The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, The Bookshelf features novelist Deena Goldstone. She joined Peter Biello to discuss her book Surprise Me.
The novel begins in 1994, when aspiring writer Isabelle Rothman starts her final semester in college. She begins an apprenticeship with the agoraphobic, once-acclaimed novelist Daniel Jablonski. Their relationship begins with awkward and painful exchanges about writing and blooms into one defined by mutual admiration, encouragement, and love. That relationship is sustained for many years by email, while Isabelle raises a family on the west coast and Daniel secludes himself in a small town in New Hampshire.
Deena Goldstone’s Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. “Well before I even contemplated becoming a writer, I read Doris Lessing's novel and was astonished to realize that one could write a whole book about the intimate, mundane lives of women. I think it was the first time I realized that this territory was important enough to explore.”
2. Sleepwalking by Amy Bloom. “Amy Bloom taught me to write about grief - the theme which unites the stories in my collection, Tell Me One Thing. In her story, Sleepwalking, from her collection Where The God of Love Hangs Out, she writes about how the family members left behind deal with the death of their husband and father without ever mentioning grief or having people break down into emotional messes. It's all in the behavior of the characters and is amazingly moving and restrained and powerful.”
3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. “I was astonished when I read Olive Kitteridge that it was possible to write a truly prickly, often unlikable character and still create understanding and sympathy and connection to her. Strout helped me be bolder in writing my characters and certainly gave me permission to create Daniel in Surprise Me with all his idiosyncrasies and edges and flaws.”
4. The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman. “Allegra Goodman is a contemporary novelist that I have read and reread. Recently I revisited her wonderful, moving chronicle of a Jewish family - The Family Markowitz. The various members of the extended family are revealed in separate chapters which feel like short stories but also build the fabric of this larger, quirky, interesting, and ultimately loving family. Her latest novel, The Cookbook Collector, weaves contemporary issues (the tech bubble) into a personal story of two very different sisters as they make their way through their lives. We learn about historical cookbooks and contemporary strands of Judaism and somehow it all works. Enthralling.”
5. Siracusa by Delia Ephron. “It is the last and most contemporary book on my list. It was just published last month. It's a meditation on marriage and a psychological thriller set in Italy. We follow two couples on a vacation that becomes more and more difficult and watch the child of one of the couples turn the story into something totally unexpected.”
Tell us a little bit about Isabelle—your protagonist. How did she take shape in your mind?
I wanted a young girl who was just starting out in her life who felt she was ordinary, that she had no gifts at all, and that she was raised in a family that expected her to be responsible and dependable. But in her soul, she was a writer, and it wasn’t until she took a class in college that allowed her to write uninhibited that she could even admit to herself that this was what she wanted to do. So I wanted to start with someone who was young who had a desire, a wish to be a different person, and how that person came to be during the course of her life.
And what about Daniel, the sort of grumpy writer who suffers from agoraphobia and a slump in his career. How would you describe him?
As the novel was taking shape, it became very clear to me that I wanted two people who meet at exactly the right time in their lives. I wanted a counterpoint to Isabelle who was starting her life with great hope. I wanted her to interact with someone who had given up on life. And I wanted to see what happened when the two of them met. And basically my idea for the book was: what happens when two people are in a room together working on something intensely that maters to both of them. How does that dynamic work?
So the beginning of the book is their first months of meeting. The end is their last months of meeting. In between, their lives unspool.
With the connection between them always the lodestar that keeps them going, that affirms to the other that they are worth something, and I thought that a 20-year relationship that didn’t fit any of the categories we usually use—it wasn’t husband, sibling, boyfriend, girlfriend, aunt, uncle—that Isabelle and Daniel form an intense and very important relationship that doesn’t really have a name.
I wanted to ask you about that, because their relationship is not quite romantic but not quite platonic, either. Fiction has had quite a few relationships between older male professors and younger female students but most of those are strictly romantic and lustful. This breaks that mold. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Absolutely. I made a conscious choice not to have them begin a sexual relationship while she was a student and he was her professor.
Though they came close.
Yes, they came close, but Daniel summons his better angels and steps away. It’s Daniel that steps away. And I wanted them to establish the connection between them that had nothing to do with sex, before they had a sexual relationship. So for me, the sex deepens what was there already and is not the essential ingredient of that relationship. It just brings them closer and cements their love for each other in a way that sex can.
And in a way, they bond over the trouble they have with writing, and I wanted to ask you about the teaching of creative writing, because Daniel Jablonski, this character, leaves a lot of mystery to the process of writing. He gives very cryptic instructions, if you can even call them instructions, to Isabelle, and steps away and lets her figure it out. What do you think about the teaching of creative writing? Do you agree with Daniel? Do you think it can’t be taught?
I don’t think you can teach someone to be a writer. I think you can mentor someone to find their voice, which I think is a very different thing. What Daniel gives Isabelle is the belief that she can do it, and that there is something within her worth writing about. That confidence, that rock-solid confidence he has—that is so for her, allows her to do the work of learning to write.
Did you have a person in your life who gave you that belief?
Yes, I did. When I was a very young screenwriter—because I wrote screenplays first before I started writing books—I had written my second screenplay for a company, a studio. And they had an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who had some kind of arrangement with the company where he would read the first drafts that were submitted and comment on them. And so I was told after I turned in a first draft to go and meet with this man and he would give me an hour of his time and I would get his thoughts about second draft, because when you write a screenplay you’re always writing drafts and drafts and drafts and drafts.
So I went. I was quite nervous. He had won two Academy Awards and not only that, his work was work that I thought was—if I could ever write anywhere close to that, I would be thrilled. It was subtle and powerful and deals with emotional issues and people and I was in awe. And at the end of the hour, I stood up and I thanked him very much, and I said I would think about everything, and he said to me, “Do you think I’m going to let you go home and write this wonderful screenplay and not have anything to do with it? Can you come back next week at this same time?” We worked together for a year. Once a week. He never told me what to write. He just would say to me, “What do you think about this scene here? Do you think that maybe it could be better?” and then we would talk about how we could change the scene. And at the end of the year, I had a screenplay that I was proud of and that was made into a movie. He and I became the person in each other’s lives that we gave our work to. So to this day, and he’s in his late 80s, he sends me his work, and I send him my work, and our relationship is based on the fact that we are writers together and we appreciate each other’s work. So I wanted to write a little bit about that, although he’s nothing like Daniel, and I don’t think I’m much like Isabelle.