Robert Goolrick, whose novel, A Reliable Wife, will be published by Algonquin Books, spoke to PW about sophomore efforts, Jane Austen and moving from memoir to fiction.
PW: Your 2007 memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, was extremely well reviewed; what made you decide to follow it with a novel?
RG: Interestingly enough, the novel was written first. I submitted both [works] at the same time, and the memoir sold first. But the memoir was really sort of an afterthought. I had worked for a long time on A Reliable Wife, and when I finished I found I couldn’t stop writing. So I wrote the first chapter of the memoir—and kept on going. I had a conversation with somebody about my father’s funeral—a story I had told often, more or less as a joke, relating to how gothic Southerners are. But I suddenly found myself incredibly moved by it for the first time in 17 years, so I went home and wrote a description. Then I thought, well as long as I’ve started I may as well go ahead. I intended it to be a slide show of my life, a sort of family photograph album. I wrote down a list of “photographs” I wanted to include, and when I’d written about all of them I stopped.
PW: What drew you to the memoir genre?
RG: I think everybody has a story to tell, and I think the stories of ordinary lives are more interesting than [those of] the rich and powerful. It’s like bring voyeuristic and looking into an ordinary person’s window and watching the person eat dinner. I find it fascinating. So I had always thought that I’d write a memoir of my life, ordinary as it is in most respects. So it was something I had always intended to do and I just had the energy to do it and the excitement about it. People always asked me if it was cathartic to write. At first it wasn’t, but seeing it on the shelf at a bookstore was. Taking your life, which is very vague and amorphous as you’re living it, and making an object out of it, seemed very liberating. You could literally take a childhood trauma and put it on a shelf—put it to rest.
PW: A Reliable Wife is set in Wisconsin in 1907. Why this locale and period?
RG: I am largely uncomfortable with contemporary fiction. And I wanted to write a novel that had a great story and I started to think of it with the final scene of the novel—the scene in which the garden comes to life. It seemed to me a metaphor for redemption, so I needed a bleak landscape in which that scene would be miraculous. I thought of Wisconsin, which I used to visit quite often on business when I was in advertising, and then I’ve always held Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip very dear to my heart. I think it’s a brilliant book. And so I leafed around that book for probably the 500th time and decided to set it there. His book is set in 1896; I wanted it to be a little later, so there would be electricity and automobiles—a little more modern life.
PW: What makes you uncomfortable about contemporary fiction?
RG: I find a great deal of contemporary fiction to be all context and no content. I miss the storytelling capabilities of the writers I admire, and I love to read certain modern writers because of the ambience and the style of the writing. But I find when I’m done that’s all I remember. It’s very difficult for me to remember the plot—and I wanted to write a rich plot. It’s like a pop song, in a way: you remember it because it’s music and lyrics together; you remember it so much more easily than you would, say, Keats. And I like that combination of a strong story and a strong style and that’s what I was hoping for.
PW: In addition to Michael Lesy, were you inspired by other writers of that period?
RG: If anything, I was inspired by earlier writers. I’m always inspired by Jane Austen, curiously enough. She has a great thing that she does, which is her novels are about complicated, romantic situations in which all the happiness comes at the very end—like a magic trick. I love that about her, and I wanted to write a novel in which people seemingly unable to be happy suddenly find redemption and happiness all in a second.