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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Big Questions, Compelling Characters

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Mind-Body Problem book cover
The Mind-Body Problem
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was a highly trained philosopher, with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, when she became a reluctant novelist.

She was a young assistant professor dealing with the emotionally charged life changes of losing her father and having a baby.

“I had my doctorate, but I thought I haven’t attained any real life wisdom at all. I asked myself what it all meant and if the life of the mind really helped. These are the kinds of questions that analytic philosophers tend to scoff at,” said Goldstein.

She chose to grapple with them in the context of a novel, and her first book, The Mind-Body Problem, was born.

“Novels accommodate the messiness that philosophy does not,” Goldstein observed.

She worked on novels during her summer vacations, allowing the ideas to gestate while she was teaching. She has since left teaching to focus on her writing. When she is writing she works “obsessively” writing for ten to 12 hours at a time.

“I think the playing around is also necessary. . .”
—
Goldstein

"Writing involves much more than putting words on paper. I knew how to write it, in part, because I had read so many novels. I think the playing around is also necessary. Until I hear the voices of the characters, I am at a loss in writing the novel,” said Goldstein.

Other novels include The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind; The Dark Sister, which received the Whiting Writer’s Award, Mazel, which received the 1995 National Jewish Book Award and the 1995 Edward Lewis Wallant Award; and Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics. Her book of short stories, Strange Attractors, received a National Jewish Book Honor Award. In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the prize known as the “Genius Award.”

“I often begin my books with some philosophical preoccupation. A good philosophical problem that you can see from many points of view. That leads me to characters. Then I work on finding a story that will support these characters and their actions.”

Her most recent novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is full of vividly drawn characters examining weighty issues such as the existence of God in the context of modern life.

The novel centers on Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. While he waits for the return of his current girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum, a gorgeous game theorist, he sees a former girlfriend Roz and is haunted by an experience that prompted his quest to understand religion.

That incident was a journey with Roz and his mentor, Dr. Jonas Elijah Klapper, to a Hasidic community along the Hudson River. The group lives apart from modern life shielding the rebbe's 6-year-old son, Azarya, who shows signs of being mathematical genius of mythic proportion.

Throughout the book Cass struggles with the illogical and limiting nature of religion, detailed in the arguments against God’s existence found in the appendix of his book and in Goldstein’s, while experiencing moments of grace and seeing evidence of the huge appeal of religion in society.

“I was thinking a lot about the miscommunication that is going on in discussions about religion. Religion goes so deep it infiltrates one’s emotional life, ideas about the world and your place in it. I was only able to explore this in a novel and one that does justice to and includes all points of view,” said Goldstein.

Because her novel dealt with big ideas, Goldstein found it very important to have vividly drawn characters in a “real” and interestingly told story.

“Part of my ongoing argument as a writer is that novels can engage in the great debates of the day and induce understanding. . ."
—Goldstein

 

“Part of my ongoing argument as a writer is that novels can engage in the great debates of the day and induce understanding in a way other things can’t, by the reader inhabiting a character,” said Goldstein.

Her philosophical training has been helpful in “working out intricacies of plotting and arguments embedded in character.” One of her greatest challenges in the book was making the character of Azarya both a real child and a prodigy.

The novel points up some interesting parallels between the deeply religious community in the book and academia. “Characters from these worlds manifest the same qualities,” observed Goldstein.

She had help shaping the book from her editor Dan Frank.

“He got the novel right away. The novel was much longer to start with; I love to be overwhelmed by novels when I am reading them. He told me the number of words to cut, but not which words. It was a much stronger book because of that.”

In addition to her writing, Goldstein serves as a judge for book prizes.

“When I am completely enchanted and stop thinking about how they did it I know I’m on to something. . .”
—Goldstein

 

Because I produce these things I know the tricks. When I am completely enchanted and stop thinking about how they did it I know I’m on to something. I also look for the reach of ambition of the book,” she said.

She advises writers to read voraciously and to remember that as they are reading they are assimilating information about writing.

She is currently working on a nonfiction book on Plato that draws on her experience as a storyteller by including “anachronistic dialogues” between Plato and more modern writers such as George Elliot.

About Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Rebecca Newberger Goldstein earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light and Mazel, and nonfiction studies of Kurt Godel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships
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.