Excerpted from Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. Copyright © 2001 by Myla Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Myla Goldberg is the author of several books, including The False Friend, Wickett’s Remedy, and the bestselling, critically acclaimed Bee Season, which was widely translated and adapted to film. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Myla Goldberg is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).
Q: How did you become interested in spelling bees? What, if anything, do they reveal about American identity?
A: 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.
Q: 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.
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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.
A: 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.
Q: What is your background in non-Western religions? What research did you do in order to write about Aaron's explorations of other faiths?
A: 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.
Q: What do you see as the parallels between religious and personal faith and something like a spelling bee?
A: 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."
Q: How did your own sense of yourself as Jewish play into your development of the Naumann family, and the different members' approaches to Jewishness?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Where do you see each of these characters in ten years?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Your next book deals with a particularly virulent early twentieth century flu epidemic. How did you come to this topic?
A: 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.
1. Eliza Naumann has "been designated . . . as a student from whom great things should not be expected" [p. 1]. How does Myla Goldberg use both humor and poignancy to bring home the impact of this judgment on a child? Does Eliza accept her "mediocrity" without question? What evidence is there that she resents (or is frustrated by) the way the teachers and other students, as well as her own family, perceive her?
2. Why does Eliza slip the information about the district spelling bee under Saul's door, rather than telling him about it in person? Is her behavior unusual for an eleven-year-old? How do Aaron's and Saul's reactions to Eliza's winning the district bee and moving on to the regional finals [p. 43] shed light on Eliza's own feelings about the significance of her newly discovered talent?
3. Initially, Saul is portrayed as an involved and caring father. What hints are there that his interest in his children's lives masks a need to satisfy his own ego? How does his relationship with Miriam enhance the image he has created for himself? Is Miriam in some ways a victim of Saul's determination to take the primary role in the family or is she equally responsible for the pattern they have established? In what ways do the dynamics of the Naumanns' marriage reflect the times in which they live?
4. Before the depth of Miriam's problem is revealed, how do you respond to her as a character? Do her ostensible involvement with work and her treatment of her children make her a "bad" mother? What incidents, if any, demonstrate that at some level she wants to express her love for Eliza and Aaron?
5. Are the interactions between Aaron and Eliza typical of sibling relationships, or are they closer than most brothers and sisters? If so, what contributes to their closeness? At what point does the pattern they have established begin to change?
6. "Saul Naumann spends the first portion of his life as Sal Newman, son of Henry and Lisa Newman, decorator of Christmas trees and Easter eggs" [p. 10]. When he embraces Judaism as a teenager under his mother's guidance, Saul becomes estranged from his father. What effect does Saul's childhood have on how he approaches parenting and the goals he sets for Aaron? As the only child of a wealthy couple who wanted a large family, Miriam is raised to fulfill all her parents' expectations. What does Saul offer her that her own parents were unable to provide? Goldberg writes, "The two bond over their mutual lack of family ties" [p. 22]. How do their assumptions about marriage and, later, their behavior with Eliza and Aaron belie the notion that they are free of the legacies of their own parents?
7. In addition to his desire to achieve a higher level of spirituality, why does Saul devote so much time to his studies of Jewish mysticism? Do his retreats into his study serve another purpose, either conscious or subconscious, in his life? Is the time he spends with Aaron early in the book and later with Eliza compensation for--or relief from--his self-imposed isolation?
8. Discuss the development of Eliza's enchantment with spelling. Is she driven by more than just the desire to please her father? How does the author use metaphors and other literary devices to extend the meaning of what is happening to Eliza at each stage? For example, what does Goldberg mean by the sentence, "When Eliza studies, it is like discovering her own anatomy" [p. 44] and her descriptions of Eliza's delightful characterizations of each letter [p. 49]?
9. When Eliza triumphs at the Greater Philadelphia Metro Area Spelling Bee, Miriam is struck with a sense of pain as she "realizes too late that she has made her daughter more like her than she ever intended" [p. 59]. Saul, in contrast, feels gratitude and humility; he "would like to think he has kept his distance in order to protect his daughter from his unfulfilled hopes" [p. 61]. Is this self-deception on Saul's part? How do you think Eliza would respond to her parents' feelings?
10. Why is Eliza's failure to appreciate Miriam's gift of the kaleidoscope so devastating to Miriam [p. 67]? Would the situation have been different if Miriam had explained its importance to her? Why doesn't she?
11. Eliza's transformation from ordinary student into nationally recognized spelling prodigy undermines the roles Aaron and Miriam have always assumed in the family and sets in motion events that destroy the Naumanns' fa?ade of contentment and normalcy. Is there a common thread that links Aaron's experiments with different religions, Miriam's secret excursions, and Eliza's plunge into Jewish mysticism? In what ways do each of their quests embody the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, "the fixing of the world" [p. 87]? What parallels are there between the rituals they perform, the risks they take--and the revelations they receive?
12. What does Miriam's sudden sexual aggressiveness symbolize? What does it represent in terms of her feelings about Saul and their marriage? How is it related to the other signs of her increasing recklessness? Despite his discomfort and shock, why is Saul reluctant to discuss it, choosing instead to sleep in his study? Why does he convince himself "that he is there for Eliza's sake" [p. 186]? What are other examples of his unwillingness to face the profound changes occurring in the family?
13. Eliza masters arcane skills and grasps mysteries that few people in history have even dared to examine, yet she remains a typical little girl in many ways. How does Goldberg bring this to life in her descriptions of Eliza's thoughts and actions? She writes, "Abulafia's words speak to Eliza like a promise" [p. 195]. How do Eliza's studies, of both spelling and mysticism, relate to the concrete facts of her life and the promises she hopes will be fulfilled?
14. Describing Saul's reaction to the room Miriam has constructed, Goldberg writes, "Saul starts finding it difficult to breathe. . . . When Saul starts to cry, it is out of this sense of supersaturation as well as having arrived at a new level of understanding" [p. 225]. Does Saul live up to this "new level of understanding" when he sees Miriam at the hospital [pp. 235- 236]? When he discusses the situation with Eliza and Aaron?
15. How does Eliza's final act shed light on her character and the changes she has undergone in the course of the novel? Is it an act of defiance or of resolution?
16. Bee Season presents the narrative viewpoints of all the family members. How does this technique add depth and nuance to our understanding of each character? How do the self-portraits differ from the portraits, implicit or explicit, sketched by the other members of the family? Which characters become more sympathetic or appealing through this juxtaposition of perspectives and which ones become less so?
17. The book opens with quotations from the mystic Abulafia and spelling champion Rebecca Sealfon. It is clear how they relate to Eliza's life; in what ways are they relevant to the other characters in the novel and the themes Goldberg explores?