An Interview with Myla Goldberg, by Maria Gagliano
May 12, 2013
Myla Goldberg has a way about her. Not everyone can inspire a famous rock star they don’t even know to write a song about them. Not everyone can transport themselves back to the mind of an eleven-year-old. And most of us certainly can’t sit our butts down for six to eight hours straight, distractions be damned, and just write. That certain something is evident in her novels—from Bee Season, which inspired the Decemberists’ Song for Myla Goldberg, to her latest novel, The False Friend, in which she vividly relives life among adolescent girls.
I caught up with Myla just as she arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin teaching a stint of MFA workshops. We talked about obsession, growing up, and her desire to give Edgar Allan Poe a good glass of orange juice.
The theme for this issue is Obsession, so I thought I’d start by asking you if there’s anything you’re currently obsessed with, whether it’s writing related or otherwise.
I think any writer is always obsessed with writing, or we wouldn’t be writers, but specifically right now I’ve been thinking a whole lot about ambition, and how its presence or its absence shapes the course of someone’s life. Who has ambition and who doesn’t, and why, and whether it’s possible to gain ambition if you didn’t have it before, or lose ambition if you had it once a long time ago. And what effect does the presence or absence of ambition have on our personal ideas of success or failure, or happiness and unhappiness. That’s my big thing lately.
That’s a lot to think about. Have you come to any conclusions?
No. I’m in the very, very, very early stages of a new book, and that’s one of the major questions that’s fueling the book.
I actually wanted to ask what you’re writing these days. Can you tell us more about it?
That’s the most I can say—it’s so early on. The analogy I give is, when someone is pregnant and they’re, let’s say, three months along, and people ask, “Oh, how’s the pregnancy going?” You can’t just rip the fetus out and hold it up and say, “Hey, what do you think so far?” That’s kind of how I feel with books. When I’m first starting, it’s got to stay inside, otherwise it totally ruins it.
Do you have any writing habits, like a favorite time and place to write?
Well, I consider myself a full-time writer, which I’m actually not. I split my time between writing and teaching, but I’m very disciplined about how I organize my time. I think that’s essential. On the days I teach, that’s just a teaching day, and that’s all I do. On the days I write, that’s just a writing day, and that’s all I do. I get to my computer at around nine or nine thirty on a writing day. If I have to pick up my kids from school that day, I’m there until three o’clock, and if not, I’m there until five.
There’s no magic to it. People are so interested in the daily rituals of writing, or your approaches. You just sit your butt in the chair, and you don’t let yourself get up. I don’t do it in terms of getting a certain amount of pages done or word count, because for me it’s about putting in the time. I think it can be dangerous, at least for me, to think about it in terms of words or pages, because I’m already focused on the product, and for me it’s about focusing on the process. Sometimes I need to spend three hours on one page, and that’s legitimate, and that’s important.
Do you remember when you decided you really wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer at least since second grade, if not before. It was always what I said I wanted to do and wanted to be. I remember an early story; I was at my grandmother’s house, in her kitchen, and writing a story about Edgar Allan Poe rising from the grave, which I illustrated with crayons.
Wow, that’s heavy for a kid.
I was a really morbid child. But yeah, it’s what I’ve always, always wanted to do. You know how you play house when you’re a kid? I would literally sit at an electric typewriter (because we’re talking about the early ’70s here) and pretend that I was writing a book. That was fun for me. I was captivated by stories; I loved books, and so there was no cooler thing—to my mind—than making them. I noticed you dedicated your latest book, The False Friend, to your daughters. The book offers a chilling, realistic look at the complex world of female friendships.
Is there a message you hope they’ll one day take from the story?
I’m not sure there’s a message per se, but I wanted to share the experience of how hard it can be to make the right decisions sometimes, and how even good people make mistakes; how hard it is to be a friend, and what we all go through. There’s a universality there, and when they read it, it can help them realize that everyone has problems, that everyone goes through this—which isn’t to say that the problems that afflict the protagonist are going to be their problems. There are the larger ideas in that book about bullying, being on either side of it. And trying to live a life that is worthwhile; a life in which you have relationships that mean something to you, and in which you can give back to people what they’re giving to you.
*This is an excerpt from an interview in Issue 12 of Slice. To purchase a copy of the issue with the full interview, click here.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and co-publisher of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, Salon, and BrooklynBased.net, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.
Author photo: Jason Little