I love traveling by train, ensconced with strangers boarding and debarking according to some mysterious and personal trajectory. So right from the start I was intrigued by Eric Goodman’s Tracks, a novel in short stories about travelers on a train headed from Baltimore for Chicago.
I talked to Eric about Tracks and his travel writing.
SONIA: The psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that cultural symbols that retain their original numinosity or spell can evoke a deep emotional response. When you were writing Tracks did you think of the train acting as a symbol in this way.
ERIC: Not at all. People more often ask me, why a train? They say no one travels that way anymore. Others think it’s romantic or nostalgic.
SONIA: Movies and mystery stories set on trains are always popular. What do you remember about your first train ride?
ERIC: I was probably four or five, on a day trip through the Midwest with my parents, but I have only a vague impression. I fell in love with trains when I was in Russia for a semester during college. We often traveled by train to Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was in the mid-nineties and trains were the main way for Russians to get around. There were few cars and they were expensive. I was with two other American students and a professor. We traveled on a night train with sleepers, clunky and rattling, but comforting, too, like I was being rocked to sleep. I remember the Russian passengers, the party atmosphere, people sharing cigarettes and vodka. They’d meet in the cabins and we would be invited in for conversation and camaraderie.
SONIA: Did any of those stories influence Tracks?
ERIC: Not directly. Often I’m asked if the stories are true, but I always say I’m romanticizing what’s happening in the same way people take pictures. In fiction, it’s not real, but there’s a truth in everything that’s told. I get my ideas from people I see on the street, or conversations I’ve overheard as a traveler. Other travelers, even armchair travelers, can appreciate that. In the book I make the point that when you have a conversation it can make a difference to the people around you though you might never realize the effect you have.
SONIA: Did you start out with the idea of collecting short stories into a novel?
ERIC: For the first two or three stories I didn’t realize I was writing a collection. When I saw that they were all connected, I went through my file of story ideas and drafts, and rewrote them to make them work with the first few.
SONIA: You do travel writing too. I noticed that some of them read like a train story, especially the one about Paul Simon (Surprise Pilgrimage). You were driving by car, but you tied the songs and the memories they evoked to particular locations, as if they were train stations along your route. In Washington County, Maryland, you related to Beautiful. “The only clouds in the sky were white accents to bright blue.” In Lover, Pennsylvania, you wrote, “listened to Paul sing to his baby son in ‘Saint Judy´s Comet,’ and I thought of my own 15-month old waiting at home.”
ERIC: I never thought to compare it to the train.
SONIA: It was both a homage and an evocation. I could hear the songs in my head… Let’s come back to Tracks.You’ve read several of your stories from the book on the Baltimore station WYPR’s The Signal.
ERIC: Reading on the radio was a very good experience. I was intimidated by the idea, but with just two of us, me and Aaron Henkin, the producer, in the sound room I really enjoyed it. He also found just the right music and sound effects. Now I’ve done about twelve radio readings, eleven of them from Tracks. The readings are different than the stories in the book. I do the abridgments myself. I edit 25-30 pages and down to seven pages. I don’t make them into teasers like some writers do, but into shorter versions of the complete story. It showcases a different kind of writing ability.
SONIA: In one of the radio readings from Tracks, “Mountain of Sand,” a poet reviews his fall from grace after overhearing a woman who looks like an old lover tell the conductor she left her lover because of his ego. The poet is confronted by his own ego and begins to let go of it.
ERIC: I think that’s something a lot of writers become aware of at some point. We all want our writing to be noticed, and there’s a certain amount of ego there. But in the end, it should be about the writing itself or the story being told, not the ego of the writer.
SONIA: It’s an important point for all of us who write.
We talked about the Paul Simon piece which was a solo trip. Do you take your family along on some of your travel writing trips?
ERIC: Mostly my wife goes. Usually we rent an apartment overseas. Sometimes the kids go, especially now that they’re older. I also like to travel alone sometimes so I can explore and get to know people a little. I was an army brat and travel calls to me. I like traveling so much, and writing travel stories is a way to do that. Along the way I’m vetting places for settings and story ideas. Writers are always doing this but it’s intensified when traveling.
Tracks: A Novel in Stories is the 2012 winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award, a Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Learn more about Eric D. Goodman and his writings at his website tracksnovel.com. Or see him on December 4 at a Holiday Bazaar at The Historic York Inn / Smyser Bair House, 30 South Beaver Street in downtown York, PA. Watch for Eric at Lit & Art at the Watermark. Watermark Gallery, 100 S. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD.