Francisco Goldman, an award-winning journalist and novelist, has published one book of nonfiction and four novels, including the haunting Say Her Name, which is about the life and death of his Mexican wife, Aura Estrada. His latest book, The Interior Circuit (Grove, July), is his story of emerging from grief five years after Estrada’s death; it’s also a paean to Mexico City.
I meet Goldman in Brooklyn, where he lives when he’s not in Mexico, and begin our conversation by asking him to tell me something about himself that’s not on Wikipedia. He says he has an aversion to reading about himself and adds, “What’s important about me is that I really have, in ways I never could have foreseen when I was young, a writing career that’s reached a lot of different places.”
A self-professed “terrible student,” Goldman describes his childhood growing up in Needham, Mass., as a “good lesson in American conformity.” His Jewish father worked as a chemical engineer in a factory that made false teeth (“You don’t typically think of Jewish men as rough, but [he] was”), and his mother emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala. His parents had a tumultuous relationship, from which, Goldman says, “there was no refuge for me; school was a nightmare, my home life was a nightmare: I became this kind of survivor.” He describes his father as “very unhappy and pretty violent.”
Looking back, Goldman says that he can’t believe he got through it all. Despite his bad grades, he was always passionate about writing, although his teachers were skeptical of him and often accused him of plagiarism. He wrote short story assignments for other students in exchange for nickel bags of pot; these stories were often selected for the high school’s literary magazine—but, of course, without Goldman’s name on them.
Going away to college changed his life. Goldman first attended Hobart, in Geneva, N.Y., then transferred to the University of Michigan. “Suddenly I was plunged into this world, it opened the door, and I wasn’t in an inferno anymore,” he says. Richard Ford was his creative writing teacher, and Ford “really stuck by me, always.”
After college, Goldman arrived at a crossroads. He moved to New York City and applied to M.F.A. programs—“like you’re supposed to.” Esquire magazine bought some of his short stories and offered him a chance at journalism. At the time, he idolized Gabriel García Márquez, which reinforced “this idea that a writer could also be a journalist.” Goldman sensed that it wouldn’t be easy for him to find a place in American fiction: “Me writing about the Boston suburbs wasn’t going to make a whole lot of sense to people, and I didn’t want to write about that anyway.”
In 1979, Goldman traveled to Central America. “My ambition led me there,” he says. “I felt somehow, somewhere, down there was what I was going to write about.” Goldman schooled himself rigorously in Latin American fiction, which led him to European fiction, and those works influenced him more than North American fiction ever had. “I saw myself as someone who had the challenge to somehow mix these influences, and not just in writing—that was my real graduate school,” he says. Goldman spent the next decade covering the wars in Central America, mainly in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, for magazines like the New Yorker.
His first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, set in 1980s Guatemala, was published in 1992 by Grove (he’s remained with Grove throughout his career); it won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. The Ordinary Seaman, a fable, came out in 1997, and The Divine Husband, published in 2004, was a fictional portrait of the Cuban poet José Martí. Goldman’s first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?, came out in 2007, the result of the author’s seven-year investigation into the murder of a Catholic priest who was also a Guatemalan human-rights leader. All of Goldman’s published writing connects him to his Latin American heritage.
In 2005, Goldman married Estrada, a young Mexican creative writing student. (They met when Estrada was 25 and Goldman was 47.) Only two years later, in 2007, while the couple was vacationing on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Estrada died in a bodysurfing accident; she was 30 years old. “I spent 10 years around death,” says Goldman, “but I never experienced death truly, despite that, until it happened to me.” Say Her Name, published in 2011, is his riveting account of their short marriage.
“Say Her Name was a book I never wanted to write and never expected to write,” Goldman says.“I wasn’t trying to do anything except write a book for Aura—a book that I thought I had to write.” The process prolonged his grief, but “in that sense it was a self-sacrifice, because I owed it to her,” he notes. Estrada held certain literary values, and an “unimaginative memoir would not have been what she wanted.” Knowing his wife would never have the opportunity to publish the books she wanted to write, Goldman wrote a novel about Estrada, he says, so that no one would forget her.
After the publication of Say Her Name, Goldman started work on another novel that didn’t feature Estrada, but then changed direction. “I felt I owed the subject another book,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s survivor’s guilt, but I felt like I didn’t have permission to do that yet.” The result is The Interior Circuit, which is an account of his personal journey, as well as a story of political awakening, set in one of the world’s most mysterious, intriguing, and often-misunderstood cities.
Writing this book proved to be an extremely fast, intense experience. “It was the fifth summer after Aura’s death, and I was really tired of loneliness and grief,” Goldman says. “It was really weighing on me. So I had a crazy, wild time with a very violent climax, but that summer I came out of grief.” As he writes in The Interior Circuit, when the “fifth anniversary of Aura’s death approached... I’d now been mourning Aura longer than I’d known her.” Although Goldman says that he’ll never completely stop grieving for Estrada, the “hearty sense of community and friends” that he enjoys in Mexico helped bring him back to life. “The book is an ode to a city that helped me in a way New York couldn’t.”
Goldman says that while writing the book, he was, at first, celebrating Mexico City. But later, “I felt my city was in danger; in a way it was a loss of innocence because in the second half of the book I investigate a murder.” He admits to a “strange compulsion to be near death and trauma,” adding, “It was a world I wanted to be close to in some way.” Another important theme Goldman explores in The Interior Circuit is the way in which a relationship to a place can shape a life. He refers to a passage in the book about a sailor who retires from the sea and falls in love with a woman. They move to the Midwestern U.S., where the woman and her child die. The sailor builds their coffins with his hands and buries them, realizing that the ground is now sacred to him and that he can’t live anywhere else. As Goldman puts it, “I think the fact that my wife died in Mexico City makes it very important to me; my life went up in smoke at that moment, the family and the future we were going to have. At that point I was anchored to the city in a way I’ve never been anchored to a place before.” The book is also about the “moment happiness returns.”
It’s important to understand, Goldman tells me, that writing is his vocation, not his therapy: “Loneliness and stress are horrible pains; luckily I’m a writer, and I couldn’t just sit around—I had to get back to work.” He now has a girlfriend, Jovi, to whom he dedicated The Interior Circuit, and he cannot wait to get back to Mexico. Another thing he cannot wait to get back to is writing fiction. “I’m just going to write fiction forever and ever now,” he says.