Francisco Goldman, the author behind Say Her Name, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released later this week (listen to his episode). Until then, get to know him a little better with this Q+A, in which he talks about the aftermath of his wife's death and his dream of being Caravaggio's sidekick.
I imagine writing about the passing of your wife, Aura, must have beenterribly difficult. What was the writing process for Say Her Name likefor you?
Francisco Goldman: It changed over time. At first, it was something I did because there was nothing else I could do. It was how I slowly began to emerge out of the total poison fog I was in during the first six months after Aura's death, a period of totally self-destructive behavior that I barely remember and that culminated with my being hit by a car at around 4 am on Halloween night and being told in the hospital that I might die, and thinking that was okay. I didn't die, and that was when I finally began to face the problem of how to live in a way that wouldn't embarrass Aura. I'm a writer, and writing is the way I process what I need to understand. Not just writing, but transforming experience into narrative, into story or poetry or art of whatever you want to call it.
Did you feel like you had an obligation to write her story as acatharsis? Or was it a result of not being able to think or care aboutanything else?
FG: It was anything but cathartic. It was like picking at a wound or jumping into a pit of fire every day. Every day sinking into the loss, or facing the loss, going into Hades and trying to bring her out alive, as it were. It was dangerously wonderful too, because I felt I was keeping her with me, I was getting her words, her inflections, her sweet goofiness, her joy and love down on the page, I was living inside that recreation, while, at the same time, I was also quite mad, literally and certifiably mad with grief. When the book was finished and people began to read it, I knew I had accomplished my most important goal. I'd left a word portrait of Aura, and of Aura and I together, that people felt had life; something to defeat forgetting. Most importantly, people liked Aura. And that felt good, maybe that was cathartic. That sense of having kept a promise, of having fulfilled a duty.
Joyce Carol Oates, who also recently released a book about a departedspouse, has said that epiphanies rained on her "like a meteor shower,"following her husband's death. Did you experience something similar tothis? If so, what realization surprised you most?
FG: Every grief is individual, as is every beloved who dies. ("It isn't simply death -- it's always the death someone." Serge Leclaire.) It was overwhelming, what I went through. Scientists know now that sudden violent traumatic grief literally screws with, severs and scars, neural pathways and synapses. At the worst of it, I was diagnosed with PTSD and minor psychotic episodes. So what I am saying is you enter an altered state, pure emotional pain every day, that is also trippy, hallucinatory, crazy, off the rails, and in its way enthralling. I didn't want to miss any of it: refused all medication. My grief was all about Aura. Every single day, thinking about, communing with, summoning, calling to Aura, and I wasn't going to let any psychotropic pills quiet the bedlam inside me if that also meant she wouldn't come back to me as vividly, or as frequently. I think this is why readers say she is so alive in the book. If it had been just the ordinary writer me trying to do that -- if it was me now trying to do that -- I am sure it wouldn't be as vivid. Like I said, I was writing out of an altered state, because I was living through one.
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be?
FG: Hmmm, today, at least, I'd be one of the lovelorn cops in Chungking Express. Cop 633, is it? Who falls in love the lunch counter girl who is always playing "California Dreamin'."
What's one book everyone should be required to read and why?
FG: Roberto Bolaño's 2666. He's the one great -- Tolstoy great, Dostoevsky and Melville great, if maybe not quite Kafka great, because who is? -- writer of our era, this vicious era which in his books he takes on with a savage bravery and devastating lucidity and imagination that no other contemporary writer can match: with bravery, but also humor, love, lunacy. Death reigns over the book in a way that forces you to acknowledge that you desperately cherish life, just as Bolaño, facing death, properly humbled by it, but also defying it with laughter and poetry and much else, did. 2666 interrogates, like no other contemporary novel does, what being a writer means now, and leaves you, as a novelist, feeling a little bit like Mad Max.
If you could visit any other time period and place in history, whichwould it be and what would you do there?
FG: There is too obvious an answer for me -- I'd make what happened to Aura not happen. What else could I possibly choose? In the realm of conventional fantasy: the Italy of Caravaggio, where I'd be his only trusted sidekick, he'd have my back and I'd have his -- I would not let him die the way he did -- and I would learn to paint like a Renaissance master.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinnerparty, who would they be and why?
FG: Aura. Sarah Wang. Lucy Honeychurch from Room with a View. I think those girls, all about the same age, all beautiful and brilliant and charming, would have a hilarious conversation, and I'd like to make dinner for them and listen to them talk about shopping for shoes, and anything and everything else they want to talk about. If for some reason, Sarah can't make it, I'll invite Annie Proulx or Barbara Epler. And if Lucy can't come, I'll invite Maria Font.
Look for Francisco Goldman's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!