Come a day, you might get sick of hearing about A Reliable Wife — so many people will have read it and raved to you about it. Take this preventative medicine: read it first.
Catherine Land arrives in Wisconsin on a snowy day in 1907. Receiving her on the train platform, Ralph Truitt knows that Catherine isn't the woman she made herself out to be when she answered his newspaper ad for "a reliable wife." But what else does he know? And how far will Catherine go to fulfill her desires? Robert Goolrick's deftly woven novel of seduction, marriage, money, sex, and drugs will keep you turning pages to find out.
Kirkus calls A Reliable Wife "a sublime murder ballad that doesn't turn out at all the way one might expect." Booklist raves, "Few have permeated their narratives with gothic elements and suspense to such great effect."
You'll want to devour it in a single sitting. Simultaneously, you'll want to luxuriate in the drama as long as possible. Whatever you decide, there's too much pleasure in these pages to leave to your friends.
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Dave: A Reliable Wife made me think about what we withhold and what we reveal. Specifically, that's played out through these three characters.
One line jumped off the page for me: when Truitt tells Catherine, "Everybody knows it, but they don't know it from me." Until that point, Truitt has never been in control of his own story.
Robert Goolrick: Three people not in control of their lives. They're also people who are used to being looked at.
Truitt is the center of his town. Everybody's looking at him and talking about him all the time. Catherine makes herself the center of attention, as does Antonio. They draw the spotlight. And yet they're not really in control of their lives. In a way, it's about the effort to wrest some kind of control.
I wanted to write a book about redemption, about goodness; about the distance between us and goodness, and how we cross that distance. They're all trying to move toward some kind of personal redemption and gain some control over their lives.
And they all have secrets. It's about people who don't tell what's in their hearts, but act on it.
Dave: Each of the characters is burdened by a very specific, self-imposed agenda. Bringing the son home, killing the father, or love and money. Each is singularly obsessed.
Goolrick: Catherine is always afraid of losing her balance, and losing her way. Ralph resigns himself to the fact that the thing he thought he wanted is the thing that's going to kill him. Antonio alone never gives up.
But I also have to say that each of those characters is a facet of my personality. I'm sure this is true for most writers. I was very conscious, when I was writing the book, that Ralph, Catherine, and Antonio are all in some way me. You put all three of them together and they make up my personality.
Truitt says, "Everybody knows it, but they don't know it from me." Yes, and I think it's my attempt through the depiction of three separate lives to say something about my life and who I am.
Most writers who put their heart into what they write are trying to say some very simple thing, I think. Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? They construct very complicated narratives to say what they otherwise can't.
Goolrick: The novel I thought about for a very long time, probably five years. And then it took me eight months to write it, at least the original draft, which is not very different from the finished book. My memoir I wrote in a remarkably short time, probably two months.
Dave: You wrote the memoir before the novel?
Goolrick: Actually not. I wrote the novel first. And then, as a kind of afterthought, I wrote the memoir almost by accident. I just started one day and couldn't stop. I didn't stop until it was done.
Dave: There's so much thematic overlap between the two, points within the novel that lead back to the memoir. It was strangely amplifying to read them side-by-side.
Goolrick: Writing the novel freed me to write the memoir in a much more direct and personal way.
I'll tell you something that I've only told a psychiatrist, which is that everything I've ever written has the same structure. I didn't realize it at the time, but I realize it now. They're all about a man, a woman, and a boy. That is true of A Reliable Wife, it's also true of my memoir, and strangely enough it's true in a whole different way of the novel I'm working on now. So I guess I'm kind of stuck with that image, three figures in a landscape.
Dave: How is it to have that realization in the middle of creating something new?
Goolrick: It's neither liberating nor imprisoning. It's just something that I know is there. But there are certain points that I made in the novel and the memoir that I don't have to make again. I'm free to explore those relationships in subtler ways.
Goolrick: Wisconsin Death Trip was profoundly moving to me when I read it thirty-five years ago, when it came out. There's something about the simplicity of the pictures and the journalism that I thought was brilliant. It gave me a kind of insight into a world. I've carried that book with me, it's been sort of on my bedside table, for thirty-five years, in one form or another.
When I started to write Reliable Wife, I actually started with the final scene, the scene with Catherine and Ralph in the garden. I wanted the end to be about a garden that comes to life, and I wanted to put the garden someplace where that would seem unlikely. Wisconsin.
Here's the other part of it: I worked in advertising for a long time. I once had a client in Wisconsin. He is a man who, like Ralph, lives in a town that bears his name. And he is truly a tycoon; he is a magnate of business. It always fascinated me to go to Wisconsin and be there in that bitterly cold landscape, in that bleak environment, and see this man who had so much power.
Truitt in the novel has nothing to do with my former client. He doesn't in any way resemble him. But those two images came together in my mind as a way to set the story.
Dave: A Reliable Wife is a realistic novel with a tone that's sometimes reminiscent of fairy tales. And then it has all the elements of noir: seduction, murder, money, drugs... Were you conscious of working across these genres? How did you arrive at a voice?
Goolrick: I have increasingly grown tired of contemporary fiction, which is, largely, all context and no content — you remember the setting and the feeling, but the story is almost secondary. I wanted to write a book in which the story itself took center stage.
I have always been fond of writers like Dickens and Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, who really know how to tell a story. In an almost backhanded way, they painted a rich palette in which the story took place. Trollope's The Way We Live Now, for instance, was profoundly important to me, as a book.
The voice of Reliable Wife, I hope, is the voice of a storyteller more than anything else. I don't pretend to be a great literary stylist. I don't pretend to have contributed to literature as art.
Dave: It's addictive but not trashy.
Goolrick:I didn't try to write a trashy novel, and I didn't try to write a Great novel, capital G. I just wanted to make a good story that hangs in the mind.
Dave: There's a bit in your memoir, you were eight-years-old at the time, when a twenty-year-old woman said to you, "You'll make somebody a nice little wife someday."
In the book, you wonder, Why would anyone say something like that to an eight-year-old? You write, "Maybe she just wasn't very adept."
That seems very much a writer's supposition. What people mean to say is one thing, and why they end up saying it might be another thing altogether.
Goolrick: As a child and, now, as a man, I understand very little of what happens in the world. I don't get it right away. My reaction is to mull things over, sometimes for years. In the case of the woman in my memoir, I thought about that remark for fifty years. What the hell was she talking about? And what made her say it?
In relationships with friends or even with people I see on the street, I'm constantly wondering why they do the things they do. And I think what compels me to write is that when you write you have to make choices. You have to come out and say, finally, she did this, and give it some kind of rationale that a reader can understand.
Dave: You must have had some interesting interactions with readers when The End of the World as We Know It came out, to say nothing of the reaction from family and friends.
Goolrick: A number of family members and old friends stopped speaking to me for two years.
Also, I began to get letters, mostly from men but not overwhelmingly so, who wanted to tell me about some dark secret in their past, usually but not always having to do with being abused as a child. And I, being a new writer and very grateful for any attention, would answer every letter. Sometimes I got into very complicated correspondences with people, some of which goes on to this day.
Everybody has a story. A lot of people have a secret.
I think that my book, for some people who read it, opened the door to tell whatever secret they were harboring. In some cases, it was terrifying; it felt too great a responsibility. But it was a great gift, at the same time. I'm grateful.
Dave: In your twenties, you wrote a loosely autobiographical novel. Your mother read part of it and got very angry. In finally writing your memoir, did you second-guess yourself? Your parents had passed away by then.
Goolrick: I had just finished the novel, and I thought, There really is a kind of key that unlocks the novel; and the key is the story of my life. If I'm going to be an honest man, and I hope I am, I have to put it down on paper.
It didn't quite occur to me that anybody would publish it. But it also didn't occur to me what the ramifications would be if someone did.
People ask me all the time whether or not writing the memoir was cathartic. It wasn't. The writing of it was not at all cathartic because I wasn't saying anything I didn't already know. It was like putting up a slide show of my life, a series of snapshots.
Dave: Aside from the novel you wrote at twenty-four, are there other unpublished books in your past?
Goolrick: There's one other novel. I wrote it in my thirties. It made the rounds and almost got published and then didn't. There's a great gulf between being able to write a book and being able to sell a book.
Reliable Wife, maybe my sensibility is not so out of fashion anymore. Or maybe my sensibility has matured and changed. My earlier novels were more experimental, but they were written with a similar tone and style.At the time that I wrote my second novel, somebody in publishing said to me, "The problem is that your sensibility is out of fashion." I don't know. From the early reaction to
My editor, Chuck Adams, said to me one day, "I wish you'd started writing novels thirty years ago." I said, "Don't ever say that again."
Dave: We had a discussion in the office about whether or not the bird deserves a starring role on the book's cover.
Goolrick: I love the bird. There was a lot of discussion back and forth about the fact that it's red.
Dave: Right, the bird was green on the cover of advance copies, even though you describe it as scarlet in the novel.
Goolrick: It was green on the advance copy because they assume it's a canary and that there are no red canaries. In fact there is a red canary: a specially bred, rust-colored red canary. And I was able to write back and say, "No, in fact there is a red canary. Look it up."
I wanted an austere cover, and I think this is indicative. Also I like the bird because it's like a little drop of blood on a snowy landscape.
Dave: You mentioned that you worked in advertising. Do you watch Mad Men?
Goolrick: I don't, actually. Everybody tells me I should, and every time I start to, it just seems too nauseatingly familiar to me. I know those people.
Dave: That idea of familiarity is interesting. I gave a copy of Then We Came to the End to a friend. It takes place at an ad agency while the company is laying off staff.
Goolrick: I've read it.
Dave: I gave it to someone who works at Wieden + Kennedy, the big ad agency here in Portland.
Goolrick: I know Wieden + Kennedy.
Dave: She couldn't read it. Her reaction was just like yours to Mad Men. She said that it was too much like being at work.
Dave: Suppose you're in a bookstore next month, and you see someone at the register buying your book. In your ideal world, what else would they be buying? What would please you? And you're not allowed to say your memoir.
It's a hard question.I buy books for two reasons: because I've heard that they're great; and because they feel good in the hand — meaning they're designed well, not just that they have a pretty cover.
Also, I hope they would buy a book called The New Valley by Josh Weil. It comes out in April. It's a first book, a series of three novellas. I discovered it in the column next to one about my book in Publishers Weekly. I read the book and really liked it. We connected on Facebook, and it turns out Josh is also from Virginia. He splits time between there and New York.
Dave: What did I forget to ask you?
Goolrick: I don't know, but something I forgot to say when I was talking about writing the memoir not being cathartic: seeing it on a bookshelf was. It was liberating.
I remember having this fantasy in my twenties: I was riding the 5th Avenue bus downtown to go to work, and I thought, One day, I want to sit on this bus and look across the aisle and see some man or woman reading a book that I wrote.
In this fantasy, the man or woman didn't look up and say, "Oh, my God, you're Robert Goolrick." It was just the pleasure of knowing that I had made an object in the world that somebody else was enjoying.
I hope that comes true. I'd like to see some stranger reading it on the subway.
Dave: It'll probably happen. Though it couldn't hurt to spend more time on the subway.
Goolrick: I spend plenty of time on the subway.
Robert Goolrick spoke from his home in New York City on March 3, 2009.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State