Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Fishbowl, the New Novel by Bradley Somer

photo via UNSPLASH by Edgaras Maselskis

Need a pick-me-up? With his new novel Fishbowl, Bradley Somer has created a fun, engaging ensemble story; so it seems only fitting that we should bring in one of our favorite community partners, The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills, to turn Somer’s upcoming Nashville visit into a party. Join the fun of our Wine with the Author series this Wednesday, August 12, at 6:30 p.m. at Parnassus.

While this story is easy to jump into as a reader, it can be a little hard to describe. In hopes that enthusiasm is catching, we decided to capture a conversion between two of Fishbowl’s biggest fans, our marketing guru Niki Coffman and MUSING editor Mary Laura Philpott, as well as to ask Somer himself just how he created the book.

mlp and nikiMLP: So, Niki. This conversation is now officially on the record. Do you remember when you first heard about Fishbowl?

Niki:  I do. The pitch I got was, “A goldfish named Ian falls off the top floor of an apartment building; then the stories of the people inside that building are told from his perspective.” And I was like, nope — not going to read that! It sounded gimmicky. I didn’t believe a story could stand up outside that framework. But I was leaving town and couldn’t decide what to bring, so I threw the advance copy in my bag on my way out to the airport.

MLP: And?

Niki: I read it in 4 hours. The minute I was done, I couldn’t wait to make you read it.

coverMLP: Like you, I read it in a day! I had just finished Hausfrau, which gutted me (I mean, I loved it, but I was emotionally exhausted at the end). I didn’t think there was anything I could read after that; but Fishbowl was exactly what I needed. It appealed to a totally different part of my mind.

Niki: Told you.

MLP: In your staff rec, you compared it to The Book Thief and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. What do you mean?

Niki: Odd combo, I know. But hear me out: The narrative device of the fish reminded me of the zoomed out, omniscient way Death narrates The Book Thief. And then the quirky, funny parts reminded me of Bernadette.

MLP: I can see that. If we’re talking comps, I might add Little Children by Tom Perrotta, who blurbed Fishbowl actually — because of the narrative voice (and also because the cover of Little Children has a goldfish on it). And I think I’d add the novels of Matthew Quick.

Niki: Quick is a great comp.

MLP: Fishbowl has a very particular mood and tone, don’t you think? Like… sweet but not sappy. Poignant but not depressing. Funny but not at all dumb.

Niki: Yes! Exactly. And it’s full of surprises. I thought I knew where it was headed, and then it exploded into this unexpected wonder.

MLP: Right?? Here’s what Somer said when I interviewed him about how he created the story:

* * *

What are some of the difficulties intrinsic to writing an ensemble piece with so many moving parts?

Bradley Somer (photo by Nenad Maksimovic)

BS: I was most conscious of keeping each storyline intriguing and distinct from the others. Structurally, one of the risks inherent in stories with large ensembles is that a reader won’t connect with some of the characters, which would make for a grueling read. This doesn’t mean a reader will connect equally with all threads, but it’s important that there is some engagement with each. I was also very aware of keeping the different threads from becoming too similar and melding together. A reader has enough to keep track of without my making it more difficult!

How do you keep up with the various story threads? Notecards? A chart?

BS: I didn’t use any tricks to keep all the story details straight when I was writing, most of it just happened as the story played out in my head. I started with the overall concept for the novel and then had rough ideas for the theme of each thread and how they would play out. Then I just wrote. A lot of the heavy lifting of making all the threads work together happened after the words were on the page. I spent a good deal of time reviewing, rereading, and rewriting portions to make sure all the details were introduced at the right time and brought to the forefront when they were needed.

One of the things we love about Fishbowl is that there’s tension and drama, but also humor and hope. At its heart, it’s optimistic. Does that reflect your own worldview?

BS: I’d say this book’s philosophy is pretty close to home for me. In the novel, there are a lot of characters dealing with what life throws at them in the best way they can. Sometimes they bring their problems down on themselves and other times they’re stuck in situations that were none of their doing. None of it’s perfect, but they’re all doing their best and trying to get through as gracefully as they can. How could you not root for someone who is trying their hardest to make it through the day? I think Ian the goldfish embodies it well; he’s an unbiased, non-judgmental observer who’s not shackled by his past failures or successes. He’s just living.

Also, I firmly believe in the interconnectivity of it all. One of the main themes running through the novel is how each character’s actions affect the other character’s outcomes. As it’s put in the book, we don’t live our own life, we live each other’s together.

* * *

MLP: It occurs to me that we’re using a strange narrative device of our own, describing Fishbowl to people with this conversation. Maybe we should just walk around putting the book in people’s hands.

Niki: Oh, I’m going to. Ever since I read it, I’ve been like, “Just wait until August — this amazing book is coming!” For me, this has been my favorite book of the year. I feel like it will appeal to so many different kinds of readers. 

MLP: I agree — it’s a crowd pleaser. That said, I hope we’re not overselling it. We should probably be clear about the fact that this book will not do your laundry. Or make you coffee. Or make you look five years younger. It cannot cure disease or save the earth.

Niki: But it will delight you.

MLP: True. And maybe if everyone in the world read it and felt that delight, they’d be moved to come together and save the earth. So we’ll say: “FISHBOWL: There’s a slight chance it just might save the earth.”