James River Writers is honored to host Robert Goolrick at our upcoming 2011 October Conference. Goolrick is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, The End of the World as We Know It. His first novel, A Reliable Wife, was a #1 New York Times bestseller for many months, and winner of both the NAIBA and Book of the Month Club First Fiction Award. He lives in White Stone, Virginia.
To get a sense of what we can anticipate from him, check out his brief interview below with Virginia Pye, former JRW Chair, novelist and short story writer. Even his interview is a gem of the written and spoken word.
Pye: Robbie, can you tell us what inspired you to write A Reliable Wife—were you interested in exploring a particular voice, setting, or plot idea? And did that impetus help sustain your vision throughout?
Goolrick: The only thing that really matters is goodness, and I wanted to write a novel about goodness and redemption. It occurred to me that, in order to do so, I had to begin with people who were NOT good, and see if I could try to save them. I began with a vision of a woman in the garden, standing still as the garden came to life around her. I didn’t know who she was, or how she got there, but I knew that’s where I wanted her to be in the end. The difficult progress of the novel was in figuring out who she was and how she got there and how this miracle came to be.
Pye: A Reliable Wife has a complicated plot with remarkable psychological twists. Did these reversals come as a surprise to you as you wrote or did you know before you wrote it how the characters would betray one another?
Goolrick: All I knew was that the characters would be tortured souls who yearned for goodness and simplicity the way seeds underground grow toward the light. I had the basic structure of the plot in mind when I started, and so I knew there would be reversals and shifts in the currents of the characters’ lives and minds. What they were going to be was a continuing revelation to me. I thought of the myth of Phaedra, who is sent by her husband Theseus to retrieve his son, Hippolytus. The plot of my novel parallels the structure of that myth.
Pye: Your remarkably honest and powerful memoir, The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life, shows periods of your life when you struggled to keep sober and sane. Has the process of writing itself helped you in any way recover from past hurts?
Goolrick: My life has been a continuing effort simply to speak, to tell some sort of truth about myself and how I see the world. So, in that sense, writing is a very liberating thing to do — to be able to say to a complete stranger things I could never say to my best friend has been a great blessing.
Pye: The Reliable Wife and The End of the World as We Know It are quite different books and yet both reveal the abuse of power in intimate relationships between people. You and your characters endured suffering as you faced questionable, even dangerous, love. I wonder if you if feel that these two books come from a similar well of experience.
Goolrick: Both books have in common the theme of abuse. All of the principle characters in WIFE have been abused as children, as was I. The two books simply are an examination of the lives such children live as adults — of how they try again and again to return themselves to a state of childhood innocence they never actually knew.
Pye: We all carry stories around with us from our experiences and yet perhaps not all stories are worthy of memoir. Can you offer advice to newer writers on how to tell if their stories suit the memoir form? And how can an aspiring writer determine if fiction or non-fiction is the best avenue for their story?
Goolrick: I think every writer really only has one or two things to say — however, those few things can take innumerable and varied forms. Writing a memoir is like writing a long and honest letter to a close friend. It should have that same immediacy and lack of self-consciousness, and that honesty. Writing a novel is more like composing a grand opera — you have to make everything up, write the libretto, compose the music, even paint the scenery and sew the costumes. In the end, both forms have the same message — here I am, this is me — but the form it takes depends on how much of yourself you want to insert publicly into your work. I think everybody should write a memoir. Not everybody should write a novel.
Pye: Will you share with us something about your discipline of writing? Do you write daily? When you are working intensively on a book do you sacrifice other aspects of your life?
Goolrick: When I begin a novel, I rarely actually sit down at the keyboard. Walker Percy said he wrote because he wanted to find out what happens. I write because I don’t understand why people do the things they do. So, starting a novel, I tell myself the same story over and over and over, listening to the voices, seeing the pictures in my head, until I have a pretty clear idea of who these people are and why they do what they do. Then I sit down to write, a little at a time, and then in larger and larger chucks, until I am, by the end, working sixteen hours a day. I do literally nothing else. The only people I really want to see or talk to are the people in my book. And, when the book is done, I miss them immediately.
Pye: I gather you’ve finished a new novel. Congratulations! I and many others are excited to read it: can you give us some hints about this latest work?
Goolrick: The new novel is called HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL. It’s based on a true story. It’s set in a small Virginia town in 1948. It is also about the struggle for goodness, and it is very complicated. I wrote it because I heard a story years ago about something that happened to a friend of mine as a child, and the story fascinated me, and I just had to understand something about why what happened happened.