Illustration by Jullian Tamaki
Allegra Goodman: By the Book
The author of “The Chalk Artist” admires Mary Garth in “Middlemarch”: “She is not only brave and witty, but totally sane. That’s hard to write. Madness is easy. A character with good sense is a tour de force.”
What books are on your night stand now?
I don’t read in bed, but I keep my old Witherspoon and Warnke anthology of 17th-century literature on my night stand, because I like to fall asleep with Herbert, Donne and Milton watching over me. I’ve got my current pile of books downstairs on the floor by the couch. “Mr. Fox,” by Helen Oyeyemi; “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J. D. Vance; “The Art of Intimacy,” by Stacey D’Erasmo; “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler; and “Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel,” by John Stubbs.
What’s the last great book you read?
I’m a bit of a back-seat reader: “Noooo, don’t go that way! …Wait! Slow down! What are you doing?” But with a great book, like Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” I can sit back and enjoy the ride. I loved each of the Neapolitan novels, but my favorite is this initial story of Elena and Lila as young girls on divergent paths.
What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
Recently my son and I listened to the Edith Grossman translation of “Don Quixote,” read brilliantly by George Guidall. His Sancho Panza is priceless! We have a long commute to my son’s high school, and we’ve listened to many audiobooks in the car. We agree that this was the best. We certainly laughed the most. “Don Quixote” has it all — epic, romance, satire, elegy, intertextual jeu d’esprit. It’s like a pomegranate, with the seeds of a hundred future masterpieces inside of it.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I read more of everything when I’m writing. I like to read for my characters, and in character as well. This sounds very method, but if a character researches rare cookbooks, as Jess does in “The Cookbook Collector,” I do that research as she would, not as I would. If a character stumbles upon Ezra Pound, as Aidan does in my new novel, “The Chalk Artist,” I notice what he notices, and I hear what he hears.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
This morning while listening with my son to “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe,” I learned that in 1623 Francis Bacon realized that binary coding could express the intentions of the mind.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I’m moved by recognition and discovery. It’s startling to recognize a feeling you’ve never articulated or admitted, even to yourself. Nicholas on the battlefield in “War and Peace” suddenly realizing that he could die. “Me? Of whom everyone is so fond?” And it’s magical to discover a new world and enter fully. Earthsea, Narnia, the Big Woods, Neverland, Elsinore, Troy. Then there are the moments when recognition and discovery come together. The strange becomes familiar, and the familiar takes on strange power. I’m thinking of the footprint in the sand in “Robinson Crusoe,” the butchering of whales in “Moby-Dick,” Hamlet’s cry “You cannot play upon me,” pairing adolescent resentment with awareness of his particular situation.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
In theory, I’m interested in all genres. In practice, I don’t read much science fiction or fantasy. Other family members read widely in those areas, however! I’ve also got a son who reads contemporary philosophy. This leaves me to focus on realist and surrealist novels, history, biography and poetry. I’m drawn to some obscure subgenres. Any tale involving a piano in extremis, a long Arctic voyage, or a protagonist with an unusual occupation — sapper, bird artist, miniaturist, seal trapper, ventriloquist, pearl fisher — I’m there.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I read on paper, and I like to pile books around me. That way, whether I want to read about the hollers of Appalachia, the life of Lucy Barton or the history of Swift’s “Tale of a Tub,” I’ll be prepared. I try to keep some poetry on hand, as well. Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic. A poem will keep you honest. It’s impossible to skim.
How do you organize your books?
I organize my books chronologically within subject — so, for example, I have all my philosophy together starting with the Pre-Socratics, and I have my literature all together starting with Old English poetry and mystery plays. That’s the plan, anyway. In practice, my books are stacked everywhere, and double shelved. I am that reader who will buy another copy of something I own but cannot find. When my last child leaves for college, I’ll straighten out my books. Maybe.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Given my horticultural history, people might be surprised by the number of gardening books on my shelves. I have killed just about every plant I’ve ever owned, including cacti.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
At 10 I was obsessed with Dickens, and my philosopher father gave me the Oxford edition of the novels. The 21 volumes are bound in blue morocco, and they have gilt-edged pages and ribbon bookmarks, and they came packed in a special wood box. I still have them. They are beautiful books, and they read beautifully too. I’ve read “Great Expectations” aloud twice as a bedtime story. I remember my oldest son worrying about Pip’s debts. That concerned little boy is now a graduate student in economics!
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Antihero or villain?
My favorite antihero is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. My favorite heroine is Mary Garth in “Middlemarch.” She is not only brave and witty, but totally sane. That’s hard to write. Madness is easy. A character with good sense is a tour de force.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was not an early reader, and I remember experiencing books as art rather than text. When I was little I wanted to paint worlds on the page. I was entranced by Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s “Snow-White” and Ernest Shepard’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Later, the chapter books I loved best were the Oz series (I named my favorite doll Dorothy), the Little House books, the Earthsea trilogy and children’s biographies of people like Elizabeth I, Albert Einstein, Nellie Bly and Louis Brandeis. I liked to read about great men and women. Still do!
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The Mayor of Casterbridge.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I would invite Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, along with John Donne and his wife, Anne. This would probably be more of a working lunch, but I’d serve mutton, pheasant, salad, pastry and Jonson’s “rich Canary wine.” First order of business, we sort out dates of composition for every work. Then we discuss art, patronage, politics and performance. (This might take a while!) Finally, I dismiss the men and speak to Anne alone about her life as reader, writer, muse and mother. I want to hear her voice.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
At 14, I hated “The Catcher in the Rye.” I understand now that it means a great deal to a great many people, but at the time — rather like Holden — I had no patience. While I took some amazing literature classes later in high school, ninth grade was unremittingly bleak. “Lord of the Flies,” “The Lottery,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Coming-of-age ritual? Verbal flogging? Desperate attempt to stun us into silence? The fiction we read was all about degradation of one kind or another. I can’t imagine we were meant to enjoy it. I certainly didn’t.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.
How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word of mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?
I do read reviews and listen to friends, but I decide what to read while browsing tables and shelves in bookshops. No search engine can compete! I pick up a book in its crisp new cover and it’s like a wrapped present.
What do you plan to read next?
I can’t wait for Hilary Mantel’s new book, “The Mirror and the Light.” I’ll buy it the day it comes out and probably start reading in the store.