Another Look at Frailty

Myla Goldberg

Isthmus | October 13, 2005
The best-selling author of Bee Season, Myla Goldberg has also published a collection of essays about Prague (Time’s Magpie) and her short stories have appeared in Harper’s and McSweeney’s. Her new novel, Wickett’s Remedy, is set against the backdrop of the 1918 flu pandemic and tells the story of an ambitious Irish-American shopgirl from South Boston whose marriage to a shy medical student thrusts her into an epic narrative involving the title remedy, predatory hucksterism, tragedy, loss, persistence -- and the equivalent of a Greek chorus in the margins of the book’s pages. In this email interview, Goldberg discusses illness, her musical and spelling prowess, movies, pinball, her salty enthusiasm for “the full spectrum of language,” her three fondest wishes and the curative properties of Czech liqueurs.

Q: The movie version of Bee Season opens in November, starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. As a movie buff who has expressed some reluctance to see your work adapted to the big screen, are you apprehensive or full of anticipation?

GOLDBERG: Neither. The movie version is coming out on another planet. This is how it seems to me, anyway. Though the movie folks have been very nice to me throughout the whole production process, I haven’t been involved in it, which has allowed me to keep a necessary distance. It basically feels like an out-of-body experience.

Q: Speaking of apprehension vs. anticipation, which better describes your mood pending reviews of your new novel, Wickett’s Remedy?

GOLDBERG: It depends on the day you ask me. Finishing a novel and putting it out in the world is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. I tried to do some weird stuff in this one, which ups the ante on both ends of the exhilaration/terror spectrum.

Q: Bee Season touched on mental health and illness. Your new novel, Wickett’s Remedy, is set during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Is this a coincidence, does illness hold metaphorical fascination for you, or do you harbor fears of illness?

GOLDBERG: Human frailty fascinates me. It takes so little to knock us down.

Q: Do you get a flu shot every year?

GOLDBERG: I’ve never had a flu shot; I don’t believe in them.

Q: As a musical multi-instrumentalist, to whom or to what do you attribute your aptitude?

GOLDBERG: I’ve just always liked music, same way I’ve always liked writing. I don’t remember anyone or anything in particular pointing me toward those things. Both of them are hard-wired.

Q: If you found yourself stranded in Prague, how would you assess your prospects as a street musician?

GOLDBERG: When I lived in Prague in the early 90’s, I had my banjo with me and I did pretty well busking on the streets. Part of the reason was that American tourists had no clue what the currency was worth. There was a Czech coin that was worth approximately one American dollar, but Americans think of coins as spare change, which provided me with some pretty good meals.

Q: Which music could you not write without?

GOLDBERG: I can’t listen to music while writing, but whenever I’m not writing I’m listening to something. Old stand-bys are The Velvet Underground and Magnetic Fields. New obsessions are The Books and Os Mutantes.

Q: Since you misspelled “tomorrow” in that fourth-grade spelling bee, has your spelling ability improved to the point that you could be competitive vs. your adult peers?

GOLDBERG: I’m a pretty good speller, but my study skills are non-existent, so anyone who wanted to put in the time could easily kick my ass in an adult spelling bee.

Q: How does one move forward after an acclaimed debut novel to get to your next work of fiction?

GOLDBERG: Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do, so starting another book after Bee Season wasn’t a problem at all. For me, moving forward as a writer means trying something completely new with every book. As long as I’m doing that, I’m happy.

Q: You’ve noted that some of your characters reflect a universal compulsion to want more than what one has. What are the top three things on your wish list?

GOLDBERG: A different President, worldwide literary renown, and the existence of more Kubrick movies.

Q: How close does the documentary Spellbound come to capturing what you observed while attending the 1997 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.?

GOLDBERG: I love that movie. He was working on it at the same time I was working on Bee Season, and I think he really nailed it.

Q: What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?

GOLDBERG: Blindness, by Jose Saramago. It’s about an epidemic of spontaneous blindness that afflicts a society and it reads like a grown-up Lord of the Flies. Everything that went down in New Orleans is predicted in that book. It’s an intense, penetrating story that is permanently seared on my brain.

Q: You’ve been known to let fly with the occasional “gosh” in some of your interviews, but you’re also prone to spice your language with the occasional salty colloquialism such as “fuck-off,” “shitload” or “fucking.” Where does that impulse come from?

GOLDBERG: I really don’t think about what I’m going to say before I say it. Sometimes when I get excited, I swear. Good communication means employing the full spectrum of language.

Q: What is it about pinball that grabs you?

GOLDBERG: There was a really lovely period in the early ’90s when pinball games had narrative content -- in games like Dr. Who and Funhouse, you had a mission to fulfill, and there were all these neat moving parts -- there was a major gadgetry element to the pinball games of that era that was a throwback to the original penny arcades of the early 20th century.

Q: You started writing Wickett’s Remedy before Bee Season was published. Is your next novel likewise already underway?

GOLDBERG: Nope. I’m all tuckered out. Wickett’s took five years of full-time writing. Bee Season only took two years of part-time writing. I’m doing other stuff for now -- short stories, maybe even a play or screenplay -- until my brain is ready to tackle another novel.

Q: According to, customers who have purchased your books have also bought works by Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. If you were to give someone a copy of Wickett’s Remedy, what book by another author would you pair with it?

GOLDBERG: One book (well, three books) that served as a direct inspiration for Wickett’s Remedy was John Dos Passos USA Trilogy. Way more people should read it. Dos Passos anticipated Burroughs and Faulkner in that thing and strung together some really neat and diverse texts and writing styles to tell a sweeping and absorbing story about early 20th century America.

Q: Do you have any tattoos?


Q: Why do you live where you live?

GOLDBERG: It’s economically and ethnically diverse; it’s midway between an excellent park and an excellent cemetery; and there’s a corner store two blocks away where pickles can be purchased 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q: What was it about Prague that called to you?

GOLDBERG: I had been obsessed with Communism as a child and wanted to get to the Eastern Bloc before all the ex-Communists were dead; I had encountered Kafka and Kundera at an impressionable age; I was in love with the samizdat tradition that went on under Communist rule; and I wanted to try to track down the surrealist animator Jan Svankmayer.

Q: Czech liqueurs such as Becherovka and Slivovice have a traditional place in that culture’s notions of health and illness. Considering your demonstrated fascination with illness, did you indulge while you were there -- and, if so, were you imbued with health?

GOLDBERG: I was imbued with incredibly good health in Prague on an almost daily basis.


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