Myla Goldberg's 'Bee Season' has won rave reviews across the USA from Time Magazine to the New York Times. What starts out as a story about a girl who discovers a talent for spelling grows into a sweeping tale of family breakdown, mental illness, and four people searching for something to give a greater meaning to humble existence. Published in Ireland in March, this powerful debut pulls you softly into a world of obsession; it's a world that is difficult to leave behind once the final page has been turned.
Cristín Leach: I understand that you only ever participated in one spelling bee yourself - where did the idea for "Bee Season" come from?Myla Goldberg: It's true; in fifth grade I misspelled "tomorrow" and that was it for my spelling career. Then in 1997 I read a really great essay in Granta about spelling bees and about the same time a friend of mine talked about her own experiences in the National Spelling Bee. It seemed like something worth looking into, so I travelled to Washington DC to witness the National Spelling Bee for myself. As soon as I got there I realised that this was definitely something I could write about.
CL: The idea of the spelling bee as a metaphor for childhood works well, resonating across different cultures and comparable to other tests we go through (for ourselves or our parents), do you agree?MG: Definitely. One thing everyone learns during childhood, one way or another, is what it's like to lose, to disappoint, or to be disappointed; the circumstances in which this happens can vary wildly but I think the experience, at root, is the same.
CL: Ritual is very important to the members of the Naumann family, is it also important to you in your own life?MG: With regard to writing, ritual is essential for me. I keep the same writing hours each day, I've got to be alone and it must be quiet. Outside my writing life, though, I try to be a bit more spontaneous.
CL: Each of the Naumanns seems to be trying to take control of their lives, trying to give themselves a more meaningful sense of their place in the world - is Miriam the only one who has already found this and does her experience reveal how dangerous it is to internalise things to this extent?MG: I think every one of the Naumanns finds this to one extent or another in the course of the book, especially Eliza - her personal link with language is separate from what her father ends up imposing upon her and it is this independent sense of herself which saves her in the end. With regard to Miriam, I'm not sure it's as clear-cut as you have stated it. Miriam is mentally ill; she knows that she's at odds with the world at large, and she knows that to share the thing that gives her her greatest joy in life would most likely involve losing it. From our own perspective, we can say, "Oh yes, Miriam should have told her family about the problems she was having and sought treatment," but to do so would have involved Miriam giving up something she felt was central to her being.
An analogy that I think works is that of the manic-depressive who decides not to take drugs to treat their condition because they feel that the drugs make them too unlike themselves. It's a decision that anyone who hasn't been there is incapable of truly understanding; if I was told, for instance, that my propensity to write was unhealthy and should be mediated or medicated in order for me to better fit into society at large I really doubt I would stop - it's too central to who I am. And I think Miriam feels similarly about the place she has found for herself in the world.
CL: For me, Miriam was the most fascinating - I think I identified with the "collector" in her - where did her character come from?MG: Just like the other characters, Miriam evolved as I wrote her. I had no idea she would end up turning out as she did. I think the "collecting" started with my own fascination with thievery; and it's a lot safer to have a character be a thief than to be one yourself!
CL: I also loved Eliza's obsession with letters and words and her feeling that letters have certain innate qualities - "R, M, and D are strong, unbending and faithful... vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle and unfaithful" - where did this idea come from?MG: It was one of those things that just happened. The characters evolve as I write them, and this included Eliza's kinesthetic sense of language; that said, writing those portions of the book came very naturally to me. While I've never thought of myself having that kind of relationship with language, my own intense relationship with language allowed me to see things as Eliza saw them fairly easily.
CL: This is also a story of family disintegration, do you think what they are really looking for is each other? (they never seem to really SEE each other).MG: I think if the Naumanns had been able to acknowledge each other, this recognition would have gone a long way toward improving their lives; they're all looking for the same thing, after all, and if they'd figured this out they could have perhaps helped one another. Being part of a community (of family, of friends) can go a long way toward adding meaning to life, so if they had been able to provide this for one another, things might have gone very differently.
CL: How did you plan the structure of the book? It starts with a focus on Eliza and expands out into a sweeping tale of family disintegration and four people's attempts to come to terms with their own place in the world, taking in themes of religion, mysticism, and more...MG: I always knew I wanted the story to be about more than Eliza and that I wanted to jump back and forth between the different characters' situations. I also knew the very last scene from the outset, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. I became more aware of the book's themes as I wrote, but I think most of them were there in my head in some kind of germinal form right from the beginning.
CL: The four characters become equally important as the story progresses. Did you make a conscious decision to do this or did they just take over as you wrote?MG: That was a conscious decision. I had written my earliest draft in first person, but I came to realize that was too limiting; this was a story in which the other chraracters needed to be heard on their own terms.
CL: The characters' obsessions seem mirrored in the style of the book, with short sections that run on to each other instead of defined chapters. The overall effect is to make the reader as compulsive about finishing the book as the characters are about their own obsessions. Did you notice this happening as you wrote?MG: That was a very deliberate decision on my part. It's also why I put the book in present tense - in present tense there's no remove between the reader and the action, which literally unfolds before their eyes instead of being retold, as is the case in past tense. I wanted the reader to be completely sucked in.
CL: How did you research the book - spelling bee culture, the Hare Krishna element, the mental disorder suffered by Miriam, Abraham Abulafia and Jewish mysticism...?MG: For the spelling bee stuff, I attended the National Spelling Bee and interviewed kids and eavesdropped on parents. The Jewish mysticism came from a college course I took as an undergrad; the concepts stuck with me over the years and re-emerged when I noted the bizarre similarities between spelling bee procedure and the techniques of Abraham Abulafia.
Regarding Miriam, I'm a bit of an amateur psychologist - I think most writers are - and I've long been interested in mental illness. The mentally ill are made to feel separate from society and that's a feeling I relate to and that I think most artists relate to. As for the Hare Krishna element, I actually went to a Hare Krishna temple and pretended I wanted to join! I spent the day being led around the temple by a devotee while I took copious mental notes.
CL: You left the end of the book quite open, do you imagine the Naumanns beyond the book? Will you write about them again?MG: I left the book open, but I'd like to think the most important (and satisfying) thing is resolved: Eliza has entered into personhood. The decision she makes at the very end of the book shows that she is separating her feelings and ambitions from her father's and this can only bode well for her. How Saul reacts to Eliza's decision will affect how the future unfolds, but I think there is hope for the family, especially if Saul sees Eliza's decision as a wake-up call and uses it to spark changes in himself.
The future of the Naumanns will be left for everyone to decide on their own, though - I don't plan to write about them again. My favorite books are ones that put readers in a world that existed long before they got there and removes them from that world with the knowledge that the world will continue long after they are gone; I'm glad that 'Bee Season' seems to do that.
"Bee Season" is published by Flamingo, price £6.99stg.