Some writers spend an entire career seeking critical and popular success. For Myla Goldberg, it came early with the success of her book Bee Season, and the eventual film adaptation of the novel helped Goldberg score a bestseller with her first try.
Goldberg’s notoriety continued to flourish when the band The Decemberists, wrote the song, “Song for Myla Goldberg.” Goldberg’s reputation as one of the finest and most popular scribes of this generation was solidified early on, and her writing prowess has become even stronger. There is no greater evidence of this than with the publication her latest novel, The False Friend. The story of 30-something Celia Durst, who returns to her hometown to come clean about a secret that has haunted her since childhood.
The first thing I thought of when I was reading The False Friend is that I always hear so many fiction writers talk about how there are so many of their life experiences and their own personal stories in their fiction, and at the risk of sounding cheesy is there a lot of Myla Goldberg in this book?
I actually take the opposite approach to fiction. I don’t want my literal experiences to be in a book – that’s not fiction, that’s thinly disguised memoir. What I aim to do is to take emotional experiences or memories, psychological experiences or memories and distill those from my personal experiences into events and characters and scenarios that bear little to no relation to anything that’s ever happened to me. And that’s basically the blueprint for all my books to one degree or another. Sure, for a novel to be written it’s got to have a little bit of its author in there, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. So while this book certainly does have a lot of me in there, it’s not in terms of actual events. Nothing that happened in this book actually happened to me.
Location seems to play a really strong part in this book and Jensenville seems to be this small boring middle American kind of town. Why did you decide the book would take place in anywhereville USA?
Jensenville is an invented town. I basically ripped off upstate New York — which I’ve visited for the past ten years because my in-laws live up there. It’s a fascinating place. It’s this total place of fallen empire, which is what drew me to want to write about it because it’s beautiful and depressing all at the same time, because, as I talked about in the book – all the stuff I talked about in the book – that is all very real. You have these beautiful turn of the century early twentieth century architecture and it also speaks of some kind of grand place, except that there is no one living there anymore there are no opportunities there anymore, and it’s a shadow of its former self. And it was really only as I started writing about that area that I realized that it was the perfect place to set that story because the book is about people who are looking back at who they used to be and wondering about that difference. This is a town that is looking back at what it used to be. I hadn’t planned that in advance but as I was writing it and putting it in this area I realized it was just totally perfect.
You switch up so much from book to book and I was thinking if I were to hand a person who wasn’t familiar with all three of your books —Bee Season, Wickett’s Remedy, and The False Friend– and I said to read them in succession, I think they’d be surprised at the transition. My question is: how do you finish one book, like Wickett’s Remedy, and then say The False Friend is the next book I’m going to write. How do you prepare yourself for that?
Well it takes time, quite honestly. I never go right from one thing into the next thing. There’s usually at least six months to a year of downtime where I’m really just doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and just trying to leave myself open to the idea of what will come next. But thank you for saying that because one of my goals is to never repeat myself. I admire those who are always doing something different and you never really know what is going to come up next and how it’s going to read and what it’s going to be about. I don’t want to be the writer whose every book has the father who abandons the family. I mean, you can’t help but have themes that come back in your work. And now that I’ve written three novels I find that I’m drawn to memory and its various permutations and I’m drawn to people who are trying to make the world a better place in one guise or another. But I think they turn up in different scenarios and ideas and plots and it doesn’t feel like repeating itself and tonally I always try to do it a little bit different in terms of setting a time and all that stuff, so yes that’s hugely important to me.
You mentioned writers you admire – who are some of those writers?
Well I can say that for False Friend there are three writers who were hugely influential and who I also admire very much. Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautiful writer and the things that particularly attracted me when I was working on False Friend is that he is really great at writing around an event without actually necessarily telling you what has happened, but he fills in the perimeter enough that you’re able to fill in the middle as a reader and to my mind that ‘s the ideal collaboration as a writer you want to strike between a writer and reader because if you’re working together to construct something, it’s going to be much more solid in the reader’s mind. It’s going to be a much more participatory and collaborative experience. I know that as a reader, I don’t like being told too much. I like being able to weave that tapestry in my head. And then Ian McEwan was a huge influence with the book because he knows how to tell a story like it’s just so suspenseful. He knows pacing and how to dish out information in just the right amount of time and so I was really thinking about that a lot. The third writer for this particular book was Graham Green because number one his books are great, but particularly the way he explores moral grey zones. He knows there are no easy answers to anything and he loves that.
Do you take different influences from book to book?
That’s interesting. I don’t hear many people say that.
I mean it’s funny, because I didn’t start out writing thinking that these are the authors I want to emulate but they were the writers I was reading a lot of as I was writing. Like, oh man, these are my guys.
Do you write more from memory or from research?
It’s a combination. Memory is research when you’re a writer, as it turns out. Like, I didn’t know that for the past ten years when I was going to visit my in-laws that I was doing research on that town but apparently I was because it called upon my memory of that town and that area to recreate it. I knew that I wanted her driving around the Chicago area because she loves to drive so that was just me going on the Internet and finding, you know, things around Chicago that were of interest to a driver. The clique of the five girls and the cruelties, while none of the things that they did were things that happened to me, I had a very strong memory of what it was like to be that age and what girls inflicted upon each other. So, its a delicate interplay between memory and research at all times.
You had a lot of success early in your career with Bee Season and your novel continue to receive acclaim, but was there a point earlier in your career when you were stifled or overwhelmed by all the notice or success?
Probably. The huge success of Bee Season probably changed or distorted the way that I wrote Wickett’s. When Wickett’s got well reviewed, I think that freed me up a bit and allowed me to go back to being a writer in a room writing a story in a way that I think was probably liberating. And this is all in retrospect. While I’m writing I’m not aware of any of this stuff because how can you be? You know, you can’t get that much outside of yourself in the moment.
I noticed that you dedicated The False Friend to your daughters. When they’re at the right age, is this the first of your novels you’d want them to read.
You know what? It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not really invested – you know, I like the idea of them reading me when they want to. I guess I just hope that whenever they do get around to reading this, it can become something that we share between us.
So are you going to start pushing certain books in their direction when the time is right?
Sure, but you gotta be careful with that though, because if you push something too much on the kids, they’re going to feel that and they’re gonna push back. So I guess the thing I hope the most is that they’re people who are excited about reading. And then, if that is the case, then my best job as a parent is to listen to them, listen to what it is they like to read, and then to guide them according to those interests. But oh sure, so many books that I love – I’ve already gotten them into Roald Dahl, and I have a couple in mind for later on that maybe when they get older I’d like to steer their way and see what they think.
You talked about how after a book comes out there’s a bit of a lag and you just read, but do you know what’s next for you?
Yeah, I’m in the very most embryonic stages of knowing what I think I want to write next. It’s developing slowly over time, but when I’m touring – touring is actually a really good time. Lots of reading, lots of listening to music and lots of germinating of ideas. For me, being in motion on a train or on a plane can be really good for brainstorming, so I try to use travel for that purpose.