followed group reading performances of The Knight, Death and the Devil by the great, now highly unfashionable, mid-20th century American poet, Randall Jarrell. This poem is what’s known as an ekphrasis, which means that it is written to lend the poet’s voice to a mute work of visual art, in this case, a powerful woodcut print of the same title made by Albrecht Durer some half a Millenium ago. The final stanza of this poem runs as follows:

The death of his own flesh, set up outside him;
 The flesh of his own soul, set up outside him — 
 Death and the devil, what are these to him?
 His being accuses him — and yet his face is firm
 In resolution, in absolute persistence;
 The folds of smiling do for steadiness;
 The face is its own fate — a man does what he must — 
 And the body underneath it says: I am.

Which is an apothegmatic condensation of the stoic/existentialist attitude to existence I was striving to encourage in my adolescent charges.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

If this question is about when I first started out as a writer, then I am not truly in a position to answer it because I am only just starting out now. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things other writers told me, and which I had told to hundreds of students during my years of teaching them to be better writers. One is not to wait for inspiration or for the compositional mood to be upon you. I finally wrote a book when, for six months straight, I stood at my standing desk and willed myself to write for several hours every day, unless I was unequivocally expected to go to some appointment or other.

Likewise, with each section of each chapter, I reviewed and rewrote/edited to improve the clarity of expression in order to bring across impressions and emotions more vividly, just as I had, for years, compelled students to rewrite their work and helped them to do so when they could not see the way ahead for themselves. This was true for me too. Sometimes my own editing of my work just wasn’t quite doing the job and I was lucky to have my wife, a former English teacher and a writer herself, for whom I had served as editor to help me.

Similarly, it was crucial for both of us to run our finished manuscripts by third parties to test their opinion. These third parties are of three kinds evocative of the story of The Three Bears. There are test readers who are too passive. They can only tell you that they liked or disliked the book or this or that section or aspect of it. Then there are those who would make your book their book and make all sorts of suggestions for major changes that would render the book radically different, but likely no better and possibly worse as there would essentially be two different notions of the book in play. Then there is the reader who is just right, who can see where something is worth expanding, while something else warrants trimming back.

In addition, a fourth party is unquestionably required once all the editing for content, style and tone are done; this is the copy-editor/proof-reader, a super focused and finicky type who will fuss over things like all the centuries, decades, dates and times of day being rendered in a consistent manner, who will notice if, by writing using different word processing software, you have got straight speech marks and apostrophes in some spots and curvy ones in others, and who catches it if a parenthetical em-dash is only an n-dash or, heaven forbid, two hyphens, or crucially there is a typo or misspelled word that you’ve missed as you’ve read the damned thing so many times, but would balk at in any other book you might read.

Lastly, and I knew this by authority long before I started, do not for a moment imagine that because the book you write is engaging and beautifully written that anyone will buy and read it. The preponderance (though by no means all!) books that sell well are mediocre in their quality of composition and many are outright crummy. Conversely, do not assume for a moment that because your book barely sells that it is no good (though of course, that may well be true!) Especially a writer of my type, whose aim is to salvage shards of those whom and that which he has experienced from vanishing utterly into the looming dark, writes for that alone.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ah, now the question for which this publication is famous. Before I answer it, I would like to question it, if I may. First, I am not a person of great influence, nor do I aspire to be, and (usually) neither does anyone who really and truly deserves to be. Secondly, there is an assumption made here, typical of our culture, that founding some new movement is the most likely road to finding a solution to an intractable problem. Occasionally it may be but it usually isn’t.

I’ll address America with respect to this because that’s where most of Authority’s readers are. There are more than enough movements in the United States dedicated to trying to bring a greater amount of good to a greater number of people. And that is exactly how a quite small number of people dedicated to retaining more good or goods than they know what to do with for themselves want it to be. Bear with me and I’ll explain with a comparison…

In his book about the Spanish Civil War, in which he fought bravely on the Republican side and nearly died, George Orwell offers a definitive explanation of why the Francoists won. It was because, in line with their symbol, the Roman ‘fasces’ or bundle of arrows that separately will easily snap but bound together are unbreakable, everyone on the fascist right was firmly united by a singular interest in preserving the status quo of gaining or retaining power in the conservative catholic hierarchical authoritarian society that was Spain. On the Republican side, however, there was a whole spectrum of parties and individuals all committed to social reform and amelioration, which is to say realizing a greater good for a greater number, but all these parties had widely differing ideas about how this should be done and were all at odds with one another in disparate, hence enfeebled, alliances.

Politics in contemporary America are much like this. For example, there are about a dozen major environmental protection and preservation charities active in the U.S. and a legion of smaller ones. As such, the influence of these groups is diffracted and the funds they manage to raise dispersed. By contrast, the fossil fuel industry is united behind the American Petroleum Institute, its main lobbying organization in Washington. The same holds true for the NRA as opposed to the multitude of groups seeking gun reform…or for the health insurance industry versus the panoply of interests seeking health care reform…and on and on with virtually every just and right cause.

However, we must home in on the issue that underlies all the others. It is now overwhelmingly well evidenced that once people have enough cash to meet their needs and wants and to be able to also enjoy a spot of quality leisure, their happiness no longer increases to any meaningful degree with any further increase in their wealth. Conversely, we also know from merely looking into the world all around us, or rather the society we have built, that poverty and financial insecurity consistently make for extreme anxiety and frequent misery.

Those Americans who have a great deal already know perfectly well in theory that they should act upon the realization of King Lear after he converses with Edgar disguised as Poor Mad Tom in the hovel on the heath in the howling storm: “O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just.” Yet when it comes to supporting policies and politicians who espouse this, the majority (though by no means all!) suddenly resist this tooth and claw.

There is a famous viral video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM&t=324s) based upon incontrovertible publicly available stats., which illustrates graphically in a cooly rational, thoroughly evidenced, non-partisan manner that the wealthiest 1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s wealth and above 50% of its stocks, bonds and funds, while the 80% of non-wealthy Americans, which is to say both the middle class and working poor, own a mere 7% of the nation’s wealth and effectively no financial instruments because they have either minimal savings or substantially more than minimal debts.

The video likewise points out that in one survey after another, over 90% of Americans agree, in theory, that an ideal distribution of wealth curve in their country would be less sudden and steep. Yet when in practice, the great majority of 3 million wealthiest Americans, which is to say the VCs and CEOs who allegedly read this magazine, are obstinately opposed to substantially raising either wages for working people or taxes on their own high incomes and capital gains, to be used in order to address this and the inequality of opportunity it creates through almost insurmountable differences in access to education, medical care, housing and nutrition.

Yet, it has been found time and again that when people’s knowledge of something moves from second to first hand, from being an authority to experience-based, they are far more likely to change their minds about it, which leads my to my Swiftian modern day modest proposal: My initiative would focus upon helping the wealthiest Americans to do change their minds about the matter to hand. It would be called “The 5% Solution” and would involve sending individuals from the wealthiest 5% of the U.S. population to live for quite some time like individuals from the poorest 5%. No doubt, very few of them — or should I perhaps say very few of you — would volunteer to do this and, unfortunately, a considerable cost would no doubt have to be incurred hiring well trained, persuasive and forceful personnel to ‘recruit’ subjects into the program and to keep them there.

Happily, however, this cost could be easily offset, by turning the initiative into a reality television show. Surely, the chance to watch, say, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, working two jobs each in, for example, fast food and fruit picking, while struggling to pay for the medical care this would be sure to leave them needing would be a hit and a veritable wellspring of advertising revenue. Of course, the program would need to avoid partisanship at all cost, so the audience would need to have the opportunity to also witness, say, Hilly and Billy Clinton, living the clapped-out RV dream while working in an Amazon warehouse, while Mr. Amazon himself, Jeff Bezos, might be paired up with Elon Musk and sent for a many month-long stints of delivering packages or take-out meals, paid by the delivery. A special twist could be that the initiative could resemble rehab in that participants would have to stay in the program and keep on comin’ back until they changed their attitude and supported an erstwhile socialist progressive economic agenda that is, in fact, hardly different from a 1956 Eisenhower Republican one.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

I can’t help but wonder about the wording of the question above; if it truly is “a blessing” that affluent people of influence read this publication, then exactly which deity is responsible for that benison? Mammon…Dagon…Ba’al? Traditionally, these were gods whom one entreated for wealth and power and who stood for those who possessed them. On the other hand, if we’re talking about the god of monotheism, the diction above implies a take on him that is strongly associated with both 17th-century American puritanism and 20th-21st century American pentecostalism that ain’t too pretty in either its ethics or ontology…This said, for me personally, there is no longer anyone I’d like to sit down to a private breakfast with, except for maybe the novelist, Cormac McCarthy, who’d have no interest in dining with me. However, I would relish a chance to sit down with one of the producers who buy short series scripts for Netflix, Prime, or maybe Disney in order to pitch my wife’s first comic novel to them.

It made the number one slot on Amazon in humorous fiction for a couple of weeks in 2017 and is a composite novel of interconnected short stories that mainly charts the 40-year friendship, from the mid-70s to seven years ago, between two teachers at a provincial English private boarding school. The younger of the pair is chronically reserved and bumbling, while the older one, who takes him under his wing, is incorrigibly impetuous and a Casanova. Each story would make such a funny episode and the humor is in a P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh vein that I think would appeal to Americans as much as to British and Commonwealth audiences. I’ve found it such a shame that the book hasn’t been picked up by someone in the t.v. biz, despite my wife’s efforts since it came out four years ago and I wish I could help to change that.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Under duress, I have a writer’s website, jamesbloom.org, which also has several swell collages I made recently and some nice black and white photography of New York I did as a teenager. However, I feel like one of the most important messages I can hope to communicate in this interview is: I don’t want anyone to follow anyone else on social media. It’s a silly thing to do and a waste of the limited time available to you before you die, which will likely happen sooner than you think. I don’t recommend becoming someone else’s follower in real life either. Most people who’d like you to follow them will have their best interests in mind, not yours.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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