In 1996, Goodman's "story cycle," The Family Markowitz, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Two years later, her first novel, Kaaterskill Falls was a National Book Award finalist. Now - surprise, surprise - her second novel, Paradise Park, is busy hoarding rave reviews. Add to her resumé degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Now consider that she's a mother of three. And she's not yet thirty-five years old. Even before the publication of her latest novel it was enough to make Publishers Weekly wonder, "How can this vivacious and unpretentious young woman have accomplished so much so soon?"
Paradise Park tracks the spiritual adventures of Sharon Spiegelman from the fleabag Waikiki hotel room where we meet her, broke and alone now that her boyfriend has "run off with a chick on her way to Fiji," to a pot farm in the jungle (naked, mostly), a monastery, a couples workshop (alone), The Greater Love Salvation Church ("I think I was a little bit mixed up between grace and orgasms," Sharon confides), university classrooms, a Torah school in Jerusalem... Through it all, she remains a passionate, opinionated seeker, though in fact her opinions tend to change dramatically from one week to the next.
Let's be frank, shall we? Sharon has a strong personality.
"You've got to pity the poor soul who gets stuck sitting next to her on the bus," Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times. Sharon is "a character we never quite like, an annoying, self-righteous heroine who verges on foolishness," the writer Alison Baker noted, "yet one whose spiritual adventures we follow avidly for 360 pages."
Goodman, unlike her narrator, giggles in a kind of way that makes you wonder why people don't giggle more. Something about her draws people near. She wasn't in Powell's thirty seconds before a woman tugging at the elbow of the author's coat interrupted our conversation to compliment her on her hat.
Dave: When Alison Baker reviewed Paradise Park in The Oregonian, she noted an important difference between the perspectives of Kaaterskill Falls and this new novel. Kaaterskill Falls presents a religious community from the inside, whereas this is a book about religious and spiritual communities from the outside, from the point of view of a seeker.
Allegra Goodman: It's true. Elizabeth Schulman, the main character in Kaaterskill Falls, lives in a cloistered, structured community. She has a strong sense of family and identity within that family group. Sharon starts out this book in the opposite circumstance. She's really drifting, unmoored. She doesn't have roots. Her family has dissolved. She doesn't have a strong sense of community or structure. She has seemingly endless possibilities at the beginning of the book, every choice imaginable, and yet nobody really cares what those choices might be.
It's a different sort of feeling, a lonely feeling.
Dave: She's not an especially likeable narrator. Her enthusiasm and her tendency to adopt ideas so quickly and so wholeheartedly can be grating. "You've got to pity the poor soul who gets stuck sitting next to her on the bus," the New York Times wrote. Was that a difficult balance, trying to show Sharon's imperfections without sacrificing her narrative hold on the reader?
Goodman: In retrospect, you can say, "Oh, it's a balancing act," or "It was a risk," but at the time I didn't feel that way at all. She was human to me; she was real. All I was trying to do was put her humanity on the page. She's not idealized in any way; she's a complex character. And she's an unreliable narrator in some ways, a person who deceives herself and others at times.
She takes on, chameleon-like, the rhetoric she hears. At the same time, she's a perceptive person; she's clear-eyed in many ways. She has an earnest heart and a desire to find what she's looking for, a very intense desire. Those qualities balance out within her, and I think that's what makes her real. It's what makes her human.
Dave: She originally appeared in "Onionskin," a short story in Total Immersion. The story consists entirely of a letter Sharon wrote to her World Religions professor after walking out on a class.
Goodman: I've always enjoyed that story. It's funny, a very in-your-face, angry letter. The voice stayed with me. After I wrote Kaaterskill Falls, I wanted to do something different, and I got the idea of writing a book in the first person, with one narrator and one point of view, as opposed to Kaaterskill Falls, which is many points of view and many lives intertwining. So I got the idea of writing Sharon's life story, before and after the letter. It was a challenge to see if I could sustain it for a novel, what I could do with it, and how she might grow and develop as a person.
Dave: I read the novel first, and I was surprised how many of its details were present in that original story, but some things you changed quite a bit. Did you feel that you had to be true to the original or was the short story simply a starting point?
Goodman: The spirit of the letter was there, but to me the story was just the starting point. Not only did I have to change some details, I changed the language.
I'm not one of those people who feels every word I write is sacred. For me, the goal was to create a better novel, not to embed a story in it and save time or something.
Dave: Flak magazine awarded all sorts of strange literary prizes last year - Best Preface, Best Use of Punctuation, that sort of thing. I was probably forty pages into Paradise Park when I decided it was likely to win next year's prize if they offer one for Most Exclamation Points in a Literary Novel.
You've said elsewhere that you're not writing autobiographical fiction, but as a writer with a literary reputation it seemed like an interesting shift, to write in the voice of a person who's distinctly not literary. The voice isn't especially endowed with local color, for instance, and Sharon's not dumb, she's just...uncommonly exuberant.
Goodman: She's exuberant, and she writes the way she talks. I was just transcribing the voice I was hearing in my imagination. I put the exclamation points in because that's her voice. I was punctuating naturally. But I'd be happy to take a prize for exclamation points, that would be fine.
As a writer, I try to use many different kinds of voices. The Family Markowitz has a certain tone to it. Kaaterskill Falls has a very different tone. It's not like I say, "I want to write in a somber, literary way." I change the voice according the material. But I always write from the inside. Tone is just another way of taking the reader inside the story.
In Kaaterskill Falls I used language to set the mood of the community and the landscape. It's like a painter with a certain palette of colors. A Hudson River School painter wouldn't put neon yellow in the middle of the painting.
Dave: I grew up in Massachusetts, but I spent most of my summers in Maine. My father is Jewish, but my mother actually converted from Catholicism when I was young. Kaaterskill Falls captured the summer getaway experience very well, and also the sense of Jewish communities, but you grew up in Hawaii, right? I found the atmosphere and those characters very convincing.
Goodman: Good! Actually, I spent a lot of summers in upstate New York. My mother's family had a house up there, and it was in a town where a lot of very observant Jews came for the summer. I played with the kids, I knew the forest, I knew the waterfalls, I hiked all over those mountains. Coming from Hawaii, I think I noticed more because it was so exotic to me, so different from my life and the landscape of my childhood.
I was drawing from my own experience and my memory. In the novel, I took the perspective of the adults - it's not about me or my experiences there, but I drew upon those scenes.
Dave: It's interesting to hear you say you took the perspective of the adults because Renee's story, one of the children, was the one that drew me in first.
Goodman: The book was taught in a few high schools, and when the kids asked me questions they all wanted to know about Renee and Ira. Naturally, they wanted to know about the characters their own age; that's what they focused on. But I thought it was flattering that they would care.
Dave: Proving once again that my interests haven't matured since I was twelve.
Last night I was trying to think of other successful, mainstream Jewish fiction writers. It's easier to think of older ones.
Goodman: Philip Roth.
Dave: Right, and he's still one of the best writers working, but he's been around forever. Cynthia Ozick is another, but again from an older generation. Who are some popular younger writers you associate with Jewish fiction, writers whose books might be appreciated by a similar audience as yours?
Goodman: It has more going on. I think that's what I strive for, too. Paradise Park, for example, is very Jewish in many ways, but I think of Sharon as a very American character, as well. She's one of these people in pursuit of happiness, in mad pursuit. Her desire for instant gratification - as she puts it, "to get rich quick, spiritually speaking" - is very American. To want it to come easy, to be so impatient.
Dave: Is religion and spirituality the lens through which you see the world or do you just happen to have written four books and so people now assume this is what you do and how you think?
Goodman: Probably a little of both. You should write about what you know, and I am a Jewish person. I know something about Jewish people, and I think that the American Jewish community is a really rich subject. There's a lot to write about. At the same time, I've only written four books and I think I have a lot more books in me, so hopefully you'll see me do a lot of different things in the future.
People do peg you according to what you've done, but the more you've written and the broader spectrum you display, the more readers can see what you're capable of. Really, my ambition is to someday be known for my versatility.
Dave: You have time, I guess.
Dave: The last person here for an interview was Deepak Chopra. I found it interesting to go through the process of preparing for that conversation, having never read any of his work until a few weeks beforehand, then to sit down with your books, which themselves are very rich in religion and spirituality.
For weeks before Deepak's visit our staff was trying to make sense of his place in the spiritual community. Is he a true spiritual leader or someone who just happens to have hit on the most lucrative money-making scheme of the century? Sitting here with him, it was very difficult to separate the spiritual man from the businessman; each part of him was in evidence.
Goodman: Did that surprise you? He's sort of a media celebrity.
Dave: It didn't surprise me, no. But I think we had a hard time not rushing to judgment. Anytime someone starts talking about God...
Whatever you happen to think about him on a personal level, it's clear that a lot of people find something in his work that helps them. His ideas are very attractive to seekers. Reading Paradise Park, I half-expected Sharon to see him on tv and delve full-force into his teachings.
Goodman: It's an interesting phenomenon. People want the quick fix the way Sharon does. Sharon is searching, and much as we might laugh at her there are an awful lot of people who go through the same thing, many of them in less honest ways than she does. She has a little bit of saving irony in her - when she goes to the meditation workshop, she finds herself saying, "Oh my God, the Emperor has no clothes! What are these people doing?"
Sharon has a weird combination of adopting the language and the clichés of the people she follows and at the same time puncturing them, seeing through it all. She's the kind of person who really wants to find a leader or a way of life to follow, but her own personality type is that of a leader. I think that's a lot of her problem: she has trouble submitting, she's not a good disciple. I find that endearing about her.
But I think she does grow up in the book. She doesn't stay chasing her tail forever, partly because life catches up with her. She gets older. The things she does have consequences, and she's propelled into looking deeper.
Dave: The progression of your publications has been interesting: a collection of stories; a second collection of interlinked stories; then a novel with a broad canvas, tracking about a dozen characters over a short period of time; and now a novel more propelled by forward momentum, following one character over many years.
Goodman: If you're going to be an artist, you have to do new things. I can't write The Family Markowitz every time. And I can't write Kaaterskill Falls, Volume Two - or, I could, but I'm not interested. You have to grow. You have try new things. There's a great big world out there and you have to use all the techniques you can to describe it.
Dave: The Family Markowitz feels bigger than most story collections. The stories feed off each other. It's a step closer to a novel, though still nowhere as big as Kaaterskill Falls.
Goodman: It's a collection of stories, but it has a narrative arc. Most people read it from beginning to end rather than just skipping around. Strictly speaking, I'd call it "a story cycle" or something.
But Kaaterskill Falls is a far more ambitious book. It's more complex. It develops the characters more; it does everything a novel can do, as opposed to a group of stories, which are snapshots from different perspectives. A novel gives you the chance to interleave lives and to let the characters bloom out and develop in a way that a short story or a group of stories can't.
I see Kaaterskill Falls as a really big step forward from The Family Markowitz. Paradise Park is also ambitious, but in a different way. Why play it safe?
Dave: Having published a collection of interrelated stories and now a novel inspired by a previous story, it almost feels as if you're creating a little world of your own. Do you think you might revisit these characters? For instance, would Ed from The Family Markowitz show up in the next novel?
Goodman: It's possible. Actually, when I was younger and I was writing The Family Markowitz stories, I half imagined that I'd always be working with these characters, always writing stories, but a lot of that was because I didn't have much perspective. Having written these two novels, I don't think the Markowitz characters will reappear. You find as you get older that your style changes and your interests change. There is a beginning and an end. I like it when characters pop up, but I also like starting fresh.
Dave: Are you working on something now?
Goodman: I'm in the early stages of figuring out what to do next. I've got ideas. When I'm done traveling, I'll settle down and start working on it.
Dave: It'll be another novel?
Goodman: It will.
Dave: Do you work on stories still?
Goodman: I would like to. I haven't done them for a while. The novels take a lot of time and energy, but hopefully I'll come back to them.
Dave: This morning I read the article you wrote for Salon.com about your relationship with your husband. You're a writer and he's a mathematician. You've been in a fairly literary environment for most of your adult life, but your home life sounds like an escape of sorts.
Goodman: I think it's a good thing. I don't know if I could stand being married to another novelist. What would we do all day? We'd just type and glare at each other!
There's no sense of competition when you're married to someone in a completely different field. At the same time, I don't really understand his work as deeply and he doesn't really understand mine. But it's probably a good thing.
Dave: And you're still hiding his science fiction books in a closet?
Goodman: I am. I just don't find them very attractive to look at, but he's quite a science fiction reader.
Dave: What are you reading these days?
Goodman: In terms of newer fiction, I recently read Mark Salzman's book, Lying Awake, which I liked very, very much. It's the story of a nun, a small and spare sort of book. It reads very quickly. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the way he got inside of this nun. Again, writing from the inside is something I appreciate. He really got inside her perspective and her thoughts. Some of it was just so right.
Dave: I haven't read it yet, but it's been huge here for a couple years now.
Goodman: It was a lovely, lovely book, especially if you like Mrs. Dalloway. I love the way it was structured, and again, the way he used different perspectives and how he wove them together. Also, the way he describes the world. He picks out these details - he describes pigeons, and he says their feet were the color of pink erasers. That's so true! There are little moments in that book that are so well observed.
Dave: You recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about overcoming writer's block. It made me wonder if you teach at all.
Goodman: I've taught a bit, but not regularly, no. I enjoy doing it, but I probably wouldn't be able to write nearly as much as I do if I had to teach. It's hard work. But I always have a great time when I'm teaching a seminar or something. I'm sitting there for two hours holding forth, talking about stories, and I'm thinking, This is great! This is great! Then about five minutes after the class is over I want to lie down. I think teaching in small quantities is probably good for me.
Dave: Are there books or lessons you remember in your education as particularly formative?
Goodman: There are books that really inspired me. I don't know if I could identify exactly their impact. This book made me want to do this. But really important books to me?
When I was about fourteen I read Aileen Ward's book, The Making of a Poet, which is a biography of John Keats. It's a wonderful book. Her thesis is that a poet is not born; a poet is made. Keats was a talented, brilliant person, but she talks about how he worked to become the poet he was, even in the short period of time he lived. That inspired me very much. By that time, I seriously wanted to be a writer, and I was thinking hard about how one might go about that. Her detailed discussion of the craft of his poetry, how he shaped the language, and revision - the revisions he made that ended up in these poems, they seemed so effortless that you can't even imagine different words in there. That was a really important book to me.
Later on, I would say Middlemarch. It's such a magnificent piece of work, the scope of it. The way George Eliot chose to write a novel not just about one person, but about a whole community, a whole society, yet the individuals within are so alive, so real. Her characterizations are wonderful. It's like seeing great portraiture and great landscape painting at the same time. I thought that was marvelous. That definitely inspired me to become a novelist.
Allegra Goodman visited Powell's City of Books on March 27, 2001. Her flight from Denver that morning had been cancelled; she reached Portland only after being rerouted through Seattle. We welcomed her with rain.
"You have the Freddy the Pig books!" she said on our way through the Rose Room stacks, grabbing three for her kids. I liked her right away.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State