Allegra Goodman on her new novel ‘Sam’ and the writing process

In the past, Allegra Goodman spent her writing days immersed in intricate, fictional matters worlds: For a novel Kaaterskill Falls, she made a small community of orthodox Jews in the late 70s; with Intuitionshe made it up cancer research laboratory policy. But to write your latest novel, Himself, Goodman challenged herself to look within. “It was almost like I was playing a character,” Goodman tells Bustle. “I just got into it and thoroughly enjoyed being a 7-year-old again, then a 10-year-old, and each of those years as it went. That was the magic of the book, I’m just kind of reliving it.”

Himself begins when the eponymous protagonist of the novel, a rambunctious climber, is 7 years old and struggling. Her dad isn’t around much, her mom is struggling to make ends meet, and the other girls at her elementary school in Massachusetts aren’t exactly friendly to her. The book follows Sam through the duration of her adolescence, limited to her experience; only as Sam gets older does the language and perspective of storytelling improve. The result is a painfully intimate portrait of growing up—but Goodman has long resisted delving so deeply into a single character. “In certain drafts I tried to make the book bigger or add other points of view, and the material seemed to resist,” Goodman recalls. “I thought, I have to accept this. I have to hug her. She is a book.”

Hugging Sam proved immensely cathartic for Goodman—a way of thinking about her own experience as a girl, as well as her relationship with her own daughter. “I drew on my memories [of being a kid], but at the same time, now, from my older perspective, I know what it’s like when you get a call from school or hear from the teacher that something happened to your child,” she says. “[Sam was about] looking at it both ways.” In literature, at least, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Below, Goodman reflects on her love of black licorice, her Jane Austen pillow, and reading about TS Eliot’s secret muse.

About what he’s reading now:

I am reading a non-fiction book, Hyacinth girl Lyndall Gordon, which is about TS Eliot and his secret relationship with a woman named Emily Hale. He wrote a letter before his death [saying] that this woman means nothing to me, but he also wrote over a thousand letters to her. He destroyed all her letters, but she kept all his and gave them to Princeton. Then they were sealed for 60 years or so, and in 2019 they were unsealed and Lyndall Gordon went to Princeton and read them all. So [the book reveals that] this is the young woman he fell madly in love with, the Hyacinth Girl in “The Waste Land”. She was his muse, and it’s just a beautiful non-fiction book.

On her special stash of snacks:

My favorite snack is Darrell Lea Soft Australian Black Licorice — it just tastes pure black. I love black licorice and no one in my family will eat it so it’s perfect because otherwise everyone else eats my snacks.

Allegra Goodman’s desk. Courtesy of the subject

About your preferred snooze method:

I like to procrastinate by reading time management books. Books like 168 hours: you have more time than you think by Laura Vanderkam. I don’t actually follow the advice, but reading books like this is a great way to procrastinate. I keep them around and then eventually give them away and then buy more. Another way I procrastinate is that I like to organize things. I’ll go through my desk or buy books on decluttering. Then I scatter the mess by giving they books far, far too many.

On her favorite writing corner:

My desk is on a very sunny window and I don’t have a good curtain, so it gets too sunny to see my screen. Then I retreat to this corner of my study, which is shadowy, and hide on this little ledge between the window and the printer. I do most of my work there. I have a really nice picture of a page from the Ellesmere manuscript on my desk The Canterbury Tales, on which is this beautiful medieval writing. I also have a pillow with a Jane Austen character on it. So I have some heroes of my own.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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