an interview with Myla Goldberg      
photo of Myla Goldberg

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  What inspired you to write Bee Season?

I was at dinner one night with a friend, and she started talking about her experiences in the spelling bees. She had actually been in the nationals three times in a row, and she was part of a family that got really into the whole thing. She was telling me these stories, and I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. Eventually that clicked with Jewish mysticism, which has been a semi-obsession of mine for quite some time, basically since college. I had an awesome college professor who taught a class in it, and it had been sitting in my head ever since. One morning I woke up and the two ideas had combined, and I knew that I wanted to write this book.

Were you well-versed in spelling bee culture before?

Not at all. I was in all of one spelling bee in my life. It was in fourth grade and I lost immediately. The word was "tomorrow." I spelled it "tomarrow."

That was my spelling bee experience too. I lost on "chief" in fourth grade--got confused on the "i before e" rule. "Tomorrow" comes up in the book.

It does--it's a personal scar of sorts.

How would you define the "Jewish mysticism" concept?

In an abstract, secular sense, it's an attempt for people to find greater meaning in their lives, to find something above the banal, everyday course of living. I'm not a religious person, but if you want to define it from a more religious perspective, it's the idea of finding God, finding union with God, searching for some sort of communication.

Everyone in the Naumann family is searching for something.

Everyone's searching for meaning in life. What made it so compelling for me when I was writing the book is that there are these four people who seem so completely separate and who seem to exist in their own separate universes, and they're all looking for the same thing. For me that's kind of the tragedy of it, is that they all actually want the same thing, and if somehow they could realize that, they could actually help each other, instead of work at cross-purposes.

What is it that they all want?

They want something more than what they have. Everyone does; everyone wants more than just what they have when they get up and go through the motions of living day to day.

Did you do a lot of research for this book?

Yes. In 1997 I went to D.C. to visit the National Spelling Bee. I interviewed the kids and I sat in the auditorium and watched the whole thing--it was intense! If nothing else, that was what made me realize that I could write a novel about this. It's an alternate universe; there's just so much there. For me it became a microcosm of the childhood experience, for just about everyone that I know. You grow up, you have parents who have expectations of you, who want certain things, and you try really hard to fulfill them. And then you realize that you can't always. That kind of moment is defining for a lot of people. The spelling bee functions in two days to sum up that entire childhood experience. There are all these kids; some of them are there for themselves--they actually want to be there. But some of them are there because their parents are really excited about their being the best speller in the country, or wherever. The whole event was really intense.

As for the Jewish mysticism, as I said, in school I'd taken this class, and it set the seeds for that aspect of the story. I then did a lot more reading on the subject.

Where do the characters themselves come from? Are they composites of you or of people you know?

No, it's not that straightforward. My process tends to be very organic. I start with a single character, in this case Eliza, and I follow them around to see who else comes up. I knew Eliza was part of a family and I didn't really know who those family members were. I can't say that there's a one-to-one correspondence between any book character and a real-life character, but there's certainly little bits and pieces of lots of people I know thrown in. I hope that they're unrecognizable to most people, because it's supposed to be fiction.

The book's conclusion is open-ended. Nothing is fully resolved. Do you have ideas of what will become of the Naumanns?

I know the paths that they could take, but there's no one set path. For me, that's what I like about a story. I don't like books that tell you how everything's going to be, because life doesn't work that way. Nothing is ever resolved. My favorite kind of book is the book that plops you down in the middle of something and takes you along on a ride for a little while, and then lets you go, and you have to think it through. I think there's a variety of choices that could be made at the end of the book that will then steer the course for this family; some of them are happy and some of them aren't so happy, and it could go either way. I know what I hope happens, but I really feel like these are not my characters--they're their own characters. In their universe, things could go a number of ways, because there are several different choices they could make that are consistent with their personalities.

Do you still think about the Naumanns?

Not so much anymore. I'm working on my next book, and those characters are the ones that I'm thinking about constantly. Of course the Naumanns are still a part of me; I think that whenever you've created a character, he or she resides inside of you for a while, in various ways. I don't think about them every day, but they're there.

I found Miriam (the mother) to be such an intriguing character--a unique combination of neuroses. Where does she come from, and how does she function for you?

I've always been fascinated by obsessive people, probably because I'm one myself. Miriam fascinates me because she's already got what everyone else is looking for. She's found this other thing that adds meaning to what could otherwise be a pretty meaningless existence. She lives for that other thing. She's kind of stuck that way, because when you find something that you're intensely involved in, living can become a compromise. If you had your druthers, all you would do was the thing that gives you total joy all the time. But in reality, you have to eat, and you have to get up in the morning, and in Miriam's case you have a family that you have to take care of. For me, I'm totally obsessed with writing, and if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about the fact that I should be. So the concepts of obsession, and of having something that steers you through life, are what helped me form Miriam.

I also have a fascination with mental illness and its many different shades. I think everyone is a little bit mentally ill; it just depends on navigating your idiosyncrasies and trying to fit in to a world that generally doesn't tolerate idiosyncrasies. Miriam was a great way to explore that as well.

What factors determine whether or not someone acclimates to society?

It depends on many different things. There's the whole nature/nurture debate, there are a lot of environmental factors, and there are a lot of personal factors. It depends how inside your own head you are to begin with; it depends on what kind of support you get for being inside of your head and trying to navigate between the inside and outside; it depends on how many people make fun of you, and how you learn to handle people making fun of you. It's random--when it comes right down to it, you're either lucky or unlucky with how you acclimate.

To what extent do you think that parents' expectations can influence this? They play a big role in Bee Season.

Parents are extremely important in helping you figure out who you are and helping you define yourself. Saul's expectations for Aaron gave him a course to follow. Parents can provide you with ideas of how you want to live for a while, and if it happens to match up with who you are, you're lucky--it works out. Then you're set for a while, and you have your path ahead of you. That was happening for Aaron, but then as soon as that was taken away--and I think this is analogous to a lot of people--as soon as that support changes, or as soon as you change and start to question whether you're doing what you really want to do, you're either going to say, "Yes, this is right," or "This isn't at ALL what I want to do." And then it's up to you to find your own path, and that's what Aaron ends up doing. Set on his own, he realizes that maybe what his dad had spelled out for him wasn't quite what he was looking for, and so he heads off in a different direction.

Is the direction he chooses one he's truly attracted to, or is it a matter of it being vastly different from his father's choice?

It's a combination of both. I think that there's a healthy dose of rebellion within the process of self-definition. Aaron's definitely doing the rebellion thing. Ironically, he chooses a way of living that provides him with even more structure than his father provided him. In a way, he is seeking what his father gave him in a more extreme form. He finds something in which there are no ambiguities, everything is set, he's got a schedule, he knows what he needs to do from minute to minute.

Do you see the appeal in that sense of order?

I do. This was the other interesting part of my research. I visited the kind of alternative temple that Aaron becomes involved with. I spent a day there pretending that I was interested in joining their organization.

Was it just as you described?

Yes--that's why I was able to provide so much detail. I went there and pretended that I was this lost soul looking for something. And I can see the attraction. They were very friendly, open-hearted people, they took me in, they spent time with me, they answered my questions, they gave me all sorts of attention.

I can imagine the appeal for someone who does not have a support system of their own.

Exactly. It gives you all the support you need, gives you family and community and something to do and a reason to be around.

You speak very well in the voice of a nine-year-old girl; Eliza's perceptions are mature, and yet very appropriate for her. How did you find this voice?

I'm glad that worked. I'm starting to come to grips with the fact that I am a grown-up now, but part of me still identifies very strongly with childhood. There are aspects of childhood that I never want to lose. A child has a fresh perspective on things that is so valuable. They can see new things because they're not used to seeing the old ones yet. They're always looking at things in different ways and I really treasure that. One of my biggest fears when I got to be a "grown-up" was that all of a sudden everything would be boring to me. It's been a conscious effort of mine to stay in touch with what it's like to be young, and I think that effort helped here. It was also a good refresher to talk to the kids at the spelling bee.

When did you know that the book was done?

This ending was a revision, actually. The actual events at the end are the same as my original ending, but I made it work better this time around. I knew from the very beginning what was going to happen, that I wanted to end this book in a certain way, so I knew it was over because I got there. The way I generally work is that I'll have three large scale events: event A, event B, and event C. I don't really know how I'm going to get from A to B, but the writing eventually gets me there. So by the time I get to B, it's a little different, but is in essence what I was aiming for.

So you've mapped out the basics of where you want the story to go?

On a very rudimentary level usually this map changes. In the process of trying to get to B, B turns into B-sub-2, and that's fine. It's not set in stone; I hate outlines.

Do you share your works-in-progress with people?

Yes--I think it's essential. I am good at editing myself, but getting outside perspectives from people whose opinions and intellect I respect is essential. I've got three or four friends, including my husband, who are wonderful readers. I feel very lucky to have them.

What are you working on now?

A new novel. It's set predominantly in 1918, and most of it takes place during the influenza epidemic. There've been a couple of nonfiction books published this year about it, so it's gotten some buzz in the press. For the most part, though, we've forgotten about it: in 1918, a shitload of people died of the flu. In a four or five month period, more Americans died from influenza than have died in all the wars of the 20th century put together. It's enormous, and it's been totally forgotten by the world at large. I'm fascinated by it.

Where did this fascination come from?

From a New York Times article. The science world still doesn't understand the flu. They still don't understand why that particular strain was so deadly, and there's been a real drive to try to find a viable sample of it so they can analyze its structure. I read this article in the Times about some people who were flying to Scandinavia to try to find a body that had died of the flu and that was buried in permafrost, so that they might recover a bit of the actual virus. I had never really heard about the flu, but I started reading more after this.

Are you constantly open to finding ideas for your writing?

Sure, though once I get an idea, I tend to put blinders on. I'm not one of these people who keeps a constant notebook of ideas that I carry with me and always write in. Once I have an idea, I'll develop it and do research and be open to ideas and ways to develop that one particular concept. But I would definitely say that large-scale inspiration comes from outside me.

One thing I can't stand is this kind of self-revelatory fiction, autobiography disguised as fiction--that does not interest me. Fiction is supposed to be made up; you're supposed to use your imagination, you're supposed to weave together both fictitious elements and true ones to create something that really works. If you're not looking outside of you, I don't see how you're going to find that.

When you're fully immersed in writing a book, what kind of schedule do you keep?

I'm lucky enough that I can just write. I try to put in between four to six hours of writing each day. Usually I'll sit down to my computer at around ten, take an hour for lunch, and write until somewhere between three and five, depending on how long I decide to go. If I have a cup of coffee at around three, I can probably go till five. And I give myself the weekends off.

As well you should. What are some of your favorite books and authors?

Don't get me started--I could go on and on. I recently got really into Victor Pelevin, who is a contemporary Russian writer in his thirties who lives in Moscow. He wrote an awesome book called The Life of Insects. George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is a really awesome collection of short stories that a good friend of mine turned me onto. I like different things from different writers. I think if I could write like any one person it would be Nabokov, because he is just so fucking smart. His intellect slaps you across the face. He's inventive, and he doesn't do the same thing twice, which is also really important to me. I don't want to write on the same themes, I don't want to write the same story. Everything has to be different.

So the Naumanns won't show up in future works?

Oh gosh no--they're gone. I'm  also very interested in experimenting with form and structure. Nabokov did that with Pale Fire which is one of my favorite books in the universe. There's a French writer named Georges Perec who I really admire. He wrote a book called Life: A User's Manual that plays with trying to structure a narrative in a new way. He also wrote a book called A Void, in which he didn't use any "e's." I really like playing with form that way and trying to find new ways to tells stories.

I love Michael Ondaatje for his language. I tend to like poets who write fiction because their language is so gorgeous. I'm more of a plot person than some of Ondaatje's work tends to be, though I love to read it. My ideal situation would be to take Nabokov and Ondaatje and combine them with the wit of David Foster Wallace.

Bruno Schulz is another really great writer, who was killed during World War Two for being a Polish Jew. In his writing, he was able to have the everyday achieve a kind of mythic stature. He never left his little town in Poland, but he writes about everything as if it's magical. I like a bit of magic in things. I think that comes out in Bee Season; things definitely don't follow the everyday course that they're supposed to. I wouldn't call it magical realism; I think it's somewhere in between. Things should not always follow the rules that you'd expect them to.

Have you given any thought to turning your work into film?

I'm a movie addict--I go to them all the time. I've played with writing screenplays before. It's  a whole different set of rules and I don't really like them, I've decided. I'm too much of an egomaniac. I don't like compromising--film is just so complicated and you have to work with so many different people and you have to give up so much. I don't rule out one day writing a movie because it's fun, but I would only do it because it's fun. Novels are really where I feel most at home and most comfortable.

How would you feel if someone wanted to adapt Bee Season into a film?

I wouldn't say yes automatically. It would depend on who the director was, what their vision was for it. I could see it making a good indie feature, and so if the right person came along and we understood each other and had a similar vision for the film, that would be great.

Who would the right person be?

I really like the work of Todd Solondz, and I think some of the themes he addresses--like the ones in Welcome to the Dollhouse--are similar to Bee Season. Though for that very reason he probably wouldn't want to do this book. Atom Egoyan has done some wonderful adaptations of books, but I think he's trying to move away from adapting because he's done it so many times--I think he's working more on original scripts. But I think those kinds of directors could do a really great job. I don't see it as being a Hollywood movie by any stretch, and I think that I would balk if someone had that intention. Unless they wanted to pay me a whole lot of money!

This is actually something I've thought about a lot, because I really want to stay true to myself. The concept of "selling out" is a very real thing that I think about. But Bee Season is not the best thing that I'm ever going to write. I like this book and I'm proud of it, but it does not represent the best thing I've got. I'm young and this is my first book, but I think that I will be more protective of the things I write when I'm a more mature writer and I'm further along. Because I'm young and need to finance a life of writing, I'm more flexible with this. I think that when I finally write "the one..."

Your Pale Fire . . .

My Pale Fire--I think I'll be stricter with it.

What would you consider selling out?

That's a good question--I'm not sure. Compromising my ideals, or something that I think is important to me, for monetary gain. For example, if I let someone take this book and say, "I like this story, but this Jewish thing isn't working for me. What if we take the Jews and we make them something else?" If I agreed to it, that would be selling out. As long as you stay true to your vision, you're safe. If someone wants to compensate you handsomely for staying true to your vision, that's great. With film, it seems that there are necessarily going to be compromises on that front. You really can't stay true to every part of your original vision, so it becomes a question of asking yourself, "What parts can I give up? What should I not give up?" That's where the selling out becomes this big scary monster that can sneak up on you when you least expect it. I think that's true not just of turning a book into a movie, but in presenting anything that you have made to the public. If it's going to be handled by other people, and if it's going to be talked about, there are ways to present it that preserve its integrity and there are ways to present it that don't. It's something I think about a lot, because it's really important to me to stay true to the things that matter to me.

I imagine, then that you avoid all things commercial, like books and movies?

Yes--but I'm somewhat self-conscious about it. I don't think that anything out there is evil. I don't watch television, and I haven't for probably five or six years, but I don't have a problem with people who watch television. One of the problems when you don't watch television is that it automatically makes the people who do feel self-conscious, and feel that they have to justify or explain, and they don't. It's just something that I don't do anymore, and there are things about it that I miss. The Simpsons, for instance, is a great television show. But I decided that for the amount of good stuff on television, there's just too much bad stuff. I didn't like the idea of scheduling my life around the good stuff. I felt myself doing that. I also found that if I was bored, the first and easiest thing would be to turn on the television, and I became uncomfortable with that. Now when I get bored I pick up a book, or I'll listen to music, or--I'm also a musician--I'll play an instrument. I prefer that. We have a television that we keep in the closet, and we only pull it out if we've rented a movie. I don't go to Hollywood movies, only because I don't enjoy them personally. I have no problem with people who do; I'm just an independent feature and foreign film kind of gal.

What are some of your favorite films?

Touch of Evil, the director's cut that was just released in the past few years, was awesome. As I said, I love the work of Todd Solondz and Atom Egoyan. I like the work of Errol Morris--he's a documentary filmmaker. He did an amazing movie called Fast, Cheap & Out of Control--he's fantastic.

Do you have any plans to write non-fiction or are you strictly a fiction writer?

Fiction is it. All I read is fiction. Right now I'm reading The Verificationist by Donald Antrim, which I think is fabulous. I've been reading more Victor Pelevin. I just heard Colson Whitehead, who wrote The Intuitionist, read at the Whitney--he was amazing. I'm going to read him next.

Do you ever read female writers?

I want to read more female writers--it's actually something I've been thinking about a lot lately, the question of whether there is a difference between male and female writing. Francine Prose wrote an article about it in Harper's that got me thinking about the topic, and my first instinct is to rebel--to say, "Of course there's no difference! That's so sexist!" But then I thought about it, and I realized that I basically only read male writers--not consciously at all, but I gravitate toward things that sound interesting to me, and I started realizing that the things that were sounding interesting to me were more often things written by male writers. That disturbed me very deeply. The books I tend to like--and I really feel weird saying this, because this is something that's so important to me, and when you get into gender issues, it's so easy to be misinterpreted--but I like very ambitious, large-scale books, like Infinite Jest. I was so impressed by that book, and I admire David Foster Wallace's writing very deeply. I tried to think of a female equivalent--a female David Foster Wallace or a female Thomas Pynchon, and I realized that I couldn't. It might be that there's one out there and that I just haven't heard from her, and it's my loss.

In general, for some weird reason, it seems to me that the really large-scale, super ambitious literary projects are written by men. Those tend to be the works that I'm attracted to. As a writer who happens to be a woman, I want to break in there somehow; this is part of my ambitious, meglomaniacal plan. Since those are the writers I admire, those are the kinds of books I want to write. I want to take weird chances. People and interior thoughts and psychology are very important to me--I'm very much a character-driven writer. Again, I know that I'm getting into dangerous territory here, but it seems to me that women are socialized in such a way that they're taught to stress one-to-one relationships, empathy, the family. Sure, we're in the modern age and we're breaking away from this more and more, but there are very different ways that the genders are socialized. I think it makes perfect sense that a person's writing would reflect their socialization. Because of that, a lot of books by women tend to be small, internal, centering on one family or one relationship. And they're beautiful and incisive and very smart, but that is not the kind of writing that I want to do. I want to take the best of that kind of psychological insight and empathy. I think that Bee Season is an extremely empathetic book; I think that that's one of the reasons the book works--you can put yourself in the shoes of all the different people in the book. I want to take that empathy and apply it to a much larger canvas.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes--just write. No one's going to tell you that you should do it--only you can tell yourself to. It's not going to just happen. Being a writer is not a passive role. You need to actively and proactively structure your life and your consciousness around doing it. I've very rarely worked a 9-5 job; as soon as I could I started doing freelance work that would allow me to work three days a week and write for the rest of my time. It means that you don't eat in restaurants, and you don't go to first-run movies. That's what I mean by being proactive--you can't do all the fun stuff and be a writer, unless you have a trust-fund or are independently wealthy. If you're a regular person, it means making sacrifices. But it also means that if it's what you want to do, you should do it and not worry what anyone else thinks. If you believe in it, and do it long enough, you'll eventually find somebody who wants to read your work. it could be that it doesn't happen till your forty or fifty, but as long as you keep at it, eventually something's going to happen.

Did you ever imagine having a book at this point?

Not at all--I'd been trying to focus on all the writers I know of who didn't publish until they were older. I was preparing myself for a life where I would work a job that I didn't particularly care for, but that I didn't have to invest myself in too much, so that I could do the thing I cared about. You have to decide if your job is going to be the thing that you care about or the thing that allows you to do the thing you care about. My job allowed me to do the thing I cared about, and I decided that I could live that way for a very long time if necessary. I'm ready to go back to that if I ever get to a point where I need to, and that's fine too.

interview by Laura Buchwald
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    Photo credit © Jason Little