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Interview with Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman is shortlisted for her short story FAQs. She talks about the spark of an idea behind the story and discusses how writers should draw on their own experience for fiction, but also “watch and listen and wonder about other people’s lives”

  • Where did you draw inspiration from for your story FAQs? Was there a specific initial spark of an idea that developed into the story of Phoebe and her return home?
    This story is actually part of a story cycle with overlapping characters. I had written a story called Apple Cake about Phoebe’s Grandma Jeanne, and introduced Phoebe as a minor, but pivotal, character there. I wanted to write more about this young woman – and to explore her point of view – so, in a sense, one story led to another. But of course it’s more complicated than that. I’ve spent some time in Highland Park New Jersey and on the trains to New York. And perhaps I should confess that I played the violin as a girl. I’m interested in the way certain activities – like playing an instrument – change for us as we grow up.

    How would you describe your writing style for people who may not be familiar with your work already?
    My writing style depends in part on the project. I can be clean and spare, choosing my details selectively, as in this story, or I can write much more expansively in a novel. In all my work, you’ll find an intimate point of view and a focus on dialogue – and you’ll find some humour – like a twist of lime.

    Are you a planner when it comes to writing, or do you just see where a story takes you and let yourself be open to surprises?
    I am a planner, and I take a lot of notes by hand, even roughing out the dialogue, rather the way an artist does pencil sketches. That said – I’m open to surprises – and my best work often emerges from a change of plans. I prepare a lot, and then I improvise. As Pasteur said, “Chance favours the prepared mind.”

    Is it necessary for an author “to write about what you know” do you think?
    I think it helps if some part of what you’re writing is familiar—the setting, or the people, or the situation. I’d say, write what you know, but remember that you can expand what you know as well. It’s particularly useful to turn your attention to other people and their experience. Be an observer. Draw upon your own experience, but watch and listen and wonder about other people’s lives. A lot of stories start there.

    What would you say has been the greatest success of your career so far?
    Probably my greatest success is the diversity of my work, both in style and subject matter.

    Which other short story writers do you admire and why? Is there a specific short story that has had a profound effect on you?
    Eudora Welty was important to me when I was growing up. I was drawn to her voices and her humour, and to the economy of her short stories. Joyce’s collection “Dubliners” inspired me as well. What artistry! And he was so young when he wrote it. I also admire D. H. Lawrence’s short stories. He writes with such power—and he conveys so much of what is unsaid, as well as what’s said. I read these writers in school, in anthologies, and then read more on my own. Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O, Joyce’s The Dead and Lawrence’s Love Among the Haystacks are all stories to which I’ve returned again and again.

    What challenges and opportunities does the short story form represent for you?
    The challenge and the opportunity of the story is its small frame. It’s so interesting, not just to tell a tale, but create a world in a small space. Every detail counts. In this way, the story is something like a poem. A story requires a certain intensity and unity of purpose—so the writer has to train for that, as a high-diver plans and prepares to jump and turn and twist before slicing through the water.

    What advice would you give to other short story writers who may be looking to be in your position this time next year?
    My best advice is to enjoy your work, the characters you are developing, the plot you are unfolding, and the language you are using. Enjoy it all. For best results, don’t rush your story. Don’t force it. Think about it. Allow yourself time to revise, and revise again. Read your story aloud to a friend. Listen to your friend’s reaction, but also listen to yourself. You may catch little problems you can’t see on the page. Above all, treat your story as a labour of love, aka art.

    Interview by Sophie Haydock

    Allegra Goodman is an American writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Three of her novels have been published in the UK by Atlantic Books. They are ‘The Chalk Artist’, ‘The Cookbook Collector’ and ‘Intuition’ (shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize in 2009). Her other novels are ‘Paradise Park’ and ‘Kaaterskill Falls’ (a National Book Award finalist in 1996). Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary and Ploughshares and has been anthologised in The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She has also written two collections of short stories, ‘The Family Markowitz’ and ‘Total Immersion’, and a novel for younger readers, ‘The Other Side of the Island’. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Boston Globe and The American Scholar. She grew up in Honolulu, studied English and philosophy at Harvard, received a PhD in English literature from Stanford, and was a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award (1991), the Salon Award for Fiction (1997) and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2006-2007). She lives with her husband and has four children.