The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman 

Goodman Explores the Power of Words and Images in The Chalk Artist  

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

August 2017


The Chalk Artist
by Allegra Goodman

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In her latest novel, Allegra Goodman explores the power of images and words through the prism of a romance between a young teacher named Nina and a chalk artist named Collin and twins Aidan, who is addicted to videogames, and his sister Diana, who are Nina’s students.  Goodman poses the question: is art something to be bought and sold or is it more elemental to who we are and who we want to be? The characters reveal the lure of escaping into a world of someone else’s making and the cost associated with surrendering this way. 

“When it comes to family, my questions were:  What holds us together?  And what drives us apart?”

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did The Chalk Artist begin for you? Character? Voice? Plot? Image? First line? 

GOODMAN: This book began with characters—sixteen-year old twins, Aidan and Diana, and their mother Kerry, who is raising them while holding down a demanding job at Children’s Hospital.  Kerry is a skilled nurse working in the ICU with critically ill and injured kids, but her troubles at home are in some ways even more challenging. 

AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a question. What question were you hoping to answer with The Chalk Artist?

GOODMAN: When it comes to family, my questions were:  What holds us together?  And what drives us apart?  What happens when a child disappears—not physically, but intellectually, and emotionally?  Where does that child go?  Is it possible to imagine what he imagines?  What can a parent, or a teacher, or a sibling do?  

AUTHORLINK: Do you think the rise of social media and gaming changes the ways we are telling stories?

GOODMAN: Through social media, people are living out loud, sharing their experiences and their photos and their feelings.  In role-playing games, people are disguising themselves, living alternate lives.  So, on the one hand, there’s a desire to confess and bear witness, and on the other hand, a desire to play multiple parts and act out.  These are old impulses.  It’s the technology that’s new.  

I was fascinated by Collin’s chalk art and its beauty in contrast to the horror of the virtual world he helps create. What do you think you ended up saying about the nature of art and whether or not it should be lasting?  

Collin’s art is magical, at least in part, because it is ephemeral.  He loses something when his art is recorded and saved and manipulated and appropriated by the gaming company, Arkadia.  I do not think art requires permanence, but I do think it requires a certain autonomy for the artist.  Gradually Collin realizes this, and in some ways this book is the story of his realization.

AUTHORLINK: While games hold a lot of sway over Aidan, the gaming addicted teenager in the book, he also becomes fascinated with words. So all hope is not lost?

GOODMAN: Aidan does become fascinated with poetry, but one of the ironies of his story is that life as a gamer opens his heart to metaphor and image and poetic conceits.  Words and images do compete for attention, but they overlap in fascinating ways. 

“The greatest challenge for me was to weave multiple stories together in this novel and to do justice to each character.”

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Chalk Artist and how did you overcome them?

GOODMAN: The greatest challenge for me was to weave multiple stories together in this novel and to do justice to each character.  Related was the challenge to do justice to both sides of the argument.  I was not interested in a black and white parable about the evils of gaming.  I was interested in how and why games enchant us—and in dramatizing that enchantment.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

GOODMAN: I read books by gamers about their virtual experiences and how these affected their everyday lives.  I spoke to people who work in the gaming industry about what it’s like to design, develop and market massive multi-player role playing games.  I spent a lot of time looking at concept art, fantasy illustrations and chalk art.  For the classroom scenes, I drew upon my experiences volunteering in a large public high school.  I also read memoirs by teachers, young and old. 

“I revise a lot, and this book was no exception.  I lost count of the number of drafts I completed.”

Talk about the process of revision for this book. What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

I revise a lot, and this book was no exception.  I lost count of the number of drafts I completed.  I love working with my editor, Susan Kamil, because she is passionate about telling a good story and getting every detail right.  My advice is to show your work only to people you trust—but then to take their criticism seriously.  Some writers fight off criticism and others listen to everyone.  Be discerning.  Maintain a sense of what you want to say.  If you know what you want to say, you will be able to take criticism you can use, and discard the rest.    

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers on honing their skills? On staying focused? Staying encouraged?

GOODMAN: I would say be an observer, a listener, and a reader.  Practice remembering details.  Your memory is a great asset. 

My best advice for staying focused is to work for just an hour and then take a break.  Don’t try to focus for many hours at a time.  And don’t try to churn out a certain number of words or pages.  In my experience, this kind of discipline backfires.  You won’t do your best work, and you’ll end up rewriting everything.  I’d rather write one great paragraph than race to fill some artificial word quota. 

“I think the best way to stay encouraged is to enjoy your work—and that means not to rush or to push, but to take pride in each sentence . . .”

I think the best way to stay encouraged is to enjoy your work—and that means not to rush or to push, but to take pride in each sentence, and build your story gradually.  If writing becomes a slog, you will dread it.  On the other hand, if you enjoy writing, it will sustain you.  Think small.  Take pleasure in each word.  Everything else is beyond your control. 

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

GOODMAN: I am writing a new novel!  I’m also working on a series of short stories beginning with “Apple Cake” which appeared in The New Yorker.  The third in the series will appear in The New Yorker later this year.

About the Author

Allegra Goodman’s novels include The Chalk Artist, Intuition, The Cookbook Collector, Paradise Park, and Kaaterskill Falls (a National Book Award finalist)Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, and Ploughshares and has been anthologized in The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She has written two collections of short stories, The Family Markowitz and Total Immersion and a novel for younger readers, The Other Side of the Island. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, 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.

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About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.