A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation with Carol Goodman
Alex Schemmer is a writer based in Los Angeles.
Alex Schemmer: How did the idea for The Ghost Orchid come to you? Was it a speciﬁc character, a place, an image?
Carol Goodman: The character of Corinth came to me ﬁrst. I was reading about the Fox sisters who were responsible for setting off the whole spiritualist craze in upstate New York during the nineteenth century and I came across a letter from Kate Fox written while she was staying in the household of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and his wife, Mary, who had lost their young son. In it Kate wrote that she hated Mary Greeley and wanted desperately to go back home. I thought it was such an interesting situation and, while the Foxes later admitted to being frauds, I wondered what it would be like for someone who really could communicate with the dead.
AS: The titles of your previous novels—The Drowning Tree, The Seduction of Water, and The Lake of Dead Languages—all relate to water. And the book-within-the-book in The Ghost Orchid is Muse of Water. What is it about water?
CG: I suppose the water thing started with my ﬁrst novel, The Lake of Dead Languages. When I decided to set the novel on a lake, I found I could use water images to convey narrator Jane Hudson’s emotional states: she dreams about a frozen lake because she’s been emotionally frozen since the deaths of her childhood friends, the circulation of water before the lake freezes becomes a metaphor for the stirring up of past memories that occur when she returns to the scene of that tragedy, and the thawing of the ice coincides with her ﬁnally breaking free of the past. I didn’t consciously plan to return to water images in my next book (and I made sure that there wouldn’t be any ice by set¬ting the book in spring and fall) but I was drawn to the Celtic story of the Selkie as a parable for the narrator’s mother’s life and from there . . . well, you get the drift, so to speak. I suppose, like many people, I’m drawn to bodies of water: rivers, lakes, oceans . . . I even like rain and puddles. I’m an Aquarius . . . and I love to swim.
With The Ghost Orchid I thought I’d subvert (literally) the whole water thing by putting the water underground—a device that was also suited to the Saratoga, New York, setting which is famous for its underground springs. Then I decided to further play with the idea by having all the water dry up in the present section of the book.
There will probably always be some water in my books, but I’m also fond of the imagery of birds, trees, ﬂowers, rocks . . . all the elements!
AS: How did you decide on The Ghost Orchid as a title?
CG: I wanted something that tied the past and present stories together. Ellis and her mother search for the orchid because it’s supposed to be a love charm. When they don’t ﬁnd it, Ellis believes that she’s inherited some kind of malady that prevents the women in her family from ﬁnding love. When Corinth ﬁnds the orchid in the bog behind the cabin in the Sacandaga Valley, she doesn’t pick it because she associates it with the stories her mother told her about girls killing themselves over doomed love affairs. But later, when she returns to the cabin, Alice gives her an orchid which Corinth drops and Ellis, in the present, ﬁnds. It functions, then, as a symbol of love.
AS: Any honorable-mention titles that didn’t make the cut?
CG: My working title was Blackwell, which is Corinth’s last name. I also thought it was a sly water title.
AS: Can you tell us how you created Bosco and about any personal experience you’ve had at writers’ residence programs?
CG: While Bosco is its own place, I was deﬁnitely inspired by the physical setting of the artist’s colony Yaddo in Saratoga, New York. In my twenties I worked brieﬂy (about eight months) as a secretary there and was profoundly affected by the atmosphere—by the acres of deeply shadowed pine forests, the old mansion, and the rose garden where I often went to eat my bag lunch (one of the perks of working there was to get the same packed lunch that the writers got). I used a general sense of the place when I began creating Bosco, but I wanted a much more elaborate garden, so I read up on, and took a class in Italian Renaissance Gardens, so the gardens of Bosco are more like the Villa D’Este in Italy than the gardens at Yaddo.
I’ve never applied to stay at a writers’ residence program because with a young child it’s hard to go away for any extended time. The closest I’ve come is the MFA program I did at The New School, which I enjoyed very much. From that I have an idea of what writers are like in groups, but I had to imagine how those dynamics might be intensiﬁed in the hothouse atmosphere of a colony. As for the people at Bosco—they’re strictly ﬁctional. The only Yaddo experience I put into the book is my own: the calls that Daria gets from people wishing to tell their stories to the writers are very similar to calls I got when I was answering the phone at Yaddo.
AS: You’ve said that you usually have an elaborate rationale behind a character’s name. How did you name Corinth? Ellis/Elmira? Tom Quinn? Any favorite derivations?
CG: Corinth is named for the town she was born in—Corinth, New York—which also happens to be the town in which The Lake of Dead Languages is set.
I like to add little cross-references between my novels, also, I wanted to use as many New York State place names in this book as a celebration of the region and because I knew I’d be using a non-New York setting for my next book. So we’ve also got Milo, Aurora, and Elmira—all towns in upstate New York that are named for Classical ﬁgures. Tom Quinn, I’m embarrassed to admit, comes from a favorite TV character on the British show, MI-5.
AS: Are any of your characters based on real people, modern or historical?
CG: I don’t so much base my characters on real people as am in¬spired by real people as models. For the historical characters I read about people who lived at that time and had similar occupations or societal roles, so that I’d have an idea of what such a person would be like. I read about nineteenth-century psychics to form my picture of Corinth and nineteenth-century magicians to build the character, Tom Quinn. My modern characters aren’t generally that close to living models, but Zalman Bronsky is an exception to that rule. He’s an homage to my husband, Lee Slonimsky.
AS: A neophyte novelist, Ellis has trouble falling into a routine. Vet¬eran writer Bethesda, on the other hand, works consistently within her rigid regimen. Where are you on this spectrum? Do you have a set “process”? Has it become easier with each new novel?
CG: Yes, I have a process. Here’s my routine: After I’ve gotten my daughter off to school I take the dog for a two mile walk, sometimes thinking about the day’s writing but sometimes replaying what happened on Battlestar Galactica last night or planning what to buy for dinner later. Then I come back to my house, make a second cup of tea, and sit down at my desk which is on an enclosed front porch with a window well shielded by a Rose of Sharon bush that gets lots of birdlife. I work there anywhere from two to ﬁve hours—closer to two when I’m in the beginning of the novel, more like ﬁve or six in the later stages. I write a chapter out in longhand in a black-and-white marbled notebook and then type it into the computer. I try to have a handwritten chapter done by the end of the week, so that on Monday I start off typing—a less intimidating way to start the week. I don’t write after my daughter gets home from school or on the weekends, although I will sometimes work on a revision or do research, or an¬swer questions like these, when she’s home. Oh, yes, and I take a nap most days which I’m always reluctant to admit to because it seems to provoke so much envy in people who are in ofﬁces all day.
Anyway, that’s the routine I try to stick to, but it often gets thrown off by life in the form of forgotten homework that needs to be dropped off, doctors’ appointments, food shopping, broken appli¬ances with their attendant chatty repairmen, or an elderly neighbor who needs a bag of groceries brought in. In other words, I don’t work in a sealed room; I work on the front porch. Sometimes I’ll get frustrated when I’m interrupted, but then I remind myself that the writing comes from life. Life’s not the enemy.
As for getting easier . . . the answer is no. Every book is a new challenge. In that way, I think that most writers combine veteran Bethesda’s ease with neophyte Ellis’s distractability. My ideal is to feel like a neophyte when I start the book and a veteran when I’ve ﬁnished it.
AS: Ellis is at different points inspired, intimidated, and aided by her fellow artists. To what extent and with whom do you collaborate/share your works-in-progress? How lonely a pursuit is writing for you?
CG: Well, as the previous answer suggests, sometimes not lonely enough! Seriously, though, it can feel pretty lonely, but I’m very lucky to be married to a writer. When I type up a new chapter I give it to Lee right away and a day or two later he’ll go over it with me—touch¬ing up grammar, questioning the logic and rationale for characters’ behaviors, criticizing awkward bits and praising a turn of a phrase here and there. He’s really good at catching unlikely scenarios and grammar slips, but I mostly value having someone who’s sharing the story so I can talk about what’s going on in it. In The Ghost Orchid he became even more involved by writing the poems composed by Zalman Bronsky. When I needed a poem from Zalman, I’d describe the poem in brackets and ask “Zalman” to write it for me. We had so much fun that in the next book, The Sonnet Lover, I commissioned Lee to write a series of love sonnets by a ﬁctitious sixteenth-century woman.
When I’m ﬁnished with the ﬁrst draft I give it my editor, the inestimable Linda Marrow. She guides me through the revision process with a gentle, but ﬁrm, hand and has even been known to offer dessert after a particularly thorny revision note.
AS: Spirits and ghosts pervade this book. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person? Do you think the living and dead co-exist?
CG: That’s a hard question. While I wasn’t raised religious, I was raised to believe in God and an afterlife and such questions interest me and seem vital. The spirits in The Ghost Orchid do have a ﬁgura¬tive element: I wanted to talk about the inspiration behind writing as a kind of possession, the way hearing your characters’ voices in your head was a little like speaking with the dead. But as I wrote it I realized that I couldn’t bring it off without really confronting the idea that some piece of us does go on after death.
AS: You braid your past and present narratives together, as if they were in dialogue with one another. Why did you structure the book this way?
CG: I’ve just always been interested in how the past impinges on the present, how it shapes who we are. I started out, in The Lake of Dead Languages, exploring how events in Jane Hudson’s youth haunted her present life and then in The Seduction of Water I was interested in how Iris’s life was affected by her mother’s history. In The Drowning Tree I wanted to see if I could reach a little farther back into the past—and in The Ghost Orchid I went even farther back. I love the nineteenth century, especially the whole spiritualist movement in up¬state New York, and I was intrigued by the idea of writing a novel in which the past not only inﬂuenced the present, but seems to be occurring at the same time as the present. I’ve always loved what Faulkner said about the past: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
AS: Corinth grew up in the midst of the nineteenth-century spiritualist craze, performed in vaudeville, and rubbed elbows with the industrial nouveau riche. How did you create such a textured depiction of late 1800s America? What drew you to these distinct sub-worlds?
CG: I’ve always loved nineteenth-century novels (Dickens, the Bront‘s, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy) and been drawn to that era. I ﬁnd the spiritualist craze particularly fascinating because it combines the Victorian fascination with death and mourning with new technology—such as photography, which was used to create “spirit pictures.” It made sense to me, too, that in a culture where women so often lost young children they could be desperate to make contact with the afterlife. As I mentioned before, it was reading about the Fox sisters that led me to explore the relationship between a bereaved mother and captive psychic. Then, reading about the performances of the psychics, I kept coming across references to vaudeville and magi¬cians. Houdini, after all, was famously skeptical of seances and broke off his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle when he thought he’d been deceived by the writer. I even came across a magician who was known as “The Great Bosco” which I took as a good omen of sorts for the novel. Vaudeville has always interested me and I’d like someday to do more with that material. My great-aunt was a vaudeville dancer and my mother appeared on the stage when she was an infant.
AS: While Ellis delves into Corinth’s past, she shies away from her own, embarrassed by her mother and her inherited psychic abilities. Are we invariably products of our heredity? Are we often ashamed of what makes us special?
CG: It seems to me that we spend a lot of our lives reacting to, and against, what our mothers taught us to be, or dealing with the legacy of your mother’s life. My mother lost her own mother when she was quite young and I’ve always felt that she was shaped by that loss and that I, in turn, was shaped by who it made her.
By deﬁnition “special” means out of the mainstream, so yes, I think there’s some degree of uncomfortableness—if not shame—that goes with something that makes us stand out. Certainly, something as odd as a psychic ability would be an uncomfortable trait to live with, but even an overactive imagination, the kind a writer might be blessed/ cursed with, has its attendant stigma. For instance, I’m always the mother who’s vividly imagining the worst case scenario in every situation and I learned a long time ago that while it’s okay to admit to other mothers that you’re worried about tainted spinach or child abductors, it’s probably best not to confess that you’re picturing your kid drowning in the canal next to their summer camp. So you learn to channel such bizarre imaginings into something constructive . . . such as novel writing.
AS: You studied Latin at Vassar. To what extent have the classics inﬂuenced your world view and by extension your writing?
CG: When I majored in Latin, I thought I was taking a break from writing, but I’ve since realized that it was hugely important to my development as a writer. Studying Latin taught me both the discipline that is required to write a novel, and the joy of toiling with language that makes writing a novel a labor of love. Reading classical literature—the Greek plays, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid—gave me a feel for the structure of archetypal stories and the conviction that what makes us human is essentially the same despite the vagaries of time and place.
AS: Your book has elements of romance, mystery, historical thriller, ghost story . . . Do you consider genre when assembling your story? Are you as horriﬁed by the stigma of genre as your Bosco writers? Or, in David’s words, “Isn’t everything a form of some sort?”
CG: The writing I like best often combines and transcends genre. My ideal, and favorite book of all time, is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront‘. It’s got romance, mystery, and a touch of the supernatural. So, no, I’m not at all horriﬁed by the stigma of genre. I like good writing wherever it shows up.
AS: You often reveal parts of Corinth’s story before Ellis writes them. How much of this history does Ellis create and how much does she “channel?” Do you share the classical conception of artist as “medium” for the muses?
CG: As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to create in this book a sense that the past and present were happening at the same time. The past narrative is not, strictly speaking, the book Ellis is writing, but parts of that story are being fed into Ellis’s narrative, and ultimately, Ellis affects what happens in that past story. In other words, the story changes in its telling.
I think the classical conception of the muse is a way of putting ﬂesh to the mysterious process of inspiration, and that it’s fun to play with the ﬁgure of the muse in order to talk about inspiration.
AS: Your worlds are steeped in classical and Native American mythology. Moreover, many of your characters seem to create personal mythologies for themselves to explain (or erase) their pasts. What draws us to myth and what power does it hold for you?
CG: I think we recognize our own stories in myths and fairy tales while at the same time those myths suggest to us that there’s something larger than ourselves going on around us. I’ve used Greek mythology and fairy tales in my novels to create a sense of an alternate world to what’s going on in the realistic narrative. Because of this novel’s setting, I thought it would be great if I could integrate Native American mythology into the story. I wanted to suggest with it the long history of the place, a history that predated its European settlers.
AS: When you’re not writing, whom do you read? Any favorite ﬁlms, artists, or musical inﬂuences?
CG: My inﬂuences are a combination of nineteenth-century novels (Bront‘, Dickens, Hardy) mixed with 1930s noir (Hammett, Chandler, and noir ﬁlms), magic realism (Alice Hoffman, Louise Erdrich) and a dash of gothic horror (from Le Fanu to Stephen King) and fantasy (Tolkien, LeGuin, Frank Herbert). I’m a pretty eclectic reader. Some of my favorite contemporary authors are Sue Miller, Margaret Atwood, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and Val McDermid.
I took a great art history class in college and love going to museums and reading about artists’ lives. When I was writing The Drowning Tree I found much of my inspiration in the Pre-Raphaelites and in the Arts & Crafts Movement. I envy visual artists because their work surrounds them with beautiful things while writers end up with stacks of paper and dusty bookshelves.
AS: Their enjoyment aside, what do you want your readers to take from this book?
CG: I’ll settle for enjoyment.
AS: What are you working on next?
CG: I’m working on a novel called The Sonnet Lover. It’s about a Renaissance sonnet scholar, Rose Asher, who discovers a series of love sonnets by a Italian woman poet of the sixteenth century who may, or may not, have been writing her poems to William Shakespeare. It starts in Manhattan, at a ﬁctitious college called Hudson College, and then moves to a villa outside of Florence, where . . . [drum roll, please] the past threatens to impinge upon the present! The poems are all written by my favorite sonneteer, Zalman Bronsky, aka Lee Slonimsky.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Mythology and classical allusions abound in The Ghost Orchid. What is their effect? How do these references highlight the dramatic action of the story?
- Deterioration is a key trope in the novel. How does it operate? Who or what deteriorates?
- How did Alice’s treatment at Bosco compare to that of the other Latham children? Exactly what might Aurora have suspected about Alice’s parentage?
- Why does Bethesda take an immediate dislike to Ellis? What similarities do you see between their relationship and that of Aurora and Corinth?
- Water is another central theme throughout this novel, especially as represented by the fountains. Why do you think Goodman chose this element?
- How convincing is the metaﬁction, or ﬁction-within-the-ﬁction, of The Ghost Orchid? Whose project evokes the strongest response in you? We know how Ellis ends her book, but do you wish you could see the end results of all of the characters’ projects?
- What parallels exist between Violet Ramsdale’s relationship with Tom Quinn and Bethesda’s relationship with Nat? What do you think Violet and Bethesda’s intentions are with these men?
- Each character in this book has his or her own agenda, but who is the most selﬁsh? The most selﬂess?
- Aurora admits she was not the best mother, yet she does not try to be a better mother to the one child she has left. Why?
- Do you believe in extradimensional contact? How would you use such power? Is faking this ability necessarily immoral, or simply opportunistic?