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.
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.
Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko opens with this sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” While Lee’s emphasis in the novel is aimed squarely on the “us” in that sentence, I was captivated by the history she explores, largely because my knowledge of it was sorely lacking.
begins in Yeongdo, Korea, in 1910, the year the country was annexed by the
Empire of Japan after years of war and intimidation. During the occupation that
followed, Japan took over Korea’s labor and land and waged war on its culture.
Japanese families were given land in Korea, where they chopped down trees by
the millions and planted non-native species. Korean workers were forced to work
in Japan and its other colonies.
I’ve been a fan of the writing of Tayari Jones since I read her novel Silver Sparrow several years ago, so I approached her new novel, An American Marriage, with a great deal of happy anticipation. I was not disappointed. But then numerous awards organizations can’t be wrong. Among the many honors An American Marriage has won since its publication in 2018 are Oprah’s Book Club selection, nomination by the American Booksellers Association for the 2019 Indies Choice Book of the Year Award, selection for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, and selection as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.
All of these groups had various reasons for honoring An American Marriage, but for me the joy of reading the novel sprang from two main sources: Jones’s fresh approach to what could have been a hackneyed story and the beautiful simplicity of her writing.
In my review of The Bookshop of Yesterdays in January, I talked about the novel’s complex interweaving of different types of stories, including a mystery, an adventure story, a love story, and a tribute to literature. This month I’m pleased to have Bookshop’s author, Amy Meyerson, tell us some of how she created this bestselling novel, which will be translated into nine languages. Amy teaches in the writing department at the University of Southern California, where she completed her graduate work in creative writing. She’s been published in numerous literary magazines and currently lives in Los Angeles.
SW. I really enjoyed the clues in the story’s scavenger hunts. How did you approach writing the ones that weren’t direct quotes?
AM. There are three different scavenger hunts in the novel, two from Miranda’s childhood and the one her uncle sends her on in the present day of the book.
A good novel delves deep into the psyches of its characters while also telling a story that’s intriguing enough to keep the reader turning pages. The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson succeeds on both fronts by weaving three different types of stories about the same people into a seamless whole.
The Bookshop of Yesterdays is an
adventure story developed through a clever scavenger hunt. For the first twelve
years of her life, Miranda Brooks spends happy hours following the clues to scavenger
hunts designed by her Uncle Billy. Then, after a hunt that leads Miranda to the
puppy she’s always wanted but her mother refuses to let her keep, Uncle Billy
disappears, and she doesn’t hear from him again until just before his death 16
At a recent book club meeting, one of our members remarked that because the club had such mixed feelings about the novel Exit West, it likely wouldn’t become a classic. “A classic,” he said, “has to have good writing, characters we care about, a good story, and a deeper meaning.” Since we couldn’t agree about the characters or the writing, Exit West fell short.
A lot of scholars, writers, editors, and others in the literary world have defined “classic literature,” and doing a little research on the subject, I found that most of the definitions are similar to what my book club member suggested. Mark Twain had the most succinct definition—“a book which people praise and don’t read”—but assuming novels are read, I think the true standard for classic is that the novel has stood the test of time.
Although I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, I have never joined a book club. Until now.
In years past, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the reading pace of a club or the selections wouldn’t appeal to me and I would miss out on reading books I really wanted to read. But then I uprooted my life, moved to a new state, and decided to be open to whatever reasonable opportunities came my way. One of the first opportunities I saw was a book club in my new community, so I plunged right in.
Now here I am, trying to understand the workings of my particular book club and how to be a good contributor.
Inspiration for good novels can come from anywhere. Sometimes stories spring from experiences in the author’s life. Other times they explore experiences the author never had but wonders about. Recently I read two very good novels that were heavily influenced by horrific events of the recent past, and they started my thinking about how authors can use such events to give life to engrossing characters and spellbinding stories.
The first novel, Before We Were Yours, draws on the history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, run by Georgia Tann in Memphis during the first half of the twentieth century. The Society was well respected until the 1940s when authorities discovered that Tann had destroyed most of the adoption papers to cover up how many children were taken illegally from their parents to be offered to film stars and other wealthy clients for exorbitant adoption fees.
The first thing that intrigued me about the novel I’m about to review was the title: The Book That Matters Most. With all the great books in the world, choosing one that matters most seems nearly impossible, so I was curious to see where the author would lead me. The second thing that intrigued me was the main character, Ava, whose husband has recently left her for a woman who attempts to personalize public places by covering objects with colorful yarn.
But the deeper I got into the novel, I found I was most captivated by the idea that novels have the power to change lives. I’ve written before about the way fiction can decrease readers’ needs to reach quick conclusions in their thinking and to avoid ambiguity and confusion.
What exactly is folk art?
When I was on a tour at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Va., a guide asked me if I knew what folk art is. I’m an antique collector, and I’ve seen a lot of what I thought was folk art, but I don’t have an exact definition.
The guide suggested that folk art is created by artists who have no formal training in art. Consequently, she said, most folk art paintings lack perspective or at best have very primitive use of perspective, such as outlines. As an example, she pointed out the dark spots beneath the children’s hands in one of Edward Hicks’ versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The painting she was talking about, which hangs in the museum, is shown at left.
When you’re reading a novel, do you ever question the authenticity of the characters because they’re different from the author? Can male authors create realistic female characters? Can female authors create convincing men? What about white authors writing black characters and vice versa? These questions have been around since the beginning of literature. When the male/female issue is raised, critics like to cite the rich characterization of Madame Bovary, a testament to Gustave Flaubert’s understanding of a particular woman. And yet even great novelists can stumble. I’ve always contended that the male characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula are not as complex as the female characters and that the novel (excellent as it is) suffers for that.
When The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron was published in 1967, black critics banded together to denounce Styron and the novel.
When M.O. Walsh released his debut novel My Sunshine Away, reviewers named him the newest member of the Southern gothic literary tradition. The novel, which I reviewed on Late Last Night Books here, offers the rich atmosphere and haunting darkness associated with the Southern gothic school, but it also offers many-faceted characters caught in some of life’s profound dilemmas. In recognition of its excellence, My Sunshine Away won the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction. I was delighted when Walsh agreed to answer questions about his inspirations, writing techniques, and more.
S.W. What is appealing about the U.S. South in general as a setting? Would you ever consider writing a novel set somewhere other than the South?
Most novels that include an assault in the plot feature that assault as the main event. One of the beauties of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel My Sunshine Away is that the rape described on page one is not the main event, no matter how much the young narrator wants to think it is.
At age 14, the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the story, is infatuated with his 15-year-old neighbor Lindy. So, when she is attacked coming home from track practice one summer night in 1989, he thinks the world as he knows it is destroyed. Through his remaining adolescence, he sees life through the prism of the rape and how it affects Lindy’s relationship with him, while all around him so much else is happening that belies the idyllic quality of his southern neighborhood and that will shape him into the adult he becomes.
Summer is the time for road trips, and one of the best traveling companions is a phone or iPad full of audiobooks. If I’m driving alone, I get antsy if I have to go very far without one of these lively passengers. They’re also great for sharing if you have one that everybody in the car likes. I find the best books for travel are lighter fare because it’s hard to keep up with complex plots when traffic takes your attention.
One of my favorite series of books for listening in the car is the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross. Miss Julia is a clever, opinionated, and lovable woman of a certain age who has a knack for getting involved in thorny circumstances, sometimes by her own actions, but usually not.
Lily Iona MacKenzie is a multi-talented author who follows her muse through short stories, novels, nonfiction, and poetry. In her novel Fling!, which I reviewed here last month, she explores the profound influences (good and bad) of family relationships, even after family members die, but she does it with humor and joy. Using magical realism, MacKenzie celebrates life and spiritual ties in many forms. Her own life experiences include working as a long distance telephone operator, a secretary, a longshoreman, manager of a homeless shelter, and writing teacher at the University of San Francisco. Her next novel, Curva Peligrosa, will be released by Regal House Publishing later this year.
At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”
Ever since The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was released in 2014, I’ve heard it described as the story of the relationship between a white girl and the enslaved black girl who is given to her as her personal maid on her eleventh birthday. The novel is that story, but its deeper story is the evolution of the white girl, Sarah Grimké, into not only a leader of the abolitionist movement but also one of the first proponents of women’s rights.
Sarah Grimké was a real person who was born into Charleston aristocracy and grew up there in the years before the U.S. Civil War. Kidd used diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and Sarah’s own writing as well as biographical material to learn the facts of Sarah’s life and many of her desires, struggles, and motivations.
Most fiction fans know about Maxwell Perkins’s role in paring down Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling narratives to shape them into manageable novels. Fewer people are familiar with the massive influence Perkins had on other iconic American fiction writers and on the literary standards of the early 20th century. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the National Book Award winner by A. Scott Berg, tells Max’s story with all the color and style worthy of its subject. Filled with details and personalities, the biography reads like a novel, following the brave exploits of its central character.
Take a beautiful sea setting, add a few endearing but complex characters, top it off with serious moral dilemmas, and what do you get? The Light Between Oceans, an excellent debut novel by M.L. Stedman.
Set mostly at a lighthouse on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Australia, The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on the island, visited only once a season by two men who bring them supplies. This isolated existence suits Tom, who believes that if he can get far enough away from people and memories, time will heal the mental and emotional wounds he carries from fighting in World War I, especially the nightmares that remind him of the blood on his hands.