In his new novel, A Reliable Wife, author Robert Goolrick unveils a dark saga set in rural Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Goolrick, a former advertising exec turned writer (he’s widely known for his memoir The End of the World As We Know It), explores the difficulties of “simple” married life and the dark family landscape within which it exists. Above all, the narrative strives to show the power of goodness and the transience of everything else.
We asked Goolrick about writing fiction, the appeal of Wisconsin and where the Upper West Sider’s writing career is headed.
You’re well known for writing the memoir The End of the World As We Know It. Why did you decide to write a novel?
Robert Goolrick: I did two novels when I was young, which sort of sit on the shelf. When I wasn’t working, I turned to what I really wanted to do, which was to write. My first book was my novel, the second was my memoir. It just happened that my memoir came out first, and the novel is coming out now.
Why Wisconsin in the early 20th century?
I don’t know where the idea originated. The first thing I thought of was the last scene, in which the garden came to life. I just held that thought for a long time and built a story to make that scene possible. For a long time, I just had the opening sentence and the closing sentence, and I just filled the middle.
I used to go to Wisconsin a lot for business. I was fascinated by the bleakness and cold of it. I found the people fascinating. I wanted to set this novel in a very bitter and bleak landscape. There’s a book called Wisconsin Death Trip, which was published 35 years ago and written by Michael Lesy. It’s a terrific book of pictures and newspaper events of life in the late 19th century of small-town Wisconsin—I’ve always been fascinated by it, so I read it over and over again.
And how did you find writing a novel as opposed to a memoir?
Writing a novel is pure imagination. Writing a memoir is more like writing a very honest letter to a very close friend. The memoir was actually much easier to write than the novel.
Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?
I can just start a novel very slowly. I write in little bits almost every day. The more involved I get, the more I work. By the time I’m really into it, I work probably 12 hours a day without stopping. I write very quickly once the idea takes hold. By the time I start, I’ve thought about it for so long that I usually know what’s going to happen. In A Reliable Wife there’s a subplot concerning Catherine’s sister Alice, and that kind of surprised me and took a life of its own. But the rest of it, I pretty much knew.
Do you relate to any character in particular? Or were there themes from your memoir that you find yourself often returning to in fiction?
I think they’re all me. I think if you put all three characters together, you have a pretty good portrait of who I am. I think that the image of two men and a woman is very important both in the memoir and the novel. The new novel that I’m working on now also has two male figures and a female. They change, they’re not the same people, but there’s something about the triangle that fascinates me.
I don’t really think about great themes or ideas when I write. I just try to tell a really good story. It happens that when I look back on them, the stories do have a certain kind of theme to them.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing another novel, which is based on a true story that I heard when I lived in Greece 30 years ago and has fascinated me ever since. I knew some of the people involved in the real-life story, and it’s just a great tale. Somewhere along the line, I will write another memoir that picks up where the first one ends. I also just sold the movie rights to my novel yesterday, but I can’t say to whom yet.
Goolrick reads from his new book
on March 31 at 7 p.m.
at Barnes and Noble,
2289 Broadway at West 82nd Street.
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