portrait Richard Goodman

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

Richard Goodman is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing and French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. Goodman has written of a variety of subjects for several national publications, including the New York Times, Harvard Review, Vanity Fair, The Writer’s Chronicle, Ascent, and the Michigan Quarterly Review.

Goodman’s essay, “In Search of the Exact Word,” appears in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and he wrote the Introduction for Travelers’ Tales Provence. He is also the Fine Presses Editor for Fine Books & Collections, for which he writes a regular column.

Author Richard Goodman

He teaches Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University’s Brief Residency MFA Program in Louisville, Kentucky. He also teaches at New York Writers’ Workshops and Gotham Writing Workshops, both in New York City.

Derek Alger: Tell us about The Soul of Creative Writing, your collection of essays on writing and language?

Richard Goodman: Whatever gave me the gall, the chutzpah, the moxie, to write a book about writing? Yet another book about writing? Luckily, I didn’t think that much about it while I was doing it or I’m sure I would have stopped myself cold. I guess the best answer to this question is that I was obsessed. Completely obsessed. The first essay I wrote is called “In Search of the Exact Word.” It’s inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s relentless search for le mot juste, the exact word, and it takes off from there. I just loved writing it. It allowed me to use all those passage from books I’d been hoarding for years like a literary packrat. All the essays in the book are passion-fueled, I believe. “The Music of Prose” is another. It’s about how the best prose is musical–like poetry. Each writer makes his or her own music on the page. Some people call it style. The rhythms and cadences certain writers choose give their prose a unique sound. With some, it’s so evident you can almost hum their work. So, the essay talks about that, and about how you, the writer, might become a better verbal composer. I’ve also got a chapter called “The Secret Strength of Words,” about etymology. The title is from a Milan Kundera quote in which he says that a word’s etymology gives it a secret strength and “floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning.” There are seven more chapters, about different aspects of words and writing. The book is really a love letter to the English language.

DA: What type of audience did you have in mind while you were writing the essays?

RG: Anyone who loves words and writing and reading. I guess I have to say it’s obviously for writers, and some of the chapters are quite specifically intended for writers, like, “How to Find Subjects for Creative Writing in Everyday Life,” for example. But, really, I hope people who are not writers will enjoy the book and benefit from it as well.

DA: Your book has received high praise, was there anyone who was particularly helpful and supportive during the process of writing it?

RG: Yes. Quite a few people. Most of all, Rick Moranis. Yes, the actor. He and I have played squash together for years, that’s how I know him. He’s an avid squash player. (But I don’t know any other kind of squash player.) After our games, we’d sit and talk about anything, and everything. I started telling him about these essays I was writing, and we were off. He read them all, and was incredibly helpful. He’s a very astute reader, and critic, and he kept encouraging me, “There’s a book here. I know it,” he said. That gave me faith.

DA: How did you end up teaching at the Spalding University low residency MFA program?

RG: An old friend introduced me to Sena Naslund, the director of the program. In a bold move, I sent her my first book, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, just out of the blue. Apparently she liked it, because she asked me to teach at Spalding. That was five years ago. I’ve loved the experience. Spalding is in Louisville, Kentucky, and I go there twice a year for ten days. It’s always a wonderful ten days–exhausting but inspiring. I’ve learned so much, made so many friends. The work is hard, but it’s worth it.

DA: You also write a regular column for Fine Books & Collections, when did you start it and what do you write about?

RG: I started writing the Fine Presses column for the magazine about three years ago. I didn’t know a thing about fine presses. By “fine press,” I mean a press that’s usually run by one, or sometimes two, people–a couple, normally–that prints exquisite, limited edition books by hand. The editor wanted columns that weren’t too inbred, full of arcane references to typeface size and grades of paper. Well, he had no problem with me on that. So, I write about the people, about what drives them to do what they do. I also ask them to send me a sampling of their books–which I return–and so I have indeed learned a lot about fine presses since I started. It’s a terrific gig. I love finding someone who does great work and who may not be that well known and then exposing that work to a wider audience.

DA: Did you know from an early age you wanted to be a writer?

RG: Not an early age. Not when I picked up my first crayon. I would say it was in my junior year in college when I knew. I wrote some short stories for a writing contest and won an award. The experience of writing the stories, and the public praise I received, pretty much did it for me. Determined my fate. Of course, I haven’t won a contest since, but the ardor for writing has stayed.

DA: What made you decide to go to graduate school?

RG: Sheer lassitiude. I’d graduated from University of Michigan and gone to work as an attendant in a mental hospital. (Don’t ask.) Having had enough of that after six months or so, I couldn’t find an alternative. But then, there was always the temporary safety of graduate school. I figured I could figure it all out there.

DA: What came next?

RG: Advertising for a number of years. Until I mustered the gumption to release myself from its lucrative thrall.

DA: What prompted you to go to France and recognize you had the idea for a book?

RG: I was living with a Dutch woman in New York, and she missed her family and friends. I was fed up with New York City at the time. So we saved a bit of money, and we decided to pick up stakes and move to France for a year. (Not Holland–too cold and bleak in the winter for me.) We saw an ad for a place for rent in the south of France in a small francophile newspaper. It sounded great–a big 200 year-old stone house with fireplace and three bedrooms for $450 a month. It was about an hour west of Avignon in a very small village. The owners, as it turned out, were American. We rented it, sight unseen (well, we had seen photos) and arrived one September evening with two cats and a dog and all our baggage to live for a year. The village was so small (200 people), it didn’t even have a cafe. Very unusual for France. Well, it was a lovely year. I was writing there, but it was fiction, and the work was, well, very bad. Luckily, we had that fireplace. Meanwhile, I had managed to borrow some land to have a vegetable garden, and fell in love with gardening and, specifically, that garden. That’s what I wrote about when we came back to New York. The story of my garden–and everything that connected it to the people of the village and to that part of France.

DA: How did you come about finally writing the book?

RG: I wrote the book in New York, not in France. Up to that point, I hadn’t published much of anything. I still considered myself a writer, though, even though I was 45! There came a moment when I was sitting at my desk in Manhattan and thinking to myself, well, I keep telling people I want to write, yet here I am in middle age without having published that much at all. How’s my credibility these days? I went through some notes I had kept about my garden–without any intention of writing about the garden, actually–and thought, hmm, this material is kind of interesting. I started writing, and I didn’t stop until a year later when I had a book.

DA: What was the response to French Dirt like?

RG: Well, I’m happy with it. Inevitably, it gets compared with A Year in Provence, which came out at about the same time. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind Mayle’s checking account, but the fact is my book is exactly what I want it to be, and I couldn’t be happier with it. It was published in 1991. Then, in 1992, it was published in paperback and has been in print ever since. It’s never been out of print in–what?–seventeen years! I hope that continues, knock wood. People I respect very much have liked the book. I sent two chapters to M.F.K. Fisher before she died, and she wrote me back a marvelous letter telling me she liked the writing very much. She said that she didn’t like 99% of what had been written about Provence. Here’s how she put it: “I cannot stand the lip-licking enjoyment writers have of the people and peasants in the South of France.” And then: “But Richard, you have broken the spell.” Now, what more could a boy want?

DA: You’ve also written children’s book, how did that come about?

RG: Well, it’s a tall tale. Not published–yet. (Note to children’s book publishers: call me.) It’s called The Amazing and True Adventures of Johnny Bungee. I wrote it for my daughter when she was a little girl. (She’s fourteen now.) One day–I think she must have been four or five–she came up to me with a hole in her sock. “What happened?” she said, pointing to the hole. Out of nowhere I said, “Johnny Bungee did it!” Who Johnny Bungee was, I had no idea. The name just came to me. So I wrote a story about a boy who put a hole into everything he touched. You knew, of course, that Johnny Bungee invented the doughnut, Swiss cheese and the bathtub drain, didn’t you?

DA: You actually got to interview William Burroughs once, how did that come about?

RG: When I was spending that calming year in graduate school, I read Naked Lunch and Junky and fell in love with Burroughs’ work. Junky is a terrific book. It’s pretty traditional. About an addict in the 1940s. It was so sensational at the time, Burroughs had to use a pseudonym, William Lee. Naked Lunch is a different beast altogether. I don’t think I’d laughed as hard in years when I read that book. Just a fantastic book. So, I proposed to my faculty advisor that I write my Master’s thesis on Burroughs. At that time–around 1970–Burroughs’ fame had waned. Later, of course, he made a huge comeback. To my advisor’s credit, he let me do it. Well, just for the hell of it, I wrote Burroughs a letter in care of his publisher. And he wrote me back! I couldn’t believe it. Burroughs was living in London then. Well, we started a sort of irregular correspondence. Then after I graduated, I decided to take a trip to Europe and wrote Burroughs and asked if I might visit him. He said yes. And so that’s how I found myself spending an afternoon and evening with him. It was really something. I didn’t actually formally interview him, but wrote about that evening later. I saw him a few times after that when he was living in New York City. He was a bit formal, really, which surprised me, but always very courteous. I was very happy to see that he got the fame he deserved later.