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Allegra Goodman Advises Submit to Small Magazines, Have Plan B

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The Cookbook Collector book cover
The Cookbook Collector
by Allegra Goodman

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

 

An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Allegra Goodman
Author of The Cookbook Collector

 

 

 

By Ellen Birkett Morris
October 2010

 

Allegra Goodman decided she wanted to write when she was seven years old out of the desire to create the kind of bedtime stories that she loved to read. She began writing short stories in high school. The summer after she graduated she submitted the story “Variant Text” to Commentary magazine where it was accepted for publication.

“I was able at a young age to think of myself as a published writer. It was a real boost to my confidence. . . ”
—
GOODMAN

“I was able at a young age to think of myself as a published writer. It was a real boost to my confidence,” said Goodman.

While pursuing a degree in English and Philosophy at Harvard, she continued to write and publish work in Commentary. During her junior year, an agent named Irene Skolnick phoned her at her dorm and asked to represent her. Skolnick sold a collection of Goodman’s stories to Ted Solotaroff at what was then called Harper & Row. She has been Goodman’s agent ever since.

Goodman encourages writers to publish short stories in small literary magazines to hone their skills and because agents read those publications.

As she writes on her website, www.allegragoodman.com, the day she graduated college was also the day her first book, a collection of short stories titled Total Immersion, was published.

Goodman went on to earn a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford and wrote her first novel there.

“I found the short story a more manageable form as a beginning writer, though in many ways it is an unforgiving form. A short story is more like a poem in that every word counts and you have to create a moment, a plot, in a small space,” she noted.

If the novel is a marathon that requires patience, endurance and pacing oneself, Goodman compares the short story to pole vaulting where the athlete needs good technique, powerful moves and must nail the landing.

Goodman’s first novel, The Family Markowitz, was published in 1996. Goodman made the transition from short stories to a novel by writing linked short stories, “a short story cycle, arranged in a narrative arc that created a novel-like read.”

She is now the author of seven novels. Her latest is The Cookbook Collector, which was published this year by The Dial Press.

The book centers on sisters Emily and Jessamine Bach. Emily is the driven CEO of a tech company and Jess is an environmental activist and graduate student in philosophy. The book takes place from the fall of 1999 to May 2002. The book grew out of Goodman’s interest in writing about the dot com era and the mania of investing and collecting that went along with the quick rise of fortunes during the period and her fascination with people who collect and read cookbooks but don’t actually cook.

“It is a book about hunger for food, knowledge, ideas, money, fame and love,” explained Goodman.

“I am interested in self deception and how people are tested.”
—GOODMAN

 

 

It is a historical novel about the very recent past set during a strange fairytale time during which a lot of money was made. I am interested in self deception and how people are tested. This period was a frenzied time and lots of people were tested.”

Goodman writes when her children are at school and when she focusing on a novel she tries to push the story forward each day, which can mean writing as little as half a page in the early stages of a book to 3 to 5 pages when she is in the middle of the novel.

“Because I have a lot if interruptions I start each day rewriting what I wrote the day before. This way I maintain a continuity of story and I am able to clean up as I go,” said Goodman.

Her greatest challenge in writing this multi-layered novel was to do justice to the elements of the story while keeping the pacing and maintaining a handle on the whole structure of the story.

When she was done writing, Goodman went through a rigorous revision process, twice on her own and then twice with her editor Susan Kamil.

“I cut quite a bit. I was pretty ruthless. There were no wasted words or wasted scenes. If it was not moving the plot forward I got rid of it. Every change I made effected everything else, so I made a second major pass through and did two revisions with my editor,” said Goodman.

She described Kamil as rigorous, detail oriented and hands on, a style which suits her well.

She has identified a rhythm to her process of writing. Goodman gets an idea, spends six months to a year “floundering” and then a year to two years writing the novel.

“This is my process. There is a certain amount of thinking I have to do before I tell the story.”

She also writes essays and short stories. Goodman advises first time novelists to always have a Plan B.

“The thing you are working on may not get published. Write shorter things and have other things on the backburner.”
—GOODMAN

 

 

“The thing you are working on may not get published. Write shorter things and have other things on the backburner.”

She urges writers to love their material and love the process.

“It will enrich your life whether or not it gets published. Publishing is the afterlife of the book. The life of the book is you working on it now.”

She said writers looking for an agent should network and look around for someone with an interest in the type of work they are doing.

In discussing the role of education in writing, Goodman said that you can’t learn to be creative but you can learn other important things.

“You can learn craft and the tradition you are trying to be a part of. It is so important to read. Read the great novels of the 19th and 20th century, read poetry, and plays. Think about the larger culture and the literary tradition you are a part of.”

About Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman is the author of The Cookbook Collector, Intuition, Paradise Park, Kaaterskill Falls, The Family Markowitz, and Total Immersion. The Other Side of the Island is her first book for younger readers. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, and Ploughshares, Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Boston Globe, and The American Scholar. Raised in Honolulu, Goodman studied English and philosophy at Harvard and received a PhD in English literature from Stanford. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award, the Salon Award for Fiction, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Mass, where she is writing a new novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.