February 14, 2017
Teaching fuels Bloomfield's novel instincts
By Karen Sandstrom
Novelist and CIA faculty member Shelley Costa Bloomfield has a working theory about why art-school students tend to be kind. In some ways, she thinks, they’ve had to grow up more quickly than their peers.
“You have kids at universities who leave there still not knowing, regardless of their major, what they want to do. You have kids in their thirties still experimenting, going from job to job,” Bloomfield says.
But at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she teaches fiction writing as part of the Liberal Arts faculty, she finds a different sort of student.
“They have a level of maturity, because since high school, they have had to make a major life decision that isn’t for everybody, and that is to choose to go to a school of art and design,” Bloomfield says. “I’ve taught at John Carroll, I’ve taught at Case, I’ve taught at CSU. Nobody works as hard as CIA students, because of what it means to be a studio artist.
“And they learned from an early age what it’s like to be different,” Bloomfield adds. “It goes very deep. And so — they’re nice.”
Chalk that up as one of the benefits that Bloomfield finds in combining teaching with her writing career. Another is that when she’s imparting lessons about narrative arc and tension and using dialogue to create character, she’s also setting those tools at the ready for her own work. “It’s all in the hopper,” she says. “I write well when I teach.”
For Bloomfield, writing well right now means mastering the mystery. In November, Henery Press published “A Killer’s Guide to Good Works,” her fourth novel and the second book in her series about an amateur sleuth whose real job is as a book editor at a New York publishing firm. Bloomfield (who uses her maiden name, Costa, for her novels) introduced Val Cameron in “Practical Sins for Cold Climates.” In it, Val travels to Canada to sign a best-selling novelist to a new contract; in the process, she stumbles on a mystery.
“A Killer’s Guide” brings Val back to New York, but now murder strikes close to home, when her best friend, an art curator, is killed. “I have a real love for New York City,” Bloomfield says. “This was my New York book.”
Bloomfield earned degrees in English and sociology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, became an editor at a New York publishing company, then earned her PhD in English from Case Western Reserve University.
“Toward the end of grad school, mysteries were my salvation while I was working on my dissertation, which was on 19th Century American literature,” Bloomfield says. “I got ferociously into reading mysteries, and discovered that there’s a lot of really good writing there. So I went through the Golden Age and loved it. I could tell I was being pulled in that direction, and I knew toward the end of grad school that I didn’t want to write scholarship. I wanted to write mysteries.”
Bloomfield knows that critics often dismiss mysteries as mere “genre fiction,” but she doesn’t believe in the broad brush.
“Having a background in literature has made me very particular,” she says. “I’m not easily satisfied, and I’m not easily seduced by just anything on the shelf. I feel like the whole academic side taught me some literary history and exposed me to very good work. I expect a lot from a mystery writer. And they’re out there.”
Bloomfield distinguishes between “murder mysteries” and “novels with murders.”
It may sound like splitting hairs, she says, but there’s a difference. A typical murder mystery might be a quick, workmanlike police procedural novel, read one day and forgotten the next.
A “novel with a murder,” on the other hand, delves deeper. It’s not simply about suspense, but about the effects of the events on the lives of the characters. “If someone can do that,” she says, “that moves that book into really as much a pantheon as anyone else.”
Among her favorite mysteries writers are Tana French, C.J. Sansom and S.J. Rozan. “These are people who are just plain good writers,” Bloomfield says.
Part of that is expertise with plot — another feature often dismissed by critics but appreciated by avid readers.
“Ironically, I think mysteries are very hard to plot, and plotting is the hardest thing I do,” Bloomfield says. And yet expert plotting can be key to what makes a good mystery so engaging to her. “I think it goes back to being Catholic growing up, where a lot WAS mysterious. I just liked what was atmospheric as a kid. You sense big questions left unexplained.”
At CIA, Bloomfield’s writing students tend to fall into one of a few categories. Some find that their art dovetails with fiction through animation, illustration or other narrative-based work. Some are students who have committed to the Creative Writing Concentration, for which they complete 12 credit hours of approved coursework to strengthen their writing and storytelling skills.
Still others may be simply have signed up for a class because it fit into their schedule, but Bloomfield doesn’t mind. “We’ve all done that,” she says. Besides, she figures, it means that at some level they’re open to learning what she has to impart.
“I love teaching,” Bloomfield says. “I love how free I am to say things that are important to me. It’s nice to be at a point in your life where you feel that you actually know things, and someone’s giving you the opportunity to impart them.”
On the last day of every semester, Bloomfield gives the same speech to her students, and she says it almost always makes her tear up.
“I say pretty much the same thing: I want you to know that what you do matters.”
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