A Conversation with Myla Goldberg about Wickett's Remedy
Wickett's Remedy is such a departure from your first published novel, Bee Season. What sparked your interest in the influenza epidemic of 1918?
About five years ago, I came across a newspaper article that listed the five most deadly plagues of all time and the 1918 flu epidemic was one of them. I consider myself an amateur disease nerd and I'd never heard of the 1918 flu, which meant that I immediately had to learn everything about it that I could.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Whatever I could think of! I read loads of books and articles about influenza, the 1918 epidemic, and the general time period. I read period fiction and newspapers and magazines. I visited Boston; I walked down Washington Street and all around Southie. The only place I wasn't able to get to was Gallups Island.
The structure of the novel includes primary sources, various narrative strands, and a compelling chorus of the dead. How did you piece together the novel's elaborate structure and where did the idea for a chorus commenting on the action of the novel come from?
I'm a big fan of books that tell their stories using unconventional narrative structures. One of my all-time favorite books is Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, which is a novel essentially written in annotations; and then as I was doing my period research, I came across USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos, which tells its story using lots of different kinds of texts. USA Trilogy's structure just blew me away, and was a very direct inspiration for how I ended up structuring Wickett's Remedy. The chorus of the dead came into being when I realized that I was writing a book about the unreliability of memory. It occurred to me that marginal voices would be a great way to approach this idea. The actual act of piecing together all this stuff was a physical one. I kept a small, plastic box filled with color-coded index cards, an index card for every section of text. As I was trying to figure out how to fit everything together, I physically juggled these cards around until all the narratives flowed the way they needed to. I still love opening that box and looking at those cards. Making them and moving them around was like being ten again and playing with the best toy ever.
Lydia is an interesting character: brave, capable, yet mild-mannered and self-effacing. What do you think would have been her fate had she not married the medical student Henry Wickett?
If she had not married Henry Wickett, then she wouldn't have been Lydia. But if for some reason she had never met him, I'm sure someone or something else would have come along that would have inspired her to make unconventional choices; and once the epidemic arrived I think she would have pursued a path very similar to the one she chose for herself, Henry or no Henry.
The parlance of the character's dialogue makes the story so believable. How did you learn how characters from different stations in life spoke to one another?
I'm an inveterate eavesdropper. It's kind of a problem because I can't turn it off. I'll be in a restaurant eating and there'll be some horribly obnoxious man one table over and I'll be absolutely incapable of tuning him out. The upside of this is that everything I hear sticks in my brain somewhere and helps me out when I'm trying to write people different than myself. The subway is great for this, but all of New York City is amazing for eavesdropping on all sorts of different people, especially now that cell phones have taken over the world. Cell phones inspire some of the most unguarded human speech you will ever hear from the mouths of strangers.
At Gallups Island, Lydia meets and becomes friendly with several draft-dodgers. This seems meaningful when the First World War is so often remembered as a necessary and popularly supported war. Do you think this plotline has political significance today?
Actually, they're mostly not draft-dodgers; they're mostly guys who messed up in one small way or another and got thrown in the brig for it – often unfairly – due to the arbitrary nature of military justice at the time. When I first started thinking about these guys, I assumed they were draft-dodgers; but then I found historical sources that suggested otherwise. That said, before I discovered those sources, I did a fair amount of research into those who opposed World War I (protesters did not have an easy time of it) and what it felt like to live in the U.S. at that time (there was a lot of pressure to cheer on the war machine). After 9/11, it was eerie how much of what I had researched ended up being mirrored by daily life on our own present-day home front. The Lusitania incident served as a similar catalyst, from a historical perspective, as 9/11, though I strongly doubt that history will view U.S. involvement in Iraq anywhere near as favorably as it views U.S. involvement in World War I.
Some of the funniest bits of the novel are excerpts from the newsletters and correspondence of QD soda enthusiasts. Some of the saddest bits are the letters written by Quentin Driscoll to his dead son and wife. Do you want the reader to have sympathy for Mr. Driscoll, despite the fact that he stole the Wickett's Remedy recipe? Do you imagine him to be a villain or merely an opportunist?
My intention was to show Quentin Driscoll as a flawed person, but not as a villainous one. There are remarkably few villains or heroes in the world; people are far too complex to be comfortably outfitted with white or black hats.
You have a distinctive gift for quietly capturing the moment when a character realizes something tragic will happen or has happened. With a subject matter like this one, it takes a lot of skill not to bank all the emotion of the story on the deaths of those with the flu. Was it a difficult task to keep the story afloat despite the mayhem of the epidemic setting?
For the story to work at all, it had to be bigger than that one event, which is why it was so important to create, in Lydia, a character the reader could really follow and get behind. The epidemic is something that changes Lydia, but it is only one part of her larger life, just as the epidemic is something that changes the story, but is only one part of the larger book.
It's been five years since the publication of Bee Season. Have you been surprised by the response to the book and what, if any, has been your reaction to the film adaptation (starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche)?
I never expected that Bee Season would be so widely-read. The response to that book was and continues to be incredibly gratifying; my life exists as it does today because of that book and I can't imagine a time when I will not wake up each morning thankful for that. Even when Bee Season got optioned, I never expected it would actually become a film – so few optioned books do – and the fact that it is not only a movie but one with such huge names in it continues to strike me as surreal. I feel very lucky in that everyone involved with the film has been open and communicative about the process – and their overall devotion to the book was a constant source of surprise. When I visited the set, I had costumers and set dressers coming up to me to tell me how much they'd liked the book, which I think is pretty unheard of.
Q: What are you working on next?
Right now I'm working on a few short stories and I'm thinking about trying out some other forms as well – maybe a play or a screenplay, maybe a children's book. I'm going to give myself a break from novels for a while. Wickett's Remedy took five years of full-time writing; my brain needs a chance to recharge.
A Conversation with Myla Goldberg about
did you become interested in spelling bees? What, if anything, do they
reveal about American identity?
I became interested in spelling bees in 1997, after reading an essay in which they were described in the context of generating lots of losers rather than a single winner. I'd had several friends who had been involved in spelling bees as children and had related various awful anecdotes about their experiences; these two things combined to convince me to visit the National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. that year to see the thing myself.
Spelling bees were invented in the United States and to this day the United States is the only country which has spelling bees: how that reflects upon American identity depends on your mood when you think about it. A kind conclusion one could draw is that spelling bees are an indicator of the importance language plays in national pride and identity. The prevalence of competitions in general shows the American need to be better than anyone else at something, whether it is selling cars or memorizing state capitals or knowing how to spell dvandva. A less kind conclusion can be drawn if you consider the fact that the spelling bee was invented as a gimmick to sell newspapers. To this day the spelling bee is sponsored by Scripps Howard, a large newspaper syndicate; a child can not participate in the spelling bee circuit unless they attend a school with an approved newspaper sponsor. From that angle, spelling bees can be seen as evidence that Americans will stop at nothing to make a buck, even if that involves subjecting children to a high-pressure competition involving obscure words they will never again have the need to use and whose definitions most of them never learn.
Talk about how your experiences observing the national spelling bee, as well as getting to know the contestants and their families, help shape the characters in Bee Season.
I spent two days at the national competition watching the bee, interviewing contestants, and eavesdropping on parents. The character of Eliza began to take form while I was watching the final rounds, as did several of the supporting characters within the book's spelling bee scenes. The general intensity of the environment there helped build my confidence that there was, in fact, a novel to be written here. Being at the hotel among the contestants and their parents felt very much like inhabiting a secret alternate universe that few people knew about--as if I had undertaken some kind of National Geographic-type excursion.
Why did you set this novel in the early 1980s? What makes that particular period of American history vital to the Naumann family's story?
I set the story in the early 1980s because that was when I was the approximate age of Eliza and Aaron, so it allowed me to draw upon my own memories of childhood. I'm not sure the time the novel takes place is essential to the story. If I could have written the book without setting it specifically in space or time I think I would have--the larger issues of the book (identity, the search for meaning in life, the quest for community) transcend those details.
Much of the novel centers on the coming of age of the Naumann children, Eliza and Aaron. How much of Eliza and Aaron do you see in your own experiences growing up?
Anyone who survives past the age of 13 would have experiences in common with Eliza and Aaron; though they face the challenges of growing up differently, both are yearning for acceptance while trying to figure out exactly what acceptance means, what sacrifices it requires, and what sacrifices they are willing or able to make to attain it.
At one point, Eliza thinks that the dictionary has made the spelling bee superfluous. How has the art of spelling changed today, especially in light of computers? Do spelling bees mean the same thing today?
One thing spelling bees have the potential to do, and will always have the potential to do, is provide a unique vantage point from which to understand language as a whole. There are kids who study for the bee by learning word roots and derivations, and these kids get a pretty cool history lesson along with a skill that can actually help them later on in life. For the majority who approach spelling bees through rote memorization, the spelling bee has been and will always be pretty much useless.
The significant change that computers have wrought upon the culture of spelling has come not via the spell-check function of word processing programs but through the insidious automatization of that function: your computer can now correct you as you type. In the past, people were at least made aware of their errors and exposed to the proper spellings of the words they had flubbed; the computer alerted you to the error but it was up to you to make the proper correction. With the automated function, people are not necessarily even aware of the fact they have misspelled a word; mistakes are passively reinforced with the eventual result that people will become increasingly dependent upon their machines to help them simulate competency.
How did you get interested in Jewish mysticism? Talk about how you researched some of the religious texts that the father, Saul Naumann, studies and translates.
I took a class in Jewish mysticism in college and some of the stranger aspects of it--especially the beliefs and methods of Abraham Abulafia--stuck with me. It was only after I returned from the national bee that I realized its uncanny resemblance to Abulafia's techniques. It was at that moment Jewish mysticism entered the story, as well as the character of Saul. For research, I re-read some of the stuff I'd read in that class six years before, particularly the work of Gershom Scholem. I also found a book in which some of Abulafia's texts had been translated into English.
What is your background in non-Western religions? What research did you do in order to write about Aaron's explorations of other faiths?
My background in non-Western religions was and remains fairly minimal. In a way that made it easier to write Aaron's character since I was pretty much starting out from the same place he did. I did some minimal reading about Buddhism and nothing at all about Catholicism--a result of that was that I got a letter from a reader informing me that the kind of Catholic service I describe in the book doesn't really happen anymore. The biggest part of my research involved learning about Hare Krishnas. I read a few books about them but, more importantly, I visited a Krishna temple posing as someone interested in joining. I spent the afternoon being led around by a really nice female devotee who answered my questions and gave me free stuff.
What do you see as the parallels between religious and personal faith and something like a spelling bee?
Faith of some sort (in oneself, in someone else, or in something larger) generally comes into play when undertaking an action that involves risk. The higher the level of risk involved, the stronger chance that faith is also involved. In the case of the National Spelling Bee--in which 150 kids have survived a nationwide winnowing and now very publicly attempt to be the one remaining speller in a contest that initially involved over 9,000,000--I would say that those kids probably have faith in a combination of things, ranging from their personal abilities (augmented by hours and hours and hours of studying) to various higher powers. The winner of the 2000 bee, for example, was a born-again Christian who, whenever he was asked for his autograph, preceded his name with the words "Jesus Lives."
How did your own sense of yourself as Jewish play into your development of the Naumann family, and the different members' approaches to Jewishness?
Having been raised in an observant Jewish household, making the family in Bee Season Jewish was a matter of convenience along the lines of choosing to set the story in the early 1980s. For the purposes of the story's larger concepts, the family could have just as easily been Hindu or Catholic. Making the family Jewish allowed me to rely upon my own memories of observance, including attending services.
As Eliza becomes more proficient at spelling and "opens herself up to the letters," she seems to evolve into a different person. What do you see as the relationship between coming of age and mastering language?
I relate Eliza's growing proficiency with spelling to the general childhood and adolescent experience of growing to appreciate one's strengths and becoming more self-confident as a result of this knowledge. I've never really thought much about the mastery of language in relation to coming of age, though it sounds like a great thesis topic.
Where do you see each of these characters in ten years?
Where these characters are in ten years depends a lot upon how Saul reacts to the actions Eliza takes at the story's end. Ten years from now, the family could be in a much better place than they are at the story's end, or the story's end could have marked the beginning of a downward spiral; it all depends upon whether or not Saul interprets his daughter's actions as a wake-up call to what's been happening to the family.
Bee Season is written in a quirky third-person voice and the world of the Naumanns is permeated by popular culture references that bristle against the spiritual longings of each character. What writers and books have influenced you in the development of this style?
David Foster Wallace was both a structural and narrative influence; I was just finishing Infinite Jest as I began Bee Season and I pretty much stole his structural use of small sections of text that carry the reader from one place to another as the story proceeds. Other influences are less direct but would probably include Donald Barthleme, and J.D. Salinger and a whole slew of other writers I admire and consciously or unconsciously attempt to emulate in one way or another. I'm a huge admirer of Nabokov, for example, and I can only hope that some of him has rubbed of on me.
Your next book, Wickett's Remedy, deals with a particularly virulent early twentieth century flu epidemic. How did you come to this topic?
I don't feel that I come to topics; it's more the other way around. I feel like spelling bees found me, as did the 1918 influenza epidemic. I first read about the 1918 epidemic in a newspaper article about two years ago and I've been pretty much obsessed ever since. Because novels take so long to write, a degree of obsession is an essential guard against boredom.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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