Allegra Goodman: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 13.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
>> Here's the background on Allegra Goodman.
She was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Honolulu.
She went to Harvard and the day she graduated was the day her first book
was published.
And Allegra Goodman was off.
She got a PhD in English Lit at Stanford
where she wrote her second book.
She got married, moved to Cambridge,
Massachusetts where she has had 4 children
and written 5 novels including National Book Award finalist,
"Kaaterskill Falls."
Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping,
Slate and American Scholar.
She was named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40.
She is also the recipient of a Whiting Award
and the Salon magazine award for fiction.
Those are the details of her very successful career
but it really doesn't tell you much about the experience
of reading her work, of immersing herself--
oneself in her vivid beautifully realized worlds,
because Allegra Goodman is a writer who is observant and wise.
She is a powerful writer who gently lays out detailed mosaics
that reveal the inner workings of small communities and she is
that rarity of fluid writer who stays out of the way.
I discovered Allegra Goodman through the pages of the New Yorker
where her short stories about the Markowitz Family gave notice
that this was a distinctive voice
who was an astute observer bringing the complexities
of Jewish-American family life to life.
Her novel, "Kaaterskill Falls" only confirmed her quiet authority
and keen perception as she describe the daily routines
which create reassuring rhythms for a small orthodox community
who vacationed each summer in a Kaaterskill town.
Examining religious life with the subtlety rarely found
in recent fiction, she also demonstrated with great tenderness,
the comfort and limitations of weaving the individual life
into the fabric of the larger community.
Allegra Goodman brings that same thoroughness in telling detail
to her latest novel, "The Cookbook Collector" which looks at the 1999,
2000 dot-com bubble and its aftermath.
At the center of this book are the Bach sisters, 23-year-old Jess,
an environmental activist working in an antiquarian bookstore in Berkeley
and Emily, an overachiever in Silicon Valley
who is making a fortune at the crest of the dot-com craze.
And yes, there's a playful connection to Jane Austen's "Sense
and Sensibility" with pragmatic driven
and rational Emily counterpoised against dreamy idealistic Jess.
And because there is a-- this is a Allegra Goodman after all,
there is also a Bialystok rabbi whose hearty faith adds his own
particular zest to this novel about appetite, temptation, and doubt.
"The Cookbook Collector" is a modern novel, however,
set firmly in the digital age.
It's a techy paradise
where a Microsoft fortune is considered old money
and Goodman captures that world with humor and subtlety,
as well as a contagious affection for the character she creates.
Her character struggle with questions about what really counts
in a confusing world where stock prices soar and crash in the space
of months, redwoods are ripe for the ax
and rare books are often too valuable to read.
Her descriptions of modern life reveals its ambiguities,
some subtle, others not so much.
As in all her work, the question of how to behave ethically
in a world filled with temptations is central and for Allegra Goodman,
it's always the questioning that's important.
She appreciates, I think,
that neither the choices we make nor the values we live by are perfect.
They're flawed.
Often the recipes we follow don't work or the meal turns
out differently from what we may have expected.
That's the human condition and it's one Allegra Goodman illustrates
beautifully in "The Cookbook Collector."
With the searching moral intelligence, a singular gift
for creating vivid miniaturized worlds
and beautifully nuanced prose.
She's given us a novel that ripens slowly like a summer peach
and it's our pleasure to savor every juicy bite.
Please welcome, Allegra Goodman.
[ Applause ]
>> Well, thank you for that beautiful introduction
and thank you for coming.
I feel a little breath of air coming through this tent and I have to say,
the stay in this little breath of air reminds me of home
and I speak this is a Hawaiian, you know.
[Laughter] The little trade wind coming
through in this hot humid day.
Well, I'll you a little bit about my book, my newest book,
"The Cookbook Collector" and I'll talk a little bit about my process
as a writer and how I went about writing this novel.
Then I'll read you one paragraph from the book just
so you get a tiny taste of what it's like and then I'd love
to answer any questions that you might have.
So, different books of mine begin in different ways.
Sometimes, I come up with a first line
for a book, sometimes it's an image.
In this case, my idea for "The Cookbook Collector" began
with an observation, a personal observation which is that,
although I love to read cookbooks and I collect them.
I actually have a large collection of cookbooks.
I don't actually cook myself.
[Laughter] I began to be-- become interested in this phenomenon
of people who read and love and buy cookbooks
but don't actually cook and, you know, for me since I don't cook,
you know, the harder the cookbook, the better you know?
[Laughter] I love all the hard steps,
the rare ingredients, you know, bring it on.
I'm not actually gonna go shopping for them, so.
So I began with this idea of what would it be like to write
about somebody, a character who collects cookbooks
but does not cook, actually doesn't go into the kitchen really.
From this, I sort of-- this idea grew into thinking
about rare cookbooks, not just the beautiful coffee table cookbooks
or the ones that we-- the contemporary ones,
the new ones that you might be able to buy here but early cookbook,
rare ones, early women's cookbooks, 18th century cookbooks,
17th century cookbooks, 16th century cookbooks from Eastern Europe.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and around the corner
from me is a library called, the Schlesinger Library
which belongs to Harvard.
Once upon a time, it belonged to Radcliffe.
And this library is-- has a world class collection of cookbooks,
so you know, this is in the category of write about what--
you know, write local, think local.
I went to this library and talked to the librarian there and I said,
"I'm a novelist and I'm interested in doing research in this library
and research into rare cookbooks."
And she introduced me to a scholar named, Barbara Whitten
who is a cookbook expert and I sat down with Barbara Whitten
and I said, "You know, I'm not a scholar.
I'm not sort of a typical kind of researcher."
I always tell people this to disarm them when I do research.
I say, "I'm not like a journalist or historian.
I actually work away from the truth, you know, not toward it."
Sometimes, my attempts to disarm people actually frighten them a
little I think.
So Barbara Whitten and I sat down.
She's here in 80s and a world renowned authority on cookbooks
and I said, "Essentially what I'd like you to help me with is to--
for my novel to help me curate a fictional collection of cookbooks."
So Barbara said, "Oh, what's your budget?"
[Laughter] And I said, money is no object,
you know fictional collection.
So, we began talking about what books I might put
in this fictional collection which was going to become a character
and my, as yet unwritten novel and I called this research--
it's also a form of procrastination [laughter] which seems to be key
to my process, my writing process.
And she said-- she began to sort of get into the spirit of it and said,
"This cookbook is so rare.
There are only 2 left in the world," but if they were third, you know.
"This cookbook is so rare that the [inaudible] has a facsimile
you know?
And at one point, as we we're batting around ideas
and I was writing down titles that I thought I could include
in this private mysterious cookbook collection,
she started fanning herself with some papers and she said,
"You realized, Allegra, I'm consumed with lust."

[Laughter] Research is really fun and I thought I want you in my book.
I want you.
I wanna import you into my book.
Because really what I was interested and when I was talking to her was
to think about and discover the psychology of collecting.
My subject is always people, not things.
That's why my book is called, "The Cookbook Collector"
and not the cookbook collection.
The collection is a character in the book but what really interested me--
in me-- what really interested me was the sort of lust
that the collector has and what that's all about.
Now at the same time that I was pursuing this cookbook idea,
I had another idea which had been growing on me for sometime.
I'd always been interested
in writing a novel set during the dot-com boom and bust.
>> So essentially, in writing a historical novel
about the very recent past, I'm talking 1999, 1998,
a historical novel about a period that we've all lived through
and think that we remember.
And I started thinking about, how did these 2 ideas fit together?
How might they fit together in a book and I thought,
I'm writing a novel that's really about hunger,
the hunger for collecting, the hunger for food,
the hunger for money which was very much part of that time period,
the hunger for knowledge and new technology, the latest thing,
the next thing, the hunger for fame, the hunger for love
and connection with other people.
I was writing a book about different sorts of hunger, different sorts
of desire, so that sort of where the beginning of this novel came from.
Once I had the idea for this book, I began what I guess I could call
as my writing process which seems to involve a year of floundering
around having no idea what I'm doing which I take lots of notes.
The more notes I take, the more I feel that I'm getting things done.
I write notes.
I think about the names of my characters.
I write genealogies for them.
I write down all kinds
of information that's not gonna end up in the book.
Somehow, it seems to help me.
And I do charts with arrows between the characters.
The charts for this book got bigger and bigger
until I actually got those presentation-sized post-its,
the really big ones and-- that you can put on the wall
and I wrote the names of the characters with arrows
so that the chart looks kind of like a brain.
And again, this made me feel scientific
like I was doing something.
And I did some research
in the Schlesinger Library during this time.
I went and looked at some of those titles
that Barbara Whitten had mentioned to me.
I held these books in my hands, these gorgeous rare cookbooks found
in leather with gilt-edged pages, their archaic language
in this beautiful reading room Harvard.
So you know, I do-- I did a fair amount of research in that sense.
I would also say though that 90 percent
of my research is really in my imagination.
It's just the tiny amount that I do when I go to a place,
look at a book, talk to a person.
Most of it really has to do with--
most of it, I'm probably doing when I'm asleep and dreaming.
So it's an imaginative research, an imaginative process.
And I would say the relationship between a research and the book is
like everyday life to a dream.
The book is more like the dream that develops.
After I had floundered around for quite a bit of time, I plunged in
and began writing my novel about this 2 sisters, Emily and Jess.
Emily the older pragmatic one as Jill mentioned and Jess,
5 years younger, much more whimsical.
Emily is the CEO of a startup company in Silicon Valley.
Her younger sister is a graduate student in philosophy,
still trying to find her way in life.
who works at an antiquarian bookstore which is where she comes
across the rare cookbook collection and also where she comes
across a book collector and book dealer named,
George who is quite interested in her.
I began my work by writing during the day.
I have 4 children, so I write while they're at school.
And I write a lot of notes and outlines
which is I say makes me feel organized.
It's a bit like when you write all those to-do lists,
it sort of makes you feel like you're in control
of an uncontrollable process or an uncontrollable life.
And I changed all my outlines all along the way.
I have a lot of interruptions in my life especially
because I have children and with this book which is an ambitious book
with many layers, I found that a new way of dealing with interruptions
that I hadn't found before and I share with any of you
who are working on projects, during-- when you get interrupted,
long projects where you have to sort of keep the faith and keep moving.
I began everyday's work writing this book
by rewriting what I had written the day before,
before I went on to the new--
to new work and I found that this helped me keep going
and keep focused and also maintain the continuity,
the voice of the book as I went.
During this period, when I was writing the book, when I finally got
down to it, you know the first hundred pages are always the
hardest, but I finally sort of gotten my momentum going.
I did a trip to Berkeley, California where half of my book is set
and did some location scouting there.
I googled Bernard Maybeck houses, this beautiful Californian architect
and went-- drove around in a rented car up in the Berkeley Hills trying
to think about where George lived and where he might park his car,
what his house looked like in relation to the neighborhood.
And I began to write in different places.
Another thing that I would recommend to those of you who might feel
like you're getting a little stuck writing in the same place
at the same desk everyday.
I began to go to the places where I had set my work.
Later on towards the end of my book, there's an argument
between the 2 sisters which takes place at a Home Depot.
So, I drove to my local Home Depot,
not far from my house with my little netbook.
And since the 2 sisters were arguing there at the store,
I wrote the scene in the store.
I sat on one of those orange rolling ladders.
[Laughter] And with my little-- I was typing away, you know.
And because I wanted to be with the real paint chips
and the real fake terra cotta flower pots and all of that.
And a man did approach me as I was sitting there on the rolling ladder
and say-- and he said, "Do you work here?"
[Laughter] And I said, "Yes."
But you know-- and like many of the people who work at Home Depot,
I couldn't help him anyway so.
[ Laughter ]
[ Applause ]
>> Sometimes, like all writers, I get frustrated.
My work was slowly at times and there were--
there are scenes in this book that I rewrote many, many times.
There're also scenes in this book that came more easily to me
where I somehow got under the surface and got into that sort
of underwater territory where I was completely absorbed in my work
and I think that probably if you talk to other writers here
at the festival, they would say to you that there are sort
of these moments where you are completely absorbed
and completely caught up and it's in that--
those are the times when writing is really fun.
I work sometimes at a cafe near my house and I had a moment like that
where I was writing a scene and I really was into it and I looked
up from my table which was by the window and it was a winter day
in Boston and it gets dark very early and I looked up
and it was dark and I was really thirsty and I looked around
and I didn't have a drink.
So, I went to the barista, the counter and I said, "Oh,
I think a hot chocolate and I didn't--
don't have it" and she said, "When did you order it?"
And I looked at my watch and I said, "Three hours ago."
[Laughter] And she said, "We called and called for the hot chocolate
and nobody came so we dumped it."
And I said, "I'm sorry.
I was really into my work.
I lost track of the time."
And this woman or girl, she looked like she was about 16,
said, "Dude, I feel you."
[Laughter] And brought me another one.
[Laughter] So you know, I mean you know, you should believe it
when people say writing is hard.
It's also fun, if you keep your sense of humor.
After I'm done with the whole manuscript and I've--
in revising as I go along, I do a lot of revision especially cutting.
I've got more and more ruthless as I've gotten older
and I will cut and trim wherever I can.
I revised the whole thing a couple of times before I send it
to my editor so I feel that--
you know, I feel I can show my face to her.
So, that's a bit about my writing process and then I'm just going
to read you a paragraph from the book, so you can hear what it sounds
like and then I'd love to answer any questions that you have about,
"The Cookbook Collector" or any of my other work.
So the paragraph I'm going to read to you comes from a scene
where George, the bookseller has had dinner with his friends
and they've left and it's late, late at night and he's thinking
about Jess who works for him who is much younger that he is
and he really likes her and he's imagining-- he's imagining her.
Sentimentally, George thought of Jess.
Irrationally, he imagined her.
Sadly, he despaired of having her
but this was not a question of pursuit.
Raj would laugh at him and Nick would look as scams.
But his fantasies were nurturing, not predatory.
If he could have Jess, he would feed her.
Laughable, antique, confusingly paternal, he longed to nourish her
with clementines and pears in season, fresh whole wheat bread
and butter, wild strawberries, comte cheese, fresh figs
and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets.
He would sear red meat, if she would let him, and grill spring lamb,
cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aoli,
poach her fish, thick Dover Sole and wine and shallots,
julienne potatoes, and roast a whole chicken
with lemon slices under the skin.
He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella
and just-picked basil, serve her and watch her savor dinner,
pour for her, and watch her drink.
>> That would be enough for him.
To find her plums in season and perfect nectarines,
velvet apricots, dark succulent duck.
To bring her all these things and watch her eat.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Anyone-- anyone with a question.
I see somebody coming.
>> Yes, Ms. Goodman, having read Kaaterskill Falls
in which a book collection also plays no small part and intending
to read this book and I mean also just heard David Petroski talked
for 4 years and-- or Henry Petroski talk, pardon me,
in which time when asked about e-books.
I would like you-- to question you as to what will it mean to lust
after electronic publishing.
>> [Laughter].
What is it like to a lust after electronic publishing.
Ooh, I think it would be a different sort of--
it might be a different sort of feeling actually.
I have to think about that.
I don't think lust-- I don't think lust really comes into it quite yet.
And certainly that's what my book collector, George would say.
You know, I think there's a reason that in Facebook,
you've liked something, you don't love something or lust
for something, you like it, so may be we just like electronic fiction.
We don't love it or lust for it.
>> I was wondering who encouraged you to write since you're
such a young writer, it's obvious
that there's gotta be many people encouraging you along the way.
>> Thank you for calling me young.
[Laughter] I was encouraged by my family
and when I was a really young writer, I used to read my work aloud
to my parents and my sister and especially funny stuff that--
which would them laugh and that encouraged me the most.
And I always felt the best thing for me would be
when my mother was laughing so much that tears were streaming
down her face and I thought, Oh, I got something there.
[Laughter] Yes?
>> I know that like myself as aspiring writer,
I always like a certain character more than others.
Is there any character in your new book
that you like more than the rest?
>> Oh, my children, my children, I can't-- you know, she's--
I love all the characters here especially the unsympathetic ones,
you know.
I think perhaps George, George in this book.
I felt like the highest praise for me
when I finished this book was my agent read them book and she said
to me-- we're talking about George, the antiquarian bookseller
and she said, "Where's my George?"
[Laughter] And I thought, "Hmm."
[Laughter] Good question.
>> Hello, good to see you again.
I was wondering since in the novel, "Intuition" is about science
and science post-docs and you
and your husband sort of lived in that world.
So, I was wondering how much of that was based on you
and David's experiences and how the novel was received
by the MIT science community?
>> Well, my husband is a computer scientist and "Intuition" is
about biologist, so you know-- so I felt very safe and actually,
my husband was a little offended.
He said, "Why didn't you write about computer scientist,
we're so interesting, you know?"
[Laughter] And that was really the feeling of a lot of his colleagues.
But great interest in the MIT community
and in the scientific community in that book and it was a lot
of fun having written about a laboratory in crisis.
[ Pause ]
>> Anyone else?
[ Silence ]
>> Well, thank you so much for having me here.

[ Applause ]
>> This has been presentation of the Library of Congress.
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