An Interview With Allegra Goodman
The Harvard Crimson recently got the chance to speak with Allegra Goodman '89 about her new novel, Paradise Park. Allegra Goodman: It's nice to talk to someone from The Harvard Crimson. I miss being in college. I loved Harvard. It was so much fun.The Harvard Crimson: When did you decide to become a writer?AG: I pretty much decided when I was a little girl. By the time I got to Harvard I was writing pretty seriously. I really thought of myself as a writer in college. My first book was a book of short stories, Total Immersion. I wrote most of that when I was at Harvard.THC: You published two collections of short stories first, and now you have written two novels. Have you graduated entirely to novels or do you think you will keep writing short stories as well?AG: I love writing short stories because they're so quick. I am a rather impatient person and I like the almost instant gratification of writing a short story, the fun of it. I would like to keep writing short stories, perhaps on different themes than I have in the past. I think one thing you notice as a writer is that you do evolve. Your interests, your ideas and your style change as you experiment with new voices.THC: Do you begin writing a story or novel with a character or a plotline in mind?AG: Usually I think of a character and then the plotline comes out of that. That was certainly true of Paradise Park. In this book, the character of Sharon Spiegelman started in a short story called "Onion Skin," which I wrote years ago. Not much of the language of the story survives in the novel, but that is where her voice came from. Sharon is a character that I certainly love. She is quite self-absorbed, particularly at the beginning of the novel. She's somebody who has very little structure, very few roots in the world. And the book is about how she grows and comes to find within herself a tremendous longing for a community, for a tradition even, for a sense of God. It's about how that desire turns her into a human being. I don't think she starts out as much of a mentsch, but I think she ends up one.THC: There are really two dimensions to Sharon's spiritual quest in Paradise Park. There is a psychological explanation for her spiritual desires--her relationship with her parents, and her feeling that she is somehow lost. But you also give the spirituality she finds a lot of credit; she does, in a way, find her destiny. How did you balance that perspective for the book, so that it was about Sharon's character but also about real spirituality?AG: Sharon is a multi-layered character. She does have an aspect to her that is determined by her family and her history. But she definitely also has a soul. The book is about her finding an expression for her soul. It's about the ways that she changes and the ways that she stays the same. There is a core identity that stays the same.THC: Was it crucial that she ended up in a more middle-of-the-road religious community as opposed to staying in the Hasidic world? Do you think that there was no way she could have forged her own way within the Hasidic community?AG: This goes back to one of the things that really interests me as a writerhow somebody's identity can evolve. How Sharon can go through so many layers and so many changes in her life even though at the core of her there is something that's still Sharon, that's still the same? If you go back to her essence, she does have certain values that do not allow her to really immerse herself forever in the Hasidic community. She has to forge her own way because her independence bubbles up again at the end.
She couldn't have forged her own way within the Hasidic community on her terms. The thing about Sharon is that she is drawn to the romance of giving up independence and having a structure to live in, but I think the reality is a little too much for her, coming from where she comes from. She's very human, and she's a bit conflicted.THC: One other interesting tension in Paradise Park is that for all of Sharon's intelligence and experience, she is actually looking for these tremendous signs from God, which is a tendency that is typically associated with someone who is more naive than Sharon should be.AG: Yes, but she begins to mistrust it as she goes on. She really falls for some of those cliches about religion, that a lightning bolt is going to hit you and you will be reborn. The problem with that is that all of those signs are external. She really wants God to sweep her away so that she won't have to be responsible or change from within at all. The real transformation is going to be more gradual and have more to do with work on the part of the individual, unfortunately. But Sharon has that romance about God. She even compares it to the way some women have romance about men. She thinks that when you meet the right person, he'll just sweep you away.