News and information for Wednesday, November 02, 2005
'Dirty Tricks', A Northampton city councilor is inspired by Texas politics
BY SUZANNE WILSON STAFF WRITER
Rita Bleiman, shown here in her study, in her Northampton home, has written a novel about Texas politics that draws on her memories of growing up in Dallas.
RITA Bleiman's recently released novel, 'Dirty Tricks,' is about politics and growing up in Texas in the 1960s. It's also about love and sex. It comes as no surprise that Bleiman would write about politics. She's a native of the Lone Star State, a current member of Northampton's City Council, a former School Committee member, and a staunch Democrat who worked on Capitol Hill in the 1970s.
It's the part about love and sex that has been keeping her email in box full.
'It's been sort of startling to me that that's where the focus of the book has gone,' she said. 'I always thought of this as a political book.'
To which some of her friends, she says, have responded: 'Are you kidding?'
Bleiman is, her friends say, witty, smart and good company.
You can ask her about almost anything in the news, says Robert Bissell, a longtime friend in Northampton, and chances are that she'll have something interesting to say.
She's funny and opinionated, absolutely, says Corinne Philippides, an aide to Mayor Clare Higgins - but never overbearing.
'I'm surprised at her modesty,' Philippides said. 'And I find it refreshing.'
Bleiman, 59, is best known in this area for her 10 plays, many of which have been locally produced. Her first-person essays have appeared in the Gazette, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Newsweek.
'Dirty Tricks,' her first published novel, is the story of Gloria Warren, an intelligent, funny and conniving young woman in Dallas, Texas, who becomes obsessed with Democratic Party politics.
After dropping out of junior college, Gloria gets a humdrum job in an insurance company. Her true passion, though, is the state's Young Democrats group, and its cast of hilariously sleazy but occasionally charming local pols. She lives in a 'swinging singles' apartment complex with Veronica Lloyd, a childhood friend and a former Miss Dallas, who's everything Gloria is not - namely, beautiful and a hit with men.
Gloria's life gets complicated when she falls in love and lust with Vic Davis, a handsome, ambitious state senator, who also happens to be married.
'It was hard to say which one of us was slimier,' writes Bleiman, as Gloria, the narrator.
Gloria also gets involved with Ian Feldman, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who seeks her out when one of the political capers she's involved with makes news.
Reader/reviewers on amazon.com have described Bleiman's book as a cross between chick-lit entertainment, such as Helen Fielding's 'Bridget Jones's Diary,' and Texas writer Molly Ivins' caustic commentary. The result is a chronicle of Texas politics and a young woman's saga of finding her political and personal bearings.
Gloria's fictional adventures took shape over a period of about 18 months in the study of the home Bleiman shares with her husband, Bruce Bleiman, a Northampton ophthalmologist.
It seems fitting that a Democrat with a keen sense of humor would wind up living where the couple lives - in the Beeches, the elegant Northampton home where President Calvin Coolidge lived in his post-White House years. He died there in 1933.
As she sat in her living room the other day, Bleiman spoke of Gloria with a mix of admiration and affection.
'I like that she's funny,' she said. 'I like that she has a certain strength. She's not sophisticated enough to know how to use that strength, so she screws up all the time, but deep down she's a compassionate person.'
Like Gloria, Bleiman grew up in Dallas, and saw JFK's motorcade on that November day. Her parents were working-class Democrats, she says; her father worked in construction. And like Gloria, Bleiman says, she always felt a bit like an outsider in a state where conservatives dominated the political scene and beauty queens reigned supreme.
Bleiman, too, got involved in the small, close-knit world of the liberal Democrats, a world populated by characters whose oversize personalities became fodder for her fictional creations.
In 1968, Bleiman left Texas with $300 to her name and went to Washington. She was hired by Sen. Walter Mondale, a liberal Democratic senator from Minnesota. After doing administrative work on his staff, she landed a job in the Carter administration's Office of Drug Abuse Policy, after Mondale became vice president.
In search of a New England community in which to permanently settle and raise their two children, Bleiman and her husband came to Northampton in 1979.
A critic strikes a chord
Bleiman began writing at Smith College, where she studied in the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for older and nontraditional students. In 1983, the year before she graduated, she won the Denis Johnston Playwriting Award for the best work by an area college student.
In some way, says Bleiman, she had always known that she had the voice of a storyteller. It was at Smith, she says, 'that I learned that that voice had merit.'
Bleiman first created Gloria Warren, and her two women friends, in a 1985 play, 'Broken Roses.' In the mid-'90s, she decided to expand the play into a novel of broader scope.
The transition, however, wasn't easy.
The playwright focuses on the spoken word, she points out, and has to figure out how to let the audience know what the characters already know. The novelist has more latitude in ways, but, to be successful, has to set scenes, and describe people and places.
Struggling with that process, Bleiman audited a writing workshop at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst taught by George Cuomo of the master of fine arts program.
Cuomo assigned one of her chapters to the class, and cut right to the chase: 'I can't imagine anyone reading two pages of this,' he told Bleiman, 'much less 200.'
Though Bleiman laughs about it now, she was floored. 'I almost died. All those little workshops we have in town - nobody can say anything negative! But I have to say, I learned more from that man than from anybody else, and I think it was because he so knocked me down. After that class, my mind was just racing about how to alter what I was doing.'
Some like it hot
Bleiman says that she still finds writing some description much harder than dialogue. But other kinds come more easily to her.
She hadn't planned, she said, to include any sex scenes in the book, until a fellow workshop student pointed out that Gloria was a very frank young woman. It didn't ring true, he argued, that her love life would be glossed over.
Asked if writing the steamy scenes was difficult, Bleiman had a quick answer.
'No,' she said, deadpan. Then, 'it's not as hard as describing a room.'
Bleiman finished 'Dirty Tricks' shortly before her election to the Northampton City Council in 2000. For the next several years, she worked with a literary agent in New York who tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to sell the book to a major publishing house. Editors liked it, Bleiman was told, but did not think they could market it. The reasons varied, Bleiman says, from the uncertainty of selling a humorous book post-9/11 to questions about the appeal of a book about Texas politics to doubts about whether a book set in the 1960s would speak to contemporary young women.
She eventually turned to Publish America, a Maryland company that essentially leaves marketing efforts to its authors. On Nov. 19, Bleiman will be on a panel at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley about writing novels; she will also talk about the book at an event Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Forbes Library in Northampton. 'Dirty Tricks' is available locally at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Amherst Books and the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.
Bleiman is currently back in her study, working on a sequel to 'Dirty Tricks,' a novel set seven years later about Gloria Warren's life in Washington.
At home in New England
Though Bleiman has lived in Northampton for 26 years, she still considers Texas an undeniable part of her heritage.
'It certainly influenced me a great deal,' she said. 'I think my personality is still more Texas than New England.'
Heritage is not the same as home, however, and Bleiman says Northampton is very much home.
'From the day we moved here, I felt that way,' she said.
On vacations and travels over the years, the Bleimans always kept an eye out for places they might want to retire to. But at some point, she said, they stopped looking for that.
'There's no place better than here.'
Suzanne Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.