Allegra Goodman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Allegra Goodman
Photo © Keller & Keller

Allegra Goodman

An interview with Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman explains her motivation for writing Kaaterskill Falls

I was born in Brooklyn New York, but only lived there two weeks. I spent my childhood in Hawaii, from the time I was two until I went away to college. At Harvard where I was in the class of '89, I majored in English and philosophy, and wrote and saw the publication of the stories that comprise my first book, Total Immersion. After graduation, I got married and spent a year in England writing fiction while my husband David studied "maths" at Cambridge University. Then we went to Stanford, where he got a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and I got a Ph.D. in English. While at Stanford I wrote most of the stories that make up my second book, The Family Markowitz. Many were published in The New Yorker. But throughout this time I was working on one long term project, a novel: Kaaterskill Falls.

I wrote Kaaterskill Falls for three reasons: The first was that I wanted to capture a particular time and place that had made an indelible impression on me and my family. My mother's family had a house in a small town in upstate New York, and every summer they would leave Brooklyn to enjoy the mountains, the lakes, the trees, the shade, and their dear friends and neighbors, who also came up every year and formed a small tightly knit yet also diverse Jewish community. As a child I used to go with my parents and sister to that house with its beautiful garden. The neighborhood, and the whole landscape were exotic to me--the cool mornings and the deciduous trees, the mountains, waterfalls and clear lakes, the Yankee houses with their porches and steep slate roofs, even the petunias and snap dragons in the flower beds were all so different from the tropical island I knew. Long after our family stopped going to the mountains in the summers, my mother would dream about the town and her house. She missed that place, and I got the idea that I would write a book that would somehow capture and recreate that place of her childhood for her. I was twenty-one.

The second motivation for writing this novel was that I was interested in delving into a rich, and for many, foreign strand of American Jewish life. I wanted to write about an Orthodox community grounded in tradition, but to do so in a way that was neither anthropological, nor sentimental. I wanted to write about men and women who were believers and traditionalists and even separatists in America, but to write about them as individuals, and as human, with all their idiosyncrasies, their ambitions, their fears, their flaws and their hopes. I loved that challenge.

Finally, my third reason for writing this novel was artistic. I wanted to write a novel about how individuals define themselves within the confines of family and community; about what they might choose to leave behind them, and why they might choose to stay. I wanted to write a novel about difficult moral choices and their consequences as people shape themselves and their worlds. The structured separatist community I invented, the Kirshners, and the traditional neighbors in Kaaterskill provided a stage with which to play out my drama. I was interested in writing about principle, and belief, the hold of religion and history, and so I wrote about people who were principled and were believers, and were held by religion, and--some of them--drawn to art. I wanted to create a rich detailed canvas that would draw the reader in, taking the reader to a new place, allowing the reader to see the world through my characters' eyes. I was inspired by the great novels of the nineteenth century, in which a whole world comes to life as we read. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope. And yet my novel is an unmistakably twentieth-century book. My narrator is unobtrusive, my narrative is written in the present tense, and most of all, my characters, are very much men and women of their time, grappling with holding onto tradition in a modern world, struggling, even in their orthodoxy to maintain their religious lives in the aftermath of the Holocaust. My characters' summers in the Catskills are both serene and poignant.

The selection I have chosen for you focuses on Elizabeth, the character who is perhaps the heart of this book. She is a devout mother of five daughters who goes about both chores and prayers with a calm grace envied by her neighbor Nina Melish. Only under the surface is Elizabeth restless. She is mature in her role as mother and wife, but she is also young, and her imagination pulls at her constantly wishing for a project of her own, a means of self expression. When she visits Olana with Nina and for the first time sees Thomas Cole's painting of Kaaterskill Falls, Elizabeth has a vision that changes her life...

Copyright © 1998 Allegra Goodman.First published in Bold Type 1998. Reproduced by permission of Random House publishing.

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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