A Talk with Carol Goodman
Author of ARCADIA FALLS
Your last two books were set in Italy. What drew you back to New York?
I always knew that Iíd go back to writing about New York State after the Italian novels. The area still fascinates me. I think itís the combination of physical beauty and folklore that clings to the landscape. In Arcadia Falls I was particularly interested in exploring the history of artistsí colonies, such as Byrdcliffe, Onteora, and Yaddo. Upstate New York has attracted artists for many years.
The boarding school in Arcadia Falls is a former artistsí colony, founded in the 1920s by women artists and illustrators. What obstacles have female artists faced historically, and how far do you think weíve come since then?
Iíve long been fascinated by the strategies women have to employ to live as writers or artists and the sacrifices they often have to make. Iím interested, too, in how women today can be artists and mothers, writers and wives. Historically, I think it was extraordinarily difficult for women to embark on artistic careers. Art schools often didnít admit women, and if they did, they might well be barred from life drawing classes which are essential to learning how to draw the human figure. Even when these obstacles were lifted, women often had to choose between marrying or pursuing their art. A married woman was expected to devote her time and energies to taking care of her children and household. Obviously, weíve come a long way since then, but I think many of the same challenges face modern women. Itís difficult enough for a woman to juggle work and children. Many women who have children canít afford to pursue an interest that may not produce money right awayóor ever. Iíve often felt conflicted in my own life balancing my writing and raising a child.
A haunting and original fairy tale called The Changeling Girl plays a pivotal role in the narrative. What is it about?
The Changeling Girl is a story about a girl who gets lost in the woods and comes across an old womanóa witchówho offers her a chance to remake herself if sheís willing to trade places with a changeling.
Did you create the fairy tale before or after you began writing the novel? How does it shape the landscape and narrative arc of ARCADIA FALLS?
I started writing the novel with the idea that there would be a fairy tale at its center inspired by folktales of children kidnapped by fairies. I created the story as I wrote the first chapter. It was shaped by the interactions between my narrator Meg and her daughter Sally. Thatís when I began to think that the changeling story might be a good metaphor for how our children sometimes change alarmingly when theyíre teenagersósometimes into unrecognizable, eye-rolling trolls! The story evolved as I wrote the novel and the landscape and narrative of ARCADIA FALLS sort of grew around it.
Is the artistsí colony/boarding school at Arcadia Falls based on a real place?
The Arcadia Falls art colony and school are wholly fictional, but both are inspired in part by artistsí colonies I have visited and read about: Yaddo, Onteora, MacDowell, and, most of all, Byrdcliffe. The town of Arcadia Falls is also fictional. Geographically, itís close to Woodstock, New York, but it also shares features with some of my favorite Delaware County towns: Roxbury, Margaretville, and Andes. The Hitchiní Post, for instance, is a real place near Margaretville, New York.
ARCADIA FALLS is, in many ways, a meditation on mother-daughter relationships. Many of the characters in the novel have a difficult time balancing motherhood and their careers. Do you think itís possible to be a good artist and a good mother? As a novelist with a daughter in your own right, how have you negotiated that line?
First of all, I have to say that Sally is not based on my teenaged daughter, Maggie. I often quipped during the writing of the book that I had to imagine what having a cantankerous teenager was like because Maggie is so sweet and good-tempered. True, Maggie would often roll her eyes at these quips and tell me to keep my day job as a novelist because I wasnít going to make it in stand-up.
That saidÖIíve been very lucky to have found a profession that has meshed pretty nicely with raising a child. Iíve been able to work from home and have flexible hours. I have only occasionally been so wrapped up in my writing that I have forgotten to fill out a permission slip or register her for the SATs and I have never forgotten to pick her up after school (I did forget the dog at the groomerís once, but thatís another story). Iíve also been lucky to have a mother who lived nearby who could babysit when I went on tour and a loving husband and step-daughter who find my distractedness and inability to clean the house charming. If I had to do one more thing (work another job, take care of more than one child, dust) the precarious balance that enables me to write would probably tip. I am daily aware that most women arenít so lucky.
Your daughter Maggie is an artist and is actively pursuing an education in the arts. What advice have you given her as she embarks on her career?
Keep doing what youíre doing. Trust yourself. Believe in your dreams. Learn everything you can because nothing is extraneous to art. Thereís nothing wrong with a day job as long as it still allows you to draw and write. Take risks.
The past and present are interwoven in all of your novels. In this one, you alternate between the story of Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt, the two women who founded the artistsí colony, and that of Meg Rosenthal, a folklore and fairy tale expert who teaches at the school in the present day. What is it about this structure that appeals to you?
I guess Iím just past-obsessed. Iím fascinated by the way that our lives are shaped by the past, both by personal and family history and the history of the culture around us. Iím interested in how we look to the stories of other people to understand our own lives and to provide models for living our lives. Iím also interested in the danger of over-identifying with models in the past.
You have said that language itself is intrinsic to your stories. Can you explain?
When I start out writing a scene I have a visual picture of whatís happening and perhaps a few bits of dialogue or description, but once I start writing the scene itís often shaped by the words I choose. One thing leads to another; the process of writing creates the scene. I always try to remember this when I wake up in the middle of the night unsure of whatís going to happen nextóthat writing it will tell me whatís going to happen next.
What can your readers expect to see next from you?
I am in the middle of a book called The Demon Lover. Itís rather a departure for me because while I have often written about fairy tales and mythology, in this book the fairies and mythological creatures are real. Itís about a woman who writes about Gothic Romance and who buys a house thatís inhabited by an incubusóthe demon lover of the title. My step-daughter Nora has remarked that Iím writing it as if possessed by a demon, but I categorically deny that Iíve got, or want, an incubus. I would, however, welcome a Brownie for some light housekeeping.