The irresistibly charming Myla Goldberg impressed millions of readers with her bestselling debut novel, Bee Season
, in 2000. The New York Times Book Review
marveled, "[F]ervidly intelligent....Bee Season
flickers past like a dream, and it is artful indeed," and Publishers Weekly
pronounced, "[A] fresh, distinctive, and totally winning voice." More acclaimed books followed, including Wickett's Remedy
, a novel about the 1918 flu epidemic in Boston, and Time's Magpie
, a nonfiction reflection on Prague.
In Goldberg's latest work, The False Friend, 32-year-old Celia abruptly remembers that she lied about the disappearance of her best friend, 21 years before, and goes back to her hometown to make amends and deal with the repercussions of her actions — which are much further-reaching and more disturbing than she imagined. An eerie meditation on memory, friendship, and the nature of truth, The False Friend is evocative, gorgeously written, and an intelligent and intricate mystery.
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Jill Owens: During your reading at Wordstock, you mentioned that The False Friend came from a song that you had written. How did that process happen?
Myla Goldberg: Very mysteriously. [Laughter] In my band I write a lot of songs, and often they are lyrically driven. I'll start with an idea that's in words, and eventually music comes to it. I was writing a song about a girl who falls in a well, and I found myself realizing that there was a lot more going on in my head than I was getting into this song. It tied into my own memories of childhood, and it was much too big for a song.
I realized, "OK. I've got to do something else with this." That's when I started working on the story.
Originally, a memory of my own had come back to me, one that I'd managed to block out for maybe 15 years or longer. My friend Theresa and I had been total best friends in elementary school, but also total competitors. We were very, very fiercely competitive with each other. And I suddenly remembered this one time where I threw a pair of scissors at her, which actually struck her in the leg and made her bleed. We're not talking stitches. I don't think she even needed a Band-Aid. But she didn't tell on me.
I'd managed to forget all of this until I was an adult. The reason it was such a jarring memory is that I'm a very, very nonviolent person. When I took a fencing class, I couldn't even touch the other person with my little lance, even though they were all padded.
So when this memory came back to me, it was this perspective on being a different person than I am now. I used to be a person that actually did something violent once, which is just so completely different. So that got me thinking, "OK. Well, how did that happen?"
Also, I was appalled. I thought, "I need to apologize, because that's just bad." I was mean to this person. So I tracked her down via the Internet and sent her an email saying, "Hey, I was mean when we were kids, and I'm sorry." She emailed back and said, "Hey, I was too. I don't actually remember anything specific that you did, but don't worry about it." And that was the end of it.
What was so distinctive about it was the easy way that we both forgave each other, and also the non-specificity of it. I believed her that she didn't really remember me doing anything specific to her. I think it's entirely possible that I'm the only one who remembers this scissors incident, and for whatever reason, it was a big deal in my brain and not hers.
That illustrates the way that memory can be so plastic, how things that are important to you may be negligible to someone else. Things you think you know really well have shifted quite a lot from the way they actually were.
Maybe I never even threw those scissors at her. Maybe my brain made that up. Who knows? I'll never know. And that's what's so fascinating for me.
Jill: Celia says at one point, "We are, because we remember," and I was wondering if your childhood memories are more like hers, which are pretty vague until someone reminds her of something specific, or more like her brother's, which seem very clear and in focus.
Goldberg: My own memories of childhood can be all of those. I think of them in lots of different ways. There are some memories that are maybe just smells. I won't know it until I smell something, and all of a sudden, I realize, "Oh my gosh, that's the sour milk smell that was in the hallway of my elementary school." Until I smell it, it's not there, but once it's back, it's a very detailed thing.
There are other things that I can remember clearly. Conversations. I can still remember pieces of conversations that I had when I was, say, in second grade or fourth grade, little teeny tidbits. And then, there are other things that are much more hazy.
I would say my memory runs the gamut from really, really fuzzy to extremely detailed. I suspect that's the case for a lot of people. I think there are all sorts of different kinds of memory.
I think the English language is a bit poor on that topic. You know the way the Eskimos have lots of different words for white and snow? I feel there could be an entire dictionary of different words for different kinds of memories.
Jill: At the beginning of The False Friend, Celia realizes that her 11-year-old self is a stranger to Huck, and thinks about the loneliness of that. It illustrates the great chasm between childhood and adulthood, for many people.
Goldberg: Childhood is this hugely important thing for all of us. What happens to us when we're kids absolutely forms the adults that we become. It forms the way we view the world, and how we see other people, and whether we're hopeful or not hopeful or optimistic or pessimistic. And yet, you don't dwell in childhood. Those things fade.
There's not a lot of flashback in this book. Even though it's ostensibly about childhood, it's more about adults looking back on childhood. It's about the whole experience of retrospect, and how that always plays a part in our lives, but it's very different from actually being there, and the multiplicity of selves that we go through.
At any given moment, we never really know ourselves, and even if there's someone whom we love dearly and trust totally, and who's a part of our daily life, they're never really going to know us 100 percent either. And yes, that's a lonely thing. That's a lonely thought. I don't think it's a debilitating one; it's just an important one to be honest about and then... proceed from there. [Laughter]
Jill: In Celia's encounters with her childhood friends as adults, two of them in particular seem to be living dramatically different lives than Celia expected. Do you think that's more often than not the case, or do most of us grow up along lines that were already imagined?
Goldberg: I think it's more often than not the case just because I think there's an idealism to kids, because they don't know yet. They don't know that in the real world you can't just eat ice cream all day and make pictures and have that be your life. So, yes, we have ideas about ourselves and what we could be when we are very young that necessarily get reshaped and often squelched when we realize what the world demands of us. Everyone knows the person in high school who's super-duper artistic or an amazing singer or incredible actor and you're sure that they're going to pursue that. Then you hear about them 10 years on and they've become a dentist.
One thing I was terrified about when I was little is becoming a boring grown-up. I looked at most grown ups and they looked really boring to me. They didn't seem like they were interesting people. I didn't want to become one of those people. Yet as I grew up, I saw more and more that people who were writing poetry or painting paintings at one point in their lives just... stopped. That makes me so sad. For many people, a big part of becoming an adult is giving that stuff up. I think that's tragic.
So, in that respect, yes, I think we do change drastically. It can be very hard for many people to find a place for active imagination and creativity in their adult lives, although it's a part of them. It's in everyone's life as a child.
Jill: Huck, Celia's boyfriend, wonders at one point whether there are two models of maturity — on the one hand, a smoothing of a person's edges without real change, but also a chrysalis model of someone turning into a completely different organism.
Goldberg: Yes. I think both of those models exist side by side. What can often happen is that part of becoming yourself is to return in larger part to who you once were as a kid. When you're a kid you're really unselfconscious, and you don't care that you're wearing the purple striped shirt with the orange spotted pants because you like it. Then you get older and you become more aware of other people's opinions and that sort of deforms you in a way. You become very self-conscious and more concerned about what the outer world thinks of you than whom you might actually be.
So in some ways maturity, hopefully, is returning back to one's own instincts and not caring so much about what the outer world is going to think of it. It's trying to be true to yourself, which often returns you in part to who you were as a child. So in that case, it's maybe the smoothing around the edges.
There's also the chrysalis model, which can happen if, when you're a kid, something really huge happens to you, whether it's something really good or something really bad that causes this utter transformation in who you are, and necessarily has to change your outlook or the way that you're going to go about doing things. It's in part external — what is done to you — and in part what you've already got inside you that's going to determine how you grow up.
Jill: I think you capture perfectly in this book how going back home again, walking through the halls of your high school, being in those places absolutely shrinks you down to child sized again, and how powerful those forces of context are.
Goldberg: Yes! It's frightening.
Jill: It is frightening. I've had it happen to me.
Goldberg: We all have.
Jill: Though it must be so different for people who don't leave, who stay in their hometowns.
Goldberg: That's a really good point. I mean, speaking as someone who did leave as soon as was humanly possibly, I can say that my experience of coming back and seeing people who didn't leave is often depressing because I feel like, "Oh, man, you are exactly the same as you were in 11th grade. I mean, you still like the same bands?" [Laughter] I'm biased, but I think that by leaving where you grow up you're giving yourself an opportunity for growth that you wouldn't necessarily get or that would certainly be harder to come by if you stay in the place where you grew up. So that stasis is very much there but you're not even aware of it, because you don't have anything else to compare it to.
Jill: The novel almost feels like it's done in close up. It's such a short amount of time, but you study the emotional states with such magnification, and the plot progresses and changes in such small units, with every thought or line of conversation. How did you think about tone and focus in this book?
Goldberg: I had three writers that I was thinking about quite a lot who served as models for me as I was writing. One was Ian McEwan, because I find the way that he is able to do suspense and pacing to be really remarkable. In Saturday, he does things in a super-condensed way, though that particular book wasn't really a model for me for this one.
Ishiguro was another role model for me in two ways. One is how he takes a singular perspective and uses it to open up an entire universe, bringing everyone in through one person's eyes. And the other thing is how he's able to dance around an event in a way that never actually outright tells you what happened, but gives you enough of the periphery to be able to fill in that missing middle piece. That's such a cool thing to be able to do, and I think it's a really lovely way to create a narrative.
Graham Greene was my third model for the way that he explores the moral gray zones that comprise all of life. There are no easy answers, and he's all about wallowing in the fact that there aren't easy answers. All of those things built on each other to do this book.
What happens in this book is a very condensed, small thing. Once Celia has a mission, she goes on it, and then it's done. It's really not about anything but that. Because it is a small event, I did have to get very small and slow and detailed to unwind that as specifically as possible. So I needed to draw on all those authors to help me do it. It just seemed like the natural way to go. When I sat down I didn't think, "I'm going to get super incremental and detailed and slow." But it had to work that way for the reader to understand fully all that was going on.
Jill: And it doesn't read slowly at all.
Goldberg: Yes. People tell me it's a fast read, which is great. It's funny, because people will say, "I read it in three days." I think, "Well, it took me five years to write." [Laughter]
Yet it's the highest praise you can get, that something is a fast read. So I love that, but the discrepancy is funny.
Jill: How did you decide to include a few chapters from Huck's point of view?
Goldberg: I wanted the reader to have as full a portrait of Celia as possible. If we were going to be with Celia the whole time, then we weren't going to be able to get that full portrait because we weren't going to be able to step outside of her. I wanted to give the reader a chance to pull back for a minute and see what she looked like to other people, because Celia is, at her core, an unreliable narrator. I wanted my reader to have some way to triangulate, to be able to have pieces of evidence and things to navigate so they could figure out the ways in which Celia was reliable and the ways in which she wasn't. I wanted readers to have other sources so they could try to get at what seemed to be the truth of the matter.
I think if we had stayed with Celia for the entire time that would have been a lot more difficult to do, and perhaps kind of frustrating.
Jill: One detail that I like about her character is her job as a performance auditor, which I had never heard of. Now I almost want to be one. How did you hear about that profession?
Goldberg: Cool! I was getting a sense of who Celia was, and once I had a sense of her personality, I applied to my own mind those aptitude tests that they make you take in high school. You know, will you be better working with people or on your own? As I was doing that, I formulated the sort of job I thought she might want and then did research. That's when I discovered performance auditors. I didn't know about them either. It occurred to me, "Oh my god, yes, this is perfect for her."
That said, I still had to do a bunch of research to try to figure out what that actually meant. So I tracked down a genuine performance auditor in Arizona and I interviewed her over the phone. At first I contacted her via email and she was thrilled. She was like, "Someone wants to know about my job? Yeah! I'd be happy to tell you." Because no one knows what they are. So, she was super duper helpful in helping me to understand.
I already had the nuts and bolts of what a performance auditor does by doing research. But talking to a person who loves that job gives you insight into the kind of personhood, that sort of personality and perspective, which was even more valuable than her telling me about the nuts and bolts of the job. Hearing about her essence, which is not at all reflected in the essence of my character, gave me the kind of insight to help me grow my own character in a way that seemed to work.
Jill: You've talked a bit about the fact that aging is something else you were interested in in this book, which I think is done very gracefully. I love that the image and concept you keep coming back to, that the eyes are the only body part that doesn't age.
Goldberg: The older that I get, the more fascinated with aging I get. [Laughter] I'm at the age where I'm starting to notice my own body being different than it was and I'm definitely noticing it in my parents. When you hit your mid- to late-30s, all that stuff starts catching up to you in ways it doesn't when you're younger. So being able to write about it is great. Fiction is an excuse for authors to do their own little private, free therapy. You write about whatever is bothering you, whatever you're worried about, whatever you're fascinated by. I've been thinking about aging a lot, and seeing my own parents... I mean, they're still very young and they're in great health. But of course, everyone starts changing.
The eyes staying the same — that's the thing that I find so amazing. If someone's a vibrant person when they're 30, you can run into them when they're 50 and that spark is still there. It's just surrounded by lots of wrinkles. Yeah, I find that really fascinating.
Jill: How do you think about your actual prose? There's a wonderful precision and weight to your sentences in this book.
Goldberg: I want to make sure I get it right. I guess it's a couple of things. Often, in my earlier drafts, the first thing I always have to do is make them feel less expository, because I've got logic brain. My father is a physicist and I definitely inherited his empirical way of thinking about the world and breaking it down. I think it's a wonderful tool for a novelist to have because I'm able to analyze things, and I'm interested in analyzing things very precisely. But then it's a matter of making that be something beautiful rather than something cold and mechanical. That's when I'm grateful that I'm interested in music, and can really hear the sounds of words.
As much as I'm interested in the empiricism and the anthropological sense of why people do what they do, I'm also extremely interested in psychology and emotional states. I feel that all these things can blend together to make for prose that has a bunch of things going on at once rather than just one thing, which I think is what makes reading interesting.
Jill: I love Jem's memory of hallucinating a griffin, which was really his father. It's a great and explicit example of how we mythologize our own lives, particularly at points of great trauma. I was wondering how you came up with that particular image.
Goldberg: I don't know. That's the other great thing about writing — things come out of nowhere. What it comes down to is acting. I teach writing at various places, and one thing I always tell my students is that writing and acting are very closely allied art forms. If you're going to make a character come alive, you basically have to become that character and perform an Oscar award-winning performance for every single person in your book. You have to be getting them right.
So by the time I got to that point in the book, I put myself into Jem's head. He really likes D&D. He grew up with that, so that whole mythology is very much in his mind. He's overdosing on heroin, so he's not going to be seeing things clearly. What happens when you're not in your right mind? Often things well up from your past that were hugely important to you. So, yeah. A griffin — there it was.
Jill: The book is getting some comparisons to Cat's Eye. Though it's the other side of that perspective, the bully instead of the bullied person. Have you read Cat's Eye?
Goldberg: I haven't. [Laughter]
The only Margaret Atwood I've read is The Handmaid's Tale. When I heard it compared to Cat's Eye, I thought, "Oh, OK." I probably will read it at some point, but I'm also of course afraid to read it now.
Jill: Well, they're very different books.
Goldberg: I'm glad to hear that.
Jill: I think it's just the subject matter.
Goldberg: One thing I was really interested in doing with this book is having the reader get a sense both of the bully and the bullied. But yeah, most often when you get stories about bullying, it is from the perspective of the victim, because that's where our sympathies lie. So I liked the idea of having a person who all of a sudden discovers, "Oh wait, I was the bad guy." It's so easy to make bad people with black hats, and say, "These are the bad guys." This goes back to what I was saying about Graham Greene and moral gray zones. I honestly think that, most of the time, just about everyone is doing the best they possibly can when they're making decisions in their lives.
I like to put myself in the shoes of someone whom at first glance I would discount, and think, "What an asshole," and then try to figure out, "OK, wait a minute. I bet there's a really good reason he gave that old lady the finger. What could it be?"
Can I get myself to a point in my mind where all of a sudden that makes sense and I might even be able to have, if not sympathy, empathy for why that person's doing what they're doing? Coming at something from the sense of what might be seen as the bad person is very interesting to me.
Jill: I think that comes through in all of your books. In Bee Season in particular, you want to shake those characters and tell them to stop being so isolated and just communicate with each other. But they are trying. That's exactly what they're trying to do.
Goldberg: Yes, especially the father in Bee Season. I think it would have been super easy to make him someone you'd write off as a bad dad. But he's doing his best. We all are. In my mind, that's a big part of becoming a grown-up. At least for me, maturity was that realization, no longer breaking people down into good person, bad person. It was realizing, "Oh wait, pretty much everyone's trying to be a good person. Most people don't want to screw over other people even though they might end up doing so." Accepting that makes the world a much more interesting place.
Jill: Have you gotten much feedback from young adults who have read The False Friend? Is it different than the reactions you've gotten from grown ups?
Goldberg: Since the book just came out, it's still too early for me to have a sense of what people are thinking of it. I'm really interested in what young adult readers might think of it, because this is dealing with stuff that's going to be much more recent history for them than for adults who are reading the book. It was neat with Bee Season, which ended up being something that was read quite a lot by younger adult readers. Librarians recommended it as a book to read for people who are about to go to college, for example. I was just writing; I wasn't thinking about who would read it. I think it will be neat to see how that audience reacts to this book. I'm looking forward to it.
Jill: I knew years ago that The Decemberists had written a song about you, but I didn't know you were a musician until recently. [Ed. note: Goldberg is in the band The Walking Helloes] How do you balance music and writing?
Goldberg: I've always done them both, for as long as I can remember. They're both hugely important parts of me. My ambition has always been in writing, and making music is something that's just super-duper fun. But they definitely feed off each other because writing is a hugely solitary act. I sit by myself in a room and I make stuff up and I get to be God. That's really fun, but the neat thing about music is that it's diametrically opposed to that.
Some bands have the front man who does all the songwriting and tells the other musicians what to play. But the bands I've been in have always been collaborative, and we work together to make all the songs. That sort of collective creativity and that sort of collaboration feeds off the solitariness, and they just balance things out for me in a really great way.
Jill: What are you reading and listening to and enjoying these days?
Goldberg: Let's see. I just finished reading Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, and I hadn't read him since 12th grade. He's pretty cool. I might have to go back and read Heart of Darkness now, which is the one I was assigned in 12th grade. The intelligence with which he's able to perceive people and why they're doing what they're doing, the huge narrative arcs of people's lives, is very gratifying to read.
What am I listening to? I've been really into bebop jazz lately. In fact, in the book, Celia's father is really into Bud Powell. That's because I was really into him. I'm still into Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Mingus. That whole era is interesting to me.
Also, I've been very interested in modern string quartets lately, because you can really break down a quartet the way you can a story. You're aware of the narrative. With only four instruments going, you can hear what each of them are doing and the story that they're telling in a way that I can't when I'm listening to something like a symphony. I think, "Ah, there's too much going on!"
Pop wise, Architecture in Helsinki; they're out of Australia. I'm a huge fan of theirs — I like everything that they do. Basically, in terms of indie rock bands, I like interesting instrumentation. Smart lyrics are essential. I cannot ignore stupid lyrics, and it makes me not want to listen to a song. Also, I need strong melodies. A melody to me is a narrative. I'm a narrative addict, so it doesn't matter whether it's coming at me through a song, in a book, or in a movie, but there's got to be a narrative there for me.