When I read Eric D. Goodman’s novel Setting the Family Free, I was impressed with the themes that give the novel a memorable richness, so as I prepared to interview him, I put together questions about the ideas that resonated with me most. In his answers below, Eric expands some of my observations to include fresh themes that have even deeper meaning. Two of the most intriguing are that stories are different to almost everyone who knows them and individuals are unique to each of the people who know them. Read on to learn more about this thoughtful author and the perceptions that gave rise to Setting the Family Free.
Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel.
I had the pleasure of reading MANAGED CARE, by fellow Black Rose Writing author Joe Barrett, and of interviewing him for this month’s post.
1. What kinds of novels do you read? Who are your favorite authors? Any nonfiction?
I enjoy dark, offbeat satires – especially ones that allow readers to really empathize with main characters that have a twisted perspective on the world – like Nabokov’s Lolita or Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. I also am a huge fan of dialog, I like getting to know characters by what they say and do, as opposed to reading literal descriptions. In addition to the above mentioned two, some of my favorites are Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Matthew Norman, and Ron Curry. And I wish Paul Neilan would write another book because I thought Apathy and Other Small Victories was hysterical.
Peter Handke was one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and by now everyone knows, as the Swedish Academy did, that he supported Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader accused of genocide. My intention here is not to discuss whether Handke is a man who approves of genocide or not, but to question the basis on which literary prizes are awarded. Are they given for literary merit, or for the personal merit of the author? Or to put it another way: are prizes given for the value of the work of art, or for the character of the artist? This question is important not only for literature but more broadly for our entire civilisation.
My own political position should be irrelevant, but in case anyone doubts, let me begin by affirming that I condemn the genocide in Bosnia by the Bosnian Serbian forces, and have no sympathy whatever with Milosevic.
Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005)
One of the unfortunate casualties of the media’s war on Donald Trump and his ‘fake news’ response is a clear-eyed assessment of the extent to which outside factors influence what newspapers choose to print or not print. As a case in point, consider Laurel Leff’s thorough analysis of the New York Times coverage (or lack thereof) of the Nazi’s murderous campaign against the Jews of Europe. Leff exposes the Times’ intentional downplaying of what was happening out of a fear of being criticized for playing favorites due to the fact that the Times’ owner and publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jewish.
Sulzberger was a proponent of
the idea that Judaism was a religion and not the cornerstone of a people, a nation.
Think about it. When was the last time you read about a heroine who was not essentially modeled in the male heroic tradition? This tradition was consolidated by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle nearly 180 years ago. Find me a heroine who isn’t an individual acting essentially alone and against societal expectations; who isn’t defined by a journey of self-discovery culminating in an extraordinary individual act; who sacrifices self and many of those she loves—but not her individual integrity or self-reliance—to perform that act; who is ultimately, retrospectively, praised or memorialized for that individual performance. Find me a heroine that is not a clone of millions of male heroes who have come before her.
Nowadays people don’t generally think in terms of heroic tradition, and there’s a good reason.
Whenever I give a talk or reading, someone in the audience asks where my stories come from. I find the answer more complex that what it would appear to be on the surface. What are my narrative seeds? What starts me on these explorations of others’ lives?
One of my bios states “Lily sprouted on the Canadian prairies under cumulous clouds that bloomed in Alberta’s big sky. They were her first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave her a unique view of life on earth.”
I do credit those experiences I had as a child for my impulse to write, my desire to explore (and expand) my immediate surroundings, to move beyond them.
Lily Iona Mackenzie’s new novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy is a “coming-of-age” novel about four women turning sixty. As a woman of “a certain age,” this concept naturally caught my attention. The story of “wacky installation artist” Tillie Bloom and three friends from her teenage years follows the women’s lives over four decades in three countries, centered in the San Francisco Bay area, Whistler, BC, and Venice, Italy. The result is an imaginative, sometimes “hilarious,” romp with a touch of magical realism that also turns out to be a serious meditation on the relationship between art and mortality.
Besides Freefall, Mackenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 160 American and Canadian venues.
HAIL MARY, which will be published on May 7, 2020 by Black Rose Writing, is the sequel to EQUAL AND OPPOSITE REACTIONS by Patti Liszkay. This entertaining novel is a romantic comedy set in present-day Philadelphia.
The colorful characters are a bona fide mixture of what makes up the population in this city. Silvio, the blue-collar plumber from Northeast Philly, Darren, a white-collar real estate agent living in the fancy suburb of New Conshohocken, and Angelo, a questionable, foul-mouthed business owner, are a sample. Liszkay does her native city justice through these characters’ portrayal because they match the city’s grit, new money, bluntness, and corruption. They mirror the blue-collar grit and bluntness in the famous movie, Rocky, but also the new wave of professionals living in the city and its suburbs these days.
‘The most accomplished living novelist in the English language,’ John Irving said of Greene before the latter’s death in 1991—and yet how many Creative Writing students, especially in North America, have even heard of him these days, let alone read him? When I taught at a US graduate program, and recommended him, I generally found that my students did not know his work, even if they had heard of him. Of course, they had been stuffed full of novels by more ‘diverse’ writers.
So I shall stick my neck out and proclaim: You can save yourself thousands of dollars, writing students. Read half a dozen of Greene’s best novels carefully, as a writer does, and it will yield you more benefit than most MFA programs, especially those of the fashionable throw-the-western-canon-out-of-window variety.
Honoring writers who paved the way with their contributions to the literary world is a great way to introduce young people (as well as the still young-at-heart) to the joys of the written word. In Baltimore, we are especially grateful for the existence of the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum and the annual International Poe Festival and Awards which will take place this year Saturday and Sunday, October 4 & 5, from 11 am to 4 pm both days.
Poe’s place in the literary firmament is assured by those
who champion him as an forerunner of the genres of science fiction, mystery and
horror, but he is also a must read for his poetry and his critical essays. He
belongs in the pantheon of early American writers that includes the
Transcendentalists as well as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Perhaps, like me, you’re one of those people who, finding yourself in a crowd, looks around and wonders at the individual lives of each of the people surrounding you. The tattooed barista with half-shaved/half-purple hair, the guy with the sweat-stained underarms staring into the lingerie store display, the middle-aged business man shouting into his phone as though this were still 2005.
Hard as it is to imagine, all of these people have their own history, their own movie in which they star, their own universe in which they are the omnipotent point of view.
Well, Nathan Leslie imagines it. In Hurry Up and Relax—Leslie’s tenth book, coming out in October, the winner of the Washington Writers Publishing House 2019 Fiction Award—his darkly comedic eye takes in the refugees from the real estate bubble, the hostages of the gig economy, the Facebook stalkers, the Internet gamers trapped on the couch in permanent twilight.
I worked with Susan F. Darvas to publish RESIST ENDURE ESCAPE, a warm and personal account of growing up Jewish In Nazi and then Communist Hungary. She is one of a growing number of survivors who are telling their stories.
I also helped Erika Schulhof Rybeck, author of On My Own: Decoding the Conspiracy of Silence, publish this memoir of growing up in Austria, fleeing via Kindertransport at age 10 to a boarding school in Scotland, and finally at age 20 coming to America to join an aunt and uncle who had escaped from Vienna. Erika did not know she was Jewish. She was not told that her parents came from an illustrious Jewish family tracing back to generations of rabbis.
Toward the end of Setting the Family Free by Eric D. Goodman, one of the main characters thinks about what has to be done to “end this bloody twenty hours, thereby closing the darkest ordeal of his life,” but he can’t bring himself to do it. The fact that he is so conflicted is indicative of the many opposing threads that Goodman weaves together to create suspense and compassion in this tale of the escape of dozens of exotic animals from a homemade zoo in Chillicothe, Ohio. It’s a compelling story told by a skillful, adventurous writer.
The novel opens with a series of comments about animals from famous people as well as fictional characters who play leading roles in the story that’s about to unfold.
I had the opportunity to interview writer Michael J. Tucker this month about his new novel, Summer Haze. Mike is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, Aquarius Falling and Capricorn’s Collapse, the poetry collection Your Voice Spoke To My Ear, and the memoir A Disrupted Life. His short stories include the Amazon best-selling short story series, Katie Savage.
Tucker’s newest work, Summer Haze, is a coming-of-age novel about three gifted musicians who all overcome childhoods of verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse but eventually bond as a band of singer songwriters . They play in dive bars throughout the South and casinos along the Gulf Coast, navigating the challenges of friendship, rivalry, success, and, eventually, loss.
‘I would dread a world where to publish I had first to be certified as a nice person,’ wrote Lionel Shriver in The Spectator (16 December, 2017), and I agree. So, in the interests of countering what I consider to be the noxious and nauseating habit of being nice all the time—how the kindergarten teachers who police our arts love to lecture us on that—I have decided to publish a list of my least favourite writers. No gushing over how wonderful these fictioneers are, or what exemplary human beings they may be. No. These are people whose writing is over-rated, in my view (‘but that’s just me,’ as the current phrase goes, as if we should apologise for having an opinion at all, which we do if we are to remain PC-approved), or whose personalities I find abhorrent, usually because they’re sanctimonious or affected or hypocritical–but I feel I’m entitled to a little prejudice.
It’s the year 2000 and a cache of documents from the 17th century written in Portuguese, Hebrew and English has been discovered in a London suburb. With the help of a graduate assistant, an elderly female history professor begins to uncover the mystery of their origins. For her, it’s a last chance to go out on a high note; for him, it’s a distraction from a Ph.D. thesis on Shakespeare that’s not going well.
But The Weight of Ink is not just about that discovery and what it
reveals about the past, although what they learn is quite startling. Instead,
Kadish tells us the story of the people who composed and preserved the
documents themselves. Dry? Pedantic? Just the opposite.
In today’s environment of openness and explicitness, when virtually anything can and will be said and written, it’s a logical assumption that our level of communication and understanding is higher than ever—that very little is left to be revealed.
This has always intuitively seemed wrong to me, but it was the happy coincidence of reading Andrew Sean Greer’s best-selling novel, Less, and Anthony Trollope’s 1867 opus, Phineas Finn, more or less together, that helped me understand why.
If you’re not familiar with Trollope, or with
Victorian writing generally (or, for that matter, with Henry James, the primary
link between 19th and 20th century aesthetics and
sensibilities), it helps to know that these novels are really, really long.
“I write to make sense of my life.” —John Cheever
I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.
Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft.
NOTE: As part of an occasional “Writers on Writing” series I will be featuring occasional guest bloggers. Kicking off this effort is this piece by novelist Bill Woods. — Terra
A few days ago, a Facebook
friend sent me Van Gogh’s Starry Night,
a surreal picture a 3rd grader might idly do with crayon. And yet it
creates pure emotion in me. Neither I, nor intellectual art critics, can
explain how an artist captures emotion on canvas—or how my brain a century
later can extract that same emotion. I doubt Van Gogh had a clue either. The
process seems to be: ‘Emotion > canvas > emotion,’ no thought required.