Interview by Linda M. Castellitto
A nine-year-old spelling champion, Jewish mysticism, secret-keeping, general familial chaos...in Bee Season, first-time author Myla Goldberg has combined these seemingly disparate elements and created a complex novel that has met with much praise -- not least from independent booksellers, who have nominated her for this year's Book Sense Book of the Year award. Read on, and learn why Goldberg decided to enter the world of the Bee -- and why influenza is now a major aspect of her life.
Are you a good speller?
I'm pretty good . . . by no means a spelling prodigy. One of first things I tell people is that Bee Season is not an autobiography by any stretch. In one spelling bee in 5th grade I spelled "tomorrow" wrong and that was it.
What inspired you to write a book that has spelling bees as a focal plot point?
In 1997 I read a Granta essay about a spelling bee, about how it really prolonged the act of losing. A friend had been in spelling bees and told me about it, and it spurred my interest. I went to a national bee in 1997 to observe . . . I interviewed some of the kids, eavesdropped on parents.
Another major element of Bee Season is Jewish mysticism . . . tell me what Jewish mysticism is.
It's a vast study of practices that range far beyond what I cover in Bee Season. I took a college class [on it], and different things about it really stuck with me. It is a way that Jews have developed over centuries of trying to reach God, a way to reach transcendence. There are corollaries in other religions -- in the Christian religion, there's meditation in Eastern religion -- its goal is not unique to Judaism. In its early parts, it's more like a Nintendo game . . . you have guys memorize a secret prayer to get one level, then meet an angel, and then work to get up to the seventh level, and eventually to God on the throne.
I believe in the inherent power of language and letters and words. The world started with God saying something, because language is powerful. His method is linked to what kids do when they're spelling.
How do you go about your writing? Is it like a job for you?
It definitely feels like a job -- I very consciously treat it like a job. I work from nine to five and take a break for lunch. For me, it's very important to look at it as a responsibility and something I need to be doing. On days it's going poorly, it feels like a chore, like I'm trapped in a cubicle in midtown. On other days, it's exhilarating.
When I'm starting a project, there's more bleed-through [into the rest of my life] because I'm formulating ideas. That happens less now. My back brain is continually working on stuff for me, though, because the next day something will have worked itself out. A lot can happen while I'm asleep -- when I woke up one day, spelling and Jewish mysticism were paired.
How is your life now different from your life a year ago?
It's all blending together! Bee Season came out in May of last year, so a year ago, the book was not quite out, and I still had a day job. I'd assumed I would have a day job the rest of my life, and squeeze out books whenever I could. I had no clue the book would do so well -- I feel like I won the lottery! It took me by surprise.
Last year, I went on a national book tour through the book's publisher, and then the National Jewish Book Council decided to slate me as an author for National Jewish Book Month [November]. I went to 30 different Jewish community centers in the space of six weeks, across the country. It was great public relations, just wonderful but grueling. In the last few months, things have been calm -- now, two times a month I'll travel to do something for the book.
What sorts of things have you done to promote Bee Season?
I did lots of signings, a lot of radio -- NPR shows, which is great because I'm a radio junkie! -- a couple of local television things. I also did the Sunday "Today" show, I think the morning show. I don't watch television so I'm not even sure!
No television, eh? That's unusual.
Yes . . . after college, I lived in Prague for year, and I didn't have a TV. So, I got used to TV not being a part of my life. When I got back to the U.S., I began watching again, but it seemed so stupid. I didn't like having my schedule centered around watching a show. I read a lot more, and listen to the radio. I like it much better . . . and often literally forget there is such a thing [as television]! We do have a TV in the closet that we use only to watch rented videos.
When do you read?
I read all the time, compulsively. I need to be careful about what I'm reading while I'm writing . . . I avoid ones with similar themes because that can be deadly. Also, similar narrative tones -- in the beginning, I only read books written in the first part of the century, and now I'm trying to read contemporary tones. Whatever I'm reading affects me.
What are you reading?
I just read a Canadian writer, Nancy Huston. Her first novel, Plainsong, was never published in the U. S. I think she's a poet . . . and she could do plot, too. Most poets can't string plot together. Also, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.
I'm a huge fan of Victor Pelevin, a contemporary Russian writer. He's the author of Buddha's Little Finger. My favorite of his is The Life of Insects -- it's an amazing allegory, where the line between people and insects is fudged, and it depicts life in post-communist Russia. He pulls it off. That's my favorite kind of book, one that takes chances.
Do you take chances in your writing?
I think I did that with Bee Season, but I do strive to do more . . . to take imagination-leaps and structural chance. My favorite books are ones that try to tell a story in a non-traditional manner, like Pale Fire by Nabokov: The book starts out looking like a boring poem, but then it's annotated, and it turns out the story lies in the annotations.
George Perec is famous for taking leaps. I also hugely admire David Foster Wallace, for both the language he uses and how he tells stories.
Do you write in other forms aside from the novel?
I manage to do short stories every now and then. There's one in [the May 2001 issue of] Harper's. I think short stories are harder than novels, because there's a formula to writing a story. You can subvert and play with it, but it always goes back to there's a person, something happens, blah. With a novel it's easier to play with that, to escape feeling you've been there before. A story is so short, if you can depart from a+b=c, it's great. I consider myself predominantly a novelist, and I do short stories in between novels . . . when I'm fishing for a new novel.
Since I'm into experimenting, I use short stories to explore a new form. I wrote one a while ago, published before Bee Season, that was in the form of a reading comprehension test. Stories let you play more than a novel does. You don't have to commit as much, or worry about the consequences, because it's over in 15-20 pages.
Have you written other novels besides Bee Season?
Bee Season is my first published novel. I did write one before Bee Season that got supportive rejection letters, so I started reading biographies of writers that weren't published until they were into their 40s and 50s, and figured if I expected the worst I can always be pleasantly surprised. I won't do anything with [that novel]. I could go back and fix it, but I have better things to do. It would be too much like repeating a grade. For me, it was grad school -- I learned a lot. I started that book in Prague, and finished it in New York.
What made you decide to live in Prague for that year after college?
I'd been interested in Eastern Europe since I was a child. My generation was warned against cults and communism. When everything changed in 1989, I wanted to get over there before everyone found out what it was like. I had read a bunch of Milan Kundera in high school, and thought it was great. They had a whole tradition when Russia occupied the Czech Republic, lost of books were banned, and people would type on typewriters and write on whatever they had around. I was attracted to that culture of writing. I met up with of a bunch of expat writing types -- we had a workshop, and gave readings once a week.
Your kid-voice -- when Bee Season is told from a child's point of view -- is great. Was it hard to do? Did you visit schools and schoolchildren to prepare yourself?
Thank you . . . the good voice has in part to do with the fact I haven't quite figured out I'm a grownup yet. I remember really clearly what it was like to be a child. A lot of first novels are about family, and kids, because that's what the writers have experience with.
I remember as a kid, my dad would take me to Washington, D.C., to look at art on weekends. We had a game where we'd look at art and try to guess its title before we looked. He took me to a sculpture, and he had no clue what it was called. I looked at it and said, "chicken on the moon." I just knew. And its title was "moonbird." Then he took me back seven years later and asked me, and I didn't know. I realized that when I grew up, if I wasn't careful, I would lose things, and I did not want to become boring and stultified as an adult.
Let's talk about parental expectations . . . the force of them, the sometime immutability, the results in a child's life. What about these things spoke to you, or made you want to write about them?
When I was going to spelling bees, I saw that a lot of kids were there based on high expectations, on parents wanting to win and kids wanting to because the parents did. I had that, we all do . . . expectations are placed on you, the wanting to live up to them, and ultimately failing. From sports to acting to stage moms, there are a zillion different arenas, and the spelling bee is a microcosm for all of them. It's more universal -- not everyone can be in a pageant, but everyone is in a spelling bee.
As far as I know spelling bees on a grand scale don't exist outside the U.S. They were invented here, but thank god never made it to export. I'm interested to see what happens now that the book is being translated into other languages. I'm writing an introduction to explain the spelling bee and its place in American culture. I was interviewed by the BBC a few weeks ago to help suss out the spelling bee.
What are you working on now?
Something totally different, that I started working on before much happened with Bee Season. It's set in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. I don't have a target date or a contract with a publisher. I deliberately didn't want to do that, because that's not the way I work. I'm obsessed enough -- I don't need a deadline! I will drive myself anyway. I want to stay true to myself and my own process.
What are your favorite bookstores?
I'm a total independent [bookstore] maven. The thing that's so neat is that I've always been a fan of indie bookstores, so the indies supporting me the way they have has been amazing and gratifying. St. Mark's is really great, as is Three Lives in the West Village. You walk into the store and feel like you're in Europe, in a little place in the middle of nowhere.
I get a lot of used books online because I'm looking for weird things. I use Bibliofind and Powell's. I'm really a vehement supporter of indies. It's important, frankly.
One way Doubleday was great -- I told them I recognized the importance of reading at larger stores, but for every chain [on my tour] I wanted two independents. They were extremely supportive of that, and outside of New York, I only read at indies. I'm grateful they respected that.
So you're truly happy being a writer?
It's all I ever wanted to do since I was six. It's never been a choice. We did games where we'd pretend we were grownups, and I'd literally sit at a typewriter and pretend I was writing a novel. Now, I take notes in notebooks, but do my actual writing on a word processor. Nabokov wrote on index cards, and shuffled them around to see where the pieces should go. He had them in glass cases. Thats would be a treat to see -- and a horror to think I would've had to do that, [had I been born] a generation earlier!
* A May/June 2000 Book Sense 76 pick
"The protagonist of this first novel is a heretofore unremarkable nine-year old girl who is revealed to be a spelling prodigy. With the revelation of this talent comes an unraveling of the family, with each individual trying desperately to find his or her own version of God. This novel is beautifully written and draws the reader into the world of this young girl, the compelling world of Jewish mysticism, Spelling Bee politics, family dynamics, and deep secrets. Absolutely amazing!"
--Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover, Denver, CO
Myla Goldberg lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Jason Little.