A Conversation with the Author, Myla Goldberg

Q: Wickett’s Remedy is such a departure from your first published novel, Bee Season.  What sparked your interest in the influenza epidemic of 1918?

A: 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.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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) coming this fall?

A: 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?

A: 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.