Monday, August 04, 2014
As a Northampton city councilor from 2000 to 2006, Rita Bleiman served her adopted hometown, though at a cost. Years of measuring every word she spoke affected her writing, she says, and not for the better.
“You’re always conscious of everything you say, and that became a part of me,” she said. “I noticed that my writing was really flat — it had no energy, no humor.”
“Acts of Contrition,” Bleiman’s self-published second novel, comes with her years as an elected official behind her, time enough for whatever stilted prose had seeped into her writing to seep back out. It took a while, she said, for the spontaneity to return.
Set in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, “Acts of Contrition” is the tale of Gloria Warren — a smart, mouthy, young Capitol Hill aide with a sharp eye and a quick wit, whose adventures blend Washington shenanigans with the story of a former schoolmate of Warren’s who goes missing.
Bleiman and her protagonist share common ground. A Texas native, Bleiman, then a teenager, joined the jubilant throngs waving at the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, shortly before the shots were fired — just as Warren, at 16, does in the opening pages of “Acts of Contrition.” In 1968, Bleiman migrated to Washington and landed a job working for Sen. Walter Mondale’s office, a path Warren follows with a fictional senator.
“She’s been in places I’ve been, she’s very opinionated, she’s an outspoken bleeding heart, sort of obnoxious — and she has bad hair,” Bleiman said, when asked about their shared history. As for the hair, Warren, in her up-front style, tells the reader that the bane of her existence “was my thin, unmanageable hair. Originally it was the color of a grocery sack, but I’d been dyeing it for some time.”
“So naturally, people think she’s me,” Bleiman said. “But she’s more courageous than I am, she believes in her views enough to take people on, and she does amazing things to help a friend.”
Bleiman turned to fiction after writing 10 plays, the first of which she wrote as an Ada Comstock student at Smith College in the early ’80s.
“I wanted to see what those rejection letters looked like,” she answered without missing a beat when asked about her pivot from playwright to aspiring novelist. On a more reflective note, Bleiman said she liked the immediacy of creating theater, but that fiction offered the appealing latitude of going beyond the spoken word to develop descriptive scenes, characters and places.
Bleiman said she starts writing only when she knows what her story arc will be — subject to revision of course. “I like rewriting more than writing,” she said, and as part of that process, she’s a longtime member of a writers group that critiques each other’s work. “We’re very harsh on each other’s stuff,” she said. “We all want to be as good as we can be.”
At 68, Bleiman’s not sure she has another book in her. “I may have retired,” she said, though she hasn’t decided whether that’s because she’s really done or just weary of today’s grim political landscape. As someone who’s been motivated by the joy of politics, Bleiman says the current nastiness in Washington is too depressing to inspire another novel. But who knows? “I could say I’ll never write again and then wake up the next day with the idea for my next novel.”
— Suzanne Wilson